When the events of your world are clearly in conflict with your deepest values; when you are being told that others know what is best, that they have access to determinative information that you cannot have; when you know that you are being lied to, your efforts misused, misdirected and you feel the figurative bruises of abuse, when events so monumental as to be unimaginable seem to randomly and arbitrarily control your daily concerns; when all of these things and more surge through and around you, then you are in serious trouble.
Today’s wars, economic crimes, environmental disturbances, injustices and inequities are overwhelming. And what is the cause, what is the source? Are we just doing it wrong? That is, of course, the first and most obvious conclusion: we are driving the car badly and have ended up in the ditch (taken from a now famous metaphor!). We must, then, discover who and what was wrong. If we only select better drivers, make sure the car is properly maintained and respond appropriately to the conditions of the road, then we will be safe.
War will be OK, if we just do it right. Vast economic inequities are fine as long as they are obtained legally. The environment is so much bigger than humanity that we cannot actually harm it. The injustices of the world are just how it is, and most of ‘them’ deserve what they get anyway. God is in his heaven and all is right with the world… if we just do it right! Many people wear these emotional protections like a shield.
If you didn’t feel it the first time, reread the first paragraph and try as hard as you can to imagine yourself at an opposite end of the political continuum. Do you still agree with the sentiments expressed? Who would not agree? If you have trouble imagining who might be offended or otherwise disturbed, let me help: those without values, those who lie to maintain power, those who benefit from the abuse of others and those who regard the Great Many of humanity as fields to be harvested, as soil to be plowed.
There was an intersection just north of my town where people were killed and maimed regularly; one of my dearest friends and his daughter were killed there. No amount of car maintenance or driver training could fix the problem. Drivers had to cross a four-lane high-speed road at the very top of a hill; the approaching high-speed drivers could not see the intersection until they were in it. There was no way to do it right; driving through the intersection was a crapshoot. The only solution was to redesign the highway, which was eventually done after scores of “accidents” and many deaths.
The process of redesigning a highway is pretty clear, but how do we begin to correct the tragically dangerous intersections of human necessity, biological imperative and the immensity of our presence in the biosphere? If we can imagine for a moment that all human beings enter the world in approximately the same condition, then we are in a good position to realize that there might be a way to organize the world that would best suit the growth and development of those new humans; and if we have gone wrong in a big way, you know, wars, injustice, etc., then our difficulties may have more to do with the design and construction of our societies than with whether the people in general are ‘doing the societies right.’
“But we can’t change the construction of our societies!” I can hear the cries go up. “It is not like redesigning a dangerous intersection.” But I say that it is exactly the same. Eventually the resistance to change is overcome by the horrors of the status quo. The “only question” is how many deaths, how much abuse, can be endured before we demand a redesign. The answer has always been, a very great deal.
In fact, we can endure so much that when the detonation of change comes (in society, thankfully not in our roads) we fail to even ask the other “only question”: What are the underlying forces that brought us to these difficulties in the first place? No, we don’t ask for fear that things will stay the same if we take the time to answer it, and so destine that no fundamental change will be forthcoming.1
We have repeated this failure for thousands of years, carrying with us from social iteration to social iteration an increasingly heavy burden of beliefs and habits that drive our changes faster and faster as well as further and further from the biological imperatives of being a living organism totally dependent on a tiny region of biophysical stability, for that must be our baseline.
The human species was driven from Eden to be sure; Eden, where the rules of order were tailor-made for living things by the natural world, just as living things were tailor-made for the rules. And we have been driven ever since to ‘overcome’ the rules of Eden and to simultaneously rediscover them.
It is becoming clearer and clearer, for all the reasons above, that we are in trouble, more trouble as a species and as a planetary ecosystem than our species as ever seen and more trouble than the earth as seen in 65 million years. We have been watching, as only a disaffected and psychologically stunted people can watch, the incredible pain and suffering of billions of people, enduring crippling stress ourselves and living meaningless distorted lives that we pump up by filling our nests with bright and shiny objects. An even more disaffected and emotionally stunted elite has cornered the market on the most desirable shiny objects even to the point of intentionally harming their own countrymen to collect them.2
The failure to meet the basic biological expectations of new humans gives us people like Michele Bachmann, Charles Manson, Tim Geithner, Bernie Madoff, Sarah Palin, John Paulson, Tom DeLay, Adolf Hitler, all sociopaths differing only in degree. Manson was not at the Tate house, but motivated the crime. Madoff and Paulson were not at the various suicides and stress related deaths that they also motivated. Do you really think that DeLay wouldn’t demagogue like Hitler if it served his purposes; how far would he go given the chance? Palin, Geithner and Bachmann are dishonest and narcissistic at pathological levels and thoughtlessly heartless. This is just a random list; it could be populated with many others.
We are creating our own monsters and giving them huge Tonka Toys of power to play in because we have lost the human designs that make being born and growing up as a fully functioning human being relatively common and safe. We have no difficulty understanding that certain conditions are required for raising and training of a good dog, and yet we expect that people should be essentially the same regardless of the average conditions in which they grow up.
In our attempts to overcome Eden we are also rediscovering Eden and have learned a great deal about the needs and biological expectations of our new born, things our long ago ancestors did without question. Harry Harlow,3 in the 1950s, gave ‘mothers’ made of chicken wire to monkey babies turning them into sad monkey monsters and showing us what any baby would have told us if it could: babies need to be held with warmth and feed with mother’s milk and love. What is to be thought of a society in which this is not a first priority?
No manufacturer of machine tools would willfully or willingly create tools that would damage the machines of which they were a part and yet we produce broken disaffected people as though we had no choice and have designed a system of belts and funnels that gather the most ambitious, brightest and sociopathic into positions of power.
I offer this simple question: What would be the consequence for a society if the majority of the people in it were raised in ways that reduced their sense of insecurity, increased their confidence in their right to basic human dignity and taught them to be the most powerful agents in their own well being? 4
We know what happens to the people in societies (and subcultures) that deny the opportunity for a biologically effective childhood. We have America today. Our children have been raised by TV. They play in the meadows and woodlands of video games. Significant adults are not at home; and when they are, far too many are second, even third, generation products of neglect and, like Harlow’s second generation of adult monkeys from “wire mothers,” have lost the warmth of affection. The result is a population that is easily misled, easily frightened; a group-think population ready to follow some arbitrary belief tailored by sociopaths for their ascent to power.
From early educational research to current sociological studies, the evidence is clear: the more support for the emotional and intellectual development that is given in the first 3 to 5 years the healthier, happier, humanly competent and more socially independent the adult. In economic terms, a dollar spent on making such conditions possible returns 7 to 10 dollars in economic production and social savings.
Our failure to nurture our young is here now upon us like a biblical plague. The disaffected rich no longer hide their disaffection for the disaffected masses. The masses, in their confusion, give up their ultimate power to withhold their labor since they have believed the incredible lie that a new plasma TV will love them as they cannot love themselves.
But as a final caution let me point out that this problem, as intransigent as it is, does not require the ear of a world leader (though it would be nice) or the regulating of world currency manipulation (though also helpful). We, ordinary people, know, or can “remember,” how to do this; if there is no help coming from the powerful, from those who dominate employment and its options for maturity leave or flexible schedules and the other things that would allow for more real “monkey mother” behavior, then we can and must make the opportunities.
We have lost much, far too many have lost natural human warmth, but we are not ordinary monkeys; many can, even if diminished by neglect, rekindle their humanity especially in the presence of their (and other) children. I have no idea what the world would become if some critical mass of humanity began to express their truly human nature mediated by our best scientific understandings, but I know what it will be like if we do not.
- It is not actually true that the effort has never been seriously made. The founding thinkers of the USA were dutiful in their study and contemplation of the mistakes of precious systems of governance and not entirely devoted to creating a system solely beneficial to themselves and those like them; though that too was a powerful motive. [↩]
- A deep part of their disaffection is that people not of ‘equal status’ are not really recognized as their countrymen or neighbors and need not be treated as humans fully worthy of respect. This is old in human history and must be considered in any remediation of social design. [↩]
- ‘Love at Goon Park’ by Deborah Blum, Perseus Publishing, 2002, if you’d like more information. One of my roommates picked up Dr. Harlow at the airport when he came to the University I attended as an undergrad, picked him in the bar. Being Harry Harlow and knowing about the love deficit in our human children was a cross to bear. [↩]
- An answer is hinted at in ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Bloomsbury Press, 2009, though it was not necessarily their intention. [↩]