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Archive for the ‘Rumination/Reflection’ Category

Perhaps the most nefarious feature of a Domination System is that it seduces us into losing ourselves in a jumble of thoughts and judgments. More specifically, since a Domination System is bad for everyone, it can only function by misrepresenting itself to all or most of its victims.  The victims of a given Domination System must believe in certain false propositions, even when ample evidence to the contrary happens to be right under their noses.  In fact, the truth is always already within us, which means that our inability to recognize truth is not built into our minds but is something we acquire from our culture.  This is possible only through a powerful process of forgetting what we naturally know to be true, a process that happens gradually through many years of education and socialization.  By the time we become adult members of civilized society, we are already in deep sleep.  A given Domination System can only thrive on false consciousness, on its capacity to make people less conscious than they are meant to be.

The most important truth that we are made to forget is the truth about who we are.  This is so because all Domination Systems function by dividing, classifying, and labelling people both horizontally and vertically.  If we were to learn the truth about who we are in reality, all of the existing divisions among humankind will become instantly relativized.  The absolute solidity of such divisions as gender, race, ethnicity, class, religion, and political affiliation will disintegrate; the distinctions will remain, but they will lose their tremendous capacity to determine our identity and our actions.  We will be able to see through them and rise above them.  This, obviously, is very difficult to achieve; for a Domination System works incessantly to ensure that we will always identify ourselves with this or that group and that most of us will never find out the truth of who we really are.

Another truth that we are made to forget is the truth about our freedom of choice.  This is so because all Domination Systems require that the vast majority of people behave in predictable ways.  A Domination System cannot deal with human actions that are spontaneous and authentic, for such actions cannot be controlled and regimented in the service of the system.  Consequently, we are educated and socialized into believing that we act in certain ways not because we choose to but because we have to, or because other people or events make us act in those ways.  The more we forget our inherent freedom to choose, the less we are able to use it.  We lose our freedom merely by believing it does not exist.  Very soon, we also forget that we are responsible for our choices.  Domination Systems love people who lack freedom as well as responsibility.  Such people can be made to feel anything; they can also be made to do anything.

A third truth that we are made to forget is that it is possible for all people to meet their needs.  This is so because all Domination Systems thrive on constant, never-ending competition; they are nourished by the win/lose mentality.  Consequently, we are made to believe that there is a permanent scarcity of resources, that it is impossible to have winners without creating losers, that it is a jungle out there, that wants and needs are the same, and that happiness is just around the corner (usually sitting in a shelf in the supermarket).  Once we accept the proposition that only some people will be able to get the desirable goods and everyone else will suffer deprivation, we know that the purpose of our life is to become (and remain) part of the first group.  This also teaches us to constantly compare ourselves with everyone else, for we must determine at each moment whether we are among the winners or the losers; we also wish to know our relative status among the winners, whether we are getting ahead of others or falling behind in the “human race.”  All of this ensures that we are never satisfied, that we are always looking for more, and that we won’t help anyone else.

A successful Domination System is able to hide all these truths in plain sight.  It does so by employing a very clever trick.  Since truth is always already accessible to us, the only way to make it “disappear,” as it were, is by diverting our attention, which is accomplished through the age-old magical trick called distraction.  This is where the jumble of thoughts and judgments comes in.  We lose touch with reality, and with the truth that reality is willing to offer us each moment, when we learn to give greater attention to thoughts and judgments instead of our actual experiences.  The raw experience is our direct portal into reality and truth; this portal is often blocked by a jumble of thoughts and judgments.  No Domination System can interfere with our raw experience; it can only divert our attention away from our experience and into the artificial world of thoughts and judgments, a realm that is much more susceptible to manipulations.

Insofar as a Domination System is successful, the overwhelming majority of people living under its influence tend to lose their humanity.  But there is hope.  Every now and then, some start to wake up from their artificial slumber.  They gradually rediscover the forgotten truths and begin to reclaim their humanity.  No Domination System is fond of people like these, for they are trouble-makers of the worst kind.  Such people are the only hope of humanity.

Waking up, however, involves considerable suffering; it’s definitely not as easy as taking the red pill rather than the blue one.

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I ended my previous post by asking this question:  If human beings are fundamentally good, what makes them act in evil ways?  I suspect that if we were to make a list of all the factors that contribute to the persistence of human evil — factors that motivate, encourage, or cause us to act in immoral ways — then we would end up with a very long list . . .

But what if we don’t need to make such a list?  What if the totality of anthropogenic evil can be traced to just a handful of variables?  Indeed, what if there were only a couple of factors involved in all acts of human corruption?

I have recently come to believe just that. I think there are only two basic factors that contribute to the entire range of human depravity and immorality. I may turn out to be in error, but at this time it does appear to me that all of the usual suspects — all the causative or contributory factors that philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and ethicists have been able to identify — can be reduced to one of only two variables.

I am tempted to call these two variables the “evil twins.”

One of the “evil twins” is inside the human individual, in the soul or the psyche. The other is outside the human individual, in the workings of society and culture. The two can be identified and discussed separately, though in practice they often thrive on each other. I call the internal factor “lack of self-awareness” and I call the external factor “structures.” Today my task is to explain the latter, leaving the former for another day.

I have been nudged in the direction of identifying “structures” as one of the “evil twins” after reading Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Johan Galtung, Kenneth Boulding, Ronald Wright, Walter Wink, John Dominic Crossan, Derrick Jensen, and Marshall Rosenberg.  None of them, however, can be held responsible for the errors of my interpretation.

By “structures” I mean the objective and systemic aspects of human society and culture. The social and cultural structures in which we live and move and have our being are the products of human interactions with each other and with their environments over hundreds of years; and yet, I locate them outside the human individual. Even though we are partially responsible for having created them, we haven’t created them with full awareness of what they are capable of doing, nor are we in full control of what they do to us. As such, structures are much more than human products. These structures have a life and a momentum of their own; once produced, they come to acquire an undeniable influence on how we think, feel, and act. The influence that social and cultural structures have on us tends to remain beyond our own ability to fully understand, control, or modify them. We are not absolutely determined by them, however. We are determined by social and cultural influences only to the extent that we suffer from the internal factor, i.e., from “lack of self-awareness.”

To sum up, society is more than the sum of its parts; it enjoys a reality that is pretty much independent of its members — particularly if the individuals who make up the society are lacking in self-awareness. Similarly, culture is made up of ideas, beliefs, skills, and habits that are ultimately human products; yet these ideas, beliefs, skills, and habits also act back on us in profound ways but do not easily change in response to our efforts — particularly if we are lacking in self-awareness.

It is very difficult to deliberately change social and cultural structures; they do change, of course, but very slowly and only after much concerted effort and sacrifice . . . and with a great deal of self-awareness.

Let me be more specific. When I say that social and cultural “structures” constitute the external factor responsible for human evil, I am referring to one very particular aspect of these structures. To understand that, we’ll have to look into the origins of these structures.

Human beings have been living on this planet for more than 150 thousand years. Human behavior is remarkably different from that of other living organisms in the degree of its range and flexibility. Like other primates, we organize ourselves socially; unlike other primates, we can organize our societies in virtually as many different ways as we choose. We also have the unique need for “meaning,” which creates the further need for cultural goods in addition to social ones. This combination of traits makes the creation of social and cultural structures a human inevitability. For most of our history, however, we created very simple forms of social and cultural structures, but things changed drastically with the beginning of civilization.

Civilization is a particular type of culture, characterized by the domestication of plants, animals, and humans; which usually leads to the development of writing, a complex division of labor, and the urban-rural divide. About 10 thousand years ago, humans discovered or invented large-scale farming and domestication of animals. This led the previously mobile populations of hunter-gatherers bands to start settling down in villages and towns. As we become increasingly proficient in our control of plants and animals, we began to abandon the old habits associated with subsistence living and encountered for the first time the mixed-blessing of food surplus. This led, about 5000 years later, to the birth of full-fledged civilization in at least 4 or 6 different cultural zones. With the growth of large-scale farming came private property, which produced a class system of landowners and peasants. With surplus food came the need for granaries; the birth of cities meant the concentration of wealth in a relatively small area, creating the need for professional warriors, taxation to protect the city-state, and a distinct religious class to justify all this as part of a larger sacred reality. The earlier hunter-gatherer communities were egalitarian, with few hierarchies, no organized stated, and no stratification. With the birth of civilization, however, Domination Systems emerged for the first time in human history. They have been with us ever since.

A Domination System is a social hierarchy in which those at the bottom live at a considerable disadvantage as compared with those at the top.  This is not to say that hierarchy itself is problematic.  In fact, many hierarchies can be advantageous to both parties, such as parent-child or teacher-student. A Domination System, however, is a particular type of hierarchy with the following features: (1) it consists of two classes of people, one of which is usually (but not always) more numerous but enjoys significantly less power than the other class; (2) it is a more or less permanent arrangement that allows little possibility of reversal or equality; (3) there is systemic exploitation, so that the advantage of those at the top requires the disadvantage of those at the bottom.

Primates as well as many other animals have social hierarchies, but human beings are the only animals who have created, perpetuated, and legitimized Domination System as an essential element of their social and cultural structures.

A domination system is intended to maintain a significant asymmetry of power between two classes; as such, it requires two additional mechanisms for its own continued existence: (1) violence or threat of violence; and (2) religious or ideological legitimation. A Domination System functions successfully in the long run only if a large majority of people continues to act in the expected fashion; the human tendency to help support a domination system results from a fear of repercussions on the one hand, and an acceptance of the Domination System as legitimate and moral on the other hand.

Civilization has had a paradoxical set of consequences over the last 5000 years, and it is not at all self-evident whether its positive contributions outweigh its many disastrous results. Civilization may be compared to the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On the one hand, civilization is the engine that increases the level of complexity in social and cultural structures, thereby offering human communities a tremendous adaptive advantage. Without civilization we would have no cars, no hospitals, no schools, no computers, no books, no indoor plumbing, and no electronic gadgets. Without civilization there may be some art, science, history, philosophy, and music, but these would be of a very poor quality relative to what humankind has actually produced. We should all be thankful to the progress of civilization.

On the other hand, we should acknowledge that Domination Systems came into existence alongside, and as a consequence of, the same progress of civilization that has brought us countless desirable goods.  Had there been no civilization, there would have been no system of domination—which means no stratification based on wealth and power, no organized violence, and no exploitative hierarchies.

Domination Systems cannot function in the absence of civilization. Whether civilization can function in the absence of Domination Systems is not yet known.

Domination Systems are abnormal and unnatural. They are not in harmony or alignment with human nature; instead of helping us realize our innate goodness, domination systems bring out the worst in ourselves by encouraging us to focus on our short-term and selfish interests.

Domination Systems tend to harm everyone — those at the top as well as those at the bottom; humans as well as animals, plants, oceans, soil, and air. The social and cultural structures serving the Domination System try to convince us that violence is a necessary element in human existence, that the only way to survive in this jungle is to carry a big stick and be ready to use it. Domination Systems are factories whose main product is violence—in multiple sizes, shapes, and brands — and the resulting suffering for both the victims and the perpetrators.

Can a Domination System be dismantled? Yes; better yet, it can be transformed or converted into something healthier and organic, something in harmony with human nature and in alignment with the needs of the creation. But this requires using a form of power that is very different from the one that the domination system likes to use. A Domination System thrives on violence, on destructive power. Throwing a bomb at a domination system is like feeding spinach to Popeye: it will only make the system stronger than before, and more deadly. Instead, the only form of power that has any hope of neutralizing or transforming a Domination System is integrative power. But that is a topic for another day.

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Are human beings fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Before we tackle the issue, let’s become aware that this is not an abstract question.  It is not the kind of dry, bookish problem that we normally reserve for ivory-tower philosophers who have nothing better to do than split imaginary hair all day long. Instead, this is a vital question — a question about life itself. Anyone who has the slightest interest in life cannot afford to ignore a question like this.

The practical significance of the question is undeniable. In order to live as social beings, each of us needs some understanding of what people are really like, what they truly are deep down in their essence, how they actually look like behind their everyday masks. We need this understanding in order to guess the contents of other people’s inner worlds and predict the nature of other people’s most likely reactions. This is important because, as social beings, we must adjust our own behavior in response to our guesses and predictions about other people. We perform these adjustments on a moment to moment basis, with the aim of enhancing our ability to fulfill our needs and promote our interests. The accuracy of our guesses and predictions determine the extent to which we are able to fulfill our needs and promote our interests. In turn, the innumerable guesses and predictions that we make everyday about other people’s feelings and reactions are closely tied with our basic presumption about the morality of human nature, i.e., our conscious or unconscious sense of whether humans are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil.

If we find ourselves interacting with other human beings, this in itself is sufficient evidence that we already have some sense of the basic goodness or depravity of human nature. Such a sense, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, determines the kind of guesses and predictions we make about other people, which, in turn, determine how we organize our individual and collective lives, how we structure our families, societies, and governments, the kind of laws we prefer, the sort of politicians we vote for, and even the way we act in our most ordinary moments.

How do we know whether human beings are fundamentally good or fundamentally evil? Each of us must grapple with this question and come to a conscious understanding about the morality of human nature — an understanding that is based, preferably, on a broad range of relevant and correct information and is arrived at as a result of serious, thoughtful reflection. For if we do not deal with this question methodically and deliberately, we would continue to live according to an unconsciously held answer; we would continue functioning on the basis of a tacit presumption that we acquired or formed many years or decades ago, probably on the basis of our socialization or our limited and improperly remembered personal experiences.

It’s difficult not to take a cynical stance on this issue.  Any study of human history will convince most of us that there is something really crooked or wicked in human nature; that there is more evil in the human makeup than there is good; that the evil in our nature is more basic while the good is merely accidental.  Corruption, in other words, is our default setting, which isn’t very easy to change.  We are also likely to arrive at the same conclusion by only a few months of reading newspapers and watching television news.

But there is a problem with taking such a position. If we assume that human nature is fundamentally evil or corrupt or immoral, then we would act as if everyone is a potential enemy and nobody can ever be trusted. When in doubt about someone’s motive or intention, our first response would be to assume the worst, unless the other person proves his/her innocence. We would remain armed all the time, both literally and metaphorically, with our defense mechanisms in a state of permanent alert — always looking out for the next threat or attack. We would be suspicious of our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our spouses, and our children . . . everyone. And they would be likewise suspicious of us.

Wouldn’t our negative assumption about human nature then become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

And yet, there is plenty of evidence indicating that people are very often nice and friendly and helpful, and that they do not always harbor selfish and malevolent desires against each other. Research in neuroscience, anthropology, and primatology has shown that there is something inherently good in human beings; there is in our nature a quality that expresses itself in acts of kindness and benevolence, empathy and altruism, cooperation and forgiveness. This is not a marginal or rare quality, but a significant and central part of what makes us human. In fact, our very existence is a proof that there is far more goodness in us than depravity; if human beings were fundamentally evil and selfish, they would have destroyed themselves a very long time ago. Given the high degree of interdependence that is so characteristic of our species, we would not have survived for thousands of years if it were not for our instincts for cooperative and selfless behavior. This natural goodness has to be acknowledged as real and valid and relevant, despite all the violence and corruption that human beings are also undoubtedly capable of exhibiting. Indeed, the fact that we find violence and corruption abhorrent is itself a strong piece of evidence indicating that our basic, default nature is good.  If we weren’t good at some deep level of our being, we would never find anything wrong with cruelty, injustice, or bloodshed.

Obviously, this argument solves only part of the problem. It doesn’t tell us why we act badly. It doesn’t explain all the negative and dark aspects of human behavior that we find so powerfully illustrated in our history books, the aspects that we observe in our daily interactions with other people and that we encounter within ourselves during moments of honest self-examination.

If we are basically good, why do we so frequently act in morally undesirable ways? If we are inherently predisposed toward morally desirable behavior, what is it that so often hinders us from realizing this potential?

We sometimes hear that a human being is both an angel and a demon; if we have within ourselves the ability to be good as well as the ability to be evil, what is it that pushes us toward the latter and away us from the former? What makes the demon stronger than the angle? If we are far more virtuous than we are evil, what is it that allows a small part of ourselves to enlarge disproportionately and overshadow all of our natural goodness?

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