August 7, 2008

Another Day on Planet Earth

  • The western Indian city of Ahmadabad, the commercial capital of the state of Gujarat, felt the brunt of 17 bombs that killed 49 people and injured 200 others.
  • A Quebec man has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of his son's 17-year-old girlfriend.
  • Karadzic, 63, stands accused of masterminding Europe's worst massacre since the Second World War, the killing in 1995 of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.
  • 40-year-old suspect held in gruesome Manitoba bus killing--Passenger decapitated, witnesses say; story contains graphic details...
  • A man was charged Thursday with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of two women whose bodies were found in the same building last week... police confirmed Thursday the two women were strangled.
  • The men were gunned down in the southbound car when another vehicle pulled up alongside it and shots were fired at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday [29]... this latest violence comes on the heels of the gang-style slaying of one man over the weekend and the killing of another ... last week.

These were all headline news stories dated to July 31, 2008. A war criminal responsible for thousands of civilian deaths; the deliberate bombing of citizens in an Indian city; a couple of murderers of women; yet another brazen, gang-style execution of fingered enemies; and most sensational of all, a man who coolly stabs a stranger to death on a bus, and then severs his victim's head, holding it up like a trophy. Ho-hum, yes, really too bad how the media just report the bad news; now, where's my channel changer-- it must be time for some 'reality TV.' Okay; I suppose a few of you out there in reader-land do get interested in the news and see how it reflects our society's trends and values. Some of you will be disturbed for a while and wonder about it. Some will have ideas on who or what to blame for the violence that is becoming almost a hallmark of modern life. Let me offer my perspective on the situation.

By now, we're getting familiar with the analogy of the frog in the sauce pan, who doesn't feel the water gradually reaching a boil, until it's too late. But there's much more to it than that simple illustration. The news stories cited are all indicative of a global society in a state of crisis, a sickness of the soul that manifests in a million novel and gruesome ways every day. Yet so pervasive is this spiritual malady that even those of us who think we are well have merely shifted our tolerance for violence to ever greater levels in order to be able to function daily in what we convince ourselves is a 'normal' manner. Are we spiritually healthy... or are we really infected with the same virus but are exercising a kind of mind-numbing to mask the symptoms? I think if we were truly healthy, we'd be outraged, and would demand meaningful responses from our politicians. But, what do 'meaningful' reactions look like? Don't our officials at all levels put new measures into effect to address the violent episodes?

Let's stand back, and see what the pattern has been-- and this is something that nobody (certainly not politicians) bother to do. First of all, we have to recognize that what is needed, at this crisis stage, is a coordinated, integrated, rational approach. But, this is precisely what we do not get! The system is set up in such a way that responsibilities are fragmented, scattered over various layers of government, various independent departments or ministries of functionaries, so that a coordinated response is difficult or impossible. And yet, in countries where the powers and responsibilities are consolidated into a single, effectual authority, the result is dictatorship! In other words, we're damned if we implement the structure that would, possibly, lead to a solution. It kind of epitomizes the pathetic extent, the depth, of the human dilemma.

Speaking of solutions, what, really, is the problem? Why, it's violence, of course. What, then, causes the violence? My view is that violence is a symptom of the deep disturbance in the human soul (call it 'psyche' if it makes you more comfortable) which is engendered by a fundamental dissonance at the very core of society. Humans are social animals; we need each other to survive and thrive, both economically and emotionally. Yet we are all different, having a spectrum of skills, talents, and flaws, that make it a great challenge to co-exist in harmony. However, we have intelligence and are capable of compassion, two faculties that, theoretically, could lift us to new levels of peaceful existence. It is deceptively simple; the liberal exercise of one little faculty, tolerance, could make all the difference.

Sure, we all have our own views on life, even in organizations that are supposed to homogenize our views-- ie. religions, and 'ologies' of all kinds. But if we all had tolerance, we would just accept that everyone is entitled to his/her views, and carry on peaceful interrelationships. I think most of us-- at least those of us from the newer, immigrant-built countries of the 'Western world'-- already believe that paradigm. Then-- what goes wrong? Well, I suppose you could say it's character. Some individuals are driven to dominate; others to amass great wealth or power. Those seem to be the two great (and troublesome) motivators of humankind. But, why do they have those hard-wired drives? Aye, there's the big-prize question. Psychologists have their theories-- e.g. insecurities in infancy leading to an overcompensating need to control. There may be some merit in these notions. The question then becomes why, in thousands of years of civilization, have we collectively not been able to devise ways to contain the destructive power of these driven individuals, who apparently, constitute a relative minority in our midst?

That is a more difficult problem, although certain reasons spring readily to mind. Clearly, the 'driven' personality, if lacking moderating influences, tends towards psychopathy. Studies with rat colonies and other research suggests that as population densities increase, with attendant increasing stress, greater incidence of abnormal and aggressive behavior is observed. Individuals who are 'borderline' candidates for sociopathic conduct can cross the invisible line. And even those who are among the statistical norm begin to exhibit more symptoms of stress, noticed as aggression, or withdrawal, etc. In other words, there's a shift in group consciousness, away from easy-going tolerance, towards more antisocial behavior. You can think of that shifting process as the increasing temperature of the waters of social interaction.

Of course, I don't claim any of this analysis is original. That's the thing-- it doesn't take a genius or a PhD in sociology to understand the basic dynamic. Therefore, I reiterate the dilemma: why haven't we been able to develop an effective mechanism to curtail the excesses of individual character weakness? Part of the reason is that there is such a spectrum of 'driven' behavior, that we can't easily or always detect those who 'cross the line' and abuse the tolerance of the majority. The more egregious offenders (ie. the most acquisitive or aggressive individuals) learn to hide their worst traits until they have seized control and cannot easily be dislodged from power. Remember Hitler and Stalin, as extreme such examples. They are adept at using the systems and structures in place to their advantage, and at setting their adversaries at each other's throats, choosing the right moments to make their moves to the top. Ironically, it's the very decency of ordinary people that makes them slow, or unable, to acknowledge the deceit and self-serving cunning of these stealth psychopaths at a stage where they could be stopped. Altho these types generally lack any kind of empathy, they recognize that the same quality in normal people can be used against them. Thus, their cold-bloodedness gives them an advantage, while civility becomes a handicap for the majority.

There's a kind of 'flip-side' to the big picture of where the violent insanity of humanity comes from. While the great majority who define normal in society are ill-equipped to detect and deal with sociopathic leaders, at the same time, they also fail to recognize and deal with individuals who fall below accepted bounds of normalcy. For example, there have been a number of horrific mass murders committed in recent years, notably in Canada and the USA, by young men characterized as loners, and losers. These men, typically, had a problematic childhood, had abusive parents, were inept socially, had few, if any, friends, and compensated with fantasy lives that revolved around violent, retributive acts against 'society' as a threatening collective. Even tho our school system is supposedly staffed with teachers trained to recognize 'misfits,' and counselors empowered to work with them, the fact is that in our impersonal, understaffed, knowledge factories, it's still too easy for misfits to fake enough normalcy to slip thru the system with only unsettling suspicion dogging their careers.

An increasingly common pattern in the world outside school, is the incidence of 'volcanic violence.' We've coined a term, or set of terms for it, such as 'road rage,' and lately, 'work rage,' and so on. Again, there are individuals with borderline personality disorders who exist quietly in our midst, until some incident triggers a violent outburst from them, which too often, results in bloodshed and death.

Here's where my theory goes to a higher level of analysis. I say we, humanity, have allowed our major paradigms to be constructed for us with little thought to how all the small pieces fit together, and with very little regard for the 'higher nature' (yes, the spiritual aspect) of mankind. Everything today is about materiality-- acquiring goods, money, territory, power, etc. This system has slipped into our everyday lives over a mere couple of centuries in such a stealthy fashion that we think it is entirely 'natural' and represents how 'things just are.' Yes, a relative few cogent students have observed the inherent flaws in the system, and have proposed one or another analysis with a solution of some kind. But, overall, the process appears to evolve organically, as if in accordance with some overarching natural law. And the big problem with the various proposed replacement paradigms is that they all involve some inherent philosophy that inevitably scares the daylights out of those who'd rather deal with the status quo than jump into another scary political paradigm.

My observation (and many readers have not yet had their blinders removed... it takes time) is that, in fact, our 'present reality'-- the socio-economic paradigm of the 21st century Earth-- has been consciously shaped over the centuries, and shaped in a way that deliberately renders it dysfunctional. This sounds incredible to the mind that hasn't had time to reflect on the evidence. Nonetheless, you have to consider that this view accounts for a lot of the insanity that characterizes our modern world. The other, conventional approaches to the problem of growing societal insanity is to continue doing what we've always done, and thus, continue getting the results we've always got! What we've always done is to retreat into denial and do nothing for as long as possible. Then, when something blows up that can't be ignored, we go into panic mode, look for someone to blame, and if we live in a wealthy society, we throw money at the problem. Admit it-- this is the 'SOP', standard ops, for every problem that bedevils us and rocks our normalcy. Crime in the streets? Hire more cops, bring down stiffer sentences ('lock 'em up!'), and bring in more laws. Inadequate health care? Hire more managers, add more beds in the hospitals, try new drugs. It's the same story with each new head that springs from the Hydra of modern, hyperactive, ultra-stressed living-- wait for an acute problem, bring in a shot-gun blast of measures prescribed by the experts, and then wonder why the problem reappears a short time later, generally more acutely. It's always a retro-active response, based on scattered procedures, and dealing exclusively with superficial features of the condition. While the supreme characteristic of humans as a species is the ability to adapt intelligently to new situations, we seem doomed to be unable to apply that ability to save our planet from our own ineptitude.

We will only be able to implement truly effective measures to solve our problems when we-- enough of us-- wake up and acknowledge some unpleasant realities. And that first reality is that life is about more than a mad scramble to acquire as much material stuff as possible to achieve happiness. That crazy paradigm is morally and spiritually bankrupt, and anyone with eyes can see that it is destroying our planet. (Indeed, an economy founded on the premise of consumption cannot do otherwise-- look up the word consumption in a dictionary.) The second essential recognition is that there are forces-- persons-- who are deliberately directing the affairs of this world towards certain crises, in order that they and their kind may profit and emerge in total control.

Both of these realizations are difficult for the average person to make, and for the same reason-- the controllers are masters of human psychology. They know how to exploit our every weakness, and especially, the importance of mind conditioning from the earliest ages. Thus we have been subtly programmed from infancy to accept as normal a system that, with a little mature objectivity, can be seen as transparently insane. Notice how the supermarkets now provide miniature shopping carts for children to push alongside their parents carts? Oh, cute! isn't it? Sure; and a great way to imprint in kids' minds the normalcy of pushing a cart around a retail outlet and filling it with piles of 'goods' that may or may not be necessary. So it goes, everywhere in our society-- the million little instructions that strike our senses every day, reinforcing the essential notions of the 'consumer nation,' the 'free market democracy,' the epitome of civilization. Unfortunately, there's a problem in modern Utopia. In fact, there's a huge and growing phalanx of problems assaulting the harried citizens of the brave, New World. And if you still aren't sure of that, please go back to the beginning of this essay and look up those news stories.

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