Self-Care of Summer Soldiers and Sunshine Patriots

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated.

There is the issue of self-care. It’s something never far from my mind, as I deal with severe depression. Self-care is the only way I’ve lasted this long in life. But I also know that high rates of such things as depression are only found in high inequality societies. The ultimate self-care would mean undoing the cause of the problem, not just treating the symptoms, case by case. As social creatures, self-care is never about mere individual concern. As Thomas Paine explains above, that cheapens what should most matter.

The importance of self-care came up in an article that argued that hatred is self-harming, even if the other side deserves your hatred. That is fair and I’d agree to an extent. Still, the emphasis seems wrong. What matters is that we come from a place of honesty, integrity, and authenticity. Only from that position of strength can we envision something radically better and move toward it. We should always give voice to the truth, especially when uncomfortable, even to ourselves. Speaking from a place of truth is always a compassionate act, whether or not it makes us feel warm and fuzzy with idealized notions of how we should feel. First we should be honest with ourselves about what we actually feel, not what we are told we are supposed to feel. Political correctness certainly shouldn’t be applied to our feelings, for that would be the opposite of self-care.

Besides, no large-scale positive change ever happened in the world without a whole lot of angry people. Societies (or rather the ruling elite and comfortable classes) tend to resist change and the more they resist the more frustrated so many people become. Sadly, that is how it tends to go, until a breaking point is reached.

Those who are already being harmed by the status quo are usually less concerned about mere self-harm, as the greater harm is what others are doing to them. Whereas those talking about self-care tend to be individuals in a privileged position to not be victimized by the even greater harms. The comfortable tend to only become overly motivated toward change when comfort is no longer an option. But for the most victimized, comfort was never an option. Yet many others find themselves somewhere in between these two extremes. That is a tough place to find oneself. Slowly, over time, more and more people will fall further and further out of what little comfort (and security) they might have. As the harm grows, the number of harmed will also grow. Admonitions about self-care will sound ever more empty, pointless, and irrelevant.

Self-care in a narrow individualistic sense becomes increasingly difficult and, at some point, moot. This is even more true when personal problems are inseparable from societal and political problems. What if the only possibility of self-care is to fight those doing harm to you, to your loved ones, and to the majority of others in your society? When the American colonists started a revolution, they did so out of self-care. It was difficult and many paid the ultimate sacrifice. But what other option was there, besides accepting increasing harm from authoritarian oppression, growing corporatism, an impoverishing economic system, and demoralizing loss of power over their own lives?

Consider Thomas Paine. When still in England, he joined other excise officers in bringing a petition for better pay and working conditions to Parliament and consequently lost his job, sending him into poverty and barely avoiding debtors’ prison. Later in America, after the revolution started, he gave all of the proceeds from his publications to the war effort. He also risked his life numerous times, giving everything for making a better world. And after all of that, he died in humble obscurity with few caring enough to attend his funeral. But that was irrelevant, since what he had sought was freedom and justice, not fame and wealth. As he explained it, “I prefer peace. But if trouble must come, let it come in my time, so that my children can live in peace.” These words were spoken by someone who had seen his own child die, along with the child’s mother. So, he was really speaking of other people’s children.

Was Paine and those like him committing self-harm? Or were they seeking a greater good beyond themselves, the greater good for all of society, the greater good for their neighbors and fellow citizens, the greater good for their children and grandchildren? In response to those soldiers who abandoned the revolutionary cause for self-care, Paine called them summer soldiers and sunshine patriots. They were those who only fought when it was easy, when no great sacrifice was required of them. Paine’s point is that we can never separate care for ourselves from care for others. The point he was making wasn’t philosophical but practical. As Benjamin Franklin put it, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Or even more powerfully articulated in a different context, there are the oft-quoted words of Martin Niemöller… the danger of narrow self-care until there is no one left to care about you:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

“Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams

…a sense that our memories and perceptions have been misplaced or replaced, that our lives are not our lives, that our minds are not our minds and that we are all part of some collective nightmare being played our on a stage not of the world but of some simulated shadow stage of which we know nothing.
~S.C. Hickman, The Telecratic Imperative

The notion of sleep has been used by poets and Gnostics alike throughout time as the leitmotif of ignorance, bliss, and innocence. Asleep in one’s ignorance goes the saying. To be asleep is to be so immersed in the normalization process of the worlds ubiquitous systems that one no longer has that critical acumen to be able to step away, step back, step out of one’s environment and see it for what it is: an artificial construct within which one is imprisoned. All the Zombie films from Romero’s classic to the latest edition have one theme: the mindless hunger and desire of the consumer for its next meal ticket, the endless feeding frenzy of a mindless horde in search of filling the emptiness of its depleted flesh, its desiring machininc life. Like sleeping zombies we move to the puppet strings of invisible codes and algorithms that supplement, decide, and program our lives within a 24/7 dreamworld constructed to fulfill our deepest desires.
~S.C. Hickman, The Governance of the World

Those words of S.C. Hickman captured a deeper aspect of my mood. That our minds are not our minds. That we don’t know what our minds are. It is almost a haunted feeling of the mind being something separate from us. The unconscious is the nameless name of something we never experience directly. The realm of mind that is not quite human, a demonic possession or mind parasite. We can sleepwalk through our entire lives.

Are we really disconnected, dissociated? Or is this simply our ‘normal’ state? We don’t know what we are or what makes us tick. We don’t know how to resolve our unknowing, because we can’t step outside of ourselves. And if we somehow dig down into the psyche, what do we hope to find? Is there anything below our delusions and fantasies? What ground might we stand upon?

When we speak of a social construct, what exactly is that? Social constructs are the seams that hold our minds together, the buttresses of our identity, the mortar of the social order. Take away that stuff of imagination and what seemed solid would fade away. We aren’t what we believe ourselves to be, but we can’t be anything at all without those beliefs. We aren’t the stories we tell, even as telling stories is at the heart of what we are.

Our secret identity is in the disjuncture or dislocation, the slippage or elision. It is the interstitial, the liminal, the threshold. Not what we are but what we are becoming, reality being out of alignment with perception, always slightly off, a fraction of delay. The ground shifts below us and we don’t notice, for we also shift at the same time, all the world shifting around us. And no matter how quickly we turn, we’ll never see what is behind us. The person who sees is not what is seen, but nothing can be seen that is separate from the person who sees. There is no objective standpoint, no outside vantage.

This is why we are so easily manipulated and misdirected.

My thoughts have been circling around a few issues, ever returning to my theory of symbolic conflation. It has to do with a symbolic ordering of the mind, as expressed through social order and social control, social construction and social identity. There is a mystery there that resists close inspection, and yet draws one’s attention elsewhere.

One of the best ways I’ve found to describe it is like a bird fluttering away from its nest, pretending to be injured. Or think of another example from nature. A deer can outrun a human, but only over short distances. Humans are awesome long distance runners and a deer will eventually tire out, maybe one of the earliest hunting techniques. Deer have a way of avoiding this fate. One deer will make itself seen to get the attention of the predator. That deer will slip out of sight to slow down and another deer will then take that position. It requires a highly observant predator to lock in on one deer and to not get deceived by the switch.

That is how symbolic conflation works. The symbolic issue acts as a framing. It draws the focus in a particular way, making it difficult to see what is being hidden by misdirection. It’s truly brilliant. The reason it works so well is that we tend to think without full consciousness and so act on autopilot. We see without really seeing and it rarely occurs to us what we aren’t seeing by the very nature of how we are looking or rather being made to look. This can create the illusion that we are acting under our own volition, completely oblivious to how we are being deceived and manipulated. The power of it is that framing becomes enculturated into the very fabric of our being and of our society. We see what is framed rather than seeing the frame.

So much of our lives are symbolic. No aspect of our identities is free from this: nationality, ethnicity, race, religion, class, etc. We are shaped to the core of our being. Yet there is a superficial quality to this. We feel forced to conform to an ideological worldview, but in a sense some part of us remains free of this. Such identities wouldn’t be necessary, if they weren’t hiding something.

The majority of Americans are symbolic conservatives, even as they are operational liberals, which is to say on specific issues the general public tends to support liberal positions, but the rhetoric of symbolic conservatism remains immensely powerful (such that, obscured and divided and isolated by false identities, the majority doesn’t realize it is a majority). The American Dream offers symbolic aspiration that remains unfulfilled for most, in that American kids dream big and yet have lower upward mobility than kids in many other Western countries who have a more realistic assessment of their future opportunities, which never manages to undermine the symbolic narrative. The political right loves to obsess over symbolic constitutionalism, having very little to do with the actual history of the U.S. Constitution beyond some cherry-picked quotes from founders, ignoring all contrary evidence. And to pick on the other side, there is symbolic rhetoric of democracy and liberalism, too rarely resulting anything that comes close to reality, as liberalism is simply the other side of the conservative symbolic conflation.

There are also symbolic family values based on the recent invention of the nuclear family detached from the long history of extended relationships of kinship and community. Along with that, there are other symbolic culture wars that rarely if ever amount to any actual politics nor have much to do with the issues themselves, such as how so-called pro-lifers won’t support policies that have been proven to decrease abortions. Similarly, there is symbolic religiosity and symbolic happiness. Conservatives report higher rates of religiosity than what matches the actual data on church attendance. And research shows that conservatives, although reporting higher happiness than liberals, smile less often than liberals. Symbolic identities have to do with how people perceive themselves and want to be perceived by others, according to social expectations and norms, the entire social order enfolding us in its embrace.

We also can’t forget all the symbolic wars on poverty, drugs, Terror, etc; inevitably ending up distracting from the real issues and problems, the most fundamental causes and contributing factors. And of course, there is the symbolic hyper-individuality of the autonomous self, the rational actor, the self-made man, the self-interested consumer-citizen.

These symbolic conflations and frames burrow into our psyche. They are memes, mind viruses and parasites. They don’t merely use our minds for their own purposes of self-replication, so as to infect others. They restructure our minds, causing us to come to identify with them. There is often no clear distinction between the behavior of parasites and symbionts. We can only know them by their results; but the nature of the relationship is that, in coming to identify with them, we rationalize their existence as part of who we are. The sense of self becomes splintered with our lives divided into different aspects, leading to dissociation along with the strange phenomenon of knowing and not knowing all kinds of things, and in some cases even leading to varying degrees of psychosis.

The modern self is not normal, by historical and evolutionary standards. Extremely unnatural and unhealthy conditions have developed, our minds having correspondingly grown malformed like the binding of feet. Our hyper-individuality is built on disconnection and, in place of human connection, we take on various addictions, not just to drugs and alcohol but also to work, consumerism, entertainment, social media, and on and on. The more we cling to an unchanging sense of bounded self, the more burdened we become trying to hold it all together, hunched over with the load we carry on our shoulders. We are possessed by the identities we possess.

This addiction angle interests me. Our addiction is the result of our isolated selves. Yet even as our addiction attempts to fill emptiness, to reach out beyond ourselves toward something, anything, a compulsive relationship devoid of the human, we isolate ourselves further. As Johann Hari explained in Chasing the Scream (Kindle Locations 3521-3544):

There were three questions I had never understood. Why did the drug war begin when it did, in the early twentieth century? Why were people so receptive to Harry Anslinger’s message? And once it was clear that it was having the opposite effect to the one that was intended— that it was increasing addiction and supercharging crime— why was it intensified, rather than abandoned?

I think Bruce Alexander’s breakthrough may hold the answer.

“Human beings only become addicted when they cannot find anything better to live for and when they desperately need to fill the emptiness that threatens to destroy them,” Bruce explained in a lecture in London31 in 2011. “The need to fill an inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era, to a greater or lesser degree.”

A sense of dislocation has been spreading through our societies like a bone cancer throughout the twentieth century. We all feel it: we have become richer, but less connected to one another. Countless studies prove this is more than a hunch, but here’s just one: the average number of close friends a person has has been steadily falling. We are increasingly alone, so we are increasingly addicted. “We’re talking about learning to live with the modern age,” Bruce believes. The modern world has many incredible benefits, but it also brings with it a source of deep stress that is unique: dislocation. “Being atomized and fragmented and all on [your] own— that’s no part of human evolution and it’s no part of the evolution of any society,” he told me.

And then there is another kicker. At the same time that our bonds with one another have been withering, we are told— incessantly, all day, every day, by a vast advertising-shopping machine— to invest our hopes and dreams in a very different direction: buying and consuming objects. Gabor tells me: “The whole economy is based around appealing to and heightening every false need and desire, for the purpose of selling products. So people are always trying to find satisfaction and fulfillment in products.” This is a key reason why, he says, “we live in a highly addicted society.” We have separated from one another and turned instead to things for happiness— but things can only ever offer us the thinnest of satisfactions.

This is where the drug war comes in. These processes began in the early twentieth century— and the drug war followed soon after. The drug war wasn’t just driven, then, by a race panic. It was driven by an addiction panic— and it had a real cause. But the cause wasn’t a growth in drugs. It was a growth in dislocation.

The drug war began when it did because we were afraid of our own addictive impulses, rising all around us because we were so alone. So, like an evangelical preacher who rages against gays because he is afraid of his own desire to have sex with men, are we raging against addicts because we are afraid of our own growing vulnerability to addiction?

In The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson makes some useful observations of reading addiction, specifically in terms of formulaic genres. She discusses Sigmund Freud’s repetition compulsion and Lenore Terr’s post-traumatic games. She sees genre reading as a ritual-like enactment that can’t lead to resolution, and so the addictive behavior becomes entrenched. This would apply to many other forms of entertainment and consumption. And it fits into Derrick Jensen’s discussion of abuse, trauma, and the victimization cycle.

I would broaden her argument in another way. People have feared the written text ever since it was invented. In the 18th century, there took hold a moral panic about reading addiction in general and that was before any fiction genres had developed (Frank Furedi, The Media’s First Moral Panic). The written word is unchanging and so creates the conditions for repetition compulsion. Every time a text is read, it is the exact same text.

That is far different from oral societies. And it is quite telling that oral societies have a much more fluid sense of self. The Piraha, for example, don’t cling to their sense of self nor that of others. When a Piraha individual is possessed by a spirit or meets a spirit who gives them a new name, the self that was there is no longer there. When asked where is that person, the Piraha will say that he or she isn’t there, even if the same body of the individual is standing right there in front of them. They also don’t have a storytelling tradition or concern for the past.

Another thing that the Piraha apparently lack is mental illness, specifically depression along with suicidal tendencies. According to Barbara Ehrenreich from Dancing in the Streets, there wasn’t much written about depression even in the Western world until the suppression of religious and public festivities, such as Carnival. One of the most important aspects of Carnival and similar festivities was the masking, shifting, and reversal of social identities. Along with this, there was the losing of individuality within the group. And during the Middle Ages, an amazing number of days in the year were dedicated to communal celebrations. The ending of this era coincided with numerous societal changes, including the increase of literacy with the spread of the movable type printing press.

Another thing happened with suppression of festivities. Local community began to break down as power became centralized in far off places and the classes became divided, which Ehrenreich details. The aristocracy used to be inseparable from their feudal roles and this meant participating in local festivities where, as part of the celebration, a king might wrestle with a blacksmith. As the divides between people grew into vast chasms, the social identities held and social roles played became hardened into place. This went along with a growing inequality of wealth and power. And as research has shown, wherever there is inequality also there is found high rates of social problems and mental health issues.

It’s maybe unsurprising that what followed from this was colonial imperialism and a racialized social order, class conflict and revolution. A society formed that was simultaneously rigid in certain ways and destabilized in others. The individuals became increasingly atomized and isolated. With the loss of kinship and community, the cheap replacement we got is identity politics. The natural human bonds are lost or constrained. Social relations are narrowed down. Correspondingly, our imaginations are hobbled and we can’t envision society being any other way. Most tragic, we forget that human society used to be far different, a collective amnesia forcing us into a collective trance. Our entire sense of reality is held in the vice grip of historical moment we find ourselves in.

We are afraid of what we don’t know. And so in fear, we huddle closer. The darkness in our own minds becomes shadows enveloping us. Anything that was able to pierce through our defenses would feel like violence and, in response, our reactions are out of proportion. We never see anything for what it is, as the narratives playing in our heads never stop. Those stories are our comfort or so we believe and therefore those stories are our fate.

But what if even only for a moment we saw the flame that casts the shadow? What then?

How do we make the strange familiar?

I’ve been simultaneously looking at two books: This is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe. And Stranger Than We Can Imagine by John Higgs. The two relate, with the latter offering a larger context for the former. The theme of both might well be summed up with the word ‘strange’. The world is strange and becoming ever stranger. We are becoming aware of how utterly bizarre the world is, both within us and all around us.

The first is not only about parasites, despite the catchy title. It goes so far beyond just that. After all, most of the genetic material we carry around with us, including within our brains, is non-human. It’s not merely that we are part of environments for we are environments. We are mobile ecosystems with boundaries that are fluid and permeable.

For a popular science book, it covers a surprising amount of territory and done so with more depth than one might expect. Much of the research discussed is preliminary and exploratory, as the various scientific fields have been slow to emerge. This might be because of how much they challenge the world as we know it and society as it is presently ordered. There are other psychological factors the author details such as the resistance humans have in dealing with topics of perceived disgust.

To summarize the book, McAuliffe explores the conclusions and implications of research involving parasitism and microbiomes in terms of neurocognitive functioning, behavioral tendencies, personality traits, political ideologies, population patterns, social structures, and culture. She offers some speculations of those involved in these fields, and what makes the speculations interesting is how they demonstrate the potential challenges of these new understandings. Whether or not we wish to take the knowledge and speculations seriously, the real world consequences will remain to be dealt with somehow.

The most obvious line of thought is the powerful influence of environments. The world around us doesn’t just effect us. It shapes who we are at a deep level and so shapes our entire society. There is no way to separate the social world from the natural world. This isn’t fatalism, since we also shape our environments. The author points to the possibility that Western societies have been liberalized at least partly because of the creation of healthier conditions that allow human flourishing. All of the West not that long ago was dominated by fairly extreme forms of social conservatism, violent ethnocentrism, authoritarian systems, etc. Yet in the generations following the creation of sewer systems, clean water, environmental regulations and improved healthcare, there was a revolution in Western social values along with vast improvements in human development.

In terms of intelligence, some call this the Moral Flynn Effect, a convergence of diverse improvements. And there is no reason to assume it will stop and won’t spread further. We know the problems we face. We basically understand what those problems are, what causes them and alleviates them, even if not entirely eliminates them. So, we know what we should do, assuming we actually wanted to create a better world. Most importantly, we have the monetary wealth, natural resources, and human capacity to implement what needs to be done. It’s not a mystery, not beyond our comprehension and ability. But the general public has so far lacked this knowledge, for it takes a while for new info and understandings to spread — e.g., Enlightenment ideas developed over centuries and it wasn’t until the movable type printing press became common that revolutions began. The ruling elite, as in the past, will join in solving these problems when fear of the masses forces them to finally act. Or else the present ruling elite will itself be eliminated, as happened with previous societies.

What is compelling about this book are the many causal links and correlations shown. It matches closely with what is seen from other fields, forming a picture that can’t be ignored. It’s probably no accident that ethnocentric populations, socially conservative societies, authoritarian governments, and strict religions all happen to be found where there are high rates of disease, parasites, toxins, malnutrition, stress, poverty, inequality, etc — all the conditions that stunt and/or alter physical, neurocognitive, and psychological development.

For anti-democratic ruling elites, there is probably an intuitive or even conscious understanding that the only way to maintain social control is through keeping the masses to some degree unhealthy and stunted. If you let people develop more of their potential, they will start demanding more. If you let intelligence increase and education improve, individuals will start thinking for themselves and the public imagining new possibilities.

Maybe its unsurprising that American conservatives have seen the greatest threat not just in public education but, more imporantly, in public health. The political right doesn’t fear the failures of the political left, the supposed wasted use of tax money. No, what they fear is that the key leftist policies have been proven to work. The healthier, smarter, and better educated people become the more they develop attitudes of social liberalism and anti-authoritarianism, which leads toward the possibility of radical imagination and radical action. Until people are free to more fully develop their potentials, freedom is a meaningless and empty abstraction. The last thing the political right wants, and sadly this includes many mainstream ‘liberals’, is a genuinely free population.

This creates a problem. The trajectory of Western civilization for centuries has been the improvement of all these conditions that seems to near inevitably create a progressive society. That isn’t to say the West is perfect. Far from it. But imagine what kind of world it would be if universal healthcare and education was provided to every person on the planet. This is within the realm of possibility at this very moment, if we so chose to invest our resources in this way. It’s nothing special about the West and even in the West there are still large parts of the population living in severe deprivation and oppression. In a single generation, we could transform civilization and solve (or at least shrink to manageable size) the worst social problems. There is absolutely nothing stopping us but ourselves. Instead, Western governments have been using their vast wealth and power to dominate other countries, making the world a worst place in the process, helping to create the very conditions that further undermine any hope for freedom and democracy. Blowing up hospitals, destroying infrastructure, and banning trade won’t lead to healthier and more peaceful populations; if anything, the complete opposite.

A thought occurred to me. If environmental conditions are so important to how individuals and societies form, then maybe political ideologies are less key than we think or else not as important in the way we normally think about them. Our beliefs about our society might be more result than cause (maybe the limited healthcare availability in the American South being a central factor in maintaining its historical conservatism and authoritarianism). We have a hard time thinking outside of the conditions that have shaped our very minds.

That isn’t to say there is no feedback loop where ideology can reinforce the conditions that made it possible. The point is that free individuals aren’t fully possible in an unfree society where individuals aren’t free on a practical level to develop toward optimal health and ability. As such, fights over ideology miss an important point. The actual fight needs to be over the conditions that precede any particular ideological framing and conflict. On a practical level, we would be better off investing money and resources where it is needed most and in ways that practically improve lives, rather than simply imprisoning populations into submission and bombing entire societies into oblivion, either of which worsens the problems for those people and for everyone else as well. The best way to fight crime and terrorism would be by improving the lives for all people. Imagine that!

The only reason we can have a public debate now is because we have finally come to the point in society where conditions have improved just enough where these issues are finally comprehensible, as we have begun to see their real world impact in improving society. It would have been fruitless trying to have a public debate about public goods such as public healthcare and public education in centuries past when even the notion of a ‘public’ still seemed radical. The conditions for a public with a voice to be heard had to first be created. Once that was in place, it is unsurprising that it required radicals like socialists to take it to the next level in suggesting the creation of public sanitation and public bakeries, based on the idea that health was a priority, if not an individual right then a social responsibility. Now, these kinds of socialist policies have become the norm in Western societies, the most basic level of a social safety net.

As I began reading McAuliffe’s book, I came across Higgs’ book. It wasn’t immediately apparent that there was a connection between the two. Reading some reviews and interviews showed the importance Higgs placed on the role (hyper-)individualism has played this past century. And upon perusing the book, it became clear that he understood how this went beyond philosophy and politics, touching upon every aspect of our society, most certainly including science.

It was useful thinking about the issue of micro-organisms in a larger historical context. McAuliffe doesn’t shy away from the greater implications, but her writing was focused on a single area of study. To both of these books, we could also add such things as the research on epigentics which might further help transform our entire understanding of humanity. Taken together, it is clear that we are teetering on the edge of a paradigm shift, of the extent only seen a few times before. We live in a transitional era, but it isn’t a smooth transition. As Higgs argues, the 20th century has been a rupture, what having developed not being fully explicable according to what came before.

We are barely beginning to scratch the surface of our own ignorance, which is to say our potential new knowledge. We know just enough to realize how wrong mainstream views have been in the past. Our society was built upon and has been operating according to beliefs that have been proven partial, inaccurate, and false. The world is more complex and fascinating than we previously acknowledged.

Realizing we have been so wrong, how do we make it right going forward? What will it take for us to finally confront what we’ve ignored for so long? How do we make the strange familiar?

* * *

Donald Trump: Stranger Than We Can Imagine?
by David McConkey

Why Jeremy Corbyn makes sense in the age of the selfie
By John Higgs

Stranger Than We Can Imagine:
Making Sense of the Twentieth Century
by John Higgs
pp. 308-310

In the words of the American social physicist Alex Pentland, “It is time that we dropped the fiction of individuals as the unit of rationality, and recognised that our rationality is largely determined by the surrounding social fabric. Instead of being actors in markets, we are collaborators in determining the public good.” Pentland and his team distributed smartphones loaded with tracking software to a number of communities in order to study the vast amount of data the daily interactions of large groups generated. They found that the overriding factor in a whole range of issues, from income to weight gain and voting intentions, was not individual free will but the influence of others. The most significant factor deciding whether you would eat a doughnut was not willpower or good intentions, but whether everyone else in the office took one. As Pentland discovered, “The single biggest factor driving adoption of new behaviours was the behaviour of peers. Put another way, the effects of this implicit social learning were roughly the same size as the influence of your genes on your behaviour, or your IQ on your academic performance.”

A similar story is told by the research into child development and neuroscience. An infant is not born with language, logic and an understanding of how to behave in society. They are instead primed to acquire these skills from others. Studies of children who have been isolated from the age of about six months, such as those abandoned in the Romanian orphanages under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, show that they can never recover from the lost social interaction at that crucial age. We need others, it turns out, in order to develop to the point where we’re able to convince ourselves that we don’t need others.

Many aspects of our behaviour only make sense when we understand their social role. Laughter, for example, creates social bonding and strengthens ties within a group. Evolution did not make us make those strange noises for our own benefit. In light of this, it is interesting that there is so much humour on the internet.

Neuroscientists have come to view our sense of “self,” the idea that we are a single entity making rational decisions, as no more than a quirk of the mind. Brain-scanning experiments have shown that the mental processes that lead to an action, such as deciding to press a button, occur a significant period before the conscious brain believes it makes the decision to press the button. This does not indicate a rational individual exercising free will. It portrays the conscious mind as more of a spin doctor than a decision maker, rationalising the actions of the unconscious mind after the fact. As the Canadian-British psychologist Bruce Hood writes, “Our brain creates the experience of our self as a model – a cohesive, integrated character – to make sense of the multitude of experiences that assault our senses throughout our lifetime.”

In biology an “individual” is an increasingly complicated word to define. A human body, for example, contains ten times more non-human bacteria than it does human cells. Understanding the interaction between the two, from the immune system to the digestive organs, is necessary to understand how we work. This means that the only way to study a human is to study something more than that human.

Individualism trains us to think of ourselves as isolated, self-willed units. That description is not sufficient, either biologically, socially, psychologically, emotionally or culturally. This can be difficult to accept if you were raised in the twentieth century, particularly if your politics use the idea of a free individual as your primary touchstone. The promotion of individualism can become a core part of a person’s identity, and something that must be defended. This is ironic, because where did that idea come from? Was it created by the person who defends their individualism? Does it belong to them? In truth, that idea was, like most ideas, just passing through.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

The Desperate Acting Desperately

Homelessness and Mental Illness

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Morality-Punishment Link

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

Freedom From Want, Freedom to Imagine

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

Neoliberalism: Dream & Reality

Moral Flynn Effect?

Racists Losing Ground: Moral Flynn Effect?

Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?

Of Mice and Men and Environments

What do we inherit? And from whom?

Radical & Moderate Enlightenments: Revolution & Reaction, Science & Religion

No One Knows

Nordic Theory of Love and Individualism

We Americans like to talk about freedom and liberty.

We idealize the self-made man and the lone cowboy, the inventor who works in isolation and the hero who stands alone, the artist who creates from his own imagination and the rebel who through sheer determination fights the system, the independent thinker and the daring innovator. We praise the individual to such an extent it becomes not just a fantastical story but an abstract ideal.

But in reality, American society doesn’t create independent individuals and autonomous agents, much less self-responsible citizens. Instead, it creates dependence and even codependence based on fear and uncertainty, based on threat and punishment, and based on manipulation by those who hold power and control the fate of others.

This creates a mindset of clinging desperation and subservient obedience or else disconnected isolation. What it doesn’t lead to are healthy individuals, relationships, families, and communities—the foundation of a well-functioning culture of trust and social democracy.

Nordic countries have a different way of doing things.

* * *

The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life
By Anu Partanen
Kindle Locations 861-895

A characterization of Swedes as the ultimate loners may seem surprising, especially considering Pippi Longstocking’s global popularity. But there is some truth to it— we Nordics aren’t known to be especially outgoing, and we probably deserve our reputation as stoic, silent types who can be a bit dour. That said, the stereotypical Nordic person would probably also be thought of as someone who, although perhaps not particularly talkative, is sensitive to the needs of his or her fellow human beings, especially since we’re sometimes believed to have socialist tendencies. It follows that we ought to have a collective mind-set and some solidarity, not be extreme individualists.

In fact, however, a powerful strain of individualism is part of the bedrock of Nordic societies— so much so that Lars Trägårdh felt it was worth dusting off the old question “Is the Swede a human being?” and taking a fresh and more positive look at Nordic individualism. After years of observing the differences between Sweden and the United States, Trägårdh identifies in his book some fundamental qualities at the heart of Swedish society— qualities that also exist in all Nordic societies— that help explain Nordic success. Indeed, Trägårdh’s findings tell us a lot about why the Nordic countries are doing so well in surveys of global competitiveness and quality of life. And for me Trägårdh helped explain why I’d been feeling so confused by American relationships, especially those between parents and children, between spouses, and between employees and their employers. It all came down to the Nordic way of thinking about love— perfectly exemplified by Pippi Longstocking.

Trägårdh and his collaborator— a well-known Swedish historian and journalist named Henrik Berggren— put together their observations on individualism and formulated something they called “the Swedish theory of love.” The core idea is that authentic love and friendship are possible only between individuals who are independent and equal. This notion represents exactly the values that I grew up with and that I feel are most dear to Finns as well as people from the other Nordic nations, not just Swedes, so I like to call it “the Nordic theory of love.” For the citizens of the Nordic countries, the most important values in life are individual self-sufficiency and independence in relation to other members of the community. If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you as downright all-American thinking.

A person who must depend on his or her fellow citizens is, like it or not, put in a position of being subservient and unequal. Even worse, as Trägårdh and Berggren explain in their discussion of the moral logic of the Pippi Longstocking stories, “He who is in debt, who is beholden to others, or who requires the charity and kindness not only from strangers but also from his most intimate companions to get by, also becomes untrustworthy. . . . He becomes dishonest and inauthentic.”

In the realm of Pippi— who, let’s remember, is a strong superhuman girl living alone in a big house— this means that exactly because she is totally self-sufficient, her friendship with the children next door, Tommy and Annika, is a great gift to them. That’s because they are absolutely assured that Pippi’s friendship is being given freely, no strings attached. It’s precisely because Pippi is an exaggeration of self-sufficiency that she draws our awareness to the purity and unbridled enthusiasm of her love, and elicits our admiring affection. In real life, of course, a child Pippi’s age would still have a healthy dependency on her parents, the way her neighbors Tommy and Annika do. But Pippi illustrates an ideal of unencumbered love, whose logic, in Nordic thinking, extends to most real-life adult relationships.

What Lars Trägårdh came to understand during his years in the United States was that the overarching ambition of Nordic societies during the course of the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, has not been to socialize the economy at all, as is often mistakenly assumed. Rather the goal has been to free the individual from all forms of dependency within the family and in civil society: the poor from charity, wives from husbands, adult children from parents, and elderly parents from their children. The express purpose of this freedom is to allow all those human relationships to be unencumbered by ulterior motives and needs, and thus to be entirely free, completely authentic, and driven purely by love.

Incentives of Individualism

There are some childhood studies that offer a useful insight about human nature and society. They indicate certain behaviors that appear to be inherited, rather than learned.

The specific behaviors are a natural response to be helpful and cooperative. Kids, when presented with an opportunity, want to open the door for someone with their hands full or to pick up an object someone drops. They don’t need to be told to do this. This is basic social behavior, without which early societies would never have formed.

These studies, however, demonstrated something even more telling about our present society. If you give kids a reward for good behavior, it actually ends up disincentivizing good behavior. Yet the belief in incentives is the basis of our entire capitalist society. Selfish individuals aren’t born. They are created. It is inevitable that strong communities, civic society, and culture of trust weakens as capitalism takes over more and more aspects of life.

That gave me an insight. There are various theories, Julian Jayne’s bicameralism being the most famous, that individualism as we know it didn’t always exist. What if the development of systems of incentives was a major factor in creating individuals.

This would have been a slow process. Monetary systems were developed in the ancient world. But at that time they would have had little use to the average person. And it was limited to only a few societies. Most of daily living for most people in most societies would still have involved the even more ancient traditions of gift economy and/or barter. It wasn’t until after the collapse of bicameralism (or however one wishes to explain that transition) that monetary systems became more central. It was centuries into the post-bicameral Axial Age before coins began to be minted.

Like writing, the early monetary systems would only have initially and directly effected a small number of people. Think how long it took from the invention of writing to when the majority of most societies were literate, two to three millennia. Barter was the main economic system in some American communities well into the twentieth century. It was in the major cities where these kinds of things took hold first and even there it developed first among the upper classes. Writing and currency did co-develop to some extent, as writing was earliest used for purposes of accounting. And accounting would in ancient societies would only have been a concern for governments and the elite of large-scale business owners and traders.

The trader, in particular, would have been in a position to develop individualistic behavior the earliest. Traders not only dealt most directly with the developing monetary systems, along with writing and accounting, but they also were the people who spent the most time outside of their home communities. This was at a time when most people spent their entire life never leaving the community into which they were born.

So, if my hypothesis is correct, this is where we would want to look for the initial developments of individualism. It’s also in the modern world among businessmen, stockbrokers, etc where we’d want to look for the most extreme behaviors of individualism.

It might be interesting to anthropologically study business management schools and corporations to see how they help further individualize people. Then we might want to consider what happens when a society becomes so individualistic that the social bonds that hold society together begin to fray, as we are now seeing.

Individualistic Community vs Collectivist Clannishness

My mind seems to be stuck on human biodiversity (HBD) thoughts, not in a negative way though. I can’t help but be continually intrigued by hbd chick’s blog postings.

Her most recent post is clannish paradox? which is very insightful. The part I wanted to focus in on, however, isn’t a new insight of hers:

another clannishness paradox that i’ve mentioned before is that individuals from clannish societies often feel very independent. here, for example, is taki on the greeks:

“The highly individualistic Greek is too self-seeking to submit easily to others’ dictates. His unruliness has helped him survive through the centuries of oppression, as well as to rise above adversity. But it has also made him unaware of the advantages of a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes. This has created a climate where cheating is a way of life, where the highest and lowest of citizens do not hesitate to use dishonesty, especially in politics.”

yeah. well, the misunderstanding there is that greeks are “individualistic.” they’re not. they’re clannish. and because they’re clannish, they don’t like outside interference — they’re not going to “submit easily to others’ dictates” and they’re certainly not going to have “a communal spirit and true democratic attitudes.” clannish people — like southern libertarians— don’t want outside interference (like from the gub’ment), so they seemindividualistic, but what they are, in fact, is independent-minded — but in a clannish sort of way. the true individualists — the non-clannish peoples — tend to be communally oriented. and they are rare.

It’s that last part that got me thinking. The last hyperlink brings you to another one of her posts. In the beginning of the post, she summarizes the non-clannish side of the paradox:

in societies in which the members are MORE individualistic, those same members are oriented MORE towards the group, the whole group, and nothing but the group (i.e. NOT their extended families or clans or tribes) than in societies in which the members are NOT so individualistic.

I came to these same insights from a totally different direction. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in different regions and among people of different ideologies. Just from observation, I began to notice these patterns. Further reading helped clarify my thoughts, but all of that was long before I came across HBD.

What hbd chick presents reminds me of a couple of things.

First, I’ve often written about reactionary conservatism and community-minded liberalism. Corey Robin wrote a book about reactionary conservatism and it really shook up my thinking when I read it. His theory gave me a framework to make sense of my own observations. When hbd chick writes about libertarian crackers, I suspect she is basically speaking of this same reactionary conservatism.

Second, I just so happened to have written a post today about individualism and collectivism. I pointed out how Iowa is one of those strongly individualistic states. In the past, though, I’ve also pointed out that Iowa is strongly community-oriented. This is something many don’t understand about much of the Midwest (maybe Indiana excluded; let us just call it Kentuckiana).

All of this only appears paradoxical if you remain at the level of ideological rhetoric. If you dig deeper, it makes a lot of sense.

Individualism and Collectivism: U.S. State Comparison

For the map lovers out there, I found one of the more interesting maps that I’ve seen in a while.

It’s from a paper titled “Patterns of Individualism and Collectivism Across the United States“. The authors are  Joseph A. Vandello and Dov Cohen, the latter being the co-author with Richard Nisbett of Culture of Honor. Here is the summary:

“Although the individualism—collectivism dimension is usually examined in a US. versus Asian context,there is variation within the United States. The authors created an eight-item index ranking states in terms of collectivist versus individualist tendencies. As predicted, collectivist tendencies were strongest in the Deep South, and individualist tendencies were strongest in the Mountain West and Great Plains. In Part 2, convergent validity for the index was obtained by showing that state collectivism scores predicted variation in individual attitudes, as measured by a national survey. In Part 3, the index was used to explore the relationship between individualism—collectivism and a variety of demographic, economic,cultural, and health-related variables. The index may be used to complement traditional measures of collectivism and individualism and may be of use to scholars seeking a construct to account for unique U.S. regional variation.”

The map shows U.S. states according to their rates of collectivism (vs individualism). There is some of the typical North/South divide with the South showing high rates of collectivism (clannishness?), but that divide is actually seen more as you go west.

Iowa is the first state going in that direction that shows extreme low rates of collectivism. West of the Mississippi River is an entirely different place. This demonstrates how different Indiana is in comparison, the birth state of my parents. There is a good argument to be made about Indiana being part of the Upper South, at least culturally. It also indicates that California is most similar to the Deep South.

That doesn’t fit conventional thought about particular states and regions.

Cynicism and Trust

Cynicism and trust are competing forces.

These are mutually exclusive factors where the increase of one causes or contributes to the decrease of the other. With a cynical attitude, people withdraw from social relationships based on a larger sense of trust. As people withdraw their sense of trust, they lessen their commitment to acting trustworthy toward others and are less willing to put themselves on the line to help promote an environment of trust. Thus, cynicism replacing trust, society becomes atomized leading to the dominance of Social Darwinism and hyper-individualism.

Social trust exists in concentric circles: family, church, community, region, country, ethnicity/race, etc. Some societies have high trust cultures and others low trust cultures. All things remaining stable, high trust cultures are concomitant with and sustaining of high trust social organization. The same with low trust cultures and social organization. It’s a reciprocal relation. However, not all things remain unchanging.

The United States has a relatively high trust culture, although not as high as Japan and many Northern European countries. On the other hand, the US has some clear dysfunctions related to low trust. I think this conflict has to do with it being a large and diverse society, but fortunately with many citizens of ancestries from countries that are high trust (such as Germany). Certain US regions (such as those with low rates of German ancestry) have cultures of low trust, the Deep South being the prime example. This regionalism has created clear dysfunction on the federal level of government, but at the same time a high trust form of democracy continues to operate within certain local communities and governments.

The conditions in the US have changed greatly. This has shifted the level and extension of trust. These changes involve various balances of power – between: South and North, federal and states, elites and non-elites, left and right, etc.

Many Americans have lost a wider sense of trust. Partly, it’s just the inevitable atomizing destruction of community that results from globalized capitalism. But there is more to it. Modernity, in general, is about societal change: secularization, multiculturalism, urbanization, suburbanization, and many other factors. Humans have evolved to adapt to change, but this is more change than humans can collectively deal with in a healthy way.

This hits certain groups harder than others. The lower classes, of course, get the brunt of it and they also have the least resources to soften the impact. For reasons of psychological traits, conservatives deal with it the worse or maybe it’s that conservatives become the worst in dealing with it. There is nothing in the world that even comes close to the cynicism of a conservative turned reactionary.

We moderns so often take trust for granted, except when there is societal tumult or breakdown. Human nature is built on group cohesion which necessitates trust. Civilization magnifies this requirement of social capital. At the same time, the development of civilization has undermined what makes trust possible as an expression of human nature and human communities. Humans didn’t evolve in large, concentrated societies and so human nature isn’t adapted well to these conditions.

Some societies apparently have maintained their cultures of trust over the centuries, but modernization has made this increasingly difficult. The exceptional countries are those that have maintained some basic level of cultural (often ethnic) isolation, economic independence, and societal autonomy. This has mostly applied to Northern societies such as Germany and Scandinavia.

The US is somewhere in the middle on the scale of trust. We have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of high trust cultures, but we also have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of low trust cultures. This is one of the divisions underlying the regionalism of North/South. Germans and Scandinavians mostly settled the North. Scots-Irish, Barbadoans, etc mostly settled the South.

It’s interesting that early capitalism favored the high trust culture of the North and more recent capitalism has shifted increasingly to the low trust culture of the South. Capitalism is an odd system in that it needs a high trust culture to develop into large-scale international corporations, but capitalism seeks out low trust cultures to exploit for profits. So, capitalism uses high trust cultures for its own ends which ultimately undermines those very high trust cultures. The only exceptions to this seems to be extremely well developed cultures of trust that enforce massive regulation and social/moral control over the economic sector. The US mixed culture of trust/mistrust makes a perfect location for modern exploitative capitalism.

Of course, this is problematic for democracy in the US and many other countries.

Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I was visiting my brother and his family up in Minnesota. My sister-in-law at one point brought up the topic of pacifiers. She had taken the pacifier away from her daughter a while back because there can be problems if pacifiers are used for too long. I commented that pacifiers aren’t even necessary since babies have been fine without them for millennia.

My sister-in-law gave a response that got me thinking. She said that it helps babies to learn self-soothing. It instantly hit me that the pacifier is a tool of enculturation. It is used to create self-independence and thus create the sense of individualism that is so highly prized here in the West, especially the US.

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

America’s Hyper-Individualism: a tale of deception & immorality

American Exceptionalism Subsides
The American-Western European Values Gap

In America, religion is considered important.

However, this religiosity is more about individual salvation than helping those in need.

From this individualistic worldview, Americans believe individuals control their own lives.

This individualism is extended to national isolationism where we believe in only helping our own country.

This individualism goes beyond moral principles and touches on a sense of selfish entitlement to interfere with others, even though we show little desire to actually help them.

American’s love individualism in all forms and have faith that individuals can solve their own problems (a convenient rationalization for a country that causes so much misery around the world and allows so much misery to continue in its own borders). Despite this individualism, actual data shows individual Americans have one of the lowest rates of social mobility in the developed world.