Studies That Offer Hope

For the new year, here are some positive perspectives based on recent studies.

I’ll offer an excerpt about how racial bias can be lessened, but the article also discusses other issues such as empathy and altruism. This goes against what cynics and determinists are always arguing. We aren’t naturally racists. Like so many other attitudes and behaviors, racial bias or its opposite are dependent on many factors, both factors we control individually and factors we control as a society.

We aren’t fated to ignorance and mindlessness. We aren’t mere puppets of genetics and culture. We always have a choice. We always have the opportunity to learn and improve. Being realistic can mean being optimistic, depending on the reality we choose to create.

Can Empathy for Birds Make Us Happier? Ten Breakthroughs in the Science of a Meaningful Life
by Jeremy Adam Smith, Bianca Lorenz, Kira M. Newman, Lauren Klein, Lisa Bennett, Jason Marsh, Jill Suttie

Racial bias in policing is at the forefront of our national news. So it was heartening this year to see a study that found bias could be reduced through training in mindfulness—the nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings.

Adam Lueke and Brian Gibson of Central Michigan University looked at how instructing white college students in mindfulness would affect their “implicit bias”—or unconscious negative reactions—to black faces and faces of older people. After listening to a 10-minute mindfulness audiotape, students were significantly less likely to automatically pair negative descriptive words with black and elderly faces than were those in a control group—a finding that could be important for policing, which often involves split-second assessments of people.

Why the connection between mindfulness and bias? Mindfulness has the power to interrupt the link between past experience and impulsive responding, the authors speculate. This ability to be more discerning may explain why another study this year found that people who were high in mindfulness were less likely to sink into depression following experiences of discrimination.

As we reported back in 2009, numerous programs have successfully helped officers become aware of their own unconscious biases. But by specifically looking at the effects of mindfulness training—even just 10 minutes’ worth—these new studies point to innovative techniques that might help prevent fatal mistakes from being made in the future.

There Are Always Reasons

“During the war, we all learned to stop looking for reasons why things happen.”

Those are words from the ending monologue of How I Live Now. The movie is about World War III. The storyline concludes with the conclusion of fighting and the return to living. It is shown through the very personal view of someone still very young. The viewer, like the protagonist, has no understanding of the war. It came and went, as if a force of nature with no human meaning.

My thought, upon hearing that monologue, was that there are always reasons. One may not like or comprehend the reasons, but they exist. She speaks these words in reference to death and violence that is, from her perspective, best forgotten. Completely understandable.

A retreat from reasons or from reason entirely is a natural response to the utter shattering of what had previously seemed like a reasonable world, a society of law and order, of stability and certainty, of family and community. All gone in an instant, as nuclear war begins and martial law is declared.

 * * * *

I imagine revolution would feel very similar, maybe even more traumatic than even a nuclear bomb going off in a nearby major city leading to a World War. What is so horrifying about revolution is that it is the enemy from within, the danger lurking among us. Even revolution far away in a foreign country poses the threat that revolution might be contagious.

There is a strange dynamic of reason and unreason. When it comes to what feels like mass chaos, no reason ever seems satisfactory. Yet, in the case of the French Revolution, Reason itself was blamed by the counter-revolutionaries. It’s not as if the counter-revolutionaries lacked reasons of their own or lacked the capacity or desire to reason when it served their purposes. Many of the criticisms of Reason ironically take on the appearance of being reasonable.

The fearful vision of ‘Reason’ is an imagined demon haunting the collective mind. It’s symbolic of or, maybe more accurately, a conflation with something greater. But what is it pointing towards? Also, what makes the reasons of the revolutionary supposedly different and more dangerous than the reasons given by their opponents?

* * * *

The world is full of reasons. What the revolutionary does is question and challenge the reasons that have become unstated assumptions. Most reasons that motivate us go hidden and those in power wish to keep them hidden. That is the secret of power and its Achille’s heel. To question and challenge this is to pull back the curtain and show what is behind. This action, to those with power or aligned with it, is in itself an act of violence, even before a single drop of blood is shed.

Reasons can be scary things. The best and worst within humanity is motivated by reasons of all kinds. There is always a reason, usually many reasons. What revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries both understand is that ideas have power. A reason unleashed can destroy or transform entire societies. And, once unleashed, it is impossible to put it back in Pandora’s box.

It isn’t the violence of revolution that is so horrific. States in non-revolutionary times regularly commit more violence than any revolution. The fear is that reason will lead to unreason, that an ideal will lead to a Reign of Terror where the outcome is uncertain. The fear is the uncertainty. The everyday violence of police and militaries is predictable and known. Most of the time, we humans prefer the familiar, like an abused child who returns home everyday to a parent who both beats them and feeds them. It is all the child knows. To stand up to the abuse would lead to possibly unforeseen consequences.

Still, there are those who do stand up to abuse. In politics, these sometimes become revolutionaries. They have their reasons, of course, but ultimately it is the unknown that excites them or gives them hope. They refuse to accept the status quo, what is established and known.

* * * *

As argued by revolutionaries of centuries past, this world is for the living, not the dead. This is why many revolutionaries believed no social construct (whether property, patent, or law) should outlive the lifetime of a single generation. That is what defines democracy in its only true form. It’s the ideal of establishing revolution itself as the norm, every generation its own self-ruled governance, the future’s unknown made into a familiar element of present society.

No reason is a sacred cow, no matter how long it has been passed on nor how deeply institutionalized. It is easy to attack the other guy’s sacred cow, but to be consistently principled is something entirely else. This principled stance is what made the counter-revolutionaries so fearful of ‘Reason’. They realized that revolutionaries would make no exceptions, that if possible they would follow justice to its inevitable conclusion.

Conservatives and libertarians will judge harshly the views of opponents, even going so far as demonizing them. They say taxation is theft, except for the tax laws they favor and when used to fund their preferred policies and programs. They say that the state is oppressive, except when it’s oppression against their enemies and against convenient scapegoats. They say that government is the problem, except when it supports their agenda and serves their interests.

Liberals can have similar problems, although typically being more subtle in their hypocrisy. Liberals don’t tend to argue for principle, come hell or high water. Liberals at least openly admit that they aren’t against any of these things on principle. Their principle, instead, is moderation. They are less concerned about taxes, governments, and states as general categories, while being more concerned about what purpose these serve, what ends result. The failure of liberalism is within this moderation. The weakness of liberalism is a fear of going too far and so never going far enough. Liberals, pathetic and weak as they can be, often play into the hands of their adversaries. This is taken as excusing them of blame for their own failure.

Conservatives and libertarians might have a point in their complaints, if they were only to act as though they genuinely believed what they said. If conservatives followed their principles without exception, that could be seen as admirable and liberals might then merit the criticisms lodged against them. But, in that case, conservatives and libertarians would then be radicals instead.

Principled consistency is the sole possession of the radical. Only those willing to go to extremes are willing to both acknowledge the unanswered questions and demand they be answered. The answers, the ideals, the reasons they offer may be deemed wrong or undesirable, but it is harder to accuse them of avoiding the difficult problems that afflict both left and right.

* * * *

Those who wish to escape reason often turn to God or Nature. They say that is just the way the world is. They refuse to take responsibility for their own beliefs. Instead, they project their beliefs outward, just as they project their fears. Still, to less extreme degrees, we are all resistant to the demands of reason. Human capacity for reason is imperfect, but it is nonetheless very real. Reason exists within human nature as much as does reason’s failure.

No matter what our response, in this post-Enlightenment age, we all live under the dominion of reason. Revolutionaries won that battle, even as they lost the war. The new order of reason we’ve inherited is battle-scarred and shell-shocked. In the light of reason, even when a mere candle flame in the dark, our collective madness has a hard time hiding its true nature. But what are we to do with this unsavory knowledge? We can reason ourselves literally to the moon. What reason hasn’t achieved is peace and justice. We use reason to build more devastating weapons and yet we can’t find a way to reason ourselves into not using them.

Faced with self-induced horror, our instinct is to deny reason, to escape the sad truth that it would whisper in our ear, to blame the light for what it causes us to see. Yet to say there is no reason leaves us also without hope. There can be no return to Eden’s innocence. Existing without reason is not a choice available to us. But where will reason lead us? What reason, what ideal and hope will we put forth as a guiding light?

Our reasons form the path we take. This is why we should choose our reasons carefully and with awareness. The reasons we give for the past will determine the reasons that shape our future. There are always reasons and maybe that is a reason for hope.

Moral Vision: A Liberal-Minded View

This post is a continuation of my last post. There I wrote about combining my liberal-mindedness with a Taoist approach to politics. That could be seen as a bit too passive considering the urgent problems that are like an earthquake shaking the edifice of modern society. What is the comfort of being a political Taoist in a society that fantasizes about Christian apocalypse along with secularized versions of social decay and doom?

In light of this, I was thinking of what may be the active role of liberal-mindedness. What can the liberal predisposition offer besides patience and persistence? How can the liberal-minded advocate for something entirely new, something that profoundly challenges the status quo?

What came to my mind was the necessity of moral vision. In my last post, I spoke of the relationship conservative-mindedness has to fear. The moral vision conservative-mindedness creates can be compelling, often portrayed in form of battle, whether waged by a Christian army fighting for God’s Glory in a fallen world or the lone vigilante like the noirish Batman as the Dark Knight fighting evil in a crime-ridden Gotham. The liberal-minded have their work cut out for them in seeking to offer something more compelling than these visions of a fearful world to be overcome.

This is where liberalism as a movement has failed to live up to the potentials of the liberal worldview. I would include left-wingers in this failure. Maybe left-wingers deserve even more responsibility than liberals for it has always been the necessary role for left-wingers to push society toward the liberal-minded moral vision and thus keep liberals accountable. Without left-wingers playing this role, liberalism remains unchallenged in its safe dreams of status quo timidity. If liberal-mindedness is left to ‘liberals’ like Obama, then an alternative compelling moral vision will continue to elude us. What we need right now is someone with the vision and voice of a Martin Luther King jr.

Thinking along these lines, I found myself coming back to the insight about how disconnected we are and how splintered society has become. We are lacking the moral vision not just to inspire but to bring it all together as a coherent narrative. This isn’t about superficial debates about how to metaphorically frame arguments in order to win at the political game. This goes deeper into the meaning of culture itself. The problems we face are a soul sickness. Read Derrick Jensen’s early work to know what I mean by this (specifically: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe).

I’ve often contemplated this disconnect and splintering. I know it in my own experience. The disconnect I feel is between my desire to understand and my ability to act and between my ability to act and the possibility of genuine change. I would be the first one to admit that I’m no moral exemplar. My greatest moral achievement is my sense of humility in the face of my own weaknesses and failures, but that isn’t much of a consolation prize.

So, the reason I often pick on conservatives isn’t based on righteously standing on the moral mountaintop looking down upon others. It’s just that the disconnect in conservatives can seem so blatant at times. More frustrating is that this kind of disconnect often doesn’t seem to bother conservatives as much for, at least when they are in reactionary mode, seeing things this way isn’t part of their worldview.

It is beyond my comprehension to make sense of how, for example, conservatives can claim moral highground of their own through Christianity while simultaneously singing the gospel of patriotic jingoism and military imperialism. I know of a conservative who in many ways is morally good Christian in doing good works (volunteering at soup kitchens, etc), but he sees nothing wrong with the US government having dropped atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan. That is such a massive disconnect. There could be no greater symbol of the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings than this morally depraved collective action. It’s not just un-Christian. It is completely and utterly anti-Christian… or else just anti-Jesus.

I don’t know what to make of this. The  power of this kind of disconnect is that it breeds numbness and blindness. The person disconnected to such an extreme extent isn’t even aware of it, can’t be aware of it.

It isn’t about blaming individuals. The soul sickness is greater than any single individual for all of us in this society are implicated, in one way or another, to some degree or another. A few of us have slightly more awareness about particular things, but I haven’t yet discovered a person who has fully come to terms with the society-wide disconnect that plagues us. I couldn’t say what good it does to be aware of a problem to which one has no good solution. Derrick Jensen’s solution is for the collapse of civilization which is an unsatisfying answer from my perspective, especially considering that there is nothing Jensen can do to force civilization’s collapse. We’re all just groping in the dark, even if some of us have become more familiar with the darkness.

As I see it, the more blatant examples such as hypocritical Christians make obvious a truth that is otherwise difficult to see in our everyday lives. I too am a hypocrite… or to the degree I’m not a hypocrite, it is because I’ve lowered my own moral standards. This is why, even if I were a believer, I’d be reluctant to call myself a Christian. I’m not a hypocritical Christian because I realize Jesus’ teachings are more radical than I could ever live up to. Many Christians simply ignore the radical nature at the heart of Christianity, but it makes little difference.

This isn’t about liberals being better than conservatives. A worthy moral vision has to transcend differences by inspiring people to transcend the divisions within themselves. It may take someone with a strong sense of liberal-mindedness to usher in a new vision, but such a person can’t be stuck in a single state of mind. A worthy moral vision would equally touch upon what is true in all aspects of human nature. Conservative-mindedness in and of itself is not capable, almost by definition, of positively envisioning the new. Even so, conservative-mindedness has many other strengths that liberal-mindedness lacks. Without focus (low ‘openness’) and conscientiousness, implementation of any new vision would be impossible.

Liberalism and conservatism as movements may be separate phenomena, but as predispositions they exist as potential within every person. A unifying vision must express what is universal in human nature. This isn’t compromise. It is simply a psychological fact, even if the disconnect within us has made us forget this fundamental truth. Maybe one of the most central disconnects is between liberalism and conservatism, thus causing the former to be impotent and the latter to be reactionary. But the disconnect comes in many forms for all divisions are expressions of the same fundamental divide… or so it seems to me.

Everyone has some specific divide or another that they are attached to and are unwilling to give up no matter the cost: atheism vs faith, civilization’s progress vs civilization’s collapse, capitalism vs communism, reform vs revolution, and on and on and on. Our personally favorite division appears as reality to us. It simply makes sense. Meanwhile, we go on criticizing the blind allegiance others have to their preferred divides.

This relates to how Derrick Jensen, who experienced victimization as a child, would advocate violent activism that would inevitably victimize others. To Jensen, all the world has become a projection of his own victimization and so it plays out everywhere he looks. That is true for all of us, according to our respective projections. We become what we fear and hate. The ultimate disconnect is between self and other. The ‘other’ becomes the enemy, whether that other is some particular group or all of civilization.

I don’t have any solution to offer. I only wish a public discussion could begin. A collective problem requires a collective response. My fear is that only a collective catastrophe will be able to bring forth collective concern, but I’d rather believe there are other ways to achieve change.

PKD Trumps Harpur and Ligotti

Sometimes I wonder why I write a blog.  When I write in my journal, I never wonder about this… I suppose because there is no potential audience to make me self-conscious.  But a blog is a public spectacle… and so I wonder what purpose it serves.  I sometimes hope someone reads it and at least finds it interesting, and at other times I’d rather be left alone with my rambling thoughts.

I’m wondering about this specifically in relation to my recent blogs about Christianity.  I partly write just to give my thoughts form and to make notes about the subjects I study.  However, I’m also trying to communicate… afterall, that is what writing is about.  I’m sure like everyone my motives are mixed.  There are various aspects to my personality, various hopes and fears.  Plus, blogging is simply a good distraction from other more responsible activities such as washing my dishes.

In writing about Christianity, part of me wants to persuade.  I believe in truth and I want others to believe in truth.  I have this lingering faith that truth can somehow win out against all the BS in the world.  Along with this, I’d like to believe that religion can be something more than history too often demonstrates it to be.  Tom Harpur writes about the horrific side of Christian history, but he also writes about hope… about the possibility that spiritual truth (whatever it may be) can rise above the politics and superficialities that mainstream Christianity has consisted of for centuries.  I was raised a New Age Christian and so this message resonates with a part of me that is still innocent and earnest in my sense of faith.  Who knows, maybe society can change.  Maybe religion can become something more than a means of social control. Tom Harpur believes that if Christianity was willing to face up to its own dark past that a bright future is possible.  What a happy thought that is.

But then my inner Thomas Ligotti speaks up.  Going by Zappfe, Ligotti the pessimist dismisses such New Agey hopes as just another attempt to avoid suffering.  Life is suffering and everything we do is an attempt to avoid the awareness of suffering.  Sadly or fortunately, we’re simply incapable of even comprehending the horror of our existence.  It doesn’t matter what cruelties any particular religion was built upon because our whole society is built upon misery.  We’re just f*cked!  Then again, if I have to waste my life in some manner or another, maybe that is all the more reason to sit around contemplating spiritual truths… even if they are nothing more than pretty lies.

I do on occasion think of myself as a Christian, in spite my constant criticisms.  My friend tells me I’m a Christian… and, heck, why not?  I’m a Christian and many other things besides.  It’s all good.  To be serious, I actually do feel drawn to Christianity, specifically certain Gnostic ideas.  Plus, I’m just fascinated by these great myths that percolated down through the millennia to finally take form in the figure of Jesus and the rest of the cast.  When I contemplate these stories and symbols, I do sense a deeper truth, something that feels real.

In the end, neither Harpur nor Ligotti wins out.  Their voices fade away, and I see Philip K. Dick sitting with one of his cats and he is bantering about something or another.  It is true that he was crazy, but crazy in an entertaining and mostly harmless way.  He had a playful imagination and an overactive one at that.  Harpur and Ligotti, on the other hand, seem like such serious fellows.  I can often be quite serious myself.  Still, I’d rather be  a fool like PKD.  He took various random ideas (including ancient mythology and Gnosticism) and he made it his own.  He wasn’t a good person, he wasn’t a bad person.  He was just a guy who liked to tell stories and who had an insatiable curiosity.  Who needs hope or pessimism if they have curiosity?

Too many people in the world have answers.  Even though I have many opinions, I know I don’t have any answer myself.  But part of me wants an answer.  And that is fine to an extent.  Maybe we can’t live without some answer or another to hold onto.  Even so, I don’t want to ever stop questioning.  If life ever becomes so depressing or boring to me that I lose my sense of curiosity, then what would be the point?

So, I can get annoyed at fundies who present apologetic self-deception as truth.  That is their answer and it seems a fairly stupid answer to me.  Then again, I get annoyed at lots of things in life.  I pretty much get annoyed at anyone who claims any final conclusion about anything.  And I get annoyed  at life for its lack of a conclusion, its lack of a clear point to it all.  I must admit I get too easily annoyed.  It must be nice being a fundie, or a fanatic of any variety for that matter, who possesses unquestioning certainty.  There is no doubt that fundies get annoyed as well, but at least they have conviction in their annoyance.  As for me, I just end up turning my annoyance back on myself.  I get annoyed even at my own attempts at finding answers.

Its just with every answer comes a role to play.  The fundie is playing their role of righteous believer and some of them can really embrace that role, but there are many other roles besides.  I get tired of roles.  I go to work and play various roles… for my supervisor, for my fellow employees, for the customers.  And then there are all the family roles I’m stuck in… son, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, etc.  It almost makes me feel envious of the people playing the role of homeless… a much simpler role to play in many ways even with its drawbacks.  There is this one homeless schizophrenic guy that I often suspect has life figured out.  That is almost the perfect role because then everyone leaves you alone.

It makes me wonder what conclusion I’ve come to in my own life order to play the roles I  play.  I guess any story has to have its roles to be played.  Maybe I just don’t like the story I’m in.  When I’m blogging, I’m usually playing the role of the intellectual.  It’s a role I’m good at to an extent, but intellectuality can bring out the cynic in me.  I suppose I could play the role of the person who has no opinion at all… except I’m too opinionated to attempt that role.  I’ve tried many roles in my life.  I’ve even tried to play the optimist a number of times, and I really suck at it.  I’m almost attracted to the role of the Christian miserable sinner except that role doesn’t seem like very much fun, and the dogma of the role of the  righteous Christian would give me brain cramps.

I somewhat admire Ligotti in his adamant pessimism which almost feels like a stoic fatalism.  His view seems so simple and straightforward.  Ultimately, I don’t understand such a view.  I’m a spiritual person.  One of the best roles I’ve found for myself is the spiritual seeker who never finds.  It isn’t always a perfectly satisfying part to play, but it keeps me occupied.  As an endlessly questioning seeker, I feel some connection to Philip K. Dick.  He definitely had restless mind syndrome.

Another aspect to PKD was that he had great interest in social roles.  One of my favorite stories by him is his novel A Scanner Darkly.  That story has a strong Gnostic theme.  It’s a bit dark in it’s portrayal of society and relationships, but I oddly find it gives me a sense of hope or else something related to hope.  The main character Arctor never gives up.  He is confused and split, but he continually questions and in some ways sees more clearly than the other characters.  Partly, he tries to step outside of the roles he finds himself in… even though he ends up stepping into other roles.  No perspective gives him absolute clarity, but more significant is his nagging sense of doubt.  In Arctor, I see something akin to my own seeking nature, my own seeking without knowing what I’m seeking.  The seeker is just another role I suppose, but at least it isn’t a mindless role.  There is a sense in this that there is something more than the masks we wear.  In Arctor’s shifting perspectives, he at times nearly forgets all roles and a deeper aspect seems to emerge.

Arctor is very much a Christ-like figure.  There is the dual nature, the sacrifice and suffering, the descent, the emergence of something new.  The dual nature aspect is particularly compelling.  Saviors tend to be dual natured in several ways.  There is the well-known duality of God and man combined.  However, saviors are unifiers of duality in general.  Many savior figures combine human and animal features for instance.  Another duality is that between good and evil personified as Jesus and Satan or Horus and Set.  The relationship of the latter two is a really good example because they were even at times represented as a singular dual-natured god, Horus-Set. 

What is interesting about Arctor is that he has a split personality such that one half of him is both spying on and looking out for his other half.  Meanwhile, sweet little Donna is playing the role of Judas, but in a sense Arctor willingly plays into this betrayal by his past choices.  Arctor is both outside and within the oppressive system, pretending to be a narc.  Still, he holds something back from the drama of it all.  Donna may think she knows the game, but she doesn’t really know Arctor.  Despite her larger perspective, she is more identified with the role she is playing than Arctor is.  Most of the characters seem to be stuck in roles.  Even though outwardly the story is about drug addiction, the story is really about social roles and social control, about how people get stuck in patterns of mind.

And beyond all of that, there is another message.  Those who think they’re in the know may not know as much as they think.  Instead, at the bottom of loss of all certainty, one might discover something unexpected.  It isn’t nihilism for there is a different kind of certainty within the faith that allows one to survive the descent.  There is some kind of balance in it however precarious it may be. 

In real life, however, many people don’t survive the descent.  Staying within the confines of conviction is much safer.  Although, how I see it is that such descents are part of a story, and I suspect we ultimately don’t choose the stories we are in.  I happen to be sympathetic to the story of Arctor, but I’m biased.  Maybe ideally I should try to feel compassion for everyone in their respective stories.  And maybe I should do many things.  Compassion for fundies?  I’ll have to work on that.