Posts Tagged ‘fear’

Ethnocentrism and Violence

Thursday, December 20th, 2012

Humans are naturally ethnocentric. From an early age, we are programmed to establish ourselves as part of a tribal in-group, in order to identify and categorize potential allies and potential threats. This is an important part of the pre-existing psychological landscape upon which we gradually build up our identities and beliefs as we mature. It’s a part of “human nature”, you could say, if you wanted to phrase it more misleadingly. But at the same time, there is no greater significance to this fact, either – it’s simply one of the strategies that helped our ancestors survive, which is why it has persisted to the present day. It’s like a wing, or an eye: shaped by the natural selection of varying traits, with no foresight or intelligent interference.*

This is the kind of discovery that a lot of people, even those who are generally enthusiastic about science, sometimes appear to be afraid of. These fears usually stem from the idea that if we discover a genetic basis for certain behaviours, then suddenly these behaviours will be rendered an immutable aspect of human nature, and any political or social arguments against them will be instantly voided. It’s a fear of genetic determinism, in other words. Richard Dawkins gives an example of this in one of his books (I think it was The Extended Phenotype but don’t quote me), recalling a science lecture he attended where afterwards, a woman asked the lecturer how much scientific evidence there was for genetically-based gender differences (other than traits relating directly to biological sex, obviously) – the trembling emotion in her voice suggesting that all her feminist beliefs were riding on the answer. A similar fear of (or appeals to) all-powerful genes overruling our better judgment can be found pretty much across the spectrum of political and social ideologies.

Let’s assume the existence of a single gene with a single allele that controls for the aforementioned tendency towards ethnocentrism, or perhaps just a more generalized tendecy towards tribalism. This is by no means certain to be true; it could be a trait controlled by the combined effects of multiple genes, or a gene with a complex subset of alleles, or some other weird biological curve ball that nature delights in throwing our way. And it could also be possible for this gene to have additional pleiotropic effects which make it extremely difficult to mess about with. But since this is a hypothetical scenario, we’ll keep it simple. What would be the consequence of discovering such a gene, learning how it works, and perhaps even figuring out a way to remove it entirely?

At first glance it seems like this might be a useful course of action, given the problems associated with our tribalist heritage. You could easily imagine media reports proclaiming that scientists had uncovered the “racism gene”, with the suggestion that either removing the gene or blocking its expression could be seen as a “cure for racism”. Strictly speaking this doesn’t add up, but only because the logic is incomplete. Race might be a social construct, but as long as we use this construct to denote tribal divisions, you can effectively argue that we are evolutionarily predisposed to racial prejudice and that genetic engineering could therefore offer a solution to the problem.

This view is much too simplistic, of course. There are many other ways in which tribalism manifests in human behaviour, and a wholesale genetic slash and burn job would eliminate these, too. We can take “predisposition to tribalism” as a basic psychological building block and say that this is the thing that cultural evolution has transformed into religion, nationalism, organised sports, and all the other things that involve large groups of people pooling resources to achieve things beyond the simple pursuit of individual survival that we normally see in more “classical” Darwinian settings. Secular humanism is perhaps the most important product of this branch of cultural evolution, but it, too, is reliant on our hypothetical “racism gene”. To an alien observer who did not possess this trait, these behaviours could well seem bizarre and difficult to relate to – but to us, they are quite meaningful, for better or worse (and don’t worry; through observation and a little game theory, our alien friend would eventually come to understand this too, at least intellectually).

This is the main point I want to make with this little hypothetical scenario: that our increasing knowledge of the human genome and the various behaviours that have filtered down through our evolutionary history don’t automatically equate to a justification for these same behaviours. In this example, we see that there are many different ways in which a basic instinctual impulse can manifest, especially once cultural evolution takes hold of it. This is a key fact we need to keep in mind when new scientific discoveries come to light, to ensure that they expand our knowledge without being used to reinforce old prejudices and outdated worldviews. And the reason I chose to use the increasing knowledge of our tribal heritage as an example is because of our inspiring reaction to this information: we didn’t justify racism, we (re)invented humanism. We turned a potentially divisive weakness into the greatest of strengths.

Now we can turn to the subject that I am normally going on about. There is no sound reason why we can’t use this same principle to argue against violent behaviour as well. The more we learn about how violent behaviour works, the better equipped we are to develop strategies and philosophies to circumvent these psychological shortcomings – and the dumber it is that people keep trying to use this knowledge to justify violence instead. As I have discussed before, to a large extent cultural evolution is steadily chipping away at this problem even as we speak (and not out of any sort of benign interest either, but simply because it works). Humans today are much less violent than they were during pretty much any other period of history, and the gradual trend towards nonviolence shows no signs of slowing down. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to help the process along, as there is still work to be done.

I don’t really want to get bogged down in another long blog post here, so I’m just going to write about a couple of discomforting truths which I feel are usually neglected during discussions on this topic. The obvious one to start with is the fact that you don’t have to be crazy to think that violence is a useful solution to your problems. Violence is a sound evolutionary strategy, and probably one of the oldest, too, because evolution is a process that occurs without foresight, so the long-term consequences of violence are irrelevant. Moreover, the wastefulness of natural selection – wiping out the vast majority to filter out a select few survivors – also mitigates the consequences of violence, from that perspective at least. Indeed, in many instances, violence is precisely what propels natural selection onwards. (And it’s worth noting here that natural selection ultimately doesn’t favour organisms, it favours genes, so unpleasant outcomes are hardly of any concern to it in that resepect also.)

The key predictors of violent behaviour in humans remain the most dangerously banal ones: young, male, low socioeconomic status, substance abuse. Mental illness is rarely a factor, and when it is, usually the other factors will also be in play to a larger degree anyway. In fact, mental illness is actually much more likely to make a person suicidal rather than homicidal, and this is an important factor in a special kind of statistically-rare but highly publicized kind of violent behaviour: mass shootings and suicide bombings. In these cases, the pathological desire to die will naturally change the brain’s internal risk-vs-reward analysis and make violence seem like a more attractive option, but even so, regular suicides are far more common than murder-suicides. Even in these rare outlier cases, the triggers for violent behaviour are usually just the same as the ones that influence the behaviour of mentally healthy people; the difference in outcome is due to the way these triggers interact with the person’s suicidal desires. Considering that the vast majority of violent acts are committed by mentally healthy people, that is where our focus really ought to lie.** The problem is that the kinds of violence that are most common – domestic violence, rape, street violence, etc – are also the kinds that people don’t want to talk about, whereas the rare outlier cases get widespread media attention and therefore alter people’s perception about the reality of violent behaviour. If we are constantly told that “the man with the gun was crazy” then inevitably it will sink in, regardless of the level of truth in that statement. But in reality, automatically attributing all instances of real-life violence to “craziness” is like dismissing all car accidents as being caused by ice on the road – you’ll be right occasionally, but you’re ignoring all the most common causes of the problem, and your calls to combat car accidents by increasing the public’s awareness of icy road conditions will just look silly and ill-informed.

As usual, an evolutionary perspective can shed some light on why this is the case. Prior to the advent of civilisation, the “typical” social arrangement for hunter-gatherer tribes was a dominance hierarchy headed by a small number of polygamous males who monopolized all the mating opportunities. From my feminist perspective, I see this as a sort of “proto-patriarchy”; the thing that cultural evolution would later shape into the familiar patriarchal societies of today (not with any foresight, of course, but we can apply these labels in hindsight, for convenience). For the present discussion, however, the key point to note is that this proto-patriarchal social order did not benefit all males; only those at the top of hierarchy. An inevitable by-product of polygamous, “harem-style” mating strategies is that there will always be groups of males, often adolescents who have not yet challenged the alphas, who are left on the outer, and are frustrated by a lack of mating opportunities and, usually, harrassed and shunned by the rest of the group. Under these circumstances, any risk-vs-reward calculations will now swing towards the violent end of the scale, and aggressive behaviour will become a potentially winning strategy. (This is true not just amongst our ancestors but of pretty much all species which have adopted this kind of social structure.) So now, we see that violence is a conditional strategy, triggered by environmental circumstances.

At this point I was considering trying to stretch the feminist analogy and suggesting that we should be thinking in terms of alpha-male privilege versus regular male privilege, as a way of linking our current cultural conditions with the behavioural patterns of our ancestors – but of course, the more obvious approach would be to suggest we are looking at the beginnings of class-based privilege instead. There is already a wealth of analysis on the intersectionality between these two concepts, so I won’t dwell here. Again, the key points are that aggressive behaviour, as an evolutionary strategy, is triggered by certain social conditions which, in a modern context, look a whole lot like the predictors of violent behaviour I listed above. The only outlier is substance abuse, which, in common cases such as alcohol-related violence, acts as a remover of inhibition and thereby enhances the role played by other factors which, on their own, may not have been powerful enough to influence the person’s behaviour. It’s worth remembering that one of the primary functions of the neocortex is simply to act as an inhibitor of lower brain functions, so disabling it through artificially altered brain chemistry provides an important shortcut for those who have not developed violent behaviours habitually, and therefore have greater difficulty overcoming these barriers through more natural means.

So, as the causes and origins of our built-in behavioural repertoire come to light, we are faced with much the same choice as in the previously-examined example of ethnocentrism: we can either use these facts to try and justify violence, or we can use them to develop strategies to prevent violence. On the surface, this might seem like a no-brainer, but the real problem with most anti-violence philosophies is that people will readily agree to them in principle, but they will then often reserve a few exceptions to this rule in order to preserve instances where they either benefit from violence or are too afraid of letting go of violence as a coping mechanism, even if it is not the optimal choice. We need to keep in mind that violence is a selfish strategy with short-term benefits which serve to blind people to its long-term consequences. We therefore cannot expect people to willingly change their behaviour unless some solid alternatives are provided, and the consequences of a failure to act are highlighted to the point of being impossible to ignore.

I’m not going to drive myself crazy (again) by trying to come up with all the solutions here. But the most obvious starting point, at least, would be to focus on the hierarchical nature of our society and examine the ways in which it turns violence into a statistical inevitability by recreating conditions that favoured violence in our evolutionary past. Deconstructing hierarchies is already a necessary task faced by feminists and atheists anyway (which I’m guessing is the direction your views already skew if you’re reading this), so we have plenty of pre-existing ideas to call upon. It’s just a question of synthesizing all these different perspectives into a coherent whole, and perhaps also, convincing ourselves that such wide-reaching change is indeed a goal we can realistically work towards. I certainly think it is within the realms of possibility, even if it will take a long time. Societies can’t remain in stasis; new ideas are constantly being generated, and the best of these will rise to the top and oust the old ideas. It’s just a question of whether “best” means “best for everyone”, or “best for those at the top of the hierarchies” (or even “best for the ideas themselves”, selfish meme style, but that’s a whole other thing). But whichever way it goes, change is inevitable, so we might as well try and make it a change for the better.

I began with a reminder that behavioural patterns are naturally-selected artifacts, no different from an eye or a wing. This is important because humans are the only animals that actively modify and rework their bodies instead of just having to settle for whatever evolution provided them with. Eyes and wings can be augmented and improved upon, and the same will hold true for just about anything else we care to turn our attention to. We are humans; that is what we do.

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*This is something of a digression, but I point it out because it’s easy to get caught up in the complexity and subjective strikingness of some evolutionary products and start thinking to yourself, wow, this must mean something; it must be important. But would you say the same thing about some of the more humble yet, by most measures, far more successful Darwinian progeny, such as cyanobacteria? The significance we apply to a thing needs to stem from more than just its ability to survive in relation to other things. Evolution is the closest thing we have to a science of teleology, so it can therefore powerfully inform our moral and ethical judgments, but that is all it can do; it cannot dictate morality, which is key. As primates we have a built-in desire for morality to be dictated from an authoritarian source (originally the alpha male of the social group, which eventually evolved into increasingly-powerful tribal leaders and up to spirits and gods and so forth), which is why we need to approach claims of such authority with an additional level of skepticism, to compensate for our innate biases.

**Of course, mental healthcare is worth advocating for regardless of the role it plays here, so obviously I don’t wish to downplay its importance. We just need to recognize that pursuing that path won’t lead to the decrease in violence that many people seem to think will naturally follow from it.

Violent Political Rhetoric

Tuesday, January 11th, 2011

Hey, do you want to read a deeply ignorant article? No? Well, that’s understandable. But here it is anyway: In Defense of Inflamed Rhetoric. It’s written by a person who is apparently capable of looking at the current political climate in America and saying, yep, nothing wrong here. But what’s more instructive, for our purposes at least, is the method by which he has rationalized this view.

Most revealing is the use of the standard argument employed in the defence of a lot of different types of faux-violent behaviour: namely, the personal anecdote about having experienced similar influences (in this case, violent political language) without being driven to violence. So clearly that’s not the root cause of violent behaviour, and we can simply write off people who do resort to violence as outliers, or victims of some other kind of problem – like mental illness, as was immediately assumed in this case. In other words, violent people would have been violent anyway, so we are automatically relieved of any responsibility in having contributed to this problem. Because you know, that guy who WAS violent, well, clearly he was just a freak, and as long as all the normals remain unaffected, we don’t need to worry.

If nothing else, this serves to highlight the general ignorance our culture still harbours towards the topic of mental illness. But it also reveals another, more nuanced level of ignorance: most people just straight up don’t understand how things like implied violence or violent threats and metaphors affect our behaviour. I mean, it is considered perfectly logical for exposure to real life violence to cause trauma, but as soon as you remove that element of reality, the trauma is supposed to become similarly imaginary. It’s pretty obvious, however, that that is not the case.

Perhaps the best way to understand how this behaviour functions is to think of the brain as a balloon, and all of the different social and cultural interactions which affect our behaviour are like hundreds of dull sticks applying light pressure to that balloon. Each one on its own is inconsequential, but when their combined force is multiplied together, problems can begin to manifest. In an extremely basic and unrealistic simulation, we could expect that successive exposure to violent influences would increase the pressure applied by the sticks which represent violent behaviour, until the balloon finally bursts, and the person lashes out with real-life violence. However, that’s not how it works in reality, because exposure to violence is constantly being tempered by exposure to other sources of pressure, including pressure to avoid violent behaviour, because in most circumstances it is considered socially unacceptable. (This is a uniquely modern situation, incidentally; these opposing sources of pressure did not exist in the past – or at least, not to the same extent that they do now – which is why violence is far rarer today than it was throughout much of history.) So in effect, all these different sources of opposing pressure lead to the sticks being placed fairly evenly around the balloon, spreading the load and making it much less likely to burst even when new sources of pressure are suddenly encountered. Assuming, that is, the person is leading a healthy social life, and is therefore under direct pressure to conform to the social ideals of the day. For comparison: in other places around the world, there is much less opposing pressure to balance out the violent influences, and the difference is profound.

This is why it’s so difficult to determine cause and effect in these instances: because each person has a unique array of sticks around their balloon, and so their responses to new sources of pressure can be radically different from one another. Moreover, removing one stick can alter the topography of the whole balloon as the pressure redistributes itself and achieves a new equilibrium, so actually removing seemingly harmful influences can have unexpected consequences, too. The important thing to recognise, however, is that we are dealing with a complex and chaotic system, which means that whilst individual instances can be difficult to deconstruct, a broader, systemic view can still yield identifiable patterns. (In this sense, it’s a lot like long-term climate prediction – even though we know that climate change will produce stronger and more violent storms, determining precisely where those storms will strike is still impossible, according to our current level of knowledge at least.)  As a result, we can reasonably argue that increased violent rhetoric will lead to real-life violence, even if predicting exactly where and when it will occur is a much more daunting task. If you continually stack up the sources of violent pressure, you greatly reduce the strength of the stressor needed to give a vulnerable person that final push and trigger a truly tragic reaction.

It’s also worth remembering that whilst ascribing responsibility to a single source of pressure (in this case, Sarah Palin) is a rather silly and naïve view to take, that’s not the only role Palin plays here. She actively profits from this pre-existing culture of hatred and veiled violence, and uses it for her own ends. That’s still completely obscene. We don’t need to exaggerate her role in this to try and make her look bad – even if there were absolutely no traces of cause and effect here, her actions are still indefensible.

Anyway, back to the article itself – I think this quote really highlights the sheer arrogance, let alone ignorance, upon which it was constructed:

“The great miracle of American politics is that although it can tend toward the cutthroat and thuggish, it is almost devoid of genuine violence outside of a few scuffles and busted lips now and again.”

Note the use of the Juggalo fallacy: this situation is, apparently, a miracle. It’s obviously a very evocative term to drop on an American audience, so I’m sure he’s mostly just using it for rhetorical flourish, but all the same, it still serves to highlight the logical flaw in the central argument being put forward here: the author just clearly doesn’t understand precisely why violence is so rare in American politics. Which is why, as usual, it is simply ascribed to American exceptionalism – we are talking about the shining light on the hill, after all. They’re just inherently superior. Well, unless they have a mental illness, of course – then all bets are off.

The result of this lack of understanding is the surreal situation we now face: we have a subtlely violent culture which has (inevitably) produced violent behaviour, and yet people react by defending that culture and not only outright dismissing the possibility of a causal link, but they seem content to do so by means of some rather uncircumspect logic. This situation should, really, inspire disbelief in all of us – but because we have lived in this same culture our whole lives, we have unfortunately grown used to it, making it much harder for us to see this situation for what it really is.

As with all violent behaviour, the violent rhetoric currently dominating American political discourse simply serves to highlight the position of extreme fear from which these people are operating. It might seem counterintuitive, but just compare it to a similar phenomenon, like how narcissism actually stems from very low self-esteem, rather than the overabundance of it that you might otherwise assume at first glance. These types of behaviour are designed to compensate for the absence of, rather than the imposing presence of, the emotional trait they appear to be built upon. In this case, deep fear equates to a lack of courage, which is why people will then try to appear courageous by putting forward outlandish rhetoric. But of course, it would be a mistake to confuse these actions with actual courage. Back in my day, we were taught that Simba, being brave doesn’t mean you go looking for trouble.

So, to sum up: if you’re looking for a simple equation to explain cause and effect, you’re going to be disappointed. But trying to argue that violent rhetoric has no effect at all is just… well, it’s deliberate ignorance, there’s no other way of putting it. People would easily reach this conclusion if they didn’t have a vested interest in believing the exact opposite. The real problem here is that it’s simply much easier to change rationalizations than to change behaviour, so people just continue along the same old path, even when confronted with the thankfully rare, but still brutal consequences of their actions.

The thing to remember is this: when you walk away from a car crash, you don’t go around telling people car crashes are awesome. You remind yourself how lucky you were, and you examine the cause of the crash in order to prevent it from happening again.

ETA one day later:

I’ve done a bit more reading on the subject of violence and mental illness, and I found this paper particularly illuminating. It basically trashes the popular link between violent behaviour and the mentally ill. In fact, people with mental illnesses are actually more likely to be victims, not perpetrators – and when they do act out violently, more often than not, it’s due to the exact same stressors that trigger violent behaviour in healthy people.

Much more telling, however, is the observation that the general public often draw comfort from the myth that random acts of violence are caused by mental illness. I’ve read articles over the past couple of days about how the supposed overreactions against violent rhetoric are just the product of people searching for a convenient narrative to explain the unexplainable – but dismissing violent behaviour as unexplainable is itself a narrative, and a rather problematic one at that, because it absolves people of the need to search for actual answers, however difficult they may be to uncover. In this case, if the mindset of a violent offender is impenetrable and unknowable, then there is no need to question any possible role that the overall climate of violent rhetoric (not to mention all the other types of violent and faux-violent behaviour still tolerated by our society) had in shaping this person’s views, and so we are free to continue as before, unburdened by responsibility. And regardless of your views here, surely you can at least see that dismissing a question without answering it is a terrible idea, and sets a harmful precedent even if this particular instance turns out to be a red herring.

On the surface, it seems strange that people could be comforted by the idea that violent behaviour is unpredictable and unexplainable. But break down the logical sequence behind it, and it takes on another tone altogether. Because the thing is, there is ample evidence to suggest that the most common causes of violent behaviour actually affect healthy people to a greater degree than the mentally ill, and yet the majority of the public is quite content to write this problem off as the product of a loosely-defined minority of “crazy” people. This is because the only logical alternative would be for people to start questioning their own behaviour, and trying to deconstruct their own role in the culture of violence that lurks at the edges of our society. Dumping this problem on a scapegoat is simply the much easier option, and the result is that the mentally ill are not only unfairly blamed for a systemic problem shared by us all, but they often end up suffering the harshest consequences of this problem, too.

And that, my friends, is fucked up.

tl;dr

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

Can’t be bothered to wade through that last entry? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered. The basic argument is actually pretty simple; I just went off on lots of tangents about the evolutionary history that has led us to this point, and I also ran through some of the implications of these ideas, and how they relate to everyday life. Here are the key points:

- The historical and evolutionary evidence indicates we are in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one. Also, the evolution of our attitude towards violence is closely tied to the evolution of religion. Religion greatly reduced the overall violent nature of our societal groups, but it also gave rise to war when these societal groups clashed, which is why we are now moving on and seeking new alternatives, in order to build on the progress that has been made.

- There are two characteristics which all pro-violence viewpoints have in common: they are reactionary, and they come equipped with a system of ethics designed to eliminate the problems associated with all the other pro-violence worldviews that have failed in the past. This ethical code allows people to feel superior to other practitioners of violence, which is why they can sustain their position even as violence continues to cause problems throughout the world.

- Whenever this system of ethics fails, people simply refine their ethical code and start again. But in reality, there is no such thing as a system of ethics that can prevent the harmful consequences of violent behaviour.

- Violence is a fear response: we experience fear, we try to enact control, violence is usually the simplest act of control so it is the first thing people turn to (ie. it is the path of least resistance, which is something our brains always find appealing). But modern violence carries an unusual quirk: because nonviolent ideas have already permeated society to a significant degree, people are now trying to regulate their violent behaviour. This means that when they experience fear, and thus the desire for control suddenly makes violence seem an attractive option, they try to repress that response, because they have been taught that it is wrong. This is the key mistake. Repression only delays the response; it doesn’t eliminate it. In order to properly move on from violence, we need to stop repressing these actions, and learn to let go of them, and embrace the feeling of inner peace that stems from this action. Then we can all go frolicking together in meadows, etc.

- Because we are still in the process of evolving from a violent civilisation to a nonviolent one, most of the pro-violence worldviews that exist today can be viewed as the memetic equivalent of transitional forms. Many of them will provide useful, if rather unstable, stepping stones on the way to that long-term goal, but they are clearly unsustainable, and we will eventually have to complete the transition. And yeah, I know it’s probably hard to look at some of the wars and such that exist today and think “well, at least we’re making progress”, but it seems that that is indeed the case, even if we still have a long way to go.

Anti-violence post #2

Wednesday, December 1st, 2010

We have come a long way. Even a study of recent history will reveal remarkable changes, but when you look back at the last 100,000 years or so, in which we have gone from a few thousand tribespeople on the African savannah to almost 7 billion people spread all over the planet, you really just have to sit back and marvel at the extraordinary changes which have occurred. Not least of which because this has all happened with only relatively minor changes to the human genome; as far as we can tell, there have been a series of superficial adaptations to environmental conditions, but aside from those, we are essentially still the same as the first people to look up at the stars, all those thousands of years ago. All the subsequent changes, the evolution of civilization, technology, and everything else we take for granted today, are the product of cultural evolution, derived solely from the tenuous transfer of memes from one generation to the next.

This evolutionary process shows no signs of slowing – quite the opposite, in fact. We are even today caught up in this vortex of inexorable change, running as fast as we can just to try and stay in the same place, as the saying goes. Naturally, the question arises: where exactly are we headed? It is a difficult thing to predict, but by looking at some of the selective pressures in play today, we might gain some insight into where we’ll find ourselves tomorrow.

Perhaps the most significant driving force behind the changes that have taken place is the fact that our exploding population has put immense pressure on our traditional territorial tribalism. When we grow tired of our neighbours, we can no longer just pack up and find somewhere else to live, as we’ll simply run into more humans who are likely to be just as defensive about their land as the people we left behind. Varied responses have arisen to deal with this pressure in the past: war, politics, diplomacy, and perhaps most interestingly, the expansion of social groups to include members of many different tribes. These supertribes required a powerful rallying point for social cohesion, and so we began to exaggerate the abilities of our leaders, so that their stature would match the size of the tribe, and everyone would gratefully serve them due to their unmatched power. But this line of thought soon required extending beyond the realms of human possibility, necessitating the invention of a concept above nature – the supernatural. These mythical leaders grew ever more powerful as social groups increased in size (the bigger the group, the better the odds of survival, marking a new evolutionary paradigm directed towards group selection), spurred on particularly by tales of past leaders, who were no longer around and thus could be exaggerated without any fear of being proven wrong by a need for real-life demonstrations of power. Eventually, they were removed entirely from reality, and we had ready-made gods inhabiting an imaginary realm, laying down the foundations for religion. (Ancient Egyptian culture provides a famous transitional form, exhibiting both gods and the god-king pharohs. And let’s not forget that modern Catholicism is at least partially derivative of Egyptian mythology…) But ideas that worked well in the past can wear out their welcome, such as when religious warfare leads to violence on increasingly unprecedented scales, creating marked conflicts with our kin-selected propensity for altruism and empathy. Expanding social groups gave us the ability to extend empathy beyond our immediate kin, and so ironically, turned us against the very thing that opened our eyes to the concept of a wider culture in the first place. The evolutionary march continues, and religion is on the way out, having been supplanted by nationalism and hopefully, eventually, a single, worldwide, humanist culture.

Population growth opens up other sources of pressure: the need for sustainable food sources, the need to consciously limit our impact on the environment, the need for more efficient infrastructure – and, especially when aligned with our increasingly devastating arsenal of weapons technology, the need for effective conflict resolution. It is now necessary not just to end conflicts after they arise but to figure out why they occur and how they can be prevented. A thorough understanding is required to ensure that we don’t bumble into a catastrophic and irreversible war – which, as close calls in the past have illustrated, is an all too real possibility.

Naturally, the pressure to finally put the concept of war to bed has brought forth many proposed solutions, some of which will ultimately be seen as having played a part in uncovering the final answer; others will merely be smirked at amusingly or maybe even scoffed at incredulously (*cough*pre-emptive self-defence*cough*). For mine, I would put my money on a fairly basic idea: the promotion of the positive aspects of human potential (trying not to use the term “human nature”, it is a fairly misleading concept), coupled with a comprehensive understanding of the motivations behind violence, greed, and other negative behavioural traits, which is now being brought to light through modern scientific discoveries. This understanding will allow people to make properly informed choices, and will highlight the absurdity of choosing to pursue violence, when its predictable consequences are fully laid bare. This is more of a long-term strategy, obviously; people who have already developed violent behavioural patterns are likely to be too fearful to change in the short term, because their fear has been magnified by their violent actions. But over successive generations, changes which seem impossible to us will become inevitable and unavoidable. Widespread education and rapid advancement of knowledge, coupled with constant reinforcement of empathy and other positive aspects of human behaviour, have already worked significant changes over the course of history, and this pattern shows no sign of stopping – indeed, it is only accelerating.

(more…)

Only A Matter Of Time

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

I didn’t watch last Monday’s Tony Abbott-fest on Q&A (GNW was on, and besides, an hour of watching Abbott speak? I need at least three hours of preparatory meditation before I can endure something like that, and I don’t have that kind of time), but I just caught his answer to that question about gay marriage – quite poignantly posed, if you also missed it, by a man with a gay son who overcame his own prejudices as a result of being exposed to this alternate point of view. Funny how empathy can change people like that. Abbott, perhaps realising that the sympathy of the crowd was dangerously against him at this point, was suitably effacing in his answer – but in doing so, highlighted the absolutely absurd position this debate has reached. He praised gay relationships, not a bad thing to say against them, seemingly drawing no distinction between them and their straight equivalents – except for the fact that he believes straight relationships are special for some arbitrary reason, and therefore they are the only ones deserving of the title “marriage” (itself a completely arbitrary social construct). That’s where we are now. “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman because I believe marriage is between a man and a woman.” That’s all it takes to justify social oppression. Not even so much as a Biblical citation, let alone some actual logic.

The fact that the human brain is actually capable of sustaining such a position should be a cautionary tale for us all. It’s easy to cite the deeply ingrained memes surrounding homophobia passed down from a patriarchal society which automatically devalues anything that threatens aggressive masculinity, because these memes are still so prevalent that even many gay people still display latent tendencies towards them, let alone their straight allies – so people who have been taught that homosexuality is somehow a lesser form of sexual expression certainly do have a lot of memetic baggage to sort through, especially if they’ve been insulated from alternative arguments, as people raised in a religious environment often are. But there’s more to it than that. This strange desire to cling to a pre-existing viewpoint despite all logic to the contrary is a hallmark of religious thinking, and it stems from the rarely-spoken assumption that the system of morality put forward by the religion in question is the only thing standing between a stable civilisation and total societal collapse. In other words, if you were to suddenly take away religious morality, there would be no more civilisation, and we would return to a state of barbarism, if not outright savagery.

This view is plainly false. Morality is a product of evolution, and evolution does not just unravel itself like that – not when the same selective pressures which produced this behaviour are largely still in play today. True, memetic information exists in a far more tenuous state than genetic data, but even so, we have reached a level of development where only a truly catastrophic event, like nuclear war, could make such an impact on our progress as to undo it completely. Gay marriage is not, safe to say, the equivalent of nuclear war, though you could be forgiven for assuming as much if you’ve listened to some of the rhetoric from those who oppose it. And even in the event of an ACTUAL catastrophe, we would still be human, and thus still possess our kin-selected ability for empathy and a natural tendency towards social co-operation. If we survived, we could rebuild over time. We’re kind of bad-ass like that.

Aside from discussions surrounding proper problems with an actual scientific basis, like nuclear war or climate change or death by intergalactic space laser, conversations about morality should revolve around determining what is best to make people’s lives happier and healthier, not what must be done in order to avoid self-destruction. This fear that a loosening of moral standards will result in an inexorable backwards slide is really quite ridiculous. Cultures have been built around far less developed types of morality than that which exists today, and whilst they certainly weren’t perfect, they survived okay. This is kind of like when people argue for action against climate change by saying that we have to “save the planet” – it’s not about saving the planet, it’s about preserving its current state to the extent that is physically possible, so that it remains comfortably habitable for humans. That’s still a worthy goal. And the inherent selfishness of it might actually be more appealing than a Captain Planet mantra (since unironically caring about things beyond our immediate concerns is apparently still an embarrassing trait to publicly display). In the same way, people should be putting forward moral arguments in order to make the world a better place for us, the self-centred, fear-driven weirdos who live here. And arguments against gay marriage do not pass that test – they only promote divisiveness and oppression of people who don’t line up with arbitrary social norms. There is a reflex to automatically treat religions as though they have the moral high ground, because for much of our history that was actually the case (hard to imagine, I know), but morality has continued to evolve, and the major religions have – through their harmful actions and their unwillingness to catch up with this forward progression – clearly relinquished the ground they once held. There is no moral high ground for those who discriminate based on sexual orientation. It is bigoted, it is logically indefensible, and it is wrong.

You know what this “I believe because I believe” bullshit reminds me of? A school bully in the playground, playing keep-away with the socially-outcasted kid’s hat. There is no rhyme or reason to this behaviour; the bully is simply afraid, and is trying to placate that fear by wielding power over others, since that is what his greater physical stature allows. He does it, because he can. But as is the nature of power, it does not release that fear, it simply feeds it, and causes it to grow stronger. The pursuit of control only highlights what an impossible goal it is, causing him to pursue it even harder, only for it to move even further away – and so the cycle continues. The bully becomes even more strongly attached to these behaviours he has developed to try and cope with his fear, and yet he does not understand why. The bully’s hierarchical worldview is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one, just like the religious argument against homosexuality is a type of morality, albeit a highly flawed one. People cling to these views because even as their fears are being fed, they are even more afraid of what would happen if they had to face these fears completely exposed, without the behaviours they have developed in the past to try and cope with that fear. But the funny thing is, if you stop feeding these fears, they will genuinely stop growing, and they will become easier to deal with. Over time, you will find that you are able to develop new patterns of behaviour, and if you meditate on the consequences of your actions, you can try and ensure these new behaviours don’t have negative effects on others. That is actually a key point, because actions which harm others will also harm you (especially if you follow your natural impulse to try and create ethical justifications for your harmful actions – ironically, you’d do less harm without an ethical approach). Of course, you will always continue to make mistakes, there’s no getting around that – but as long as you acknowledge and learn from these mistakes and keep moving forward, you will notice a gradual improvement not only in your own life, but in the lives of those around you.

In other words, if you stop trying to force morality onto others and instead just learn to chillax so that productive discussions can take place, and you ensure any high-minded ethical meditations are backed by an intuitive and empathetic approach in addition to a scientific understanding of human behaviour (not just one or the other), you will quite likely find that a lot of your fears are simply figments of your imagination.

Regression

Wednesday, April 21st, 2010

I was listening to Dream Theater’s Metropolis Part Two: Scenes From A Memory the other day, for the first time in a while. It’s been almost a decade since I was first introduced to what most fans would agree is Dream Theater’s best album (it’s either that or Images And Words), but even today, it still sounds as sweet as it did back then. I don’t want to understate this: from a purely musical perspective, it is an awesome feat, and demonstrates the ability of metal to convey a wide range of emotions, far apart from the narrow and angst-ridden, anti-social view that most people have of the genre. Indeed, it’s one of the main reasons why I first became interested in metal, back in the day.

From a lyrical point of view, however, the intervening years have not been kind.

It is a concept album, recounting a somewhat convoluted story involving hypnosis, past lives, reincarnation, and just in general, what happens after you die. But whilst they might have avoided specific Christian imagery and instead opted for more of a generic spiritual…ness, make no mistake, they are a Christian band, and this album is a fairly transparent representation of their views. I mention this because the end result is actually a conveniently straightforward list of reasons why religion is still a Thing – so it may prove to be a useful resource for anyone who looks at these bizarre monoliths of ancient dogma still attached like barnacles to the whale of our glorious civilisation and asks the inevitable question: WHY?? (Especially if you want your ponderings to be accompanied by excellent music.)

I’m not going to bother with a detailed analysis of the lyrics, because it’s all fairly basic stuff (I mean, thematically – trying to follow the actual storyline takes a more concerted effort). If you’re pressed for time, though, then just go to the penultimate track, “The Spirit Carries On“, because it acts as the summary sheet for everything that you’re supposed to learn from this story. LaBrie even states quite unironically that he used to be afraid of death until arbitrarily deciding that some ethereal part of his being will survive into eternity, and then like magic, his fears disappeared. That’s religion in a nutshell, my friends.

The line that really gets me, though, is when he says “I may never prove what I know to be true.” No. Just… fucking no, man. Not being able to prove something is the exact opposite of knowing it is true. And I have to ask, if you’re just going to decide that something is true without any evidence to back it up, then why do you even care about proof at all? If the presence or absence of proof has no bearing on your beliefs, then the whole concept is irrelevant anyway. It’s as if he sees proof as some sort of window dressing that he is happy to display when it lines up with his worldview, but if it doesn’t, then, you know, whatever. It’s not important. Because he knows that he’s right.

The significance of this logical trap is somewhat deceptive, I think. People tend to see faith as either a sort of security blanket (the argument I have used in the past) or alternatively, as some sort of noble dedication to higher ideals. But I have come across a better definition: it is the only known cure for that most annoying of existential problems, doubt. In other words, it is one of the dumbest acts of self-sabotage you can inflict upon yourself.

Like most people, I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of my time searching for ways to get rid of doubt. I can be quite hesitant and indecisive even at the best of times, I have social anxieties and other problems, and it just seems like everything would run a whole lot more smoothly if I could just jettison all that doubt and get on with things. But I’ve come to realise lately that that would actually be a disastrous achievement. Doubt is good. And the only reason we don’t realise this is because the only doubt we encounter on a regular basis is our own. Everyone else keeps theirs safely hidden away in their own minds, because we are all operating the exact same delusion – that everyone is more confident than us, and that our doubt is somehow unique. I can pretty much guarantee that the only people who don’t feel this way are those select few who are either too ignorant or too deluded to realise how frighteningly small their own depth of knowledge is compared to the unimaginably vast amount of information that exists in the universe. And while they may seem to be better off, with their false confidence and all the rest, they really aren’t. They are trapped in their own vortices of circular logic, which they will in all likelihood never emerge from. They will never get to experience the entirely new and uncharted delusions of the free-thinking individual, amiright lol.

So when you introduce faith into this equation, to quell that quiet voice in the back of your mind that is incessantly asking “but what if I’m wrong?”, what you are really doing is shutting down your capacity for growth. This is why religion closes people’s minds. You’ve found a nice little cottage, everything seems to be in working order as far as you can tell, so you just say to yourself, fuck it, I’m going to live here, I don’t care if there might be nicer places further down the road. Doubt, as it turns out, is actually the force that keeps pushing you down that road, because even if you passed some decent places along the way, you just want to go and check if there’s something better around that next corner.

Okay, yeah, people certainly have a right to set up camp wherever they wish. My main complaint here is just that it is just such a fucking waste. Billions of years of evolution have given rise to an immensely powerful tool which is, right now, decoding strange patterns in the beams of light being emitted from the screen in front of you and translating them into a language of its own devising, triggering a cascade of electronic pulses and chemical reactions which result in you reading a sentence about what is happening when you read this sentence. And that’s not even one of its main functions. I don’t care who you are, if you have a brain, you can do some amazing things – if you open yourself up to all possibilities, including the ones which make you uncomfortable or fearful. Which means that instead of trying to force everything to fit in with some kind of pre-existing idea, you have to sit back and let your brain do its thing. Your brain is designed to take in information, analyse it, compare it with information it already possesses, and finally, to produce new ideas from this raw data. That is its friggin’ job, and the delusions of faith and certainty only serve to hinder that process.

I mean, do you have any idea how incredible brains are? Just think about it, you guys. These things arose through entirely natural processes, with no guiding hand or pre-existing blueprint. That’s fucking amazing. Fuck! I’m tripping myself out just writing this, man. I’ve gotta go lie down for a while.

ETA:

Okay, I feel bad for ragging on Dream Theater in this post (I’m just frustrated because the music I like so rarely has lyrics I can relate to). There are a couple more points I should add: perhaps the most important being that their religious views played a major role in helping singer James LaBrie and drummer Mike Portnoy overcome some pretty serious personal problems (specifically, depression and social anxieties for LaBrie, and alcoholism for Portnoy). When people find a way to deal with such problems, regardless of the nature of that solution, they tend to latch onto it wholeheartedly, and naturally become blinded to any faults present in their newfound beliefs. But for most people, this levels out after a while, and once they begin to feel like they’ve really put their problems behind them, they may feel comfortable enough to start asking some harder questions about their own views. I think, to their credit, you can see this evolution occurring in some of Dream Theater’s later albums, where they start dealing with some of the more problematic issues surrounding religion. They are still operating from a decidedly deistic viewpoint, but they are at least adopting a more questioning attitude, and personally I think there is only one inevitable destination once you start down that road, so long as you pursue it honestly.

So basically, it is interesting to compare Scenes From A Memory with songs like “In The Name Of God” or “The Great Debate” – and even more interesting to think about where these questions might lead them in the future.

Depression

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

A few weeks ago, in that entry I wrote about happiness and belief, I briefly mentioned depression and how it may be related to a breakdown in the way the brain processes belief, and I also linked to this article which explains some of the physiological changes the brain goes through during depression, and the possible evolutionary causes behind this changes (it’s not the only thing I’ve read on the subject by the way, it’s just a convenient summary). I’m going to expand on that part a little more here. I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I really want to talk about this, but I guess we’ll see how it goes.

As I said in that previous entry, beliefs act as a sort of interconnected network of proven, reliable thoughts, and we use this network to interpret new information. We build up our beliefs through experience and education, and strengthen them through repetition – which is not always a good thing. Due to our limited knowledge, we are forced to adopt illusory beliefs in order to function. But whilst in an ideal world these could just be necessary stepping stones to increased knowledge, in the real world we tend to buy into these false beliefs, and fall into repetitive patterns of behaviour, stunting our growth. Human behaviour often moves in repeated patterns, after all, because the overriding influence on our psyches is fear – the central survival instinct – and anything we can do to placate that fear is something we naturally want to stick with and reuse over and over. We all have our individual tics, unique ways of doing things, flaws, bad habits. Sometimes these patterns are relatively harmless; sometimes they are an inconvenience but still bearable; other times, they can significantly impact our ability to function.

This network of beliefs exists on a deeper level than conscious thought, and so we don’t normally notice its existence or reflect on it at all. Moreover, if you were to try and analyze your own beliefs, you would have to use your belief network to do so, which means it is not possible to gain a truly objective view of them. This is important to keep in mind, because the result is that reflecting on your own beliefs usually just reinforces them, even if you are genuinely trying to find fault. If you could see the flaws in your beliefs you would have accounted for them already; it’s the flaws you can’t see that are the real problem. And considering our finite knowledge, you can be quite certain that such flaws do exist, and that you’ll probably end up encountering them at some point in the future. What happens next, however, is far more important – because you can either acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them, or you can try and preserve your beliefs by rationalizing the discrepency away (in other words, you can turn justified belief into blind faith). This is why most people generally don’t change their beliefs much, because unfotunately, rationalizing them is simply the much easier option. After all, our brains are extremely powerful rationalizing machines. This gives us a rather astounding capacity to understand the universe around us, but only if we employ this power wisely.

When people do change their beliefs – and I’m talking about major, significant changes here, like switching religious or political allegiances – it is often the result of a rare and devastating blow to their entire belief system, which leaves them with little choice but to change their ways. This is not always the case, of course, but it accounts for most sudden and short term changes. When people change their beliefs through reflection and personal growth, it usually takes a lot longer for the changes to manifest, as they sort through all the details at their own pace. For example, I gave up my religious beliefs quite voluntarily, but I also did it over a very long period of time, as I was never faced with any direct challenges to my beliefs. I just gradually changed them on my own terms, as I learned more about the world and decided that some of the things I had been taught to believe were wrong. I realised fairly early on that the idea of a “god” in the conventional sense was a rather tenuous concept, but I held onto other aspects – like an afterlife of some sort – for quite a bit longer, purely because of the basic appeal of the idea. And that’s the thing with a lot of false beliefs: because they have no basis in reality, they are free to appeal to our emotions without being constrained by truth, like any good piece of fiction. They can be extremely hard to dislodge – except under special circumstances, when you encounter something which breaks through your rationalizations and brings the whole structure down at once.

It is this sudden and short-term collapse of the belief network which I will be focusing on here, because it seems to be one of the primary causes of depression (perhaps there are other causes as well; it probably manifests in a variety of complex ways, but this is the one I am interested in today). And as an aside, I think that this type of breakdown of beliefs also accounts for the “light” that people claim to see when they discover religion. It doesn’t have much to do with the intrinsic properties of their new belief system (all you need is a concept that carries its own internal logic, as I discussed in that previous entry); rather, it is just the enormous sense of relief that comes with finding a replacement for their old and broken beliefs. Because make no mistake, when your belief network breaks down, the pressure to build it back up again is quite severe. I know, because I have experienced it firsthand. And personally, I’m just glad that I had already tried seeing that particular light – and I didn’t find any answers there, either.

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Anti-violence post #1

Tuesday, January 19th, 2010

Some things in life are predictable: death, taxes, humorous non-sequitur third option. Others – like my update schedule – are less so. Sometimes you can see the car headlights moving inexorably towards you, and you try to get out of the way, only to realise the road has been covered with crazy glue, and your shoelaces have been tied together. Other times, they buy an electric car and switch off the headlights, and sneak up on you. Christ, I hate my neighbourhood.

Another thing that can be placed in the “predictable” category is the storyline of my comic. Well, large chunks of it, anyway – especially if you are already familiar with my political and social views and the way I like to express them in my work. I’m hoping to mix in a few surprises along the way, within that overall framework of inevitability, but I don’t think I’m really giving much away when I say that the main theme of the first half of the story will be the causes and consequences of violent behaviour. Since it’s a subject which will no doubt continually crop up as the story progresses, I’m going to jot down a few musings here, mostly to help keep my thoughts in order.

So, let’s start off with the basics. Violence is essentially a reaction against vulnerability, sought because it delivers feelings of safety and control – but ultimately, these feelings are just an illusion. You can see this across the board, from full scale warfare right down to one-on-one encounters. A telling example is the way governments use euphemisms like “security” to justify expanding their own power and hegemony, revealing that even large and powerful groups of people still function with the exact same deep-seated fear that drives all violent behaviour. Because what is security, exactly? The ability to gain so much control that you will never have to fear violent attack? Such a situation is patently impossible, yet it is the very thing that violence promises to deliver, and so people continue to fall for it. This psychology scales down with surprisingly little change, even to an individual level. The school bully, looking to control the other kids because he feels threatened by them. The guy who starts a bar fight with almost no provocation, because he is trying to compensate for feelings of powerlessness resulting from social isolation and emotional disconnection. The husband who has been taught all his life that emotions are effeminate and wrong, and thus ends up being so filled with fear when it comes to relationships that he tries to exert control by beating his wife. In fact, sex itself is, for a number of different reasons, one of the most vulnerable experiences in life, which is why some people will turn to violent behaviour to try and deal with it, either in reality or fantasy (the psychology is basically the same either way, despite how illogical and contradictory it seems from a more superficial perspective).

The consequences of violence are numerous and well-documented. History books are filled with innumerable accounts of lives that have been ruined through senseless and careless acts, and the media takes a certain macabre delight in delivering fresh tales of similar woe each day. It’s not exactly difficult to see that violence causes far more problems than it will ever solve. So why, then, do people keep returning to it? Why are they so unendingly inured to the obvious outcomes? There are numerous factors at play, but in the end, it all comes down to perception versus reality. The real problem here is that even though violence only delivers the illusion of safety and control, this illusion is the result of the brain equating mastery of its immediate surroundings with a more general and wide-reaching feeling of empowerment. It still feels very real, in the mind of the person committing these acts. And its absence is very noticeable. This is why violent behaviours, once learned, are amongst the hardest to let go of.

Human behaviour is driven primarily by fear, so anything which creates a feeling of safety is naturally going to be very attractive. Violence, however, actually decreases safety whilst making the user feel safer. It’s like buying a gun for protection: you might feel safer with a gun at your side, but in reality, a society full of people carrying guns is far less safe than a weaponless one. It’s easy to see how this works with something like a gun, which so obviously changes the balance of power, but this same psychology extends to all violent behaviour, to varying degrees. Because the feeling of safety increases whilst actual safety decreases, the result is an unending behavioural loop, driven by fear, in search of something which by definition can never exist.

Even when you recognise this reality, finding a way out is still extremely hard. To revisit the gun analogy: a society full of people carrying guns might be dangerous, but a society where everyone except you is armed is even worse, from your own perspective at least. Trying to go against this system means putting yourself in an even more vulnerable position – which, when you’ve formed behaviours around compensating for vulnerability through violence, is not only a truly daunting task, but it seems quite illogical if not outright stupid (I mean, get rid of your gun, when everyone else still has theirs? That’s crazy, right?). Fear can build up to such a level that abandoning violence can become seemingly unthinkable; so instead you run in the other direction, deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, despite knowing full well that you’re moving further and further away from the only path out of this mess.

I believe it can be done, however – so long as people are actually willing to make that choice. And the more people who do, the easier it becomes, because people naturally feel less vulnerable in groups than they do alone. More importantly, though, the need to move on from violence is becoming increasingly urgent, as an examination of human development will reveal.

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