Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

What Do We See When We Look Back? Another Perspective for Understanding Your Life

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Many therapies begin by looking backwards. Often, however, the deep-dive into the ocean of previous hurts focuses only on the patient and a tiny number of others. Is more needed?

The circumstances surrounding any life are worth thinking about. The historical conditions in which one lives can be enormously important to a backward glance at life, yet therapists are not experts in history. Nor are we routinely specialized in philosophy, sociology, and religion, the better to understand those who visit us. A counselor might not readily recognize the significance of all aspects of a new patient’s life.

When I encountered someone from an unfamiliar religious background I attempted to learn more: not only from my patient, but from religious writings. If clients came to me with existential questions, a sense of emptiness and a lack of life meaning, we sometimes talked philosophy.

In the course of my career I needed to learn about poverty and anti-Semitism in the old Soviet Union, the arrangement of marriages among Pakistani-Americans, and the importance of loyalty and family responsibility to the Mexican-American community.

This necessity not only helped me better perform my therapeutic work, but enhanced my understanding of people and the world more generally.

—–

One can also fool oneself by ignoring the ideas and trials of our distant ancestors.

People of all cultures and times faced the same core issues, although sometimes in different ways. The human experience changes in terms of technique — technical knowledge, astonishing new devices, and skills — but not the basic concerns of living: love, friendship, competition, survival, loss, morality, work, and play. The same conundrums are forever present: happiness, honor, success, failure, self-awareness, self-interest, integrity, rationalization, sadness, greed, and one’s responsibilities to others.

Yes, we now face possible global catastrophe from weapons or climate change; but robbers, kleptocrats, and rape were always present. Discrimination today usually takes a different form than widespread slavery, but human rights are still an issue. War and natural disasters, famine, and disease always threatened the human race. Life was never stress-free.

We benefit by recognizing the common humanity we share with individuals who are “different,” whether they are our contemporaries or people who shared our cultural past. We risk laughter at those from non-Western backgrounds, their styles of hair and clothing. They behold us as well, however, and might share the same tendencies to mock or disapprove.

Old photos can be treated similarly. As we turn the pages of antique family photo albums it is difficult to relate to those who seem ancient, even if they lived only 50 years ago. We too will become dated creatures to newer generations. If you assume those of different times offer nothing worth learning, then you have closed your mind, blinded yourself, and reduced the possibility of self-knowledge and better human relations. Moreover, you render your personal history impotent in its ability to have any substantial impact on those who follow you.

Old words remain relevant. Even if Aristotle lacked an iPhone and wore a toga, he had a good brain, as did many others before and after. We are silly not to attend to his thoughts. Our ancestors didn’t know everything and many justified slavery and maltreatment of women, but they recognized much of importance about the human condition.

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Closer to our own time, the men and women of the last century had more than a taste of modernity. They owned cars and worked in factories, knew oppression and misuse of workers, used the telephone, and (from 1922) received regular radio broadcasts. They realized what money could buy and what it did not. Therefore, I offer you eight quotes from those who lived in the 20th century and earlier.

Our personal problems are not new. Others walked in our shoes, even if they wore sandals, wooden shoes, or no footwear at all.

And remember: we read history and philosophy not to understand old and dead civilizations, but ourselves. Perhaps you will dismiss the eight ideas by the seven people you find below. On the other hand, I expect some will speak to you, especially (I hope) the final one:

 

Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.

— Jalaluddin Rumi, 13th century Persian poet.

———–

You will be broken. Your try to flee it, but ultimately you can’t, you can only fritter away your time on the planet. Yes, be prudent, but don’t think you will escape.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

———–

It is really true what philosophy tells us, that life must be understood backwards. But with this, one forgets the second proposition, that it must be lived forward. A proposition which, the more it is subjected to careful thought, the more it ends up concluding precisely that life at any given moment cannot really ever be fully understood; exactly because there is no single moment where time stops … .

— Soren Kierkegaard, 1843.

———–

The following words are those of H.L. Mencken, published on July 26, 1920 in the Baltimore Evening Sun, from an essay entitled “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” concerning the difficulty of electing good people to national office:

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In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through … . But when the field is nationwide … and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most easily and adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.

The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. … On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

———–

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

— Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910: Paris.

———–

The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history. On the receiving end you get not only one lie — a lie which you could go on for the rest of your days — but you get a great number of lies, depending on how the political wind blows. And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.

— Hannah Arendt in a 1974 interview with Roger Errera.

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———–

Dorothea Brooke is an admirable fictional character in Middlemarch (1871-72) by Mary Anne Evans (better known by her pen name, George Elliot). Ms. Brooke is here speaking to the young man who loves her. He has just said that without her he would have nothing to live for:

That was a wrong thing for you to say, that you would have had nothing to try for. If we had lost our own chief good, other people’s good would remain, and that is worth trying for.

At the end of the book Dorothea’s life is described in terms of her quiet impact on others:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature … spent itself in channels which had no great name on earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts, and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number (of people) who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

The photograph at the top is called Blessed Art Thou Among Women by Gertrude Käsebier, from 1900. The computerized image of Aristotle is the 2005 work of Kolja Mendler. A photo of H.L. Mencken follows. The final image is a sketch of Hannah Arendt by Albarluque. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Another Side of Suicide: The Strange History of Punishing the Deceased

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Would you talk to a casual acquaintance about suicide? Probably not. Such weighty conversations most often occur with someone intimate  — a therapist or close friend. Without such discussion, full knowledge of suicide becomes difficult. Moreover, even those who understand the psychology of suicide are unlikely to know its history. They are unaware, for example, that suicide victims in Europe during the Middle Ages were often punished for the act of self murder.

I imagine you are asking, how can a person who is already dead be punished? Leaving a body unburied was one way. An ancient example is found in the Sophocles play Antigone, where Polynices is prohibited from burial because he participated in a failed revolt against Thebes. The rationale for this disrespect went beyond the expectation of a corpse ravaged by animals: the absence of proper burial would prevent him from going to the Underworld, the Greek’s version of the afterlife.

Of course, Polynices didn’t kill himself. By the Middle Ages, however, Christian clerics ranked suicide as worse than murder. In their opinion, taking the life of another did not rob the victim of his soul. The soul of the deceased was expected to find no difficulty in making his way to heaven. A suicide, on the other hand, killed both body and soul; in effect, a double murder. No room for repentance existed. Suicide was a crime against God.

Local authorities went to astonishing lengths to exact retribution from one who had killed himself. The body was sometimes preserved via embalming and salt to put the deceased’s remains on trial. The corpse might be hanged head down, strangled, whipped, or thrown from his window or roof. Such public displays were intended to discourage others from attempting similar self harm.

Other punishments included dragging the body by a horse through the street; being pulled apart, burned, decapitated, and quartered; or put into a barrel and thrown into a nearby river, thereby ensuring the remains would be the problem of a downstream community. It was also common for the victim’s property to be destroyed until authorities realized this cruelty harmed the person’s spouse and children. Thereafter, the family received some consideration. Nonetheless, a Christian burial was out of the question.

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Exceptions to the negative judgement of suicide were rare. The church, however, did let the famous strongman of the Israelites off the hook retroactively. Samson’s strength depended on his full and lengthy head of hair. Once the Philistines discovered this (thanks to Delilah), his locks were shorn. Samson was taken prisoner and blinded by his enemies. Some time later, the biblical hero was tied to the pillars supporting their temple and made a spectacle. Unbeknownst to his captors, however, his hair had grown back sufficiently to return his strength. In an act of revenge and suicide, Samson pulled down the structure’s supporting columns, causing the death of all, himself included. The church forgave the suicide by assigning responsibility for Samson’s self-destruction to a divine command.

The religious prohibition of suicide had unexpected and unfortunate consequences. A German jurist, Karl Ferdinand Hommel described one example in 1766. Hommel realized the Christian position on suicide unintentionally encouraged the murder of children, something he called “indirect suicide.”

According to the jurist, some of the faithful who wished to kill themselves hesitated because they would be damned to hell. More than a few, however, realized they could murder an innocent child and still have time to repent before the public execution they desired, thus achieving their own death without causing eternal damnation. The deceased youngster, they reasoned, would go directly to heaven.

Over time both the religious and the public view of suicide began to change. In some circles, life came to be seen as something belonging to oneself, not to the state or to God. Suicide was increasingly thought of as a mental disorder or a medical problem, not a moral failure, despite lingering negative judgment against it. Laws gradually changed and self murder became decriminalized. Although the practice of punishing the deceased ended in Europe long ago, not until 1983 did the Bishop of Paris state that self-destruction was no longer a sin, but rather a disgrace. He recommended mercy toward those who committed suicide.

Should you wish to know more about this interesting topic, you will find it in a fine book used as source material for this essay, Marzio Barbagli’s Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide. If nothing else, Barbagli’s volume reminds us that in a world where savagery still exists, we have nonetheless made great progress in the name of the living as well as the dead.

The cover of Farewell to the World: A History of Suicide is followed by Guercino’s 1654 painting Samson and Delilah.

Breaking the Code: When Words are Not What They Seem

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Plain English is hard to come by. Some of us struggle with directness, while others take diplomacy to an extreme. We are caught between people who speak with the bluntness of a club to the head and those who are so careful it is difficult to know whether they make a sound.

Worse still, some speak in code. Psychologists and other therapists do their best to break the code, to find the meaning inside.

You might have heard Governor Scott Walker’s address pulling out of the Republican Party (GOP) presidential race. You heard the words, but did you get the meaning? The first sentence of his announcement provides an example of words in disguise and an opportunity to analyze them:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.”

The “field” to which he referred includes more than a dozen competitors for the 2016 presidential nomination of the Republican Party. He went on to state it would be better if the voters had a limited number of alternatives in the run-up to producing a party standard-bearer.

The single sentence is revealing. Those 15 words did two things beyond informing us he was dropping out:

  1. The Governor gave a coded message to many of his Christian supporters.
  2. Mr. Walker offered a preposterous reason for his decision to leave the campaign. He tried to disguise his loss of public support as the cause of his decision.

The former candidate’s sentence can be decoded even without the help of the late Alan Turing, the man who broke the Nazi’s Enigma codes during World War II. The second word in Walker’s opening is “believe,” a powerful utterance for some of strong Christian faith. Even more significantly, he went on: “I believe I am being called …” This phrase carries with it the notion of a “calling,” associated with life direction provided by a supernatural entity. Ministers, such as Scott Walker’s father, often say they are called to the vocation of ministry. Not coincidentally, many of the candidate’s strongest supporters are on the religious right.

In effect, Mr. Walker’s sentence was partly addressed to his spiritual backers, letting them know he is keeping faith with them, and acting according to his (and their own) religious beliefs. By so doing, he provided them with a reason to think favorably of him if he chooses to run again for public office. Thus, one can imagine Mr. Walker’s desire is to be thought of as a man of God doing God’s will.

I can’t comment on the Governor’s private contact with a superior being, if indeed such occurred. Yet it is difficult to think that Scott Walker’s disappearing public support did not determine his decision. The notion that he might have ended his campaign after receiving “the call,” even were he leading in the polls, strains credulity. The Governor is playing his religious believers for chumps.

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Remember what the press said about Mr. Walker’s decision to exit the race. The following quote comes from the September 21st issue of the The Wall Street Journal:

“He led most polls in Iowa until mid-July, and regularly ranked among the top three or four contenders in national surveys of GOP primary voters. But after a lackluster performance in Wednesday’s GOP debate, he didn’t register any support in a CNN/ORC national poll conducted right afterward. …

“But his biggest problem appeared to be fundraising. Many of his top donors expressed concern in recent weeks that … he wouldn’t raise enough money to maintain a large campaign staff.”

Following Walker’s message to the faithful, the remainder of his sentence attempts to recast his political failure as an act of leadership:

“I believe that I am being called to lead by helping to clear the field.” Thus, Mr. Walker anoints himself a leader, not a loser. Moreover, he says he just wants to “help.” Wow, he is an altruist, too.

Instead of telling us all this, the Governor might have been frank:

“I have less than 1% support of the likely primary voters. I can understand why potential backers will not fund my campaign. Hats off to those who beat me.”

What Walker did, in a mere 15 words, was an act of “spin.” His simple sentence was reprehensible because he mocked his alleged faith, tried to play on the religious convictions of his followers, and fashioned himself not as the loser in the race, but as a leader who exemplified high principle and, perhaps, divine guidance.

Yes, political speech is an easy target. Who can forget Bill Clinton’s righteously angry statement, “I did not have sex with that woman!” This sentence defined “sex” as intercourse alone, thereby giving him license to deny the accusation of inappropriate behavior with a White House intern.

My conclusion is this: George Orwell, the author of 1984, was correct. We live in a time, as he predicted, when language’s meaning is torn syllable from syllable. Communication has always been hard enough. Now, not so long after Orwell imagined it, failure is sold to us as success and religious references play to the gullibility of the flock.

Sadly, much of this has occurred for millennia, but was thought dishonorable in times past. The difference now is that such deceit is considered clever by too many of those who notice, and honest by those who don’t.

Words matter, in therapy and out.

Especially in disguise.

The top images are called Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, the work of Arcimboldo, 1590. If you take a close look, you’ll notice the painting on the left is an inversion of the one on the right. Thus, they represent a visual analogue of the essay’s topic: disguised speech. The bottom image is Governor Walker speaking in 2015, by Michael Vadon, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Well Do You Know Yourself? An Answer in Ten Minutes or Less

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We spend more time trying to understand the motivations of others than our own. Not that we aren’t focused on ourselves, but our internal machinery is more likely to ask “How shall I handle this problem?” than why you did or didn’t do something.

“What caused me to do what I just did?” is not at the top of our self-examination question list.

If we are already sure of our motives, as most of us are, self-analysis doesn’t occur. The reasons for our actions seem obvious.

For example, Donald Trump recently said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. And they’re bringing those problems with us (sic). They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

In response to criticism over his remarks, Trump countered, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”  Mr. Trump is certain of his motives without even a bone scan to prove it, but I am much less confident than he is. Is his belief about himself correct? We might ask the same question of ourselves. Ergo, my title: How Well Do You Know Yourself?

I will give you a chance to find out shortly.

I raise the topic because we aren’t as insightful about ourselves as we might be. For example, in matters like politics and religion, we arrive at our opinions intuitively, but think we reasoned them out. In fact, according to Jonathan Haidt, our attitudes are driven by instinct and bubble up from our unconscious. Only later does our logical brain kick-in and generate reasons for those predetermined opinions. The thinking cerebral cortex therefore takes the job of defense lawyer or public relations advocate to justify attitudes and make them palatable to ourselves.

Haidt says we are like monkeys riding elephants. The emotional elephant is 90% in charge of leading the way, but the monkey logician on his back thinks he is in control. I imagine you believe this about some of the people you know — the ones who fool themselves. Perhaps not yourself, however.

You might consider Mr. Trump to be like a friend who doesn’t understand himself — isn’t honest with himself. “The Donald” denies any kind of dominant, irrational, and instinctive prejudice, despite his recent comments disparaging Mexican immigrants. If you believe you are more self-aware than Mr. Trump, his example won’t cause you to question your own psychological self-rationalizing process.

Nearly everyone believes himself to be thoughtful — careful not to jump to conclusions. Indeed, you might believe the two of us are like the majority of those who answered the following Gallup telephone survey with a “yes,” saying they’d vote for a woman, a black, or a Hispanic for President.

The Gallop poll results are below. The question asked of participants comes first, then their responses:

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I don’t believe the data, at least in the top few categories. Why?

First, most of us recognize the political incorrectness of saying we wouldn’t vote for a woman, black, or Hispanic. Even to someone on the phone who promised not to share the information. Second, we are hesitant to admit our bigotry to ourselves.

Finally, look at the question again. The second sentence reads (with my italics): “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be ____, would you vote for that person?” If you are prejudiced, you could well rule out most any woman, black, or Hispanic instinctively. At the same time, however, you might say to yourself, “but if (hypothetically) he has the right stuff, then he’d get my vote.” It wouldn’t take long before you pat yourself on the back for being enlightened. In effect, you have persuaded yourself, “the person’s gender, race, or nationality isn’t important, but only the ability to do the job.” The poll, in the example just described, would produce an inaccurate result.

Now is your chance to find out who you are. The good folks at Harvard developed something called The Implicit Association Test.  Their creation is not like Gallup’s poll. They don’t ask only about your beliefs, but measure your reactions to pictures and words to uncover what your implicit (unconscious) attitude is.

You might be sure you lack bias, but the test is capable of surprising you. No guarantees either way. Perhaps you are as color blind as you think you are.

Take the 10-minute measurement: Implicit Association Test. Click on the word “Demonstration.” Then you will have at least a partial answer to the question: how well do I know myself?

There are a great many tests on the site. They deal with our imbedded reactions to race, age, overweight, sexual preference, mental illness, etc. Don’t expect, if, say, you are black, to automatically have a more favorable implicit association to blacks than to whites on the test particular to such responses.

Another point. You are likely to ask yourself whether a connection exists between preferring “white” over “black” (for example) and your chance of discriminating against someone who triggers an implicit prejudice. Not necessarily. You will find a more detailed answer imbedded within the site after you decide to take a test.

Of course, I don’t know how you, dear reader, will score. Are you, as Dostoevsky wrote, a hostage to those “things which a man is afraid to tell even to himself?”

Do you have the courage to find out?

Defining Yourself by What You Hate

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Personality tests put us into categories: introversion/extroversion, thinking vs. feeling, etc. Today I’ll suggest a different method of evaluating yourself: what do you hate? And, by the way, what is the value of hatred?

Dating sites ask you to list your interests, loves, and desires: the types of music, activities, and vacation locations you favor. But wouldn’t you want to know what your prospective lover dislikes? Especially those things that make him red in the face when he speaks of them? What might be on such a list if he were honest?

  • People who are “over-emotional.”
  • Those of a different political party.
  • Humanoids of another religion, or particular ethnic or national group.
  • Children or pets.
  • Fans of a rival sports team (or the team itself).
  • The rich or the poor.
  • The homeless, the elderly, the infirm.
  • Elitists or populists.
  • New York, the West Coast, Texas, etc.

There are two qualities we should consider for each item on the “hate” list:

  1. What is the rationale given for the intense enmity? Does it seem reasonable to you? Is the person open to new information and reconsideration of his opinions or is he closed off?
  2. What is the degree of intensity to his emotion? Sure, most of us possess pet peeves, favor the home team, and wish a particular political party behaved itself. But some people hold such strong dislikes that any mention of the object of their distemper risks causing their heads to explode. Why? More worrisome, what might that tendency predict when they find something troublesome in you?

As Jonathan Haidt notes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why People are Divided by Politics and Religion, we tend to form opinions and beliefs intuitively — that is, before we evaluate the facts. Our reasoning brain is not only a step behind our intuitions, but inclined to act as a defense attorney or public relations specialist to justify the instinctive stance.

Haidt likens us to riders and elephants, both within the same person. You might believe your rider is in charge, directing the elephant. On the contrary, Haidt says the elephant — the intuitive and quick acting part of our emotional/intellectual being — is the one who determines beliefs for us most of the time. Only then does the rider get engaged and try to rationalize our convictions. To Haidt, we are 90% elephant-like and 10% rider-like regarding the extent to which our instincts or our capacity for thoughtful analysis, respectively, are in charge.

Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, and other social scientists point to the historical survival value of being able to come to quick decisions, decide who is a friend and who is a foe, etc. Moreover, strong dislikes and hatreds have been a necessary part of staying alive since the dawn of man. Even today, a too-rational soldier might question why he is about to kill another man who, in the abstract, deserves to live just as much as he does. The propagation of our species demands the capacities to love and to hate — the latter, at least, in extreme circumstances.

Now I’m going to throw you a curve. I will offer a thought experiment, meaning a hypothetical scenario, to help us understand the “role” of hatred. What would happen if we erased every dislike in the world and any recollection of those dislikes? How would we be different? Would we all live in peace?

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Well, to some extent we can already observe a variation of that thought experiment in the USA and other so-called “civilized” countries: political correctness (PC), an idea not yet in the culture in the 1950s. Back then it was not difficult to find people who were proud of stating their bigoted convictions about various racial, religious, and national groups. I’m not suggesting folks like those disappeared, but public discourse is more careful to avoid frank prejudice. Even some of the most intolerant main stage figures attempt to deny their bigotry, however obvious to the rest of us.

How successful has the PC movement been at tamping down outrage? While there are fewer cross burnings and lynchings, I imagine you’d agree we haven’t wiped out indignation and those who feed on it. Moreover, I believe a real life version of my thought experiment would reveal the invention of new hatreds to fill the role of those eliminated. Kind of like a spring-loaded Pez candy dispenser, once you remove the top object, an ill-willed person will find something else popping up to chomp on.

Those of you old enough to remember the ’90s will recall that once the USSR fell, US religious fundamentalists who could no longer rail against godless communism changed their focus to homosexuality. Their hell-fire and brimstone sermons were directed at “those people.”

Some of our fellow humans — not a small number — are better described by what they hate than what they love. Indeed, one might argue that in the absence of the hated “other,” the angry ones wouldn’t know who they are. Without “sinners” who must go to hell, there can be no humans who are given a heavenly reward because of their goodness — the opposite of whatever they deem bad and deserving of harsh judgment.

Anger is part of our nature; something too handy (necessary?) to completely discard. We bind ourselves together as much by the things we hate (such as, the Chicago White Sox) as the things we love (the Chicago Cubs). Not every sports fan is a maniac, but if even athletic teams can trigger out-of-control partisan riots, as sometimes happens in European style football (soccer), no wonder we are prone to other corrosive divisions: people of color vs. whites, Democrats vs. Republicans, Turks vs. Greeks, etc.

The human race turns with ease into good guys and bad guys, as demonstrated by psychologists like Stanley Milgram in his work on obedience to authority, and Philip Zimbardo in his prison experiment.

For a fictional view of whether hatred would be suppressed by my memory-wiping fantasy, I urge you to read Howard Jacobson’s brilliant novel, J, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize. J presents us with a world without recollection, where history books and mementos are absent and one’s lineage is almost impossible to trace. Ancient enmities and prejudices are forgotten. Proper etiquette requires regular apologies to others in the face of even the small possibility of offense.

This sounds serene, but J describes a world inhabited by metaphorical ghosts who reside in a past never fully described. The negative afterimage of WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED is always in the background — a distant, dark event so terrible (if it occurred, since no one is sure) discussion is discouraged. The book suggests our animal nature is not easily suppressed by laws or political correctness.

Who will win? Our better angels or those creatures who fit a Hobbesian vision where “the life of man (is) solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short?” I am rooting for love, but I think our best chance of self-correction is first to look at the human condition in all its imperfection. Jacobson’s J gives us an opportunity to do this. The novel is also LOL funny (at times) and beautifully written throughout.

Nonetheless, the author offers us a cautionary tale of what it means to be different in a civilization full of grievances an inch under the surface. It implicitly asks the reader whether love can triumph over the dark side of human nature — the worm at the heart of the rose.  J will get you thinking about who you are and who we are. The greatest books do.

Getting a Grip in a Difficult Time: Reasons for Optimism

Malala-Yousafzai

As I listen to the news and read the newspaper, it seems we are in the worst moment in history or something pretty close. Think of the following list:

  • Ebola
  • Ebola panic (a rather different thing than the disease itself)
  • Antibiotics losing their effectiveness
  • More armed conflicts and genocides than you can count on two hands
  • Political stalemate
  • Few if any great men or women to lead us
  • Climate change threatening planetary survival
  • Science-denial leading people to prevent the inoculation of their children against disease
  • Intolerance of opposing views even if they are well-reasoned
  • A fracturing of the sense of community (as, for example, was present during World War II or immediately after 9/11)
  • Political and corporate corruption
  • Unemployment
  • Homelessness
  • Racial/religious discrimination
  • Growing economic inequality
  • Inequality of opportunity
  • Educational failure
  • Enraged voices on all sides
  • Killer air-bags
  • The common cold. I threw a sneeze in just to lighten the mood!

Before you take a suicidal walk straight into and under the sea, inhale and step back. Here are a few ways to deal with all the bad stuff. I’ll describe five, the last two of which might actually be helpful:

  1. The Ostrich Impersonation.
    Take a tip from the myth about an ungainly, flightless bird. Stick your head under the covers or close your eyes. Perhaps the world’s troubles will disappear. Don’t read or watch anything having to do with problems. Stay focused only on personal issues or (even better) distract yourself from everything important, including your life’s direction. Don’t vote, but do drink, drug, jump on every sexual opportunity, surf the net, tweet every five minutes, buy a new sweater and post loads of selfies so we can rate your new look. YOLO! (You only live once)!
  2. “Rage, Rage, Against the Dying of the Light!”
    Attempt to be first in something. Lead the world in rage! That’s the spirit! Hone your expertise in criticism. Pick fights, complain, point fingers, and shake fists. Argue about politics and religion. Give family members a hard time, too. Despite having no experience or education in science and politics, shout “Follow me!” as you lead the crowd over the cliff. Should anyone survive, accept no responsibility.
  3. Pray, and If All Prayer Fails, Pray Harder!
    Ignore the real world. Spend the largest part of every day in prayer, if possible in a place of worship. Believe the gods will help you if only you pray hard enough. Take the attitude of the man who ignored flood warnings even when the police came to evacuate him. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he said. “The lord will protect me.” A few hours later, after the ground floor of his home was under water, a rescue boat made the same offer. Again, he repeated his confidence in the almighty from the window of his upstairs bedroom. The tide rose and the hours clicked by. He was now on the roof and a hovering helicopter dropped a rope ladder, his final chance to escape. “No thank you, I’ll be fine,” he replied once more. “The lord will protect me.” He drowned, of course, but was quite incredulous and a bit irritated. Upon arriving at heaven’s gate, this devotee of the creator delivered a Job-like complaint to St. Peter: “I was a devout man. I prayed every day. I never harmed anyone. I counted on God, but I died! Explain this!” he demanded. St. Peter looked down at the little fellow and said unto him, “Who do you think sent those people, you fool!”
  4. Look Back at History.
    Think about your own life, all the calamitous moments you thought unsurvivable. You’re breathing, aren’t you? You survived! Maybe you even learned something. Perhaps the world works the same way. Pick a year, say, 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. I remember listening to President Kennedy’s TV speech on the evening of October 22nd, announcing a military blockade of Cuba to prevent Soviet missiles from being delivered. I wondered if I would be alive the next morning as those warships faced off. Mankind has endured two World Wars, the Great Depression between them, the Influenza Pandemic of 1918/19, the Bubonic Plague, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and more. Anyone who longs for the “good old days” has a challenge. Your grandparents lived when blacks were lynched and summers brought fear of polio. Bright women were largely limited to work at home, secretarial jobs, and teaching. Despite everything, including ourselves, the giant daisy chain of Homo sapien life that began with the first man and woman remains unbroken. Shakespeare knew the trouble we’ve seen: “‘Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind.” Making the world better has never been easy. Still, humanity lives, laughs, and every so often creates a technological miracle.
  5. Take Action.
    As in #4, reflect upon your own life, but think anew, think what you alone can do. It might be grand or something small. Take heart in 2014 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, Malala Yousafzai. Her 2013 speech to the United Nations came after she recovered from a bullet wound to her head by the Taliban. She had done the unconscionable: the teen wanted an education for herself and all young women. This is a portion of  her UN oration, given when she was just 16:

    I do not even hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah. This is the philosophy of non-violence that I have learnt from Gandhi Jee, Bacha Khan and Mother Teresa. And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.

    If we have reason for optimism about this crazy world, it is in the realization the human species endures, but we live as surely in the shadow of death as did our short-lived ancient ancestors. All of us owe ourselves and each other the responsibility to make life better. We alone can ensure all life, not only human life, goes on. You and I are not Malala Yousafzai, but surely, to “be peaceful and love” is in your power and mine.

The top image lists an incorrect birth year for Malala Yousafzai. She was born in 1997.