In the last installment, we talked about ways in which ideology, or camp-thinking, has disastrous effects upon society as a whole. We talked about how isms:
- create enemies, by perpetuating “Us and Them” thinking
- create warfare on our lives, even with supposedly “harmless” labels, since they eventually entrench themselves within institutions of power
- cause us to fear and reject new ideas, since they threaten the status quo
- cause us to ignore/dismiss desperate cries of warning, since they are perceived as an attack on our “identity” group
- create the illusion of “sides”, hence legitimize the notion of humanity as separate tribes in perpetual competition for their own “kind”
- pervert the entire purpose of your society, such that each of us unwittingly plays part in a larger story which continually re-affirms the “Us-Them” distinction until it becomes next to impossible to challenge
Now, let’s discuss the all-important question: what do we do about it?
Who Cares About ISMs Anyway?
Let’s look at the 20th Century for a minute. How many deaths in that century were attributable to war, genocide or political oppression? “Atrocitologists” who study this differ on the exact amount, of course, because their definitions of “war”, “genocide” and “political oppression” differ. But if we average them out, we get some number between 200 and 300 million lives. It’s a number so large we can’t really do it justice with our imaginations. Imagine a filled football stadium… and all those people falling over dead at the same time. Now do that five thousand more times. My mind boggles after even four or five.
The great bulk of these deaths can be attributed to World Wars I & II, Hitler’s regime, Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, the Russian Civil War, and the Congo. But, of course, there were many thousands of smaller conflicts that comprise millions of their own. In the 19th century the number was more like 45 million (that we know of).
Now, think for a moment: why? What made the 20th Century so bloody? What made so many more millions of people be killed and slaughtered in that century vs. any other? Population growth is not the answer; we have the numbers:
- 19th century: estimated number of total worldwide deaths = 4.2 Billion
- 19th century: atrocity-related deaths = 45million (slightly less than 1%)
- 20th century: estimated number of total worldwide deaths = 5.5 Billion
- 20th century: atrocity-related deaths: 200 million (3.7% of total)
So, even when we use the more conservative atrocity total of 200 million, we get 3.7% of total deaths, due to atrocities. That means that even when we account for increased world population, the 20th Century was more than 3 times bloodier.
All of these conflicts, every single one of them, were fought over the premise that the content of someone’s mind (be it owing to race, religion, or politics) constituted their being a different kind of being. The slaughter, in every case, was justified on the grounds that “They are not Us”.
If this idea persists, what will the 21st Century look like, do you think? Will the numbers go up by the same order of magnitude? Will 600 million give their lives over a supposed conflict in “identity”? 900 million?
Or perhaps the next century’s atrocities won’t mess around with paltry millions. Perhaps our future death tolls will be population-annihilating events that cut us down by multiples of billions. There are even people–working scientists, academics and politicians–that have admitted that this is their desired scenario, who want to see the planet “culled” to 10% of its current population. Perhaps their schemes won’t even leave the ten percent. It’s happened to other species: it’s called an extinction event. Our species, however, seems to be the only one capable of (a) wanting it, and (b) bringing it about entirely by ourselves with no help from the forces of nature.
Of course, we’d like to think that in the 20th Century, as a species, we saw a glimpse of a future so horrifying that it changed our ways. As an entire species, for example, we’ve seen fit to ban the testing of nuclear weapons, and have actually stopped exploding the damn things (at least openly). The lone counter-example (that we know of) has been North Korea, and has been admonished and vilified by the international community for doing so.
But isms persist. Which means that most humans alive today–because they have been taught to think this way, or have not questioned the premise for themselves–still see the world as comprised of fundamentally different types of beings, many of whom are their Enemy, simply by the fact of their existence. (That is, they haven’t done anything to each other personally; they simply exist as the Enemy because that is the story). And, if anything, those divisions grow deeper and more entrenched with each passing day, as their story is reinforced over and over again.
Be honest: can you envision a future in which humanity (a) hangs on to these arbitrary divisions and (b) somehow pulls together to do what is best for all humans, everywhere?
Both simply cannot be true.
So, do I really believe in “The End of Isms”? Probably not in my lifetime, no. There are tremendous historical forces at work that keep such beliefs perpetuating through time. Most of the world’s population sees its identity as having been established in Medieval or even in Ancient times, and the entirety of history from that moment until the present day as centuries of proof of its own rightness, and of the wickedness of its enemies.
You can’t short-circuit that kind of history in a day, or a year or even a lifetime.
But what we’ve been discussing here is not really a hope, or a prediction about the end of such ways of thinking. We’ve been discussing the awareness of an alternative method (independent thought) as the necessary precondition for a human adulthood. This is not about whether we believe that human enlightenment will happen today, tomorrow or five centuries from now, or never. By the “End of Isms” I mean that independent thought is what a species-wide enlightenment must consist of, if and whenever it occurs.
Furthermore, this series has not been a plea of “Why can’t we all just get along?”
As we discussed in Part Four, that kind of thinking is equally dangerous, since it ignores the reality of where we are now, and purports to solve the problem by dismissing it or burying our heads in the sand. Questioning the “enemy story” that you were told about someone does not mean ignore the guy who is about to bash in your head with a rock. We must acknowledge and respond accordingly. But we must also acknowledge that what gave rise to his hatred in the first place was a fiction–he is acting, not out of insanity, but logically according to his indoctrination.
We are constantly told that these indoctrinations are fixed and immutable–people are what they are, including their hatreds. But I say the problem is specific and identifiable, and it starts with the way humans have traditionally taught their children to think: namely, we indoctrinate them to believe that they “are” a certain type of human and must restrict their awareness accordingly, rather than teach them to use their full awareness and orient themselves to reality. In other words, instead of teaching our young how to think, we teach them how to Camp-Think. In contrast, I believe the way we undo this indoctrination, as adults, is to learn how to think independently–meaning without allegiance to this or that “camp” or ideology.
Think about it: there are certain conflicts that have been raging in the world since long before every one now standing on the globe was alive, and will still be raging long after everyone now here is long gone. Why don’t they die out? What perpetuates them?
The answer is obvious: stories. We tell our children stories that they “are” a certain type of human, and that there are other types of human that they “are not”. We all know this is how the conflicts cross generations–otherwise they would die with the combatants. What else could it be?
At some point, everyone alive, perhaps in their adolescence, wishes for “world peace”, and in adulthood eventually ends up dismissing the idea as hopeless. We are exposed to too much hatred to believe in it very much. And “experts” tell us that peace is only obtained through negotiation or through one party to the conflict wiping out the other.
But consider: if, starting tomorrow, every parent in the world changed the story they were telling their children–if they taught their child that they were “human” (not Arab, not Jew, not Sunni or Shiite, not Muslim or Christian, not Serbian or Croatian, American, German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, or Korean, not Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, Republican or Democrat, Conservative or Liberal) not any of the identity labels we have been perpetuating through the centuries–just “human”, what might the world look like in the span of two or three generations?
If every child born after tomorrow actually believed the story, and actually grew up believing that all humans everywhere were essentially one type of being, not divided by race, ethnicity, language, class or religion–what would happen? And if they had kids of their own and passed that same story down, and then again for a third or a fourth generation? Do you honestly think there would still be any such thing as genocide or ethnic cleansing? Would people still be firebombing temples and mosques, or dressing up in sheets and burning crosses? Or would these be something for the kids to read about in their history textbooks, as we now read about guillotines, and public stoning, and virginal sacrifices?
Think about the world’s conflicts today (there are plenty to choose from) and name the worst one that comes to mind. If we don’t change the Us-Them story, no amount of “negotiation” will ever stop that conflict. We intuitively know this. That story–the one that each of the combatants heard from their parents, or friends, or schools, or political or religious leaders–will keep it going for centuries to come, even after all the current combatants, and the negotiators, are long gone.
You see, it has nothing to do with “let’s all get along”. It’s about cognitive method. HOW do we arbitrarily divide up the world? HOW do we perpetuate our divisions through time? HOW do we erect societal institutions around our beliefs? HOW do we use language to relate with one another? And ultimately, HOW do we direct the organ that lies between our ears?
The premise of this series is that we’ve reached a tipping point. This, the state of the world today, is where language, specifically the language of ideologies, has gotten us. In a way, we are in end times: we have come as far as ideologies will allow. The End of Isms is the precondition for reaching our adulthood.
Maybe you disagree. Maybe you think humans can hang on to their camps and their ideologies, and we can happily go forward into the future. Or maybe you think there is some other, more fundamental, reason for humanity’s problems, and this analysis is wide of the mark. If only we could ask the real experts on the matter… the 200 or 300 million people from the 20th Century who are no longer with us. Maybe we could ask them: if you could wave a magic wand and make it so that no child was never taught to “be” a certain type of human, and to differentiate themselves from a “them” as a consequence, would you?
What do you think they might say to that?
Stepping Back to Examine the Forest
Harvard professor Robert Kegan has developed something fascinating, called Constructive Development Theory (CDT), which describes stages of human cognition as we mature. The stages do not necessarily describe “better” ways of thinking, but more complex ways of thinking, as we advance through them. Each stage is characterized by two things: what motivates/governs our behavior (or, what we identify with), and what we reflect upon and analyze (including what we are critical of, or make subservient to our identity). As we advance to each higher stage of cognition, in Kegan’s theory, we are able to “step back” and reflect upon the previous level of cognition, and be critical of, and make it subservient to the new level.
The stages look like this (in my own, over-simplified wording):
- Impulsive Mind (typical of infancy and early childhood): our behavior is governed solely by our impulses. We do not critically reflect on our own cognitive processes, but act by reflex or instinct.
- Instrumental Mind (childhood into adolescence): we step back from sheer reflex and impulses and realize that certain things and people serve our needs, and certain things and people do not. Our identity and behavior is governed by our needs, desires and interests and we perceive other people and situations as instruments for achieving or thwarting them. Our “self”, at this level, is defined solely by our own needs and interests.
- Socialized Mind (adolescence to adulthood): we step back from our needs and interests, and realize that other individuals have needs and interests which may be different from ours. We modify or defer our own needs and interests to meet the needs, interests and expectations of others. At this level we start to identify with other people, and even with systems of thought. This is where most of humanity ends up. Our “self”, or identity, at this level, is defined by the relationships or camps of thought we align with and give our loyalty to.
- Self-Authoring Mind: we step back from societal expectations and demands and critically examine them. We realize that we are capable of breaking from, or being more than our societal demands, and begin to author our own set of personal values and codes. (35% of humans attain this level of cognitive complexity). These are the people who are capable of taking stands, setting limits on social expectations, and create a personal ethic which they adhere to, regardless of social demands. Our “self”, at this level, is defined by our personal values and beliefs.
- Self-Transforming Mind: we step back from our personal values and realize that they are only one possibility of many. People at this level (less than 1% of the population) are able to see supposedly “clashing” or “opposing” value systems as part of the same whole, or dialectic. People at the Self-Transforming level do not accept commonly held dualities, but instead strive to author a view that is inclusive of all views. Furthermore, they acknowledge the inherent incompleteness of knowing: learning is never “finished”. Our “self”, at this level, is defined by embracing wholeness and opposites, and acceptance of the dialectical and incomplete nature of cognition.
Interesting, right? Isn’t this exactly the sort of transformation we’ve been talking about in this series? Stepping back from the pre-provided choices of society, the identity labels and camps of people to identify with, and beginning to think critically about them. Questioning their reality, particularly their “necessity”, and seeing them as only one possibility of many. And we have been talking about acknowledging and adopting an alternate method of cognition, which we’ve called “independent thought”, which does not seek to identify with others in a group, but authors its own view of the world. And we have been talking about recognizing the limitations of conventional dualities, and seeing their “opposition” as an illusion.
According to CDT, this kind of cognitive transformation is rare. But maybe that is only true of humans up to this point. Perhaps, in a coming era, more and more people will shift to a more mature, advanced way of thinking, where we start to see the Socialized Mind not as the end of adulthood, but as a developmental stepping stone, an adolescent precondition to more advanced cognition. Perhaps we might start to adopt independent and dialectical cognition as the new “normal” for adulthood.
There are some critics of CDT, of course, who claim it has very little empirical evidence to back it up. Human cognition is not so easily tested. I don’t bring it up here to examine whether the theory is right or wrong, but simply to illustrate that people, even academics, are starting to think in different ways about how we think. To recognize that there is more ways to direct the human brain than just “Us-Them” thinking.
But why leave it to academics and scientists to figure this stuff out? We can turn our focus inward, whenever we want–now, today. Ask yourself: at what level of complexity am I using the organ that lives between my ears? Am I content with simply accepting societal roles that have been thrust on me? The camps and groups that I’ve been told to identify with? To limiting my thoughts so that they don’t break allegiances? Isn’t there a “self”, a ME, which is deeper than that, which is capable of stepping back and seeing these societal roles and systems of thought as just one possibility of many?
Why the Answer to ISMs is, Emphatically, NOT to “Accept a Mix of All Different Views”
Okay, you may be thinking, I’m a reasonable person. I understand that extreme or radical ideologies lead to a breakdown in communication and eventually conflicts and violence. But isn’t the answer is to be more moderate? After all, I identify with certain camps of thought but I’m not about to go out and suicide-bomb my opponents. Isn’t the point to consider all viewpoints and not be too extreme in adopting any particular one?
So-called “bipartisan” thinking is still camp-thinking. You still accept the premise: our two minds cannot come to the same conclusions because of our identity. The “bipartisan” accepts the premise that two camps of people are fundamentally different and cannot communicate with one another, but for practical reasons, chooses to “meet in the middle”. They accept the premise—the inability of two minds to meet–but decide to sacrifice their strict allegiance every now and then, for the purposes of obtaining certain ends (e.g., the politician who strays from his strict party line and accepts a deal with something he doesn’t necessarily agree, in exchange for getting something in return from his “opponent”).
Similarly, declaring the equality of all ideologies is not a solution to camp-thinking. “People can be whatever they want!” is the refrain of this idea. Except that “being” various labels leads to all the breakdowns in communication and entrenchment in societal institutions and eventual conflict that we’ve talked about, even if the disagreement seems trivial at the present. The egalitarian view, that all identity-labels are legitimate, also agrees with the basic premise of camp-thinking: humans are fundamentally different, and we will never all agree, so we must declare all to be equal. Society will be fine, we can go on with an infinite number of Us’s and Thems, so long as the Us’s and the Thems all agree to play nice.
But “Us and Them”-thinking always makes someone an enemy. Is has to.
The logical end of the egalitarian view is humanity splintered into hundreds or thousands of separate tribes (as the racial-political “phyles” in The Diamond Age), each serving the interests of their own “kind” and in perpetual conflict and competition with the others.
The only answer is pulling off the veil that tells us to divide one another up and recognize the commonality that all humans share. Once we’ve removed the veil, we become capable of new insights, breaking with our troubled past and laughing at how foolish it all was. For example, we might become capable of looking at ourselves from the perspective of a spacecraft looking back at planet Earth from 6 billion kilometers away:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
-Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot
A moderate amount of a bad idea is not the answer to a bad idea. If you believe in “moderation”, you are likely an easy-going, reasonable (and probably likeable) sort of person. But to the degree you engage in ideological thinking (in identifying with camps of thought), you are polluting and clouding your thoughts. This kind of moderation is like adding a “moderate” amount of poison to your food, or only “moderately” shooting yourself in the head.
In short, this entire critique of camp-thinking applies equally to “moderate” ideologies as to so-called “extremism”.
Camp thinking, even in moderation, leads to all the same breakdowns in communication, to all the same conflicts, and puts you in the exact same perpetual cloud of confusion about the world as accepting ideologies in the extreme. It’s like throwing your mind in a straightjacket and then asking it to climb a mountain. It’s using your brain in a way it wasn’t designed to be used and wants desperately to escape. But if you are someone who believes in a “moderation” of ideologies, there is a light for you at the end of the tunnel. You have no idea what crystalline clarity awaits when you abandon isms once and for all.
Today, we are a species of divided, flag-bearing, fist-shaking tribes. This is not what we were meant to be; we all know that. We all know that such a state has only come about because of human confusion. That our childhood consisted of adopting this or that story about our identity, but our adulthood will consist of rejecting all forms of this fiction, and focusing instead, on what is true for all. Recognizing the commonality of all humans, everywhere, and the commonality of the problems shared by all.
Every human culture has always tried to answer the basic problems of existence by imposing its identity on a reluctant universe: this is the one true way to be, and all who are not must be converted or conquered. Why not let’s try something different? Let’s ask not what we’re supposed to BE, but what we’re supposed to BELIEVE, and let those beliefs stand or fall with a basic test of their truth against the facts of the universe. If we are not committed to being this or that, then we are not bound to go on believing something which fails the test. We are free to adopt only those beliefs that stand up.
“I am not this or that philosophy or religion or race or political camp. I am simply me, Richard, and I believe the following…”
What to “Be” vs. What to DO
Forget societal problems and communication breakdowns and human civilization and wars and atrocities for a second. Let’s just talk about you.
Are you still thinking, “but I am an x”?
Why? Is it because you find comfort in identifying with others who share a similar tag?
Well, if, after this long discussion (and despite the many reasons for not doing so) you still feel that you must have a label (an identity) for yourself, let it be this: a Freethinker. You’ll be putting yourself in the company of Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin and Henry David Thoreau. Not bad company, I say. True, these men used the label to distinguish their beliefs only from conventional religions of their time, but I say let it apply to all philosophies and ideologies, everywhere. Declare yourself free of their grasp.
I said in the opening post that my wish was to reach only one person, to convince him or her to abandon their isms and enjoy a new life of free thought. An End of Isms, not necessarily for humanity, but for you alone.
The fact is, you are not your race, your tribe nor your religion. You are not your nation, nor your language group, nor your economic class. Every break with the past–every new human epoch–began with this simple insight. You are unique, with your own insights on life. You possess an astonishing, history-changing power to say, “No… that is not right,” to all of it. Whether you choose to acknowledge this fact, or to hide from it in the comfortable myopia of ideology, it remains true. We are, each of us, meant to see the world as it is, through our own eyes, to learn from those perceptions, and to share what we know. As uncomfortable as it may be, we each know this to be true.
So, is this an End of Isms for you?
If it is, and I have reached you, I have only this to say: Let’s get some coffee.
I’d love to enjoy a little telepathy while we discuss some new ideas.
You see, this is all we’ve ever had to do.