In the wake of terror attacks, politicians are fond of proclaiming, “We will not be intimidated.” By this they seem to mean that we won’t cower in fear, but will boldly root out the terrorists, visit upon them the hand of justice, and hold them to account. “Make no mistake,” about that, they say. We will be tough, and by tough they mean heightening security at home, intensifying counter-terrorism measures abroad, and punishing the perpetrators and all who give them aid and comfort.
Tough and strong though they seem, all of these responses are based on fear. They are the actions of people who are afraid of terrorism. Looking at them, one might say that the terrorists have succeeded after all. Even if their ostensible political cause is crushed, their terror has succeeded in increasing the level of fear in the world.
From fear comes hate, and from hate comes violence. Acting from that fear, we sow the seeds of future terrorism in the world, thereby confirming the image of our terror. It is as Martin Luther King said (quoted in a marvelously brave and insightful piece by Falguni Sheth in Salon, Where does the hate come from? ): “Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.”
Is there an alternative? There is, but I am afraid it is so radical as to be beyond the reach of our political imagination, at least until the futility of force, hate, and control becomes so apparent we can no longer ignore it. Right now, we respond to each failure of control with more control, each failure of force with more force, each failure of security with more security. Where will it end? When every school, stadium, shopping mall, hospital, home, and public building is like a fortress?
Let us ask a simple question. Do we want to live in a future where to attend any public event or enter any public building means to pass through a security checkpoint? That would be a society that runs on fear, a society in which fear infiltrates every corner of public life. Since a fortress is the mirror opposite of a prison (the former keeps people out, the latter in), a fortress society is also a prison society, in which every trip, every entry in a building, every purchase is monitored and controlled, and every act policed.
Is anyone out there asking, “What would it take to have a society where we need less security every year, and not more?” Is any politician proclaiming this as a goal? Is anyone upholding this as a vision for the future? Are we capable of envisioning a society where we feel at home among each other, a society of growing trust, and not a society resembling a prison more and more with each passing year?
One might think that yes, this is a worthy goal, and that therefore we should study and address the causes of terrorism – but of course we must tighten security until such time as we do that. That would be fine except for one unfortunate possibility: what if the regime of security and control is itself integral to the conditions that breed terrorism?
It makes a certain amount of psychological sense that this is the case. What we suppress in our psyche often bursts out in some dissociated and extreme form. When we live in fear (as we do in a security state), we are certain to experience that fear in various externalized ways, such as terrorism. The suppressed shadow emerges. Are the horrific events of the last few months the random acts of bad guys? Or could it be that we are seeing a reflection of ourselves?
More mundanely, the security mindset applied to foreign policy by a militaristic state surely creates the image of its own fear and hatred. The more aggressively we seek to protect ourselves from the people we fear, the more those people will fear and hate us. The further we take security, for example to preemptive drone strikes, the more hatred we will generate. The more hatred we generate, the greater will be the need to extend the regime of security even further.
The same is true of the mindset of control at home, in the workplace, and at school, extending even to pharmaceutical control of the mind via anti-depressant drugs. A society that is increasingly regimented, surveilled, and controlled, in which “freedom” happens behind gates and walls, necessarily stokes an explosive desire to break free. I do not mean to trivialize the complicated psycho-social factors that turn a person into a mass murderer, but certainly a key factor must be an overwhelming feeling of alienation. What could be more alienating then a standardized, controlled, endemically suspicious society, where everywhere you go you are treated as a suspect or troublemaker?
To build a society of safety and trust rather than security and fear, we are going to have to act from the former rather than the latter. I therefore offer a few modest proposals for how to respond to the Boston bombing. First, let us reverse the cycle of terror by responding, not with heightened security, but with relaxed security, demonstrating that we will not be frightened into retreating behind cameras, fences, and metal detectors. We will bravely uphold an open society.
Secondly, let us reverse the cycle of hatred abroad by ceasing all preemptive and punitive drone strikes and other attacks. Those are the actions of a frightened people. It takes courage to trust that if one holds back from violence, whomever one has seen as an enemy will do the same. But in a situation of mutual distrust, someone has to take the first step. Otherwise, each act merely confirms the distrust of the other, and the violence never ends.
Thirdly, instead of vowing to take vengeance on the perpetrator of the Boston attack, let us proclaim that rather than punish him, he will have the opportunity to face the families of the people he killed and the people whose limbs he destroyed. He will hear their stories and share his own. Then together, the victims, perpetrators and communittee will agree on how best to heal the damage done and serve justice. While remorse and forgiveness may not result, it is more likely to than in punitive justice. (For more on this approach to justice, explore the Restorative Justice website or read this article.)
This response will reduce the amount of hate and fear in the world The perpetrator will not become a martyr in the eyes of his sympathizers. Any response that heightens the already-endemic fear in our society will be a victory for fear. To truly resist terrorism, we must not act from terror. Can we receive the hate of this act and transform it into love?
No doubt most people will say that these proposals are dangerously unrealistic and naïve, so let me anticipate some of the objections. The first proposal would seem to make us more vulnerable to terrorism, and to make it easier for terrorists to achieve their ends. Actually, heightened security only gives the illusion of safety; it does not provide actual safety. At best, it displaces possible terrorist activity from one venue to another. As each public place is secured, those with violent intent will simply enact their plans at some other place that is not secured. What is the difference if it is displaced from an airport to a stadium, from a stadium to a subway station, from a subway station to a shopping mall? The only solution, from the perspective of security and control, would be to secure every public event and building, so that the act of going out in public means undergoing a search and metal detector screening. And even then there would be gaps through which a determined or creative terrorist could strike. The Newtown massacre, which happened at a school with extensive security, demonstrated that such measures, as the Chinese say, “stop the gentleman but not the crook.”
Moreover, even if relaxed security did result in more attacks, that would not mean that the terrorists had achieved their ends. Their goal is not to kill people – that is a means, not an end. Their goal is to engender fear. If our response shows that we are not afraid, then we will be deterring terrorism, not encouraging it. I think this is what Jesus meant when he enjoined us to “turn the other cheek.” Doing so isn’t an invitation to strike again. It shows that the first strike did not work. (For a deeper explanation of this injunction, please read Walter Wink’s profound essay, “Jesus’ Third Way.”)
The second suggestion above invites the protest, “But if we don’t destroy our enemies or at least hold them in check, then they will be emboldened and eventually overrun us.” This protest imagines that enmity happens in a kind of vacuum, that hatred toward the United States exists outside a context of militarism and imperialism, a relationship of violence and counter-violence. It assumes, perhaps, that they “hate us for our freedoms.” In other words, it says that they are evil and we are good. I think anyone can recognize that this is a recipe for endless war when, as is usual, both sides believe that they are the good guys.
The second and third proposals also provoke the objection, “If we don’t punish acts of terror and other crimes, then there will be nothing to deter future criminals.” Leaving aside the weak and often contradictory evidence for the efficacy of deterrence in preventing crime (see for example here), the notion of punishment-based deterrence draws on a world-view that is fundamentally fear-based. It says there are implacably evil people out there who, if not deterred by personal harm, will do terrible things to us. In fact, the classical theory of deterrence, originating in the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Baccaria, essentially extends the category of “evil” people to everyone. Bentham in particular said that human beings naturally act to maximize their “utility” – avoidance of pain and experiencing of pleasure. Therefore, in order to prevent people from committing criminal acts, there must be negative consequences to counterbalance that universal desire to benefit oneself by harming others.
The theory of deterrence, in other words, presupposes a world of separate, competing, self-interested individuals. But is that really the world we live in? If so, then a better life will only come through greater and greater security, deterrence, surveillance, and control. In such a world, trust is foolish, as is any hope of forgiveness, redemption, love, or a change of heart. Certainly, our experiences often seem to confirm this. But could it be that what we are seeing is an artifact of our system, and the projection of our own beliefs? When we act from an ideology of force and the fundamental selfishness of human beings, we create the world in its image.
In that case, maybe it is time to act from a different paradigm of human nature: a belief in our fundamental goodness, our common humanity, our desire to connect, to love, to help, and to serve. Certainly the immediate responses to the tragedy in Boston offer ample evidence for such a belief: people generously coming to the aid of total strangers. It was as if the explosions tore apart the veil of mutual suspicion that keeps us separate and allowed a latent aspect of human nature its full expression. What if we take those acts of selflessness as the true lesson of Boston? Could we create a world in their image? If MLK was right, surely it is also true that peace begets peace, forgiveness begets forgiveness, and love begets love. No less a revolution will create a society where we feel safe and at home amongst each other.
Photo credit: thestatusjoe
Originally, the thesis of this essay was going to be that TED, contrary to its reputation for promoting innovative ideas, excludes ideas that are truly radical or disruptive, contributing instead to a slickly packaged narrative of “Gee whiz, thanks to these nifty ideas, the world is getting better all the time.” TED is, I thought, a conservative institution, a champion of our culture’s dominant narratives. It isn’t hard to make that case, but when I cast my net a little wider and crowd-sourced some research, I discovered the situation is not quite so simple.
The two recent incidents that motivated my original thesis were (1) The suppression of TEDx talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, and (2) The withdrawal of TED support from TEDxWestHollywood (now proceeding this weekend as ExTEDxWestHollywood (free livestream here). In both cases, the rationale that TED eventually settled on was that the speakers and events were “far removed from mainstream scientific thinking.” The blogger C4Chaos says a lot of what is on my mind about that. TED’s original justification, with rebuttals by the two speakers, can be found here. (Actually this is rewritten from the original critique, which has been expunged from the web.)
It is certainly true that the work of Sheldrake, Hancock, and many of the WestHollywood speakers is far removed from mainstream scientific thinking. Part of the mythology of science is that cogent thinking equals scientific thinking, and that therefore anything that science rejects is likely founded on shoddy reasoning, poor observation, self-delusion, or perhaps outright fraud. This belief depends on two assumptions: that the Scientific Method is superior to other sources of knowledge, and that the institution of science honestly upholds and applies the Scientific Method. Granting all that, we can draw a convenient line in accepting or rejecting new ideas by asking, “Is this idea consistent with accepted science?”
But what if these assumptions are not true? In their talks, Graham Hancock questioned the first, and Rupert Sheldrake the second. Sheldrake (a credentialed scientist with a Master’s from Harvard, Ph.D. from Cambridge, and numerous publications in cell and plant biology) described how the exclusion of dissident viewpoints and anomalous data from science obscures cracks in its basic worldview. Of course a critique of mainstream scientific thinking is going to be “far-removed from mainstream scientific thinking.” By withholding its imprimatur, TED seems to be saying that such a critique is out of bounds, no matter how cogent or articulate. Unintentionally, TED’s actions have illustrated Sheldrake’s point.
TED’s alignment with conventional thinking extends beyond science. For example, in taking down Hancock’s talk, TED curator Chris Anderson mentioned that they don’t want young people running off to South America to take ayahuasca thinking TED has approved it. So here is an implicit alignment with the dominant narrative that illegal drugs are bad, and that it is irresponsible to do such a thing as run off to the Amazon. As with Sheldrake, I see an irony here: Hancock was making the point that our conventional means of apprehending consciousness exclude something important.
More broadly, TED generally seems to stand for several overarching principles that are foundational to our civilization’s dominant narratives: that technology is a force for good, that technological solutions exist to all our problems, that life is getting better and better. The TED presentation aesthetic communicates a can-do spirit, offering a kind of showcase for the Next Great Thing. Unsurprising, given its origin as a celebration of “technology, entertainment, and design.”
It is also worth noting that scientific orthodoxy and technology evangelism go hand in hand. If the Scientific Method is indeed capable of unlocking the mechanisms of nature, and if the institution of science embodies the accumulated fruits of its unbiased application, it stands to reason that increasing control, via technology, will accompany increasing understanding via science. To question fundamental scientific precepts casts doubt upon the efficacy of technology as well. If there are vast realms of nature and human experience that science (as we know it) has not fathomed, then perhaps technology bears parallel limitations.
The challenge to science (as an institution if not as a method) that Sheldrake, Hancock, and several of the exTEDxWestHollywood speakers pose implicates much more than science. For instance, science has often been an agent of colonialism, devaluing and replacing indigenous ways of knowing. It has been an agent of social control, celebrating as progress the transition from traditional, organic, community-based modes of interaction to those which are planned, optimized, centralized, and engineered. It has often been an agent of economic and ecological exploitation, disregarding and destroying anything it cannot or will not measure. TED’s genuflection toward science (as institution), and in particular an intransigent faction within that institution, is actually a defense, however unwitting, of a primary pillar of the world as we know it.
Given all of this, one would expect TED to confine itself across the board to entertaining, clever ideas that pose little threat to the status quo. But it turns out that this is by no means uniformly the case. Many TEDx talks, and even some in the official TED conference, advance ideas that overtly or covertly challenge prevailing ideologies on a fairly deep level. My crowd of researchers (I put the question on Facebook) found a bunch of radical talks on economics, education, and the political system. There are even quite a few that challenge scientific paradigms but for some reason didn’t attract the ire of the militant atheists who flagged Sheldrake (he is their public enemy #1). Many more don’t present a direct challenge, but are still subversive in more muted ways, for example by empowering people toward some kind of non-participation in the system. Ultimately, anything that inspires wonder, joy, forgiveness, love of nature, the feeling of connectedness, or generosity erodes the sponsoring myth of our culture and everything built upon it: that we are separate individuals in a world of other that we must conquer and control. TED appears to be defending that myth and assualting it at the same time.
Whence this schizophrenia? We as a civilization are undergoing a transition to a new (and perhaps very ancient) mythology, one in which we no longer understand ourselves as separate from each other and from nature, one in which we see the universe as intelligent through and through. Upon that narrative (which is contrary to some fundamental tenets of science), radically different kinds of social, economic, and technological systems will emerge. Today, that transition is barely underway. We all live with a foot in two worlds, striving toward a new but in many ways unconsciously clinging to the old. In that, the TED authorities are essentially no different from any of us.
We would like for there to be some familiar institution that we can trust, something of the old world that we can cling to as a sound repository of goodness, from which we can challenge all that is wrong. For some that comforting refuge is science – the one good apple in the barrel of our rotten institutions. For others it is religion, education, medicine, or information technology. If only people were better educated! If only they listened to science! And the Internet will change everything! Certainly, all of these institutions harbor positive evolutionary forces, but in main they are all integral components of a world-devouring, soul-devouring machine.
No doubt, TED’s inner circle sees the potential for a more beautiful world. That world is at once tantalizingly close and impossibly distant. On the one hand, we don’t need any new technology to reach it; if we could only change our perceptions and social agreements, if only billions of us had a change of heart, we could be living right now in paradise. As I like to point out, half the world wastes enough food to feed the other half. On the other hand, such a shift – which would have to encompass the money system, politics, law, and the way we see each other and the world – is so huge as to seem impossible. Consider: how close is it to political reality to disband all armies, cease all weapons production, abolish all borders, cancel most debt, and adopt already-existing upcycling and permaculture technologies on a mass scale? That is the degree of change we need to save our world. None of these things (armies, borders, money, etc.) are written into material reality. They are products of our agreements.
Perhaps it is in realization of this that TED champions the power of “ideas.” Many of the ideas promulgated via TED do indeed erode the foundation of what people consider normal or unchangeable. But as the recent contretemps reveals, TED is still wedded to the old narrative in some important ways.
The controversy over Sheldrake, Hancock, and exTEDxWestHollywood refuses to go away. Might that suggest that TED is being offered an opportunity to define itself? TED faces a choice point. Either it can retreat into the doctrines of establishment science and all that goes along with it, or it can accept this invitation to take a new step into the open questioning of the basic assumptions of our world. This needn’t imply an endorsement of Sheldrake’s or Hancock’s views. It is merely to validate a new realm of inquiry. To do this requires no small amount of courage, because there are many rewards for adhering to the dominant ideologies. One gets taken seriously. One becomes, as Anderson himself put it, safe for the classroom – and safe for corporate sponsors, for mainstream media exposure, and other rewards for playing by the rules of the system.
This system, however, is falling apart, along with the ideologies and narratives that underlie it. This is just as true in the realm of science as it is in politics, finance, medicine, and education. The contradictions, shortcomings, and anomalies that people like Rupert Sheldrake illuminate in the edifice of science are not going away. But again, it takes courage to flout the normative belief system we call science.
How can we help TED – or anyone, for that matter – find the courage to take this step? First, I think it is important to refrain from publicly leveling accusations like “shameful,” “hypocritical,” and “cowardly” against TED. Such epithets will only cause them to harden their position. (Nor are they true. From within their perceptual framework, everything they are doing is fully justified.) We should be unwaveringly polite even as we are firm in upholding our beliefs. Both Sheldrake and Hancock exemplified this approach with their calm, courteous, and thorough rebuttals of the accusations against them.
Secondly, we should be vocal in our support for expanding the realm of acceptable inquiry, and make it clear that it is not a tiny fringe of airheads and cranks that supports the questioning of the basic tenets of science. No one wants to be subject to the slurs that militant atheists use (“woo-woo,” “pseudoscience,” “airy-fairy,” etc.) We have to demonstrate that such a characterization is inaccurate.
With this in mind, I have a modest proposal that I’d like to extend to anyone who has (as I have) spoken at a TED or TEDx event. I propose that we respectfully request that our videos be taken down from TED-affiliated youtube channels just as Sheldrake’s and Hancock’s were. One might frame this as an act in solidarity with two fellow speakers who received shabby treatment, but really, I have no ax to grind. I do not want to punish TED, or make them regret their actions, or set them up as the bad guy. It is simply this: TED says it doesn’t want to implicitly endorse the views of these men by having them associated with the TED brand. By the same token, I would prefer not to implicitly endorse TED’s repudiation of the realm of inquiry those two (and TEDxWestHollywood) represent, by having my “brand” associated with TED.
Besides, my TEDx talk was full of scientifically indefensible assertions. I said, “Everything we have done to the Eskimo curlew or passenger pigeon is a wound we feel all the time and suffer from.” I invoke scientifically suspect concepts like morphic fields and water memory in support for the scientifically nonsensical concept of “interbeing.” And I say, “The world we see around us is built on a story,” when any scientist could tell you it is, in fact, built on objectively existing fundamental particles. I feel uncomfortable having my talk standing, when more cogent, more eloquent talks by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock, with years of research behind them, are suppressed. I am going to write to TED and request that my talks be taken down, and I encourage any other speakers who agree with what I have said, or who feel disturbed by the recent acts of suppression, to do the same. This isn’t a struggle against the bad guy. I appreciate TED and think they have showcased some important ideas and inspiring speakers. This is, rather, an attempt to clarify the choice between stories, for me, for TED, and for its audience.
Every culture has a Story of the People to give meaning to the world. Part conscious and part unconscious, it consists of a matrix of agreements, narratives, and symbols that tell us why we are here, where we are headed, what is important, and even what is real. I think we are entering a new phase in the dissolution of our Story of the People, and therefore, with some lag time, of the edifice of civilization built on top of it.
Sometimes I feel intense nostalgia for the cultural mythology of my youth, a world in which there was nothing wrong with soda pop, in which the Superbowl was important, in which the world’s greatest democracy was bringing democracy to the world, in which science was going to make life better and better. Life made sense. If you worked hard you could get good grades, get into a good college, go to grad school or follow some other professional path, and you would be happy. With a few unfortunate exceptions, you would be successful if you obeyed the rules of our society: if you followed the latest medical advice, kept informed by reading the New York Times, and stayed away from Bad Things like drugs. Sure there were problems, but the scientists and experts were working hard to fix them. Soon a new medical advance, a new law, a new educational technique, would propel the onward improvement of life. My childhood perceptions were part of this Story of the People, in which humanity was destined to create a perfect world through science, reason, and technology, to conquer nature, transcend our animal origins, and engineer a rational society.
From my vantage point, the basic premises of this story seemed unquestionable. After all, it seemed to be working in my world. Looking back, I realize that this was a bubble world built atop massive human suffering and environmental degradation, but at the time one could live within that bubble without need of much self-deception. The story that surrounded us was robust. It easily kept anomalous data points on the margins.
Since my childhood in the 1970s, that story has eroded at an accelerating rate. More and more people in the West no longer believe that civilization is fundamentally on the right track. Even those who don’t yet question its basic premises in any explicit way seem to have grown weary of it. A layer of cynicism, a hipster self-awareness has muted our earnestness. What was once so real, say a plank in a party platform, today is seen through several levels of “meta” filters to parse it in terms of image and message. We are like children who have grown out of a story that once enthralled us, aware now that it is only a story.
At the same time, a series of new data points has disrupted the story from the outside. The harnessing of fossil fuels, the miracle of chemicals to transform agriculture, the methods of social engineering and political science to create a more rational and just society – each has fallen far short of its promise, and brought unanticipated consequences that threaten civilization. We just cannot believe anymore that the scientists have everything well in hand. Nor can we believe that the onward march of reason will bring on social utopia.
Today we cannot ignore the intensifying degradation of the biosphere, the malaise of the economic system, the decline in health, or the persistence and indeed growth of global poverty and inequality. We once thought economists would fix poverty, political scientists would fix social injustice, chemists and biologists would fix environmental problems, the power of reason would prevail and we would adopt sane policies. I remember looking at maps of rain forest decline in National Geographic in the early 1980s and feeling both alarm and relief – relief because at least the scientists and everyone who reads National Geographic is aware of the problem now, so something surely will be done.
Nothing was done. Rainforest decline accelerated, along with nearly every other environmental threat that we knew about in 1980. Our Story of the People trundled forward under the momentum of centuries, but with each passing decade the hollowing-out of its core, that started perhaps with the industrial-scale slaughter of World War One, extended further. When I was a child, our system of ideology and mass media still protected that story, but in the last thirty years the incursions of reality have punctured its protective shell and have ruptured its essential infrastructure. We no longer believe our storytellers, our elites. We don’t believe the politicians, we don’t believe the doctors, we don’t believe the professors, we don’t believe the bankers, we don’t believe the technologists. All of them imply that everything is under control, and we know that it is not. We have lost the vision of the future we once had; most people have no vision of the future at all. This is new for our society. Fifty or a hundred years ago, most people agreed on the general outlines of the future. We thought we knew where society was going. Even the Marxists and the capitalists agreed on its basic outlines: a paradise of mechanized leisure and scientifically engineered social harmony, with spirituality either abolished entirely or relegated to a materially inconsequential corner of life that happened mostly on Sundays. Of course there were dissenters from this vision, but this was the general consensus.
When a story nears its end it goes through death throes, an exaggerated semblance of life. So today we see domination, conquest, violence, and separation take on absurd extremes that hold a mirror up to what was once hidden and diffuse. The year 2012 ended with just such a potent story-disrupting event: the Sandy Hook massacre. Even realizing that far more, equally innocent, children have been killed in the last few years by, say, U.S. drone strikes, it really got under my skin. No one was immune. I think that is because its utter senselessness penetrated every defense mechanism we have to maintain the fiction that the world is basically OK. Unlike 9/11 or Oklahoma City, and certainly unlike the horrors that go on around the world, there was no convenient narrative to divert the raw pain of what happened. We cannot help but map those murdered innocents onto the young faces we know, and the anguish of their parents onto ourselves. At the base of our Story of the People is separation, of humanity from nature, of me from you, of each from all, and this event united everyone, of whatever culture, nationality, or political persuasion. For a moment, we all felt the exact same thing. For at least a moment, I am sure, most people were in touch with the simplicity of what is important; I am sure many people had that fleeting feeling, “It doesn’t have to be that difficult, if only we could remember what is so obvious now, that love is all there is.” We humans have made such a mess of things, forgetting love. It is the same realization we have when a loved one is going through the dying process, and we think, “Ah, how precious this person is – why couldn’t I see that? Why couldn’t I appreciate all those moments we had together? All the arguments and grudges seem so tiny now.”
Following that moment, of course, people hurried to make sense of the event, subsuming it within a narrative about gun control, mental health, or the security of school buildings. Maybe I am imagining things, but I don’t think anyone really believes deep down that these responses touch the heart of the matter. Gun culture, we know, is a symptom of something deeper, and the violence that finds expression through guns would, even in their absence, come out in some other way. Mental illness too is a problem so vast that it is essentially unsolvable in our current system; it too comes from a deeper source. As for school security, a Chinese saying describes all the measures proposed: they stop the gentleman but not the villain.
No one would say that Sandy Hook was more horrible than the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges, or the imperialistic wars of the 20th century and 21st, but it was less comprehensible. Try as we might, we cannot fit it into our Story of the World. It is the anomalous data point that unravels the entire narrative – the world no longer makes sense. We struggle to explain what it means, but no explanation suffices. We may go on pretending that normal is still normal, but this is one of a series of “end time” events that is dismantling our culture’s mythology.
The evident futility of the responses that we are capable of imagining also points to this deep ideological breakdown. The responses are all about more control. Yet control, as we may or may not realize, is a key thread of the old story of humanity rising above nature, imposing technology and reason on the wild world and the uncivilized human. All around us, we see our efforts at control backfiring: wars to fight terrorism breed terrorism, herbicides breed superweeds, antibiotics breed superbugs, psychiatric medications lead to explosive outbursts of violence.
Looking back on the community schools a couple generations past, where children and parents could walk in and out of any door, can we say that the inexorable trend toward fortress schools in a fortress state is something anyone would have chosen? The world was supposed to be getting better. We were supposed to be becoming wealthier, more enlightened. Society was supposed to be advancing. Here I am in America, the most “advanced” nation on Earth, yet even as our financial wealth has doubled and doubled again in fifty years, we have lost wealth of a more basic form; for example, the social capital of feeling safe, feeling at home where we live. Is more security the best we can aspire to? What about a society where safety does not equal security? What about a world where no human being wields an assault rifle? What about a world where we mostly know the faces and stories of the people around us? What about a world where we know that our daily activities contribute to the healing of the biosphere and the well-being of other people? We need a Story of the People that includes all of those things – and that doesn’t feel like a fantasy.
Various visionary thinkers have offered versions of such a story, but none of them has yet become a true Story of the People, a widely accepted set of agreements and narratives that gives meaning to the world and coordinates human activity towards its fulfillment. We are not quite ready for such a story yet, because the old one, though in tatters, still has large swaths of its fabric intact. And even when these unravel, we still must traverse the space between stories, a kind of nakedness. In the turbulent times ahead our familiar ways of acting, thinking, and being will no longer make sense. We won’t know what is happening, what it all means, and, sometimes, even what is real. Some people have entered that time already.
I wish I could tell you that I am ready for a new Story of the People, but even though I am among its many weavers, I cannot yet fully inhabit the new vestments. In other words, describing the world that could be, something inside me doubts, rejects, and underneath the doubt is a hurting thing. The breakdown of the old story is kind of a healing process, that uncovers the old wounds hidden under its fabric and exposes them to the healing light of awareness. I am sure many people reading this have gone through such a time, when the cloaking illusions fell away: all the old justifications, rationalizations, all the old stories. Events like Sandy Hook help to initiate the very same process on a collective level. So also the superstorms, the economic crisis, political meltdowns… in one way or another, the obsolescence of our old mythos is laid bare.
We do not have a new story yet. Each of us is aware of some of its threads, for example in most of the things we call alternative, holistic, or ecological today. Here and there we see patterns, designs, emerging parts of the fabric. But the new mythos has not yet emerged. We will abide for a time in the space between stories. Those of you who have been through it on a personal level know that it is a very precious – some might say sacred – time. Then we are in touch with the real. Each disaster lays bare the real underneath our stories. The terror of a child, the grief of a mother, the honesty of not knowing why. In such moments we discover our humanity. We come to each other’s aid, human to human. We take care of each other. That’s what keeps happening every time there is a calamity, before the beliefs, the ideologies, the politics take over again. Events like Sandy Hook, for at least a moment, cut through all that down to the basic human being. In such times, we learn who we really are.
How can we prepare? We cannot prepare. But we are being prepared.
At a conference recently I happened to overhear a conversation between one of the speakers, a vice-president of Nestle Corporation, and a college student who was questtioning the VP’s glowing portrayal of Nestle’s social and environmental policies.
The student bravely interrogated the VP about their leading beverage category, bottled water. “Do we really need such a thing?” she asked. And, “I understand you are using 40% less plastic per bottle, but wouldn’t it be better to use no plastic at all?”
To each query, the VP had a persuasive, thoroughly reasoned response. Bottled water meets a real need in a society on the go. And did you know that raw ingredient for making the plastic bottles is a byproduct of producing gasoline from petroleum? If it doesn’t go toward bottles, it will end up as some other plastic product or dumped directly into the environment. Glass uses way more energy to produce. And tap water is no longer pure.
The VP’s obviously believed what she was saying. I was impressed not only by her evident sincerity, but also by her patience, her attentive listening, and her lack of animosity in the face of what must be frequent attacks. Nestle, after all, is notorious among activists as a corporate villian: the target of a decades-long boycott over its marketing of infant formula to indigent mothers, and accused of over-pumping from mineral springs, collaboration with the Burmese junta, union-busting in Colombia, buying cocao from farms that use child labor, and so on. The contrast between this reputation and the VP’s fervent, heartfelt exposition of Nestle’s environmental virtues was such that a few left-leaning folks had to step out of the auditorium.
How to explain this contrast? Let’s try three theories.
(1) The woman is a glib liar paid well to make the company’s case. Either she is cynically aware of the truth obscured by her lies, or in a state of deep, self-serving denial. Either way, she cherry-picks a few positive gestures toward the environment (“Nestle protects orangutans!”) and draws from reams of biased, tendentious evidence that the company’s PR department compiles to make anyone who questions the company’s practices seem naïve.
(2) What the woman says is true. The company has learned from its mistakes to become a leader in social and environmental responsibility. There are many well-meaning people who still criticize the company, but that is because they don’t know the true story: not only is Nestle leading the way toward sustainability, but the industry as a whole is improving its practices. There are still challenges to deal with, but everything is moving in the right direction. The people in industry care about the environment just like you do. They get it now, and with your help they will continue making progress.
I hope I have done justice, in (2), to the Nestle VP’s viewpoint. I had a conversation later on with her, and found her to be whip-smart, good-humored, and affable. My impression is that she deeply and truly believes in her company and her work. So let me offer a third explanation:
(3) Not only does she sincerely believes everything she says, but it is irrefutable from within her frame of reference. If we take for granted the endless acceleration of modern life, then the convenience of safe bottled water is indeed a boon for people who otherwise would drink sugary soft drinks. It is a boon as well if we take for granted the continuing deterioration of municipal tapwater, its chlorination and chemical contamination. And if we take for granted our current petroleum-based economy, it is for all I know true that plastic bottles don’t add much harm.
The VP’s positions are unassailable unless we can expand the scope of the conversation. We have to ask questions at the level of, “What role do plastic bottles play in the accelerating pace of modern life, why is this acceleration happening and is it a good thing?” “Where does our busyness and need for convenience come from?” “Why is our tapwater becoming undrinkable?” “Why do we have a system in which it is OK to produce waste products that are unusable by other life forms?” And, “Is the ‘sustainable growth’ championed by Nestle possible on a finite planet?”
I believe the conversation must go deeper still. What that Nestle VP did to justify her company, others can do to justify our whole civilization, as long as we grant them certain premises about the nature of life, self, and reality. For example, if we gtrant the premise that primitive life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” then any doubts about the overall beneficence of technology run into a brick wall. Similarly, if we grant the premise that nature bears no inherent tendency toward organization and that life is just a random collocation of lifeless, generic building blocks bumped around by purposeless forces, then clearly we need have no scruples about seeking to conquer nature and turn it toward human ends. And finally, if we grant the premise that each of us is a discrete, separate self seeking, at bottom, to maximize genetic self-interest, then ultimately there is no arguing over the broad legal and economic parameters of our society, which seek to overcome that wanton nature and channel it towards pro-social ends.
The Nestle VP’s views are more or less sound within the framework I have described above, the framework of “making life better through technology,” of the progressive conquest of inner and outer nature. Her views will not change until that framework crumbles. They are completely at home within the paradigm I call “the ascent of humanity.”
That paradigm, however, is indeed crumbling around us. The overall message I got from the Nestle presentation was, “Things are basically OK, we’re working on it, we’re making steady progress toward sustainability.” But looking around the world, it is becoming harder and harder to ignore that things are not at all OK, but rather that our problems – political, economic, medical, ecological – are proliferating faster than our technology can remedy them. More and more, the can-do promise of technology falls short, and we get the feeling that the world is falling apart around us.
It is that experience – of the world falling apart – that will change the views of corporate executives who genuinely believe they are doing good. Because within their operating paradigms, they ARE doing good.
My very dear reader, if you are not a corporate executive, if you are not a willing participant in the story of the triumph of technology, I would like to alert you to another dimension of that story that may inhabit you as it often inhabits me. It is the story of (1) above, in which the problems of the world are to be blamed on those awful corporate flacks who cynically lie and steal to gratify their own selfishness. This is the story of good versus evil, another expression of the will to conquer. It urges us into battle – a doomed battle, because the corporations have all the power. You are left isolated and powerless, at the mercy of hostile forces, and can ultimately only play along with the game and protect you and yours. Either that or you can become a martyr – but why, if the cause is hopeless?
A tiny, separate self, buffeted by vast impersonal forces, a victim, resentful, will of course seek to carve out a little space of security in this hostile universe. Story (1) plays into that feeling. But it is precisely that alienation from the rest of existence that underlies the very institutions we are trying to bring down. Acting from alienation, can we hope to create anything but more alienation?
In fact, the corporations don’t have all the power at all. They only do within the framework of a universe of force. In a universe of love, things are not at all hopeless. If we see the VP and people like her as people just like ourselves, then they can change as we have changed. If we see them as in (1), there is no alternative but to fight them. Maybe there is a time for fighting, for matching force with force. But I think if we carefully examine our victories in social and environmental justice, we will find that it was the power of conscience, compassion, and love that powered those victories.
My delightful acquaintance, the Nestle VP, is no different from any of us, living inside a story. We use the story we inhabit to justify all we do. Or perhaps it would be more accurate and less redolent of blame to say that these stories inhabit us, and use us to fulfill their telling. The story of the ascent of humanity is almost complete now, and a new chapter of the human narrative is ready to begin.
The other day I spoke at an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) conference in Istanbul, Turkey. It was a very mainstream conference. Surely, I thought, there must be some mistake? Why would they invite someone like me? “I like to shake things up a little bit,” replied Ali, a consultant to the organizer in charge of finding the keynote speakers.
So there I was, feeling a little bit out of place, a feeling augmented by the contrast in attire between me and the vast majority of the attendees. I’m not sure if I was the ONLY man wearing a T-shirt, but I think I was. At least it was a clean T-shirt.
The opening morning before my speech didn’t exactly assuage my feeling of being out of place. The talks by high government officials and corporate executives (for example, a vice president of Samsung) were all about the growth of the ICT sector, Turkey’s economic growth, the progress in Internet connectivity and broadband penetration, and so on. They extolled the up-and-coming wonders of technology, the coming M2M (machine to machine) revolution in which not only will people interface with machines, but machines will interface with each other. Soon, my friend, your smart phone will communicate with your refrigerator. Aren’t you excited? And you’ll be able to video conference anywhere you are – at the airport, even while you are vacationing at the beach. Yes indeed, we were assured, life is going to get better and better, but to take advantage of it we’ll have to adapt to some rapid changes.
You can imagine my apprehension as I walked to the podium to speak to those 2000 ICT professionals. I felt like an alien who had just walked off his spaceship.
I spoke of the unredeemed promise of technology to usher in a utopia, the impact of endless growth on the environment, and the feeling that everyone has that the world we know as normal is coming to an end. I asked them, in the most jovial tone I could muster, “Come on – is anybody in the audience really curious about the temperature of your refrigerator right now? Does anyone think your life will be better with more videoconferencing? Can’t we do better than that?”
I also spoke to the desire of all human beings to contribute to something meaningful, to live a life that makes sense given all we know is happening to the world.
Usually my jokes provoke laughs and my passionate invocation of the possibility of a more beautiful world draws applause, but not this time. My remarks were met with stony silence and frowns, a whole sea of them. I took a different tack then, speaking of another purpose of technology that lurks like a recessive gene underneath the program of domination and control, a beautiful purpose, perhaps the purpose that lends to the ICT field, even in the age of refrigerator networking, a tinge of novelty, excitement, the promise of wonder. Perhaps it is this intuition of a wonderful happening through technology that draws people to the technology field. Because after all, we like all species have something unique to give to the planet. Our unique gift of technology has a purpose, and we can begin to turn it toward that purpose. I related ICT to a broader movement toward self-organizing, autopoetic systems, open collaboration, the creation of a social ecology that will go hand in hand with the rejoining of economy and ecology.
More stony silence and wooden faces.
I carried on as best I could, hoping the 40 minutes would soon be over. A little voice began whispering in my ear. It said, “Charles, the reason for this cold reception is that you are wrong. You were invited here by accident, but you are not really part of their world, and for good reason – you don’t have what it takes. You are a pretender, a dilettante. You don’t belong in the big leagues where everyone wears a suit and tie. Maybe the less intelligent, less successful hippies you usually speak to lap up your validation of their own failure, but these folks know better.”
After the talk a lot of people came up to thank me for the speech. They said the usual things about how inspiring it was, but I didn’t believe them, not all the way. That little voice was attached to me like a parasite. Even when people said, “Turkish people are very reserved. They show approval by silence,” I wasn’t mollified. Nor did the assurance mollify me that “many people in the audience are having such thoughts in secret. Your words will stay with them, even if they are not ready to fully accept them yet.”
Dear readers, please don’t flood me with reassuring letters telling me that voice is wrong. I know it is just a voice, just a story. I’m not describing this experience to fish for reassurance. I want to expose that voice, to name it, because I think that almost everyone working to change the world hears that same voice from time to time. It is part of the defense apparatus of the world as we know it. Consensus reality casts its shadow into the psyche of each one of us.
The stories that inhabit us are not mere intellectual constructs, devoid of emotional content, but are part of an entire state of being. A little part of me believes that voice, a hurting part of me. That voice is the voice of a wound, calling for attention. It is a wound many of us share, plunged as we are into a society whose consensus beliefs defy our sense of rightness, fairness, and justice a world that defies our heart-knowledge that the world is supposed to be more beautiful and life more authentic, intimate, joyful than what has been presented as normal. The voice says, “No, the world is fine. The problem is you.” And our social institutions back it up with shaming and humiliation from childhood on.
And there is more. I am sure that some of my supporters will hasten to assure me that the little voice is lying. Yes. But within every lie there is a grain of truth. To blithely dismiss any criticism or self-criticism with non-falsifiable excuses like, “They just aren’t ready for it,” or, “It worked, there just isn’t any evidence of it,” shuts the door to growth and creates a division of the world into those who “get it” and those who do not, those who are awakening and those who aren’t. All of us, in one way or another, carry invisible habits and beliefs of the old world into the new. Only something from the outside – a collision with reality – can reveal what was invisible.
The painful emotions I experienced with the voice that assailed me at my speech indicate that it indeed was expressing a wound. Beyond that, though, I am looking for the truth in the lie. The grain of truth here has yet to reveal itself. It isn’t just that I “didn’t respect where people are at,” or that I was judgmental, or that I need to conform to the protocol of a keynote speaker or display the symbols of legitimacy in order to be heard. I’ve gone through all those possibilities. There is something else.