Politics and Emotion

Emotion implies motion and motion necessitates direction, intentional or not; this is the origin of emotion: the concentrating of motive force in an organism to move toward or away from some external object or event.

The actual energy delivered through the eye of a baboon from the quick glimpse of a leopard a couple of hundred meters away is not enough to bend a gnat’s wing and yet that moment of light energy energies a 30 kilo body and then, through perception of the first baboon’s actions, many other baboons in the area. In this example the energized baboons use emotion to fix their attention and organize their actions around the possibility of a leopard sneaking into their ranks and killing one of them; an appropriate and survival supporting use of the calories that they gather every day.

In fact, 99.99999% (I am guessing at the location of the final 9s) of all amplified behavior – “emotional” behavior for living things – has had this relationship with its stimulating sources, only humans have bogeymen, devils, witches, al-Qaedas, Nazis, monsters-under-the-bed, socialists and a hundred others that energize our motion, demanding a direction for action, while having no meaningful survival-enhancing direction to go in.

It is said that politics is perception. But the natural history of politics is organization for community action: stimulating and organizing emotion for the benefit of the community. When the community is no longer the focus of emotionally based action (reform your idea of emotional action to mean energized action), then individual self-interest cloaked in some story of how said action will ‘benefit us all’ takes true community interest’s place. Then, politics is perception and so it has been for a long time.

There is a great and terrible clue to our human construction in the functioning of these matters. I remember so very clearly listening to the original recording of South Pacific, especially, ‘You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’ – I must have been 7 or 8 years old – and thinking about being taught to hate. I think that I somehow believed that so clear a statement must be everywhere understood. I was hearing this understanding and so, in my child’s mind, everyone must be hearing it too. How was it possible, if such a thing were so clearly understood in a song, that the most virulent of prejudice could go on?

I soon discovered that hearing a song had no particular effect. The children with whom I schooled and played, even if they heard the song, had their own interests and uses (organizing principles) for prejudice and other emotion driven actions. I became the ‘nigger lover’ for a portion of my elementary school, though not so much in a ‘burn a cross on the lawn’ way. It was pretty soon clear to me that ‘fitting in’ didn’t mean being the same as everyone else, but rather being identifiable in some already established pattern. So the scrappy little Yankee boy was the ‘nigger lover’ who could bloody a nose as well as anyone else.

An incident some years later – which I present only as evocative – added some bit of meat to my skeletal understandings. In an argument over some feat of physical prowess a new boy to school claimed my claim impossible. I tried my jocular way of deflecting the argument, but he persisted. I could not perform the feat in the light rain that was falling and said so. At this point this new boy, supposedly ignorant of our traditions, pulled ‘nigger love’ casually from his bag of tricks – it came out with a whole new tone and meaning. The gathered, formerly more or less on my side and enjoying the distraction, were drawn as a body to demand performance there and then. Something odd in my experience had happened. It was not to remain odd.

Each society has its formative emotional states – it is, in fact, these formative emotional states that define membership in a given society. In my personal example above my schoolmates were primed by long experience to the dreaded phrase (and many others). We had grown beyond its practice stages and it was now being pulled out to control people in the adult world. The new boy was part of that society and I was not.

We are, in this sense, much like the baboon. The sight of a leopard results in a largely standardized set of behaviors by the whole troop, behaviors with a long history of being successful in minimizing the leopard’s success at eating baboons. A major difference is, of course, that our largely standardized set of behaviors has only to do with sustaining the behaviors themselves, organization for organization’s sake, and especially empowering those individuals who discover best how to use those behaviors to their advantage.

The earth’s dominant humans have been for some time at a place where we measure our success with immediate personal outcomes.1 This sounds right in evolutionary terms except for the fact that the primates evolving into humans had long ago moved beyond individual success as the evolutionary design principle for the species. Our community design has been for millions of years our evolutionary center of gravity.2

Our relationship to instinct is also new. As living things we have most of our behaviors driven by genetically written instruction, but elements of detail have been selectively removed from the operational end of these patterns: we are ‘expected’ to learn from presently (and previously) existing humans the last bits. However, the existing humans, during the development of our designs, were making almost all of their adaptive learnings around a natural environment that changed only very slowly in terms of human lifetimes. The operational end of instinctive behavior was for this reason very little changed in content, but added orders of magnitude of refinement of detail and speed of adaptation.

The incredibly powerful tools for human adaptation to the details of environment and to other humans in the community resulted in an organism of such outsized potential that humans literally exploded onto the biological world with the consequences that we see today. We are emotionally primed to see this explosion as a great and powerful positive rather than as the destruction of the community order natural to the human animal.

Each infant is born into the world with the potential to become a fully functioning human organism, ready to absorb the last bits of instruction for how to fit into a particular environment with supreme skill. But what is often not understood, and did not need to be understood in our early history, is that much of what is learned as device to adapt behavior to the environment is, when separated from the context of its application, absolute nonsense.

Emotions are the energy source for action. Actions must have some effective relevance to the conditions of the world they are intended to address. But there is nothing that says that the triggering of the emotions must be done by something directly related to the real. A major human adaptation has been the creation of stories (beliefs) that trigger and guide emotions; the emotions are real, the actions are real, but the stories are only coded devices to attach motive force to action.

It is this absolute nonsense upon which we base our present world. Gods and dominating growth, human omnipotence and Exceptionalism (the two phrases mean the same thing!) are beliefs to guide action, not truths. They are only adaptations that are now in desperate need of change.

This is not an argument that says we must believe nothing, but that we understand that what we believe is adaptive, to serve as a mnemonic guide to attach stimulation to motive and motive to action. These are the most complex relationships; we could not act if each situation required a statistical level of certainty. But it is not necessary to make belief more important than reality. This last has come about because reality was, in the formation of our new talent, so immediate and undeniable while now it is belief that seems so much closer; and reality, like some will-of-the-wisp, spins and beguiles beyond comprehension.

Our individual existence has become tied absolutely to the details of our believing and daily living. The larger images of life, happiness, connection, biological order, personal power in the natural world pale to insignificance as we try ‘getting ahead,’ selecting insurance coverage, finding a good school for the kids, paying bills, catching a favorite TV show and a thousand other things that crowd moment-to-moment experience.

Philosophers and mystics have told us for thousands of years that this all illusion, that devotion to these illusions withers the soul – what I would rather call ‘specieshood.’ Yet, our deepest biological designs make each new generation ready to absorb the illusions into which it is born as reality.

If the magnitude of these simple statements is difficult to grasp – they are for me – I will amplify: each nation, each region, each culture and subculture, each community (no matter how dysfunctional) imparts its own stories to its young. We know from early childhood experience research (and from rational consideration of biological functioning in primate societies) that much of habit structure is well set before puberty. Given our great numbers and the hundreds of thousands of subcultures, all with their own stories held as truth, the chances of making some reasonably rapid universal response to globally intense and rapidly changing biophysical conditions is very poor.

For any other organism than humans, the situation would be utterly unrecoverable – and will be (and has been) for many species already. But humans have one possible way out of the mess our unprecedented capacities have led us to: we can change our story. This has been done on a small scale many times – it is the adaptive process of the Consciousness System of Order; large scale processes depend primarily on education and communication… and on our next story being as veridical to biophysical reality as is humanly possible.

The struggle, for all its variations and permutations, is between those who literally cannot imagine life without the story that they absorbed in youth and those who see that life as we know it cannot continue if we remain in the illusions of those very same stories. The emotion controlling messages, all part of the story, are very powerful, and left unchallenged will dominate action every time – they are designed to do exactly that. If we want a new ending, then we must forcefully write and tell it until the new story competes for spontaneity of response with the old one.

  1. Technologically and economically dominant humans – the so called first world. Another way that we measure our success is the amount and speed of change we can make. It has become an unquestioned certainty that doing more faster is essential for “our way of life.” []
  2. Human communities are only like other complex social organisms, e.g., social insects and herd mammals, in the most superficial ways. Our social organization, while biologically evolved, is dominated by a new system for the ordering and using information. The community is the central structure for Consciousness Order; story, the information nexus of consciousness, only has function in community. []

James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on January 21st, 2010 at 10:29am #

    It seems to me that every organism can be called “exceptional”; since every organism had adapted in differnet ways to nature in order to survive.
    I suggest that we for a long time had not been imparted mystories or sanitized history.
    I think that in those days, words or descriptions had full symbolic vaues. In other words, people cldn’t have afforded to deceptively imbue a symbol [word] with fictive value.
    E.g. If a hunter said there were deer by the lake. Let’s go and get one and we all will eat, it was taken as god’s words. Lying wld have been perilous for the clan or even liar.
    But once lying started, iniquities followed. And we can see how perilous lying is
    for ‘aliens’ in asia!

    i do suggest that over an eon, while adapting for survival, we had no priests, pols, generals, soldiers, bankers/banking, warfare, sorcerers, shamans. But once these arose and proclaimed selves aghas, amirs, kings, princes, boyars, lords, counts, priests, the hell descended upon us.
    Was it like this? Ok, we cannot ever know. But why not err on side of obtaining an idyllic society we once probably had rather than hell? beats me! tnx

  2. Rehmat said on January 21st, 2010 at 10:46am #

    Distortion of historical facts and playing and creating a guilty conscience – are part of modern mass propaganda technique. For example, David Brooks in his January 12 Op-Ed column ”The Tel Aviv Cluster’ in the New York Times boasted many Jewish achievements considering they make-up only 0.2% of world’s population. He claimed that 54% of world chess champions, 27% of the Nobel physics laureates and 31% of the medicine laureates are Jewish. David Brooks also adds that though Jews make only 2% of United States population – 21% of Ivy League student bodies, 26% of the Kennedy Center honorees, 37% of Academy Award winning directors, 38% of those on a recent Business Week list of leading philanthropists and 51% of Pulitzer Prize winners for non-fiction are Jewish. But then David Brooks come out of his Hasbara (propaganda) liter-box by equating these Jewish achiement with Israeli achievements.

    However, David doesn’t want the world know some of the dark sides of the American Jews and Israel…..

    http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2010/01/21/jewish-or-israeli-achievements/

  3. bozh said on January 21st, 2010 at 12:12pm #

    I am not sure ab this: that ‘jews’ being very cultish, support one another with money and morally more that any other noncultish ethnics.
    I am not of the opinion that the nature endowned them with special brain functions.

    ‘Jews’ have accepted torahic command not to serve [work for?] others; to have servants; not to be borowers but only lenders. And one never get’s rich by working; one obtains wealth thru lending money.

    I am also not sure whether ‘jews’, thru long practice of lending money, gained more expertise than other bankers or that they cheat more via usury than, others.
    To get good schooling in US, one has to have money. ‘Jews’ have, ratiowise, more money than any other ethnos.
    So, natch, they are over-represented in professional sphere. Regarding chess champions i think that in modern times or since the end of the war there were possibly just three ‘jwish’ champions, ?tal, fischer, ?bronstein of USSR.
    Since that time there was also euwe, alekhine, botvinik, smislov, karpov, kasparov [partly ‘jewish’, but russolover], kramnik, anand [of india].
    i may have missed an odd one. The strongest chess nations are russia, azerbaidjan.
    tnx

  4. kalidas said on January 22nd, 2010 at 11:48am #

    The eye of the beholder, indeed..

    “in a decade, the roles of shoahists and deniers will be reversed: “are the six million survivors really alive”?

  5. dan e said on January 22nd, 2010 at 3:19pm #

    Well well, Prof K. I see your anthropology is far superior to your Political Economy. IMO the line of discussion you open above is promising, but needs much clarification, a few substantial corrections, and even more connection of the dots.
    I’d say you have shed considerable light on the “Emotion” part, but haven’t really connected it to the “Politics” part.
    One glaring lacuna is that you fail even to mention that ruling classes since the switch from kinship to geographical organization of urban societies have devoted a major part of their energy and resources to propagating certain “stories” (as you call them) and to suppressing others. Which leaves the question: how is it possible for any “new story” to compete when our rulers have such colossal and sophisticated means with which to propagate the version they prefer, while suppressing anything they think might threaten their ideological hegemony? With which to propagate a host of FAKE “new stories” designed to hoodwink anyone smart enough not to buy into the standard rap/Official Version/Conventional Wisdom?

    Your account of your schoolyard experiences is fascinating. Has the ring of true reality. But I think we need to understand more about just how the “new boy” and members of “the gathered” got that way.

    Social reality in the USA since they were the English Colonies has always been so different from pre-urban societies that it’s a stretch to speak of both as “community”, even more so when discussing recent periods such as those you may have personal experience of.

    Since the main force keeping the planetary Status Quo in operation is based on its acceptance & widespread active support by most of the voting , enlisting/re-enlisting or otherwise politically/ideologically active members of the US public, I think it becomes necessary to focus on the particular – repeat PARTICULAR – mechanisms/processes whereby humans become “Americans”, “patriots”, teapartying Defenders of Liberty etc. For instance on just how American-style Racism or/and Manifest Destinyism is transmitted from one generation to the next.

    PS: If, Prof K, you are moved to respond to any of the above, please do so here on DV? Thanks:)