Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Education Can Still the Brute



© Charles D. Hayes
The 2016 presidential election made it clear that America is suffering an egregious vacuum of goodwill. Too many of our citizens are ill-equipped to cope with life in the twenty-first century. Simply put, they lack the knowledge to deal with the angst that comes with being mortal.

For decades, I have been trying to articulate the benefits of a liberal education. I have fully experienced the rewards myself, having gone from growing up as a hard-right conservative to becoming politically liberal. Years of study helped unravel my animosity toward progressive points of view. For me, the learning I experienced dispelled the angst that used to fester in my mind toward people I considered “others.” Lately the angst has resurfaced as a growing intolerance for intolerance.

So, like a moth to a flame, I’m drawn to read every book and essay I can find about meaningful education because, even though I understand the profound value of broad, liberal learning, I have difficulty explaining how others might relieve themselves of the contempt that comes with a narrow worldview. Nor can I name what the tipping point might be to bring it about.

Although being open to experience is a hallmark of liberalism, it’s not yet known for sure how much our political disposition is genetically predisposed and how much it is because of learning. We do know, however, that even some who hold rigid views can be persuaded to change their minds if presented with a better argument.

One of the hardest things to do is to try to recall what it is like not to know something once you have learned it. It’s almost impossible. But having been raised without the benefit of a liberal education, I still have some sense of the void and smoldering anxiety that such an upbringing provides. Today, much as I want to share the benefits of an existential education, I’m confounded by the amount of social resistance to something that’s so life-changing and so beneficial to society at large. Even so, I do understand the animosity. Anti-intellectualism runs deep.

There are lots of good books on the value of a liberal education, but most come up short because they miss an adequate description of its most important advantage. Finally, after many years of pondering, I think I’m close to identifying what’s so often been left out. A big part of the answer is so glaringly obvious that we don’t see it.

When it works as it should, a liberal education becomes an existential education. By this I mean an education of enough quality and depth to enable one to release some of the anxiety that comes part and parcel with the human condition—that of being mortal. Mortality is a condition from which there is no escape. Willful illusion is one’s only protection, but it cannot last. Smoldering anxiety festers when other people recognize this and no longer share the cultural illusions one has adopted for escape. Contempt follows because the very existence of nonbelievers poses a deep existential threat.   

In essence, an existential education makes it possible to find one’s own meaning in life without the need to find fault with others. It provides one enough confidence to be worry free and unconcerned when the views of others conflict with one’s own. An existential education enables us to forgive others for their otherness, most notably because it reminds us that we are soon to be food for worms.

To learn about many diverse subjects in the humanities is like creating a mental mansion with lavish rooms, each with enough accumulated substance that any new additions are subject to wonder by their contrast. So, instead of being allowed to inspire fear and contempt from a lack of understanding, new information is subject to relative reflection and often creates new corridors between rooms.

When a person embraces a multitude of ideas about the world, narrow viewpoints begin to appear immature. More ideas lead to more possibilities, and more options occur to consider, all of which assist in quelling anxiety before it congeals into despair, scorn, and derision. Thus, an existential education is liberating in its capacity to help dissipate social angst. The effect is the same as taking the lid off a pot of water about to boil, allowing steam to escape instead of blowing the lid off.  

John Adams was right when he said, “Education makes a greater difference between man and man than nature has made between man and brute.”  In my view, an existential education can effectively still the brute in man.

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Friday, February 3, 2017

Winning: What Does It Mean?


This is an excerpt from Existential Aspirations: Reflections of a Self-Taught Philosopher © Charles D. Hayes

A few years ago, I watched an episode of Real Time with Bill Maher. Among his guests were comedian Gary Shandling, actor Sean Penn, and former Congressman Harold Ford Jr. from Tennessee. They were discussing the war in Iraq, and Shandling suggested that we need to get beyond our “winner consciousness” regarding the issue of war. Penn seemed interested but remained silent. Harold Ford appeared mystified by the assertion, but I knew exactly what Shandling was referring to and have been thinking about it ever since. In short, winning is an inappropriate metaphor when it comes to war, and we keep having wars precisely because we haven’t yet figured that out. 

Speaking in broad terms, we have, as a nation, adopted something akin to “sports-think” in our conception of how most issues should be resolved. Winning has become a default position that stops further deliberation. There are winners and losers and no in-betweens. At first glance, the win-lose mentality appears to be a type of simple-mindedness born of a mediated society in which sound bytes serve in place of serious thought. But I suspect that something deeper fuels this type of thinking. It stems, in part, from what I call truth by association, which is an instinctual and tribal-like loyalty that says, “My side. Right or wrong makes no difference, but our triumph does matter because we are, after all, who we are.”

Here, winning asserts the legitimacy of the association, especially when “our side” prevails. In other words, we validate the truth of our superiority when we win. On the flip side, losing becomes personal, and loss implies we have been wronged. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of practicing truth by association. What has happened with the metaphor of winning is similar in some ways to what happened during the Cold War to the word socialism, which was stigmatized with such vehemence that even to raise the subject of economic equity is still, for many people, considered subversive.

The notion of winning, however, took the opposite direction from the word socialism. Instead of a negative connation, winning morphed into an aspirational ideal that is ultimately a dead end. Somewhere in the past century of American culture, victories in comic books, movies, sporting events, business, games, lotteries, politics, and the like converged into one all-purpose metaphor: winning, winning, winning. The coaches who have gone to the furthest extremes to make the point that nothing is more important than winning are often celebrated as being great.  

This popular internalization of winning has become part of our collective psyche. The significant emotional experiences we share tend to drive the metaphor of winning deep within us, and eventually we perceive that winning reinforces our association without qualification (when our team wins it is exhilarating), and the metaphor brings us closer together without need of further discussion. Moreover, most of us will respond to criticism of these seemingly self-evident truths with a deep-seated unwillingness to reason or give ground. In other words, in matters of conflict between our group and another group, the word win is enough to close off the conversation, as in enough said.

Combat experience in war may be the most extreme example of experiential emotional attachment. Men and women suffering the stress of war often bond emotionally to such a degree that their association will thereafter trump issues of right and wrong. I suspect that people who have not experienced these feelings can barely imagine what it’s like. A shared significant emotional experience imbues a strong sense of commitment and kinship. I’s become we’s in combat, and the fortunes of individuals give way to an emotional sense of camaraderie and attachment to the outfit. The rigidity of one’s position about the politics at hand during war is often driven so deep that, for some, reasoning about the issue with complete objectivity will never again be possible. 

Setting aside the instance of war for a moment, let’s consider an example in civilian life: cases involving criminal prosecution where people are shown to have been wrongly convicted. When the convicted party is found innocent by DNA testing and subsequently released from prison, the prosecutors who won the conviction more often than not continue to believe the person is guilty. Prosecuting someone involves internalizing the righteousness of one’s position; facing off against defense attorneys drives the prosecuting attorneys’ convictions so deep as to sometimes reside beneath the reach of reason. Enough examples of this exist on television news that one need not look very far to find them.

Another example is the racial prejudice that permeated life in the South during the twentieth century. I have first-hand knowledge of this experience. People of all races who believe passionately that they are free of racial prejudice will remain convinced that they are free of such bias in spite of the results of psychological tests that detect their partiality. Similarly, when profound emotional experience is internalized as feelings of betrayal, the resentment can last a lifetime. For example, an urban legend of Jane Fonda “gotcha missives” exist in the form of emails circulated frequently. These emails tell the story of how she was valiantly denied service in a steakhouse in Montana by a restaurant owner who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran still angry about Fonda’s pro-Communist actions during the war. Revenge brings some people vindictive satisfaction; it means they are winning, getting even, making up for having been deceived and betrayed. Better yet, revenge means a traitor is losing (in Fonda’s case, it was only a steak dinner, but she at least suffered humiliation). This kind of cultural behavior takes the place of rational discourse about war and justice. And yet, who could doubt the deeply felt emotional wounds of veterans who thought—then and now—that Fonda’s actions betrayed them? 

I was a hawk during the Vietnam War. Although I had already been discharged from a four-year hitch in the Marines, I almost reenlisted during the Tet Offensive in 1968. What stopped me was the fact I was single, still owned a home, and could not find anyone to buy it. But I have come to realize that, without the anti-war protest movement that recognized senselessness for what it was, we might have lost another 50,000 or so men and women to a war that, in hindsight, seems absurd. More absurdity occurs when people start railing about how we should have won in Vietnam. Perhaps winning would have made any future loss of life worth the effort. But win what? In an address to the Cato Institute, conservative activist Victor Gold asked the still-pertinent question that applies to both Vietnam and Iraq: “How do you win someone else’s civil war?”

A deeper examination of the concept of winning is critical here. The metaphysics of the idea of winning is so thin that, when you stop and give it some serious thought, it boggles the mind. One foot short of the goal, three inches from the cup, a foot from the hoop, a ball out of the park, or one punch can make all the difference in the world: one side wins, the other loses. The reactions of the participants and the spectators are radically different, yet they do not, in any real way, reflect the physics of what actually happened. Think about it. Nothing in the world is changed in physical reality except something did or did not happen with or to a ball. Now one group of people is beside itself with joy, and the other side is devastated.

How can this same pattern apply to war? How can winning a game parallel the winning of a war? “America 14, Vietnam 7” doesn’t work. Consider the number of deaths: 58,000 Americans; 1-3 million Vietnamese. Bedsides getting closer to reality, does that mean anything? The more you think about it, the more intangible and bizarre the notion of winning becomes. Scores and blood do not mix. One can receive a mortal wound and still have time to kill an enemy, but to say then that either side has won stretches the metaphor of winning beyond its true meaning. The catastrophic circumstances exceed our ability to comprehend what it means to lose anything. 

Just as the psychic investment of prosecutors makes it difficult for them to change their opinion about the guilt of someone they have sent to prison, imagine how the people feel who have lost family members to a war that others call a mistake. To think that a war in which a spouse or son or daughter made the ultimate sacrifice was a mistake, is emotionally untenable, and this adds legitimacy to any war. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan—the circumstances post sacrifice don’t matter or, to be more precise, can’t matter without increased pain. The psychological result is that most people prefer to believe in the honorable sacrifice of their family member instead of questioning the circumstance of war. Asking hard questions after a personal loss in wartime results in further heartbreak. When one admits the illegitimacy of a war, the only alternative is to rethink one’s loyalties; rebuke one’s truth by association, if necessary; and redirect one’s sense of outrage at those responsible for the injustice—which makes this kind of action very unlikely for all but a few.     

Does imagining Jane Fonda being humiliated compensate for the perception that we lost the war? If we were keeping score on the basis of deaths alone in Vietnam, didn’t we win? Not to mention that we got into the war in Vietnam on false pretense, by claiming to have been fired on in the Gulf of Tonkin. You see, truth by association trumps ethics. My country right or wrong means that our sins are justified and your country’s are not. It means we don’t need to make amends or apologize because our errors are beyond reproach. People who assume truth by association believe that anything they do to prevail is justified by the simple righteous nature of who they are. And this is why human beings are locked into a feedback loop of irrationality: hypersensitive to the transgressions of others and oblivious to our own, we generate the eternal justification for conflict. 

President John F. Kennedy said the war was the Vietnamese people’s to win or lose. But our strategic view at the time was that if Vietnam fell, a virtual stampede of countries would suddenly embrace Communism. Then Vietnam did fall, and nothing of the sort occurred. In fact, the reverse happened. So, we must ask, was the war worth the deaths of nearly three million people? Vietnam seems to be a thriving country today, one with which we have resumed business relations, and, to my mind, the situation makes the frequent laments about having failed to win even more meaningless. Of course, many would argue that a number of citizens in Vietnam today feel oppressed by their government, but it is a grand illusion to assume that, had the South prevailed, there would now be a thriving American-style democracy in Vietnam. Fast forward to 2010, and we’re confounded by similar issues in Iraq and Afghanistan, both deeply divided by tribalism?

The conflicts of religious, ideological, and financial interests being what they were then, and still are, make establishing a democracy anywhere in the world a very tall order. The ability to perpetually balance power is very nearly impossible, even in the best of cases. Our own government is strangled by lobbyists in cahoots with our representatives, who are so beholden to various special interests that the majority in America has very limited influence. Yet we are sustained with centuries of idealistic notions about democracy and the rights of citizens.

The end-run philosophical threshold of winning at any cost is that it results in a perversion of us and them to such a degree that torturing prisoners is suddenly deemed okay. The historical records dating all the way to the Inquisition—suggesting that torture is ineffective and confessions obtained through torture are dangerously unreliable—don’t seem to matter. What our recent pro-torture policy achieved is to expose our servicemen and women all over the world to inhumane treatment by our enemies, who now feel not only justified but gleeful about the very opportunity and possibility of being able to torture Americans in the future. 

There is a huge metaphysical disconnect inherent in the metaphor of winning: racking up points on an electronic game offers an illusion of winning that does not transfer to the realities of war. The ephemeral consequences of winning in athletics are totally inappropriate for war. Even winning in sports events, when huge sums of money are involved, does not qualify as an analogy for combat. War is catastrophic change, writ in blood. It’s long past time for average Americans to think this conundrum through, to get beyond the consciousness of winning, as Shandling suggested, and to quit acting as the cheering section in a culture that behaves as if winning is a currency for endless incompatible assumptions and analogies.  

It’s unfortunate that we can’t discuss this subject without people getting red-faced and stomping off, mumbling clich├ęs about patriotism. Such a response demonstrates just how easy it is to resort to war in the first place. Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that we did not learn from our experience in Vietnam. But the proponents of winning a preemptive war in Iraq may have once again duped themselves. These same people incessantly champion small government, yet our bungling in Iraq and Afghanistan has so inspired the exponential recruitment of our enemies that we may never again be able to entertain having a small government with such a big threat facing us.

The yearning for small or limited government is understandable but only in an idealistic sense. It’s hard to be against limited government when you see your government as an oppressor. But what small or limited government really amounts to—in this day and age—is emasculated government, incapable of protecting citizens from a collusion of corporate interests whose lobbyists, in effect, purchase legislative support from politicians. A government that cannot protect the rights of citizens above those of corporations is not a democracy, nor is it a fair game.

Winning as a metaphor for games is appropriate, but for war it is insanely inadequate and morally bankrupt. Winning as a crossover to a war analogy is an anti-intellectual shortcut that eliminates thought about the very things we should think about. We need a political makeover in America. We need to understand the concept of winning in all of its manifestations, and we need to stop being consumers and reclaim our roles as citizens. This, in my view, is the only way for average citizens to win.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

America’s Celebration of Ignorance



© Charles D. Hayes
If you care about future generations and have reached an age when you realize the time you have remaining is short, perspective about what is truly important has a way of surfacing with a resounding sense of urgency. This is ironic because you realize at the same time just how little impact you have for influencing future events.

I grew up in a racist culture in the 1940s and 50s. Now in my eighth decade, I’ve spent more than thirty of those years writing about how the process of self-education radically changed my worldview and made me realize the utter immorality of bigotry and racism.

So, when I apply a big-picture perspective to the current state of life in this country, it’s clear to me that a very large percentage of our citizens are willfully ignorant and proud of the fact. A lot has been learned during my lifetime about human behavior, and yet we do not make good use of the knowledge we’ve gained.

Time and again, I go back to the writing of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who argued that leaving the subject of human behavior to experts “leads to a general imbecility.” Does it ever. To overstate the case would be difficult. I offer here three major concerns about what we have failed to learn and bring to bear for the public good. They’re all connected.

The first is about our identity, who we think we are. Who we identify with is easily determined by who we believe speaks for us, indeed, if anyone does. I’ve written ad nauseam about this subject, but not many people seem to understand it, even those who are supposed to be the experts. At least, if they do understand the fundamental nature of political identity, they tend to keep it to themselves.

In a nutshell, we human beings are tribalistic by nature. We evolved living in small groups, usually fewer than 300 people. We are so inclined to form these kinds of groups and so prone to conformist behavior that we develop distinctive accents in different regions of the country. We are so quick to group together that we readily adopt a passionate allegiance to sports teams. We can enter a room, chose up team sides by colors like blue and green, and in minutes begin to relate better to team members wearing our colors.

While tribalism is a complicated subject, my point here is simple: When it comes to politics, far too many of our citizens let the party they identify with speak for them. They are not knowledgeable enough to discuss major issues with any level of competence, which is why so many political discussions become emotionally incoherent. Democracy requires an informed citizenry and in fact cannot sustain itself without it.

The second concern is about values and the fact that the things we need most in life are in fact devalued in our society. The whole thrust of our economy depends upon our seeking and purchasing products we don’t really need, goods that, once owned, fail to satisfy, and purchases that often put our future at risk.

We can’t live without clean air, clean water, food, shelter, healthcare, family, society, and physical labor. But we take these things for granted, having created a mass of artificial needs that take priority over the things critical to our survival and well-being. In the meantime, we are degrading our air and depleting our water sources at an alarming rate.

We have created a society in which the things we need most are perilously undervalued, including our human labor, which used to be thought of as virtuous. If we don’t figure out how to reprioritize our economy, our children and grandchildren are going to pay a heavy price for our indulgence and indifference.

My third concern is the imbecility so apparent in law enforcement. Our criminal justice system is a planetary disgrace. Having been a police officer myself in my younger days, and having studied the psychology of human behavior for decades, I find it appalling that so much of what has been learned is still an open secret.

If per chance you watched the documentary Making a Murderer, it will be obvious to you how easy it is to get a person to make a false confession, especially a person with low self-esteem and a low IQ. We’ve known this for decades. That there are any law enforcement officers or prosecuting attorneys in the country who aren’t fully familiar with this phenomenon is, in my view, unacceptable. The war stories from the aging officers I knew as a police officer in the 1960s would curl your hair. I was in uniform when the Miranda Rule went into effect, and for many months we didn’t read people their rights because we thought doing so was silly.

Human brains are literally bias organs, and anyone who doesn’t fully understand this has no business in law enforcement. Moreover, people who wear a badge and a gun experience an increase in testosterone, becoming alpha males and females by nature of their positions. For some, the nature of their experience will likely hook them on spiked adrenaline rushes, prompting them to unconsciously escalate acts of confrontation for the sake of the added excitement. I find it mind-bending that the issues above are not a standard part of police behavioral training. 

These three concerns, of course, are only a sample of the problems we face, but fully addressing them in public discourse could go a long way toward creating a more equitable society, one that would be much more like a democracy than the one we’re experiencing today.   


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