The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Tag: Culture

Circles of Identity, Circles of Violence

Globe on FireThe worst humanitarian disaster in the world today is almost certainly Yemen, which is under siege and bombed every day. There is a famine, people are dying every day, and there is no let-up in sight.

For years, there were terror attacks in Iraq virtually every day; bombs going off in markets, and so on. Then someone would, say, attack the London Underground and the West would go into paroxysms of grief.

We care about violence in direct proportion to how much we identify with the victims. We identify with fellow Westerners far more than we do with non-Westerners. Let there be an attack in Western Europe (not Eastern Europe) or an English-speaking nation and we cry and talk about racism and fascism and intolerance and go on and on and on.

And meanwhile Yemenis die. Iraqis die. Afghans die.

One might say “all deaths matter” but we don’t act that way. Some deaths definitely matter more than others, some violence definitely matters more than other violence. When Saudi Arabia, aided by the United States, bombs the hell out of Yemen, well, that doesn’t much matter.

When some right-wing fascist shoots up a mosque, we go into paroxysms for days.

All lives, and all deaths, are not equal, they never have been.

Which is, I guess, like saying, “The sun is hot.” Everyone knows this, we just, too often, pretend otherwise. We pretend we care about people who aren’t like us, who aren’t members of our societies or societies we identify with.

And maybe we do. A little bit. A very, little bit.

Identification is in the running for the first evil; the first sin.

Oh, it’s entirely understandable: humans are tribal. For much of history, the most dangerous animal to a human was another human, and we compete for the same resources. Our near-competitor is other humans (with insects coming a close second, ever since the agricultural revolution).

It is human to identify: We put ourselves first (my body!), our families second, our friends third, our tribe fourth, and everyone else a distance thousandth.

But much of what is human is evil or self-destructive. Much of what is human is especially evil or self-destructive when it scales to billions of people.

In a world where humans are a few million or even a few hundred million people, what we do doesn’t much matter. Oh we can and did cause ecological collapses. We can and did cause genocides. We can and did wipe out entire species (including, basically, all megafauna). We’ve always been cannibalistic locusts on two legs.

But when there are billions of us, when we live in each others pockets, and when what happens in the Amazon, the Congo, or the Arctic bounces back to effect us almost immediately, when what happens when a country like Iraq, Afghanistan, or Yemen becomes a failed state, or when a country like Saudi Arabia becomes a fantastically rich, fundamentalist state exporting its particular ideology all over the world, well, our identities are ramped up into weapons far more deadly– more so than they were when our ancestors wiped out the European aborigines, or most of the Native Americans.

Identity tells us not just who to care about, it tells us who to kill.

And we are very good at killing.

The irony is that identities are very close to arbitrary. You didn’t choose where you were born, or who your parents are, so you didn’t choose your culture or your nationality. As for religion, most people worship the religion of their parents.

We kill each other fighting over characteristics we didn’t create (you didn’t create Christianity, or Islam, or Hinduism, or, America, or Russia) and which almost none of us chose.

This is bug-fuck insane. If you change your religion, you are still you. If you change your nationality, you are still you. We are killing ourselves or identities which are, well, crazy to identify with. (This will strike most people as radical, but no, your religion or nationality is not fundamental and if you think it is, you are nuts.)

Or we divide ourselves up over frankly absurd biological characteristics: the color of our skin, or our sexual characteristics.

None of this makes any sense.

And the consequences are severe: Because we do not take care of everyone, because we are scared of each other, we treat each other badly.

The simplest and surest rule of human nature is this: People who are abused tend to become abusers. People who are treated well tend to treat other people well. Oh, this isn’t a 100 percent rule–there are always exceptions, those people who were abused and turn into saints, those who are treated well and are still bad…but overall it’s a rule that works.

Evil redounds. It doesn’t always, or even often, redound directly on those who do evil (the world would be a better and simpler place if it did), but it does hit other people.

Evil leads to more evil.

Good leads to more good.

But because someone has a different culture, or religion, or nationality, or skin color, or genitals, we think it’s ok to do them more evil, and less good. We think it’s ok to care more about the evil done to people we identify with, and care less about people we identify less with.

And in a world with billions of people, that doesn’t work. The evil we do thousands of miles away comes back to us.

Further, our identification with humans above all other life is also a problem.

If we cared about what was happening to other species, to other animals, we could have avoided the worst of climate change and environmental collapse. Because, we, humans are not yet taking it in the neck, we don’t much care; we have done, effectively, nothing.

But there is already an apocalypse among animals, with species dying every day, in the fast mass extinction in Earth’s history.

This was a warning sign.

But they’re only animals, we don’t identify with them, so, well, whatever.

In a world with billions of people, we will only have a good world, a world worth living in, and maybe even a world we even can live in, if we either identify with no one or everyone. Either we recognize that humans, and life, are a web supporting each all of us, and that our good lives require all of us, or we will create hell.

Or rather, given that climate change and ecological collapse are now irreversible to some extent, we have already created hell, it just hasn’t been completely delivered by nature yet.

Preferential identity, for us as a species, is an evil. Most religions and nationalities and ideologies, putting some people above everyone else, are evil. Perhaps they have done some good in the past. Perhaps they do some good in present. But overall they lead to evil, and cannot but lead to evil. (As most recently, nationalism did.)

No one wants to believe this, but most people identify with nationalities or religions or cultures or skin color or whatever. They identify with crap that either clearly is not them, or which is meaningless (who cares how much melanin you have?)

Until we fix this, every fix for our problems as a species will be temporary: a band-aid on a gusher.

So it has ever been.

Does it have to ever be?

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The Culture of Meanness

One of the most striking things about much of American culture is the simple meanness of it. The cruelty.

Most of this seems to come down to three feelings:

  • My life sucks. I have to work a terrible job I hate in order to survive. I have to bow and scrape and do shit I don’t want to do. You should have to as well.
  • Anyone who doesn’t make it must not be willing to suffer as I do, therefore anyone who doesn’t make it deserves to be homeless, go without food, and so on.
  • Anybody who is against us needs to be hurt and humiliated, because that’s how I see my superiors deal with people who go against them.

“Life is shit, therefore your life should be shit.”

“What you’ve got is what you deserve.”

There is also a culture of punching down, as commenter Lisa has observed. America has a high-violence, high-bullying society. As Lisa noted you can have a high-violence society in which it is considered unacceptable to attack the weak (doing so is viewed as cowardice), but that’s not the case in America.

In American culture, the weak are the preferred target. Failure is punishable by homelessness, suffering, and death.  Sick people sure don’t deserve proper pain medication. Poor people are poor because they “don’t add value.” If you’re poor, you definitely shouldn’t have good healthcare, because if you don’t have money, you don’t deserve money, and that’s because you’re a waste of space.

This appears to be a result of something simple: At every stage of American life, it’s a zero or negative sum game, and who gets ahead is decided by authority figures. Need to get into a good university? You need good grades from adults, you need to have done the right extra-curricular activities, you need references from adults.

On the job, only a few people will be promoted, and the competition is fierce. But worse, in many fields, people are often let go, and the competition to avoid getting fired or laid off is severe.

Who decides? Your boss. You’d better get down on your knees and do whatever your boss wants, because if you’re fired or let go you may never work again, and if you do hang on at a bottom-wage job, well, your life will suck.

When dealing with police, the constant American attitude is OBEY. If you don’t obey, then whatever the police do to you is justified. The police are like bosses in a way. One cop can ruin your life, even if you aren’t killed, beaten, or raped by them. A criminal record means you will never have a good job again.


On your knees, citizen.

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And as my friend Stirling once noted, the next demand after, “Kneel!” is, “On your belly, worm.”

Failure to comply means your advancement is over, and maybe your job.

Americans are desperate for the approval of those in power, because without it, they are destroyed. This is true to a lesser extent in many other Western societies, certainly in Britain.

Having learned that the right way to treat anyone who is weaker than them is with demands for acquiescence and dominance displays, to many Americans, to interpret any sign of weakness as requiring them, as a moral duty, to dominate and hurt the weak person.

People become what is required of them. They learn from authority figures how to behave.

The desperate need of certain demographics to keep, say, women or certain minorities down is part of this. These people need to know that there are some people who, no matter how degraded their own situation, are always lower than them, can always be beaten down.

Contrary what many right-wingers think, dominance structures aren’t innate to humanity. Evidence supports that, for most of human existence, we were hopelessly egalitarian. But surplus combined with scarcity changes that, as do large populations.

Still, while high-density agricultural and industrial societies are innately more inequal than paleolithic hunter-gathers, there is plenty of variation, and within that variation plenty more variation as regards to the level of meanness and cruelty–how much a culture can be defined as “bullying.” In the modern, Western world, America ranks high as a mean, bullying culture.

The effects of this cascade, and can be seen as high up as America’s constant wars, drone assassinations, and the routine torture in prisons, and as low down as cities passing by-laws that the homeless can’t be fed or the desperate competition amongst parents and school-children for those few elite university slots which virtually ensure one’s future.

The entire process makes America a far more unpleasant place to live or visit than is necessary. The structure of dominance, meanness and cruelty is palpable to the visitor, and distressing; even as it warps the best inhabitant.

I find myself without a real conclusion. Obviously (I hope), this is BAD. Obviously it should change. But it’s hard to change something that people have taken and turned into a moral imperative: Be mean to the weak and poor, who deserve their fates. Kick down, kiss up, because a failure to pucker up can have you thrown out of the charmed circle, and obviously higher-ups want to see you acting like them, imitation being the most sincere form of flattery.

It’s all very depressing, all very unnecessary, and all very much in the interests of the people who run your society.  Meanness in the chattel means they can rarely get together to challenge the masters, because they hate each other more than they hate the masters.

Kindness is a revolutionary act.

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