How does one carry on a constructive conversation today? Maybe it can go something like this…
“These are troubling times.”
Our species sits in the middle of a global viral pandemic and an economic recession.
Is that all?
No. We have other complicating factors too.
Like what? Climate change?
Yes, and loss of species and ecosystems. The gradual replacement of human labour by smart machines. The growing gap of wealth and power between a small handful of humans and the rest.
Is there more?!
The polarization of political sentiments. The growing civil complexity across economic systems, political interests, social relationships and culture. You want more? How about the loss of a sense of community and belonging? Meaningless jobs? Stress, anxiety, despair…?
OMG!!! You’re depressing me! What are we going to do?
Maybe we get back to our roots. Not a recent normal, but an old normal – ancient.
A simpler time? How is that possible?
First of all we have to form a small group of people who can discuss these conditions and feel that they can reasonably address them in some small local way.
So you’re no longer lonely. What would that really accomplish?
Well, yes, we are social animals and we need validation and a sense of belonging. Also, you can’t do anything with a negative attitude. You will literally freeze up. A small group can have positive conversations that loosen up our creative imaginations. A small group will help us feel that we have a measure of control that can be scaled up.
What kind of group?
A small group of fewer than a dozen with a diversity of backgrounds and talents but who share a common concern for making a difference. The members are accountable to each other for delivering the goods they talk about.
Okay. And what did you mean by “scale up”?
Once you get a pattern of group conversation going and people start to live by their words, you can bring in other people. As the group grows to a dozen, they break it up into two groups.
Sure, a small group is easier to manage. So it would be like a cell dividing to propagate.
That’s right. If the group activities appeal to others, if they’re fulfilling, then the group will take off and live a life of its own, taking care of all of us. Before we know it, we have a small authentic community made up of small congenial groups.
I’ve seen many groups form and dissolve. So what’s the trick to make it work?
The group has to frankly address our common human values and goals, the kinds of things that are disappearing from our lives, the kinds of things that would fulfill us and make us truly human.
Is that it? We need a sober adult discussion? But the group diversity will divide us, won’t it?
Not if we focus on what we have in common. Underlying our differences we all have intelligence and we recognize the talents of others. We start by understanding that as a group we are smarter. We can access better solutions in three ways – 1) any member may have a sufficient answer, better than our own; 2) sometimes we can take an average of all ideas we come up with; and 3) we are bound to come up with new solutions that no one had thought of, just by sharing creative ideas!
Okay, this is the way it goes. I’m not going to hold back. This is my bold honest opinion about what needs to happen very soon. Its both scary and hopeful. Sure, we need to keep calm. We need a sense of humour. We need empathy, compassion, and obedience to the rule of law. We need the comforts of familiarity. And we need to make sense of our chaotic world.
April 1, 2020 we gradually wake up in a nightmare as we learn about the dominoes going down around the world. Its not a dream. Its not April Fools. A few weeks pass and the near future is sinking in. The COVID-19 virus takes out a wide swath of people, the stock markets crash; governments are slow to respond; supplies run short; people are laid off; small businesses fear losing their life’s investments… on and on…
We are all in various states and stages of shock.
We can believe in 2021 but we don’t know how to bridge. We seek a “New Normal“. For years many people have been discovering that our fearless leaders are not demigods. They are human. Some of them are even quite dysfunctional. There is no heir apparent, no savior has appeared to take us home again.
Many people have died. More will die. We don’t know how many. We wake up in the morning and its like being inside an apocalyptic movie. There can be no spoiler alert. No one knows how this ends. Some people are just going into emotional shock — stunned and confused.
To complicate matters further, Saudi Arabia decides to over-produce oil and crash the world price of oil. Oil consuming nations may welcome this, but who is driving? What factories are open to take advantage of the cost reduction? Oil producing economies like Alberta’s take a cold dive without a breath.
I said that I would be brutally honest. People are talking about how we can ever recover from this bedlam and mayhem. What just happened? Reference points are gone. Fake news goes viral accelerated by foreign leaders’ campaigns designed precisely for that purpose. Fear and self-doubt scatter and weaken the prey and make them easy targets. These age-old military strategies and tactics take on a new face to a generation of idealistic innocents. Grand narcissists have played us with the modern tools and ancient cunning.
We know that different people respond differently under pressure. We know that under stress, people fortunately revert to their natural personal strengths. But as they reach their thresholds of tolerance they lose their senses and powers of reason. Some people are closer to the tipping points than others.
This is a breeding ground for the old “shock and awe” strategy of dominance. As cult leaders groom and prey on those forlorn and in despair, the seekers find solace in a new order, a new normal, that feeds on the innate need for the safety of community. The cult mentality is not without its attraction. It provides an order. There are espoused shared values and beliefs, though the leaders know better.
We may have misjudged the role of cults, religions and political parties. The social psychological patterns are far more similar then different. Cults stand out because they so distinctly and intentionally mark their boundaries, isolating their groups from the general population. Religions provide a moral code while political parties prescribe a legal code. Both provide social and cultural frameworks that enable power-seekers and narcissists to self-actualize.
There is no single right answer. Life everywhere has always been an ongoing experiment. The answers we need are within us — each and everyone of us.
Context Adds Meaning
This pandemic sits on top of global climate change, fears of AI and job displacement, political tribalism, the billionaire break-away class and pop-culture narcissism. We have been struggling with meaningless work, loneliness, disengagement and the loss of community ties. We are distracted and disoriented going into this pandemonium.
In fact, Alvin Toffler pointed out in 1970 that civil complexity is accelerating and the pace of change is growing at a compounded exponential rate. Its all mathematically certain. It follows the laws of network effects and scaling. Toffler told us 50 years ago we had more knowledge, artifacts and people than in the previous 800 years combined. The pace has continued to accelerate.
More than 30 years ago, anthropologist Joseph Tainter pointed out that the best explanation for the collapse of past civilizations was that they ran into diseconomies of scale. They got so complex that they became too expensive to operate. They lost agility and capacity to innovate and repair (more on Babel later). We have seen the same phenomenon of diminishing returns on investment in very large complex corporations and governments – any very large bureaucracy.
We need to hit the proverbial reset button.
“So, Randal, when are you going to get to the good and hopeful part?”
Time to Re-frame
Obviously we start by looking to the past and lessons learned. Many pundits bring up the financial crisis of 2008, 9/11, the fall of the Iron Curtain, etc. They go back to October 1986, 1929 and the 1919 Flu Pandemic for some guidance. They might be better off looking into how all living systems work, and that research is already well advanced in academia. But the academics seem to be pretty silent on the sidelines.
There are similarities and differences among all things. Under our microscopes, nothing is unique or identical. Nature repeats itself and our brains are designed as pattern seekers and replicators. In fact, I believe that we will eventually discover that all of the laws of Nature will be reduced to a single fractal algorithm.
In the 1940s and ’50s a group of international polymaths (Allen Turing, Claude Shannon, Jon von Neuman, Ross Ashby, Jay Forrester, Herbert Simon, Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, etc.) concocted a grand theory variously called cybernetics, general systems theory, operations research or management science. In reality it was a theory to explain both intelligence and life itself. It even explained evolution as a learning process with DNA as the storage (memory) medium. Since those early days, smart people added sub-disciplines such as chaos theory, decision theory, game theory and complex adaptive systems.
Unfortunately, cybernetics was seconded to serve the computer, and AI industry and management science was relegated to optimizing manufacturing assembly lines. Few people have heard of general systems theory, devised by Ludwig von Bertalanffy right here at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. The long-forgotten von Bertalanffy, who virtually invented mathematical biology, literally wrote some of the earliest books on the Nature of intelligence (Robots, Men and Minds, 1967).
When in 1960 Thomas Kuhn wrote up the history of science in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions it became apparent that knowledge itself evolves as a cultural phenomenon. The discipline of the sociology of knowledge was born. Later, Dawkins would coin the term ‘meme‘ to capture the role of ideas in cultural and semantic evolution, poetically suggesting a parallel to genes in biological evolution.
These are no trivial academic exercises, unless you want to overlook the intellectual legacy of the 20th century as we reconstruct the 21st. But as Kuhn said in the ’60s, paradigms don’t change until there is a collapse. Over the past 150 years, or maybe going back 500 years in the west, there has been a growing worldview dominated by the success of economics. Through successive disruptive civil introductions of patent protection, incorporation, stock markets, mass production, steam power, fossil fuels, electricity and telecommunications, we have made transformative progress in leaps and bounds. Its hard to argue with that material success.
There have been rumblings on the sidelines. Its the global economy. No. Its the knowledge economy. No. Its the sharing economy. No! Its the new economy. Local economist Mark Anielski has been promoting the idea of an economy that measures gross domestic happiness and aspires to fulfill the well-being.
Personally, I believe a paradigm shift is in order. But perhaps a number of things have to happen in relative synchronicity. We have to put personal happiness and well-being as top priority, but that by itself is not sufficient. We need to think bigger than just the legacy economic systems.
We need to simplify our worldviews. Just as we have all constructed our personal and shared worldviews, we need to deconstruct them to understand how they work and then reconstruct them with a better understanding of how we fit into the Big Picture that is Nature. Reality is not disciplinary.
There is an economy of everything. If we were to reconstruct the ideas of ‘economy’ we should start with our understanding of physics, chemistry, biology, and ecosystems, and understand that human activity is just another layer on top of those layers. Our economy (and all civilization) is a natural emergent property as we — as animals — interact.
Alternatively, think of bird nests, ground-squirrel tunnels and beaver dams as economic infrastructure. Honestly, an alien from another planet would see our lives on this planet as more similar than different, more different in degrees than different in kind.
What makes us most different from other animals is symbolic communication. Culture, while observed in small does in other species is vastly increased with symbolic communication. Culture creates a whole new playing field above the biological.
What we call politics is now being better understood in terms of decision theory and game theory. Our legacy views of left and right, individualist versus collectivist views, are sorely out of date. Life is far more complicated than these simplistic schematics. The tools of management science and optimization are now beginning to be applied in governance, not just of corporations, but in all our living civil systems.
When we put this all together we see a very different landscape. Our worldview is simplified by focusing on the similarities that run throughout civilizations as well as ecosystems, biosphere and the planet s a whole. In fact, the same patterns will be found across the universe.
I believe that we shall prevail. We can score higher or lower on outcomes depending on how we play our cards. If we dig deep and find the rudimentary concepts and principles of how our human civilization – or any civilization – works, then we may find sufficient time to reverse our fortunes.
I believe the best prospects lie in the cluster of related disciplines I will call, for simplicity, “management science“.
I think many people were in low grade “Covid Shock” up until about now. Maybe we are moving into a new mental state of “Covid Fatigue“.
No one wants to admit it, but the emotional stresses are adding up. You won’t admit it because you don’t want to appear vulnerable. That’s an animal instinct at work inside you. You may or may not have experienced it before. Its a sense of defensiveness, raised by the uncertainties of our world.
Your instincts tell you to find the source of the threat or threats. The pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. If something like this could happen, then maybe other similarly world-shaking events can also happen. Maybe there are demonic forces among us trying to take advantage of the opportunities while we are confused. They spread false news to mislead you.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. Week after week, the experiences of uncertainty, doubts and fears wears you down. You feel powerless. More vulnerable. More angry at that someone out there — “they” are up to something nefarious. Maybe they are.
But there are also forces of goodness rising to the occasion. There are good people pushing agendas for our better collective interest, protecting the rights of individuals, families and communities. They are our best bet for our future. They lead with hope and happiness. Seek them out, Find them. Connect and lend your support. You will feel empowered.
I’ve been strangely silent on recent matters of our common humanity.
As a bit of a perfectionist, I like to reserve judgement concerning the trajectory of our human endeavors. I know civilization and all its parts all have lives of their own.
I look for points of intervention, where a few well-chosen words might make a big difference. I am at a loss. Maybe I continue to expect things to automatically settle down into that much-needed New Normal. Maybe I wait for Godot.
Deep in my heart I hope I am wrong about us having reached the apex of civilization and its imminent demise. I want to believe I am wrong when I assert that the human brain was not evolved to manage such complexities as we must wrangle in this 21stC.
I must be wrong to believe in civil entropy, the drift into random disorder and collapse. Yet much has been written in physics and Natural law. I long to be right that it is still possible to find simplicity in civil complexity so we can buy more time and once again get on top of our game.
We need imagination to reinvent. But imagination driven by fear or by hope produces very different results. Both are very active right now, in search of a future. The destruction of selected old wrongs can precipitate a destruction of the whole. Hope may be a denial or a delusion.
I fear that though there are answers no one is prepared to listen. The window of opportunity lies between two poles — to have enough shock to grab attention, but not so much that people cannot listen. If you are listening, let me just say that there are answers and solutions within us and the framework of our Nature. Our brains naturally seek simplicity and order, but we are preoccupied with the emotional business of the day. We must pause and reflect on our place in Nature.
Within each human heart is a vacuum the size and shape of community. Community is the largest natural social order. If we lose it we cannot function properly. We need strong healthy pairs, families, groups and teams, organizations and communities.
Only from these solid foundations can we scale-up the social fractal of Nature in which we are inevitably embedded. The giant metropolis, nations and global corporation are not natural. They are artifacts, soulless artificial extensions without capacity to support an authentic sense of trust or belonging. They sit on top of our organic relationships as a distraction from our human purposes.
As currently constructed, we are not at home in the modern global civilization. This is not where we do our best business. This is not conducive to our best behaviour nor our pursuit of meaning. Gone is our civil public dialogue. Gone is the benefit of the doubt. Gone is our sense of connectedness. Replaced by accusations, suspicions, isolation and loneliness.
No one is to blame, though there are many who will exploit the confusion for personal gain and glory. These gigantic artificial constructs are collective outcomes from collective actions.
What we must do to rectify the unfolding disaster scenario is to systematically raise our collective intelligence to match the complexities of our global civilization. We know how to do this inasmuch as we can raise the intelligence of a dullard committee to that of a high performance team. Simply scale-up!
We may get lucky and things may settle down on their own. But sooner or later, civil complexity will become unmanageable unless we make concerted efforts to raise global collective intelligence from our natural pairs and small groups upward.
This initiative will not be instinctive like love and friendship. It will demand a learned appreciation of both human diversity and human integration.
There are no two identical things anywhere in the universe – if you look closely enough. Life depends on the integration of diversity in our DNA, cells, tissues, organs and the whole being, as well as the social systems and ecosystems in which we are embedded.
Throughout the human population we have countless ways in which we are both similar and different. Political differences are good for us as a whole provided they are effectively integrated.
Through millions of years our species has depended on all these similarities and differences for our survival. As individuals we cannot learn as much as we can as a community. Ironically, even as we compete, the rewards of competition are shared.
Collectively, our personal differences widen the scope of things we will study, comprehend and utilize. Math, language, science, the arts, and ‘spiritual’ pursuits have all contributed to our modern civilization. Yet don’t ask me about math!
THEREFORE it behooves us to tolerate, appreciate and then embrace our political differences as well. We would not be the advanced civilization or species we are today if it were not for some critical differences among us across the population – including political differences! This variety makes us stronger.
There is growing evidence from the works of moral, social and political psychology, that our different political dispositions are largely based on our different biological (brain) constitutions. Can we deny our own human nature of which each of us is only a subset?
We must figure out how to establish a new dialogue to bridge left and right before we have chaos and civil war that divides families, communities and nations. Together, left and right are not only stronger, but only together are we sustainable.
In an ideal democracy it is the dialogue that rules, leading to a synthesis of best ideas, and occasionally brute compromise.
What we have to screen out are those who are biologically or psychologically unfit to represent the public interest. Unfortunately for us, both left and right have been duped by these individuals who have over the course of their lives mastered the art and craft of mimicking and manipulating the emotions of others. As self-actualizing deviants they are drawn to positions of power, acquiring useful knowledge and skills along the way.
Again, left and right are not immune. The left may see the deviance in a right leader, while the right will see the deviance in the leaders on the left. Then the whole tribe is tainted. Your leader is telling you what you want to hear. Of course my leader is noble and righteous! And these sentiments are inflamed in times of chaos when good leadership is critical.
On an additional note, I don’t believe that all politicians start out as narcissists, but many of them seem to become narcissistic as they get more power. For one thing, testosterone increases as someone gets more popular or powerful. Then they get more paranoid. Then they consolidate power against the evil ones who would dethrone them.
If there is a failing in democracy, it is that we have not adopted better screening and management of our leaders. There were signed petitions by American psychiatrists and psychologist about Trump’s psychological disorders. But they were ignored.
Back to moral and political psychology. We need to embrace left and right as part of our human condition. We need to find a way to build and maintain a constructive dialogue among our fellow humans.
Nature has designed humans to be not only different but complementary. People high in oxytocin are caring lovers. People high in testosterone are driven and competitive. There is a natural distribution of these differences across the population, and its not just about women and men.
The population in any human community needs both tendencies for long term survival. We need people high in supportive empathy as well as people who are high in risk calculating logic. Sometimes the other seems completely gullible and sometimes the other seems completely without compassion.
Maybe these hormones and their traits translate into behaviour patterns and personality types. Maybe they translate into political positions on a left-right spectrum. Research is ongoing. Maybe people need people who are complementary in different ways at different times. In good times we want a mix of fairness and competitive progress. In tough times we need to gather into tight-knit teams and strengthen our competitive defenses against the common threat.
The alternative view is that maybe we need to have the left and right destroy each other. How would that work out? What about the people who are just a bit to your left or right? If you’re high in empathy maybe you’re not as empathetic as people further to your left. They see you as a threat. What if you’re a driven calculator? But people on your right see you as not as driven or calculating as they are. They see you as a threat.
My waffling compassionate logic tells me the second alternative is not sustainable. Therefore I conclude that we must figure out how to make Mother Nature’s formula work for all of us.
This is particularly important now that we no longer live in small villages where everyone fully knew one another and could appreciate our differences.
In fact, I think it is the anonymity provided by urbanization that places us at a personal distance from one another. We tend to objectify each other and mistake our differences as cause for concern. We have exceeded the scalability of our own human nature.
Homo Sapiens have moved far from our native state of community. We can’t know how much we have lost over the past centuries. Perhaps a shock of some kind could awaken that need to join together in groups. Unfortunately, this is not yet a deliberate approach. In a state of shock and anxiety we are instinctively forming war parties. Sniff out, label and demonize the others.
Its the pandemic! It is creating anxiety that is poorly identified with a common threat. Its easier to point a finger of moral blame at your old enemy on the other side. Kill them? No. That won’t work. Don’t waste your time even thinking about it. Instead, embrace the other as they complete you. Its a matter of both logic and emotion.
Now, if we could prevent the 6% of our our population who have personality disorders such as sociopathy and narcissism (and maybe Histrionic Personality Disorder) from running for democratic office, that is quite a different question. These people are Mother Nature’s mistakes. Sometimes they are correctable, but that’s unlikely with current knowledge.
But even then their failures are not a question of morality. Its a practical matter that these people are not capable of representing the public interest. They are not mentally or emotionally equipped to do that. They are very good at repeating what they think people want to hear. They have been doing that nearly all their lives to manipulate and get control. They like to whip up the excitement and inflame people. The voter loses control over the democratic process.
Like anyone else, however, these mistaken personalities are striving toward their own self-actualization. They are on your left and on your right. The popularity contests and the idea of control draw them into politics just as in the corporate world. You may be enthralled by your hero and you may want to cancel your villain. Look closely, however, and you may find the worst kind of violation has been perpetrated against you. Don’t let your anger or hatred make you vulnerable to Nature’s sly and selfish mistakes. Those emotions make you blind to manipulation.
Bottom line is that we need each other and we don’t need people who exploit us for personal aggrandizement.
Based on my professional experience working with people, entrepreneurs and local economies, this is a 12 Step Program to Economic Recovery and to find our New Normal following COVID-19:
We still have memory of how to run an economy (e.g. run a business, find a job) to prime the recovery pump
Some keystone industries are still doing well such as health care, food supply chains, and others such as online shopping and construction and their supply chains – i.e. “flywheel momentum”
Government funds are helping to keep other industries and their workers on life support
Banks and financial institutions have helped somewhat in reducing the financial burdens
Entrepreneurs are agile, innovative, resilient, driven, optimistic, and restless, and they will seize emerging opportunities with calculated risks based on experience and acumen, and they will experiment with new business models as needed i.e. human capital
Banks and financial institutions will want to make investments in some of these companies to make money
The band-wagon effect will take hold as we begin to see early business successes and other entrepreneurs copy them
Consumer demand will drive recovery as people with disposable incomes will begin spending it on non-essentials, such as affordable entertainment and recreation
New and recovering businesses will hire people, possibly in short-term gig contracts until they stabilize
Local economies will recovery before international trade as we are rediscovering community belonging and the buy local movements will kick in (there’s no place like home)
Businesses will eventually have to replace major assets such as machines and appliances made in factories elsewhere
Lately I have been posting little things on this and that. Not some of my best work. I feel a need for things to settle down into a pattern before I can be confident that I have something substantial to write.
I hope my friends and family are well, keeping busy and not worrying too much. If I thought they were worrying too much I would say something reassuring. I am not the most confident person myself, and I am not worrying now — not much.
I learned years ago that worry is not a good pattern to get into. Yet bouts of depression are normal when conditions are not normal. I have found that managed depression is part of a creative problem-solving cycle. When I have had bouts of depression in the past it was because of something, such as someone not treating me with respect.
The round begins with feeling very angry, sad or feeling self-pity. I go for a walk or lie down and take time to reflect on what happened. There might be some internal expression of anger directed toward the offender. There might be some self-hatred. “Why can’t I get things right!”
But I usually worked through some stages of emotion and arrived at a truly creative place. The emotions burned themselves out. I could then naturally find the courage to believe I could be in charge. I could take control of my situation, even find forgiveness for my offender. This is resilience! I feel strong!
You know, as I write this, I realise how lucky I was to have a Mother to guide me through these events at an early age. Mom was very understanding and insightful. She guided my thinking about why people do things. Every person has a hidden history that we will NEVER see.
The anger, hatred, jealousy, envy, and bitterness that we see in others always has some foundation, not necessarily with you or me, but with some hidden history. There is often some unresolved conflict that people carry around with them and redirect to anyone who gets in their way.
Pity those who cannot find peace of mind.
By pity, I mean compassion.
There should be little moral judgement left when you more fully understand why people act the way they do. You don’t even need to know the whole story. If you show compassion or forgiveness, you are likely to get that offender to trust you, open up, and maybe, if you listen, begin to effectively deal with the underlying issues. You may have just made a very solid friend.
I am reminded of a new entrepreneur I coached years ago. The stress of starting a business brought up emotions coming from past unresolved family matters. He got so hung up he could not proceed with business. I had to get him to talk through his anger to a better place. It took some time.
I’m sure that while some families are taking time to heal past conflicts, others are now having to face some emerging unpleasant challenges while physically tethered at the ankles. Remember compassion and forgiveness as openings. Remember the hidden past.
Maybe we’re ALL going to have to be more patient and understanding in the days and weeks ahead.
Maybe collectively we also need to work through the cumulative angst we’ve had about the way our society has been going.
Maybe those shared dreads of climate collapse, AI taking over, the billionaire conspiracy, the constant disruptions and meaningless work, the destruction of ecosystems and species… maybe COVID 19 will shake us out of the passive aggressive mode into collective and effective intentional action.
Will COVID 19 bring us together against a truly common enemy?
Is COVID 19 a wake-up call for opportunities to collaborate?
Is COVID 19 a catalyst for transformation of humanity into a unified charge against our darkest fears?
Maybe we can crystallize our collective intent and finally move forward to redefine our place on this planet.
Can hope and collaboration go viral?
Today I reinforced one thing I learned in cognitive coaching: “Understanding comes at the point of articulation.”
Talk may be cheap, but it can lead to a treasure!
A portion of the population has always been inclined to compete and to dominate. Sometimes its friendly play. Other times, its serious – very serious.
In bygone days of competition between tribes this was important in gathering the team for combat to preserve your hunting grounds from invading neighbours.
The hierarchy model adapted to commerce, the production of value. The dominators lead and manage teams and organizations, communities and nations. When raised to management, former line workers undergo a transformation. The promotion of social status with power triggers a hormonal change, promoting higher testosterone levels. This hormone makes one more competitive and, for many people, increases the desire to dominate others.
Today we have a world of abundance, yet some continue to want to hoard and dominate. Unfortunately, Mother Nature designed us this way. Its in our genes. Its in our hormones (mainly testosterone). We need leaders and managers, but they need to remain in scope. Nature’s way of managing dominators can be a bit extreme. Can we reel them in judiciously?
Today we don’t really need to compete and dominate on a grand scale when our advanced technologies and practices produce such unimaginable abundance. At the same time, we have the technology to manage our population growth (on the demand side of the equation).
Today, as life becomes more complex and anxieties rise, we push these top dominators into top leadership roles. Their lens puts them at the centre of everything. They can point to any invader and gain a mindless following. They come in all political colours, all points on the rainbow spectrum from left to right, from Hitler to Stalin, Castro to Duterte (you can fill in the blanks).
Of course this never ends well.
Hysteria sets in.
Lines are drawn.
You are with us or against us.
War drums pump the hormones.
The evil ones must die!
The background anxieties of modern living are funneled into the purposes of the fearless leaders. The dominators point fingers of blame, use whistle calls, draw clear lines between good (us) and evil (those people). It is simple and clear and our follower instinctskick in. You are the righteous. You would put down your own life for what you believe is right. And maybe you really would.
But the Alien from another planet looks down and sees a very different story. The Alien sees the species Homo Sapiens with DNA and hormones designed for a foraging society acting as a cancer in a land of plenty.
Should we allow our evolved DNA and related hormones dictate the shape of our civilization, our future together as a species? Even though our world is fundamentally different? Can we manage the tendencies toward domination judiciously? Awareness is the first step.
I have come to believe with increasing conviction that to continue drawing all political positions on a bipolar spectrum is a gross oversimplification of our reality. The world is not so simple as left and right. We are more different than that and so are the public issues.
The science of psychology has clearly demonstrated that there is a strong link between our inherited personal dispositions and our political and moral values. But any one of these tendencies might be considered ‘left’ and another ‘right’. On top of those inherent dispositions we trigger one or another latent attitudes when our conditions change.
For instance, you may generally feel a strong sense of empathy with other people. However, if you feel sufficiently threatened, your empathy will likely dissipate and be replaced by a stronger defensive posture.
You may feel quite egalitarian until you are promoted to a management position. When promoted you start to feel justified to use your position of power and over-ride others’ votes.
You can reverse these as well. When a threat is removed, you can afford to be more empathetic. If removed from a position of power, you are likely to become more egalitarian. Your sense of fairness changes.
Underlying many of these dispositions is your hormonal balance. For example, high testosterone levels make you more competitive and feel a sense of dominance. High oxytocin levels make you identify with others and feel more compassionate. You have a natural baseline for these and other hormones that changes with your perceived circumstances (e.g. opportunities/threats).
Where did these core personal differences come from? The diversity among us cuts us across all races, cultures and religions and is rooted in our genetic evolution. We have personal differences (diversity) because it helps us survive in the long run as communities. We each have big brains, but not so big that we can be equally excellent in all skill areas. We need each other and to share our strengths.
Society is ever-more complex. To continue down this simple and artificial bi-polar construct will lead to our doom. The two ends of the spectrum beat the war drums in a call to war with the demonic others. It seems that each year the resolve to destroy the other gains fervor, bringing us closer to the brink. They both claim there is no middle ground. You’re either with us or against us.
Many people are identifying left or right as their tribe in defense against the evil others. Their tribal bond (empathy) is growing while their hatred of others (defense) grows. Their sense of party affiliation is becoming stronger than their sense of affinity for community or nation.
Social science also tells us that there are two moral codes, one for how we threat our group members, and a different one for how we treat members of other groups. This means we can think of the others as lesser animals or even evil. It also means we can treat them accordingly without remorse or penalty.
‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’
– Albert Einstein
Unfortunately, what is driving this tension is not simple either. There is a general background anxiety in our world precisely because our civilization is becoming so complex, chaotic and unpredictable. We suffer from information overload, fear of missing out (FOMO), decision fatigue, distractions, rumors and propaganda. We seek the comfort of black and white, good and evil solutions. With more pressure we become more sharply defined tribes. The emotional quotient rises.
Yet, at the same time, public policy issues are not necessarily aligned with either left or right ideologies. Are these clearly and inherently left-right issues: freedom of speech, abortion, gun control, public assembly, public education, liberty, separation of state and religion?
Many policy positions have been identified with left or right, but if you look carefully, you’ll see there is no necessary logic flow from core ideologies. The positions may simply be legacies of some long-forgotten political debates when opposition parties had to oppose legislation because of a sense of duty. After making a position, its all about rationalization.
Remember that the modern political party system arose in Britain and Europe as a simple way to manage public debate. It was an artificial construct from the start that depended on our natural human tendency to form tribes. At that time the big debate was about supporting or rejecting the crown. It got embedded in practice, locked in and rarely questioned!
Now, to disagree with your party position is heresy, treasonous, and subject to ostracism.
There is a wider range of potential solutions to public issues. We need to invoke our personal differences in order to match the diversity of issues we face today. As long as we line up behind only two positions we are missing out on far better solutions to our very complex world.
“Where everyone thinks alike, no one thinks as much.”
We need to recognize all our differences as strengths if properly managed. The personal traits which make us appear inclined to one pole or the other on different issues are needed for our mutual survival and prosperity. We need to respect and embrace our differences, not demonize them.
This means being ready to let go of your assumptions. This is particularly difficult when we’re under pressure. People tend to hang onto their beliefs with greater rigor when they feel threatened – and we are under greater pressure than ever!
What we’re going to have to do is cut the crap!We have to get past these archaic lenses and drill down together to find our common humanity beneath our differences. We have to understand that our genetic diversity is there for a reason. It is there to enable us all to cope with a wider range of challenges and opportunities.
Simply put, Nature, including Human Nature, and our civilization are far more complex than the left-right spectrum. We need to be inclusive of all our personal tendencies if we are going to survive as a civilization and as a species.