Chasing Away the Demons

I’ve been thinking of how people are quick to demonize one another, at a time when social divisions are rising in the United States and elsewhere around the world (or what I imperfectly perceive as rising divisions). The phenomenon of Us and Them is ever-present. For a long time people have recognized the pattern that we tend to demonize others who are different from us.

In his work, “A Treatise on Human Nature” (1740), Scottish philosopher David Hume noted that we tend to have a double standard in how we think about “Them” when our country (or whatever group) is engaged in conflict:

“When our own nation is at war with any other, we detest them under the character of cruel, perfidious, unjust and violent: But always esteem ourselves and allies equitable, moderate, and merciful. If the general of our enemies be successful, it is with difficulty we allow him the figure and character of a man. He is a sorcerer: He has a communication with daemons; as is reported of Oliver Cromwell, and the Duke of Luxembourg: He is bloody-minded, and takes a pleasure in death and destruction. But if the success be on our side, our commander has all the opposite good qualities, and is a pattern of virtue, as well as of courage and conduct. His treachery we call policy: His cruelty is an evil inseparable from war. In short, every one of his faults we either endeavour to extenuate, or dignify it with the name of that virtue, which approaches it.”

This blog has been an exercise in sharing some knowledge — and I do try to get things right — but it’s also been an attempt to try to seek out overlooked pieces of optimism. My biases creep in, and I know they are there, but they are mine and I own them. I can see the nastier side of human beings clearly, but I know there is more to us than that. We can’t ignore those things either. 

I see humans as evolved, fallible creatures (just like every other species). At least for me, it helps to remember that we are all a single species, that we are all related, that we are obligatorily social and require some degree of connection, that we can overcome difficult circumstances, that people can break cyclical violence, that the universe favors non-zero sum relationships to some degree, that nature is not always red in tooth and claw, that we are flexible and just as predisposed for cooperation as we are for conflict, that we can find ways to reconcile and mend broken relationships, that life is beautiful, and, finally, that we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

“My religion is kindness”

The Dalai Lama wrote this soon after September 11, 2001. I think it cuts across all faiths and religious traditions.

 

Today the human soul asks the question: what can I do to preserve the beauty and the wonder of our world and to eliminate the anger and hatred — and the disparity that inevitably causes it — in that part of the world which I touch?

 Please seek to answer that question today, with all the magnificence that is you. What can you do today … this very moment? A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: what you wish to experience, provide for another. Look to see, now, what it is you wish to experience — in your own life, and in the world. Then see if there is another for whom you may be the source of that. If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness or anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another. Those others are waiting for you now. They are looking to you for guidance, for help, for courage, for strength, for understanding and for assurance at this hour. Most of all, they are looking to you for love. My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

 

The Ecosphere of Kindness

From Andrew Solomon:

“And there are people who think that the existence of my family somehow undermines or weakens or damages their family. And there are people who think that families like mine shouldn’t be allowed to exist. And I don’t accept subtractive models of love, only additive ones. And I believe that in the same way that we need species diversity to ensure that the planet can go on, so we need this diversity of affection and diversity of family in order to strengthen the ecosphere of kindness.”

More Reconciliation: Multiplying the Exceptions

Is it impossible to multiply the exceptions so as to make them the rule? Must man always be brute first, and man after, if at all?” – MK Gandhi (1926)

 

I have a soft spot for stories that showcase the better parts of humanity. This isn’t to ignore all of the horrible things that people often do to one another. In fact, I think I’ve done a decent job at describing the ways that humans can alternate between being completely horrible or wonderful to each other (ex., see “Genocidal Altruists”). Overall, I think that focusing exclusively on either the good or the bad cannot accurately do justice to describing our complexity.

With that said, here are three stories of forgiveness or reconciliation that fall on the courageous and hopeful end of human behavior. As amazing as they are, perhaps consolidating them in one place will help make them seem not so unattainable for the rest of us.

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Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

“We know that we are apes, but we cannot be classified simplistically as ‘naked apes’ or ‘killer apes’ or ‘moral apes.’…Our past is complicated; so is our present, and so will be our future.” – Paul Ehrlich (2000: 331)

“When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” – Frans de Waal

…..

The Eagles headed back to their cabin feeling dejected after losing a tug-of-war contest to their rivals, the Rattlers. Along the way, one of the boys noticed the Rattlers had forgotten their flag on the baseball field, leaving it unprotected. Craig and Mason soon seized it, but struggled to tear it to pieces. McGraw then presented some matches and suggested they burn it instead. The group then hung the flag’s charred remains from the top of the backstop fence. Mason said, “You can tell those guys I did it. If they say anything I’ll fight ‘em.”

The above scene is from the psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s classic social psychology experiment at Robbers Cave, Oklahoma during the summer of 1954. Sherif divided twenty-two 11-year-old boys with comparable backgrounds into two even groups at nearby cabin sites, with the boys kept unaware of the other group’s existence.

After giving them a week to bond among themselves, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and announced that they would be competing for prizes in team sports and other events. Eventually the rivalry grew heated, and the boys turned to name-calling, flag-burning, and vandalizing each other’s cabins. The competition nearly escalated into serious violence, with sticks and rocks as potential weapons, before adults intervened.   

Sherif’s experiment is sometimes cited as a depressing warning of how easily people can slide into “us versus them” hostilities, even if the groups are formed rather arbitrarily, and even if we’re only talking about preadolescent boys with little at stake except ego and trivial prizes. There is truth to that warning. People can cling tightly to group identities, sometimes resulting in serious animosity toward outsiders.

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Kindness and Regrets

Be excellent to each other.” – Bill and Ted (20th century philosophers)

 

From a commencement speech by George Saunders: 

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindnessThose moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.”

Saunders then describes a memory from the seventh grade, when he did not defend the new girl in school who was teased for being different. Forty-two years later, he still thinks of her occasionally, and even though he was not personally cruel toward her, he regrets not going out of his way to extend her kindness. He then questions why kindness is often lacking, and he looks for prescriptions to make it more common.

The speech is a good one, and it stirred up some personal memories of instances when I could have used some kindness from someone. Sometimes it came; others it didn’t. There were also situations that called for me to be the one to extend kindness to someone else who needed it. Sometimes I stepped up, although probably not as consistently as I should have. Fear can be a powerful deterrent. Like Saunders, I regret those missed opportunities.

Of course, the opposite of kindness is cruelty, and I’m often distressed by the latest story of human callousness, where someone is belittled for not conforming to another’s standards. For those of us who are not Rhodes Scholar Olympians (which is to say, nearly everyone), we all fall short of socially constructed ideals in some way. Either we’re not attractive enough, or not stylish, athletic, or smart enough (or too smart). Too red. Too blue. Too promiscuous or too chaste. Too tall. Too short. Too neurally atypical. Or, we’re the ‘wrong’ weight, gender, race, sexuality, ethnicity, social class, or speak the wrong dialect. We can be incredibly creative at finding the holes in the armor to bring someone down.

For such an intensely social species, we often seem to go out of our way to make each other want to leave the group.

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