Thursday, April 9, 2015

Towards a New Citizenship?

          This article is the follow up to,

          Psychologists, studying the factors implicated in happiness, have concluded that 50% of the variation in happiness from individual to individual is due to genetics. Either you are born with genes that predispose (but do not condemn!) you to depression or you are not born with such genes. Thus half of our happiness or unhappiness is simply due to "Fate", "Karma" or "the hand we were dealt at birth". Another 40% of the inter-individual variation in happiness is due to our own good or bad choices in life. We may not be masters of our fate but we still have quite a bit to say about how the "hand we dealt" is played! Finally - and shockingly to those raised on the American social darwinist "Self Made Man" ideology - only a pitiable 10% of our happiness with life is due to our socio-economic status. (Yet another piece of evidence from the Real World suggesting that neoconservative ideologues have been selling us pipe dreams..)

           If I take responsibility for myself I must also take responsibility for the society I live in. As a social animal, I cannot be logically dissociated from my social milieu. I am created by the society I live in (it's values, school system, opportunities..) but I also, in a small way, create that society. Taking responsibility has a down side. It removes a convenient excuse for non-action: "Society is to blame for everything. I'm just a victim.." 

            Ironical reflection since such a position is usually associated with the conservative end of the political spectrum! I suspect, though, that the interpretation is a bit different where you stand on that spectrum..

           Traditionally, "responsibilization" is used by reactionaries as a justification for lack of compassion and social consciousness. The losers deserve their lot in life: they are either morally degenerate (lazy) or genetically inferior (Social Darwinism). By the way, Darwin himself had the brains to pre-emptively reject Social Darwinism, even before the term was invented. He believed that human evolution had, in fact, fostered co-operation among humans. See note 1.

           On the Left, "de-responsibilization" is used to justify inaction and political apathy (and their ultimate paradoxical outcome: anarchic violence including, as it ultimate form, self-immolative mass murder)

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            It's not obvious how the Left became the party of de-responsibilization. Part of the answer lies in reactionary propaganda, of course. In reality, sane Leftists do not deny moral responsibility, they simply point out that the playing field is not level, that some players are born with an unfair advantage and that this imbalance prevents us from achieving our full potentials as human beings and socieites. Marx and Engels probably hold a share of the blame in the "disempowerment" of the masses and the citizen. They believed that social and economic evolution were deterministic affairs, that the bourgeois capitalist society contained within itself the inevitable seeds of its own destruction. Today, we understand better. Despite deterministic laws (physics, chemistry..), their interaction in real world situations is highly unpredictable. This is why meteorologists cannot predict with accuracy what the weather will be more than 3 to 5 days ahead.

             Perhaps when folks - like classical Marxists - who believe that history is on their side discover that history is not on their side, their morale collapses. They had been conditioned to thinking in all or nothing terms. EITHER history is on or side OR it against us. In reality, of course, "History" couldn't give a fig. (The very notion of "History" is a human cultural phenomenon, it represents nothing "out there" in the real world).

            Whether emanating from the Right or the Left, de-responsibilization is used to justify social disengagement and moral idiocy. An extreme example I heard as I kid during the Soviet - American Cold War for geopolitical domination:

The (naughty) Scientists invented the A-bomb. Since I did not invent the bomb, I can blithely advocate tossing it around everywhere at the slightest provocation (real or imagined).

            One sees the insanity of the "argument" as soon as one applies it to guns: I didn't invent guns so I have the right to go around blowing away anyone I want, whenever I want, under any pretext that strikes my fancy. 

               The problem of what can only be called "existential disempowerment" - seeing oneself as cornered and under attack - is at the root of our current civilizational impasse. Tonight, not for the first time, I realized why the 20th and 21st centuries are so odious.

Odium: intense hatred combined with a sentiment of loathing, disgust or contempt

               These times are odious because of our failure to actualize our (enormous!) human potentials at exactly the point in history when their optimized deployment is most needed! More succinctly: our civilization is morally and spiritually bankrupt.

                Our dereliction, this failure to mobilize needed potential when it is most needed is obvious from the study of social insects like ants, bees and termites. These creatures have tiny brains with a few hundred neurons. Their behavioral repertoire is fairly limited as a result yet their collectivities - ant hill or bee hive - are behaviorally much, much richer than the individuals which comprise them. In the tropics where social insect evolution reaches its zenith, ant hills collectively engage in problem solving behaviors that would challenge mammals with much larger brains. Students of Self-Organization say that insect collectivities display "emergent intelligence" or "meta-intelligence": the collectivity is functionally much brighter than the individuals that make it up. With humans, today, we have exactly the opposite situation: meta-stupidity! Our collectivities are functionally much stupider than the individuals that make up those collectivities. Worse, contemporary human collectivities manage to exploit the intelligence of individuals (inventors, scientists, engineers..) to do incredibly stupid things at the collective level: global warming, overpopulation, industrial warfare, resource over-exploitation..

                 For our sins, we will pay deeply and tragically. I only hope that the survivors will have the wisdom to learn from error.

                 In an upcoming article, I will attempt to give an overview of the challenges we face and what newly empowered citizens and communities can do to increase their resiliency and capacity to adapt - even to thrive! - in the face of the wave of destructuring change we are living through..


1- That Darwin had the wits to see through the use of natural selection as a rationalization for social injustice is to his personal credit. Modern science has confirmed his insight that, compared to the "lower" (smaller brained) primates, humans are, in fact, very co-operative. But not all the news is good. Social animals tend to be the most destructive and aggressive. Exactly because social animals do combine and coordinate their efforts, they can do more damage!

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