As One

The more I learn about human history, psychology, anthropology, and economics, the more I come to believe that community is the most dangerous and evil factor in our existence. Whenever anyone rhapsodizes abstractly about peace and goodwill, the nebulous word “community” seems to appear. These rhapsodies generally evanesce as soon as the wind of reason blows across them; the end of such discussions is hurt feelings and spilt-milk tears.

From the work of Solomon Asch, we know that it only takes three liars to cause a fourth person to lie. For those who don’t know, Asch conducted a series of experiments in which volunteers were shown lines of differing lengths and asked to match a separate line to the one of the same length. The task was clear and obvious and less than 1% of subjects gave wrong answers when tested privately. Yet, when tested in groups of four or more, when the other group members (secretly “planted” by the researcher) identified the wrong line, a third of the test subjects gave the same, plainly wrong, answer as the other group members. What is more, only half of them later admitted that they knew the truth; the others had actually trusted the perceptions of the group over the evidence of their own eyes. Remember, this was a very simple question: which line is longer? When the reasoning is more complex or the differences are subtler, how much stronger is the influence of group opinion?

Following this reality further down the rabbit hole: We also justify choices we think we have made, even if they are opposite to what we actually chose. In the case of voting, this means that, even if an individual rejects a particular choice, as long as she buys into the idea that her will is reflected in the will of the collective, she will mentally justify the choice of the collective.

From the work of those such as Peter Killworth and Robin Dunbar, we know that our human brains can only handle the complexities of understanding and having true social relationships with 150-300 people, the size of the smallest social groups, such as clans, in hunter-gatherer societies. Any larger group must be managed by heuristics, where people (or objects, concepts, anything) are mentally pigeonholed based on obvious characteristics. A judgmental way of referring to heuristics is use of the word stereotyping. Heuristic stereotyping is the only way to imagine that we are taking everyone’s interests into consideration when we make decisions as a city, as a state, as a nation, or as a world. Put another way: when an individual accepts the idea that decisions must be made as a group, the only way to think about the interests of the group’s members are by applying heuristic stereotypes to the group’s members. But humans are far more complex than stereotypes, and to talk about the interests of “women,” “blacks,” “the handicapped,” or “workers” is to disregard the ways in which any individual woman, black, handicapped person, or employee may have differing interests or needs. In this sense, every person belongs to multiple communities, but no community. The only way to value every person as an individual, is to refrain as much as possible from making decisions for people as a group.

We also fear loss far more than we value gain. This is true even when we have more than we need, or when the losses and gains are of points or chits that have no value. If we are told that “we” own something, even if it is something that we cannot use, such as a nature reserve, government building, or military base where we are not permitted to go, we fear the “loss” of something which is of no good to us. On the other hand, if we never have something, we do not fear to lose it. This is the genius of withholding taxes, which disappear from a worker’s pay before she ever receives it. If everyone had to write a check for their withholding, FICA, and Medicare tax every payday, they would feel the loss and recognize that the collective is taking from them. The same is true of IVA taxes in many countries, where the IVA is baked into the price of the item at many stages along the object’s being brought to market. Taxes and regulations on business are likewise more popular than sales taxes or taxes on individuals, because we never see the increase in prices that results from the taxes on producers. Yet, those who set taxes, fees, and regulations know this very well and choose to push it out of their minds and disregard it, telling themselves it is for “the greater good.”

And last of all, we are easily stampeded into fearfulness. Whether it’s fear of Muslims or fear of guns, the narrative of attacks floods our primitive brains with adrenaline and focuses our attention on doing whatever is necessary to combat the perceived threat. It is only by careful thought and consideration that we can realize that the risks to our safety posed by guns, Muslims, or whatever this week’s terror totem is, are very small. And it is only in quiet and relative isolation that we can perform the careful thought and consideration needed.

In short, whenever I hear anyone discussing politics begin a sentence, “We should…” I want to interrupt right there. “We?” Who is “we?” Do “we” have to do this as a group? What if I don’t want to be part of this group? Can a group of those who want it done, do this thing on their own? Most of the time, my answer, whether it’s building a wall along the Rio Grande, or taking away people’s belongings because they might hurt someone, my answer is “count me out!” If it is so important to you, you do it.

The truth is, I am only rarely part of “we.” Are you? When?

Vulture Shock

My neighbor in the RV park says, “Hello.” If he said any more it would be weird, creepy, awkward, suspicious. I flash back to Cuenca and the cholas sitting in the market with grandchildren running around their knees, the old men in the parks on the benches, greeting one another and conversing with anyone who happens to come near. That includes a pale-faced gringa trying to improve her command of Spanish, eager to learn about their lives and tell them about hers.

 

It’s so trite to say, “people who don’t have as much, value what’s really important: friends, family, music, enjoying the company of others.” Yet, it is true. I think I never really believed it; I felt like people here in the US enjoy those things too, AND PLUS we have spiffy cars and electronics and nice clothes and kitchens and the best stuff ever in the history of all mankind! What I found living a year in a developing country was that, no, all the stuff really does get in the way of what is real. The things really do distract people from one another. The entertainment media streaming at us all the time really does confuse us and make us cold to one another.

 

We look at the stuff and the shows and the movies and the video games and the commercials and the news and the signs and the billboards and we are in a trance. We drive in a trance from place to place. We compete in a game to win prizes which we may not even like when we get them. Every now and then we look up and catch each others’ eyes, startled to remember each others’ presence, and stammer a few words, unsure what to say when there is no business to be transacted. What a relief it is to get back down to watching, buying, consuming, earning, and to know everyone around us is doing the same! We are all doing it, so we don’t owe each other anything. Not courtesy, not a moment’s attention, not a smile, and certainly not the truth.

 

Let us speak one truth before it is too late: we are not the greatest and we never were. We are the world’s dregs: the criminals, the religious fanatics, the political dissidents, the neglected twelfth children, the sexually trafficked, the captive losers in small, local wars. We were all turned loose on a continent whose tech was ten generations behind, and we ran roughshod over it; we then turned our aggression outwards in two world wars and a perpetual global occupation, and claimed control of the financial structure everywhere. We began to tell each other lie after lie after lie about how it all became possible, and we believed those lies, until the truth was hidden in plain sight among a million other stories we liked better. Our youth find nothing more motivating in life than a handful of pills. We want to work and we can’t. We strive and struggle to get a scarce job, and then discover that we are not creating anything of value. Our children’s brains are wilting inside their skulls before they are even born.

 

We are safer than anyone has ever been in history and yet we are consumed by fear. We have more knowledge available instantly on our phones than our parents could access at the best library on the planet. Yet we are duped over and over by transparent lies, because they are told by pretty people on glowing screens. We are ashamed of our pain, ashamed of our stories, ashamed of our need to connect to other human beings.
Say more than hello. Just say it.