A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

An Apology

The basic human cognitive structure is overwhelmed by the breadth, depth and speed of events in the present world. For thousands of years parents could pass their tools and their skill sets on to their children. This is emblematic of a continuing relevancy of the larger collection of attitudes, beliefs, social connections and subtle habits from one generation to the next and the efficacy of ‘a way of life’ throughout a lifetime.

There are few tools from my youth that I can, today, pass on to the new generation. Most are, by my children, respected and happily collected as quaint memorabilia, but they are not useful and the skills that gave the tools ‘life’ have paled with time. Attitudes and habits are often adapted from the tools and the skills that inform our daily activities: the patience demanded by a wood burning stove, the caution and due diligence of a woodcutter, the necessary curiosity and observant attention of a berry picker.

I grew up in a world where the second richest man in town changed his own oil in his car. When his son and I were driving home from playing pool in the nearest city, my car stopped running. My friend, in a completely natural and unremarkable evaluation of the symptoms of the stopping, cleaned the battery posts and we were on our way. This was the nature of my world.

As a metaphor for the our times, this same young man, a fellow truth seeker in our shared youth, became a vicious ‘born again Christian’ as his midlife moved to fuel injected cars run by computers; though I’m sure there were other influences.

And those other influences! I have an admission and apology to make. Very early on, it is difficult to say when, I began to develop a sense of distance from the workings of my fellowman – actually at the time, my fellowchildren. Somehow the great expanse of time and space within which we are embedded was as, or more, real to me than the daily detail of events, and it has been forever so. It has always seemed to me that I am, and all the rest of us are, putting on the costumes and taking the attitudes of the moment; that at another moment the costumes and attitudes will be different.

I am realizing at least one great failing of that otherwise, to me, laudatory and useful stance: I have been and generally remain insensitive to many of the immediate and powerful assaults and changes that have multiplied exponentially over the years; not unaware of them, actually super-aware of them, but insensitive to the confusion and fear that such changes might have when people believe that the costumes and the attitudes are real and essential to their well-being.

I need to apologize to my former dear and good friend for thinking ill of him, he always believed the costumes were real and fought back in the only ways that were available to him, and to those millions of others who I have only been able to see as somehow inadequate, unintelligent or broken – even though it was clear that these assigned qualities were wrong.

This time is pushing me into my fears and doubts so completely that recognizing the power of the loss of “certainty” is coming easier. When in freefall, one “holds on” to the strongest impression that the mind can generate or, and this is truly terrifying, the strongest impression that is delivered from what appears to be an interested and attending world. If this sounds familiar, it is one of the basic principles of torture formulated out of the McGill research and instituted in the current paradigm.

It is absolutely the default position that the life lived is the life to be lived. It is where all the effort, tools, skills, experience and status have been invested; it is the correct costume to put on – and, this is common if not necessary, those who put on other costumes are, at least a little, suspect.

The changes of the last half-century have been bending the branch of our certainties. It is a natural reaction to reject the messages that challenge “our way of life” in an attempt to avoid the fear – and this is what I was unprepared to understand – that the fear was absolutely real in the moment and unavoidable.

An example: 5 years ago, in the US, 70% of those surveyed reported that they believed that global climate change was real and caused by human activity. Today that reported number is closer to 40%. The reason often given for the change is the propaganda efforts of oil companies and other polluters, but I have another explanation. I think that, in fact, more than 70% fundamentally understand that anthropogenic climate change is real and are so terrified (rightly so) by the incomprehensible changes coming that they must deny, must go mad.

Add to this the assaults of economic uncertainty, fear of crime and terrorists, increasing dangers from industrial ‘accidents’ and the social disruptions from increasing population pressure; the level of irrational behavior in this light is actually less than might be expected.

The institutional right wing, not conservatives so much as sociopathic ideologues, have been stoking these fears and then delivering their answers to them in the numbingly repetitious droning required for pacification. But let us not forget that they too are afraid of the loss of their “way of life.” It is the degree of their fear that gives them such irrational power, like the little old lady who lifts the car off the child, and supports an intuitive understanding of how to stoke the fear in the first place. Progressives are loosing at this game because they are insufficiently afraid.

But ultimately fear is a bad motivator – good at motivating and terrible at producing good results. Fear must eventually be focused on a cause and that cause neutralized; only in the simplest situations does this work. And the sources of our fears (both those based in reality and those manufactured for a purpose) have complex sources that cannot be corrected by acting on a single cause. Someone said once that fear was the thing that we had the most to fear.

America today is, I think, best understood as large numbers of fear-filled people behaving badly being preyed upon by fear-filled sociopaths who understand the use of fear for short-term gain. Now that is something to be afraid of.

The progressive community must not try to challenge the right wing sociopaths by increasing their own pantheon of fearful things – even though there is much to fear that must be addressed by progressive ideas and solutions. Rather the ideas and solutions must be presented widely, directly and confidently.

We must understand that real solutions require that people change how they live and that this is frightening, but people can’t be frightened into doing new things, they can only be frightened into fighting to stay with what they know (how the right wing has used this fact to get people to act to their disadvantage is another topic). People can’t be frightened into accepting climate change as a reason to change, but they can be frightened into denying climate change even as they are actually acting in its reality.

But, to continue with this example, it can’t be sugarcoated either. It is foolish to talk about increased growing seasons for Montana and Siberia or the delight of the beaches on the coast of Arizona. The consequences of climate change will be altogether very bad for life of the earth; the ‘way of life’ of almost everything will change and seldom for ‘the better.’ That humans would have to make large and serious changes in how they live, right now and quickly if the major consequences are to be avoided, is a very difficult argument to make in non-fearful terms. But it must be done. However, when the argument creates significant fear it becomes the property of the right wing to use as an ad hoc device for their projects de jour.

The nation needs a leader like Roosevelt who individually and personally looked the fear in the eye and sneered at it with his cigarette holder pointed skyward in a minor but clear act of defiance. He said, “Yes, its really bad, but I am not afraid and neither do you have to be afraid.” But, he was also asking for a return to what people knew or thought they knew; it was, for all the horror attending it, an easier task. And Roosevelt was speaking to people who changed their own oil, who cleaned the battery posts when their cars quit running and taught their children to do the same.

So while competent leadership would be a vast improvement to the current squalor at the highest levels of governance, it was not then and would not now be enough – necessary, but insufficient. There are three quite basic attributes of any change that must be believed in: that the change is possible, that it will be effective and that the ultimate consequence for ‘our way of life’ will be understandable and positive. It is here that we must focus our attention, not with the real, but terrible, consequences of failing to act. The result of failure is all the same whether it comes from inaction or a full effort rendered insufficient by circumstances, so doing all that is possible and necessary only makes sense.

We must begin with showing that the needed changes are both possible and positive by committing more than lip service to reducing our personal ecological footprints. This is not a matter of showing off the new Prius or solar panels, but actually having and doing with less, really living at or near the levels that would be required for the earth to begin recovery from the assaults of the last 2 or 3 hundred years. Soon a more detailed essay about how people can model the necessary changes in ways that are accessible to the real others, not just the moderately wealthy who can buy a few environmentally correct toys. And about how the quality of life is improved even in this confused and crazy time.

My full apology: I have been writing very scary pieces about the dangers confronting us without adequate concern for real suggestions about how we might meaningfully confront those dangers. For that I am sorry and will try to correct that error. I was inspired to this recognition by the unremitting fearfulness of the last Chris Hedges’ piece. He writes so beautifully – reading him can be like looking at a Francis Bacon painting of meat.

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