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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