An experiment was done with subjects whose Corpus Callosum, the communication bridge between the two hemispheres of the brain, was severed, either from birth or accident. Normally considerable information is shared across the Corpus Callosum. The experiment began in an RV parked on the street outside a house. The subjects with no use of the Corpus Callosum were given written instructions to enter the house and perform a task in the kitchen. They proceeded to follow the instructions. On the way into the house one of the experimenters intercepted them and asked where they were going. The brain processors for visual and auditory stimulus are on either side of the brain hemisphere divide. Without a Corpus Callosum to share information across the divide, the subject asked the question had no information to give an answer to why he or she was going into the house. What the subject didn’t typically do was say what was the fact: I don’t know. Invariably the subject would invent a plausible answer, not so much from a wish to be deceptive, for the question really was innocuous, not weighted with responsibility. No, the subject created a plausible response because the experiment concluded, we humans don’t like to appear incompetent, will do anything before revealing we don’t know what we are doing.
The first assignment I had in my counseling study was to summarize a review of the literature on a topic of my choice. I summarized a review of the literature on self-reporting of clients on the efficacy of their counseling session with a therapist. Clients would have selected the therapist and booked the appointment. It was noted in the results that even when a client had an unsatisfactory meeting with a therapist, the client would report positively on the efficacy of their counseling session even when it was obvious the session had a poor outcome. The client would do that even when the report was anonymous, the client knowing the therapist would not know who wrote the report. The literature explains that clients were reluctant to give a negative report seemingly because it would reflect badly on them. To say the counseling was not a success was in the clients’ minds to allow that they, the clients, had made a bad choice, had done badly. In their minds they held that responsibility for the success of the counseling session was their responsibility as they initiated the session. And so they would report positively even when it wasn’t a positive outcome, because, the point is, we humans don’t like that, don’t like to be caught out, to be seen to be incompetent.
That was thirty-eight years ago. There has been a shift I expect, an ease, a weakening of social stigma for admitting to failure. The public relations industry has led the way finding that it was a better strategy, as the Tylenol response to tampered bottles pioneered, for a corporation or politician to admit to mistakes and ensure how it won’t happen again.
Unfortunately the motivation has more to do with public perception than a standard for right conduct, and public relations has become so sophisticated in manipulating narratives, that there seems to continue among us not an honesty with how we are, but a wish to believe all is right with our world. And the tools for manipulating our opinion especially in exploiting social media for shaping our opinions and behaviour, mean we now live in a very comforting bubble of our own competence and self assurance, convincing us we know exactly what we are doing and how right we are in our thinking.
We psychologically defend ourselves from believing we are bad people or do bad things and we latch onto any affirmation that we are nothing less than decent people. That’s why we love our flag we wear proudly when travelling and extol how Canada and thereby Canadians, upholds the standard for human rights, how our prime minister should be lecturing other nations, even as powerful as China, to emulate our values.
We would find it very hard to believe that we are not good actors which may explain why issues of residential schools, missing and murdered first nation women, systemic injustice for racialized people, are issues going back decades and decades, gaining only small concessions along the way, usually only when the advocates take up more militant actions, that impinge on the dominant culture, such as blocking our rail transport. And, likeing to think ourselves as right-acting, we silently feel ourselves justified in light of the anti-social behaviour, that is, anti-social because we like to see ourselves as social, the norm, the good actors.
We just don’t like to feel implicated in bad behaviour. You see, we say to ourselves, we, good people that we are, follow the rules. We want everyone to follow the rules, our rules, which must be good rules because we are good people. We can feel smug or certainly, disregard the complaints of others because we judge the advocates citing our injustices as disruptors, even if disruption of our lives is the only way they can get us to pay attention. Their disruption then becomes our rationalization for doing nothing significant, decade after decade, where acting would be an admission of failure we don’t want to make, anything to not to have to change our behaviour, not have to admit to ourselves we acted unethically.
At the same time as we drag our feet on doing better with serious injustices, we get very excited, will do anything, even line up overnight, to get our hands on the latest iPhone, for example. We are very good at pressing the innovators to make us ever better coffee-makers or more sophisticated cars to appeal to every wish we have for comfort and status. And we demand it now. Can’t wait to get the latest version of everything we want. But even when a decade ago, the native peoples in Nova Scotia were given legal right to harvest lobsters, the government did absolutely nothing, and the public didn’t care at all, had no sense of urgency. Well, fine words dismissed the slow implication of the law, truth is no one wanting to rein in the commercial fishery, take away the income of the white people, even if it meant not giving the first nations people the income they had a right to. Nothing happened until the patient First Nations people went out and assumed their clear legal right established by law, until they disrupted the commercial fishery. Oh then all the actors got up in arms, people quick to blame First nations people for bad conduct when it was our government’s neglect and indifference over decades that is the actual issue. We just won’t admit at all to our own wrong-doing.
With a better writing of history, not just accepting the history told by the winners, we who are European in our ancestoral roots, we are now condemning our ancestors as racist, as colonial, and offering apologies and allowing for pulling down of statues of heroes or returning museum artifacts to indigenous groups the artifacts were stripped from.
Let’s pull down statutes of politicians who supported residential schools or promoted slavery. Good. Yes, these monuments are an insult to the victims of those social policies. But why now? It’s not a new idea, has been demanded by the victims for decades. We, the privileged majority, it seems to me, are playing at the same game. By condemning the long distant past, those colonizers, makes us feel good about ourselves so we eventually jump on board with changing up our tired looking statuary of men on horses looking skyward. Wow! Have we done a tough thing, I say tongue in cheek. Just so we can feel how much we are a better people than those past exploiters. Not only better than the bronzed hero, but also better than the citizenry of the distant past who proudly honoured their heroes in bronze immortalization and memorialization. Yes we are better than they. Of course we are. You see, we like to be the right ones, exemplary in pulling down the past and making grand statements of apology; lets us feel good about ourselves.
We want to believe ourselves commendable. We don’t want to be seen as the problem. We can’t abide that actually. Not in our psyches. It would be traumatic for us to think we were exploiters, exploiting less privileged using our excessive power. A person with a dissonantly lived experience has a hard time coping day to day. We wouldn’t choose that. We prefer anything so long as it maintains an equilibrium of our sense of self as decent capable people. Many of us supplement this with drugs or therapy, meditation or wealth and status that helps ward off a reality or perception of weakness and boosts our self-image for our own capability, integrity, value and worth.
What we also do is explain away or dismiss from our mind anything contradicting that image of ourselves.
Where I’m going with this post is not a place we want to be. It’s why I’m taking so long to get there, covering why we so resist what comes next in this analysis.
That in itself, our need to feel good about ourselves, is a problem for addressing serious public problems and making a better world. It’s so hard for us in faced with a problem to admit ourselves to be a significant part of the problem. We want the problem to originate somewhere else, in the past, or with another political system, or another national character. Actually, it’s the question of this blog to raise for discussion the dilemma of how we change the course of our society when to make that change is to admit to our own selves being the problem, that in fact it is us who has to change. How can we see what another sees, that we are at fault for being the ones benefitting from our own immoral action? What, I immoral acting!
Of course we don’t want to be in that position. You will find it very hard to read to the end of this post because should you get there, you will be looking at, well, a bad actor in the mirror. Believe me, it is my experience. I’m inflicting this blog on you because I need help; I need support to have the courage to look in the mirror and see where I am a future bronze statue others will condemn and want to pull down. I need you with me to have the courage to look in the mirror and act accordingly. I need your help to know how to pull down my own statue.
To do this alone would mean I would be harming the quality of my life. Instead,I’m quite good at just explaining it all away. I could just say the world is a mess. Some do good and some don’t. I can’t do a lot, being a low status member of my society. And the bad goes on and I don’t like it but I can live with it. It’s not my fault. Someone else maybe, someone better than me, will come along. I can look back on my poverty and exploitation in a precarious work culture. I can see my life as one looking from the outside at those in my society who did so much better than myself, my colleagues who made $30,000 more a year for doing the same job I did, for example. Get myself off the hook. Anything to not look in the mirror. Not have to leave my impotent, rationalized view of it all.
I have to bring myself to act. It’s not enough to have thoughts in my head or rant away with words. If there is to be any change, if there is to be justice for others that they can enjoy what I enjoy, then even neuroscience, let alone sociology and anthropology and history, knows that thoughts, feelings, wishes, mean little; only our behaviour, taking action, counts for making change possible. So pulling down the statues of our forebears whose honour then is no longer honourable is important for us; but it’s not enough. We need to look in the mirror and see our own statues, and question them. Then take action, not just watch the documentaries and read the books, not just think about it. First, then, is to admit our society, not others, is not so pristine as we might hope to believe. Second, we need to accept that having opinions no matter how enlightened is not enough, to be empathic is not enough: we need to act. I feel compelled to do that. But I need help. Help with perspective. With doing the right thing. Your help, those of you joining me in this discussion.
Who in the past then do we identify with? That’s the question. It’s different for each of us. For the indigenous it is one answer. For those in the margins of our society, in prison, those with poor or no housing, with little income – it is another answer. For those of us doing well enough, descendants of Europeans, here is our foreboding answer: we are in the line of those in the past, the ones with privilege, are today, those in the past erecting bronze statues.
Here’s the other psychological defense in us that prevents us from timely action against injustice. It’s hard for us to feel we are among that privileged. We see others as the privileged, and so defer to them the duties and responsibility of privilege. Research shows that a family with an income of $600,000 or even a million dollars, sees themselves as middle class. Because they know of people who are richer than they, who have an even bigger house, and a winterized summer house, with boats and who also take trips abroad, get more toys and the latest toys, entertain an even fuller closet of clothes… So it goes, a wealthy person tends to see her or himself as not rich, another psychological defense, not part of the problem, not responsible for the fact thousands of people are living on the street night after night. Wealthy people, thinking themselves middle class, can justify why they don’t’ have to change their attitude and their indulgent lifestyle. Oh it’s not indulgent. In their minds, they’re just being normal. Look over there, they point out: that’s indulgence. It allows that very rich person, and any of us with a home for that matter, to go to bed at night after a filling meal when eight thousand or maybe ten thousand other Torontonians in our city have no home at all, live on the street.
I’ve referred in other blog posts to the research at UCLA where two people for the experiment were playing monopoly, one player given a huge advantage in the game over the other –much more money to start, double the money of the other when passing GO, and two die rather than one to move faster around the board – and, of course, the advantaged one was the eventual winner hands down. Here’s the bit of insight. None of the winners when asked why they won the game attributed the win to their privileged advantage. In their minds, it was their skill at the game, their strategic maneuvering, their cleverness that made them winners.
I know people whose family paid for their education and comfortable housing while they went to school, and all kinds of enriching experiences around that, and grad school in the States, at excellent schools, hundreds of thousands of dollars of expense, and those children did well for themselves, had important careers and high incomes. I know they think it was their ability, their hard work, their determination that gave them that privilege. I don’t think they have any idea that had they been born into a family without financial capacity, where maybe as a young child, they had to work in a menial job to help put food on the table instead of going on a holiday to a rainforest; no understanding that more than likely, born with a different skin colour, they would not have had the career they had, no matter how hard they might have worked or how intelligent they were. It’s more than likely there were all kinds of young people with more intelligence, more capacity, more fortitude than the privileged person, who born in impoverished conditions, have a life of minimum wage income.
I’ts often said, wealthy families don’t want to support better education and living conditions for all children, because it would only mean more competition for their children for the good jobs.
Already, you as I, don’t like to hear it put this way, don’t like to see ourselves in this way. You might feel strongly about reading any further. It undermnds our psychological equilibrium to feel ourselves the problem, as the research into clients self-reporting on the efficacy of their therapy. And fortunately, we live in a social milieu where we don’t have to spend much time on any one subject, but spend our time running from subject to subject, speed scrolling, chasing trends with the effect we don’t have to think about anything for very long and certainly thanks to the artificial intelligence built into the social communication platforms we use, we never have to see any information ever that would disturb us or make us think there is a problem with us.
Well that’s the whole game of it, isn’t it? Our consumer culture, our social bargain; keep us thinking nice things about ourselves; never let us know anything that might disturb us… and all we have to do for that is turn over all our private thoughts to their Artificial Intelligence software for psychological assessment and shaping of our behaviour. Whatever they want, we say; just make sure we always feel good about ourselves, when peering at our phone.
So things don’t change. Our politicians are telling us something is being done about the climate emergency, say a restriction on single-use plastic, perhaps coming soon, and we feel good. Meanwhile we dumped more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere in 2019 than in any previous year, despite all we know.
So how does anything change? How do we not just want to go back to the way things are after Covid? To the very attitudes that brought Covid to us. Here’s the point, I think. We don’t even want to know we need to do anything different than go back to the life we had. So while ninety-seven percent of environmental scientists say we are at the brink of disaster, ah well, on social media platforms where anything can be fabricated without accountability, it is believed only 66% of scientists agree that our ecosphere is in serious collapse. That gives us good reason for being uncertain, holding back, and well, carrying on as we are. Certainly not getting angry about anything.
We’re going through Covid. We don’t need more bad news. In fact we need good news to keep us going. And there is good news to placate us. People are taking action against the climate warming: conferences and paper bags. See! No worry.
We humans are good at making sure we don’t implicate ourselves, see ourselves as the bad actors. Our ancestors are bad actors. Other people we witness on social media are the bad actors. As I was told by an American I know well, this election of Biden will ruin her country. President Trump was doing such good in the world, was such a brilliant leader. She harbours the same Xenophobic views as her leader. This American is a very decent person, is kind, follows all the rules, takes care of her home and family. She believes herself a good person. She wants to do good. Believes she does. I wouldn’t want to tell her she’s a bad person, as much as I wouldn’t want to say I am a bad person. Fact is our actions implicate us. I might think I’m OK because I’m quite opposed to Trump and the position of the American right. I might even feel good about myself standing up against what they stand for. But truth is, I have bought all kinds of products made by people in sweatshops who go hungry a lot of the day. I am a member of a society and I benefit greatly from a society that is a bad actor, tolerates abuse, that exploits people all over the world. We have to keep our economy going.
We don’t want to feel badly about ourselves, our society. That’s the stumbling block for change that I’m circling around here, worried that if I don’t approach it slowly, you’ll dismiss me as erratic, extreme.
In seeing ourselves as good people, better than our forebears represented in the bronze statues, we believe our lives are well-lived, that we are ethical. A n honest analysis might suggest we identify ourselves with the wrong people in times past. For example we might feel justified in our stridence condemning the invaders of Ireland who dispossessed the Irish from their land. We might be in sympathy with the suffering Irish during the potato famine, the mass of the population who had lived on potatoes and buttermilk for their subsistence, the majority of people who without the potato had nothing to eat. What the Irish call the Hungry Grass is grass grown over the many open graves, the mass graves of thousands of bodies of emaciated human beings shoveled into an open pit having died a slow death of starvation. The Irish enduring the famine lived on 8 meals a month; children were but gray drawn skin and bones seen at the side of the road, living in hovels, having been evicted for not paying rent. Terrible we say. No! When I look honestly in the mirror: Here’s the hard part for us, for you and me. We cannot sympathize ourselves with the famine people. Looking in the mirror, we, and that includes any of us who are Irish, we would have to identify ourselves with those watching 4000 ships a year leaving the ports of Ireland laden with grain and dairy and beef to feed the English, fill the English bellies. That’s who we are ourselves in this world of ours, those watchers, not the famished.
The mirror tells us that we Canadians are among the 20% of the world’s population that uses 80% of the world’s resources to maintain the quality of our lives. That means we watch as 80% of the world lives with only 20% of the world’s resources, most of that 80% impoverished, many without even respectable shelter or enough food and water to maintain their health. Meanwhile we have boatloads coming to our docks laden with far more things than we need and we all stand on the dock celebrating our consumer culture, our sophistication, living in a world even as the ships arrive, that tells us we want even so much more. And we accept and uphold that as our public values. And rail against other societies for being abusive of human rights, because we are so much better.
We might feel we stand proud in sympathy with William Wilberforce and those in the 18th century fighting for the emancipation of the slaves and eventual abolishment of slavery in the empire and in England. We likely feel we stand in abhorrence at the genocidal activity of the East India Company with a small group of Englishmen stockholders running a company that profited on imports that came from India whereby the East India Company had a private army larger than the British military, and used rapacious tactics and mass murder to effectively assert themselves in this foreign land and strip bare the wealth of the Indian sub continent.
We identify ourselves with the condemnation of genocidal colonial activity of the British and other European empires. No, I think we’re wrong there. We rather are the mirror image of with those who may have heard the speeches of the emancipators like Wilberforce, discussed around our dinner tables or in the pubs about their idea to emancipate the slaves, but after all, allowed we couldn’t destroy our economy and way of life. We actually identify with those who read the reports of whistleblower Roger Casement on British citizens committing atrocities in the Congo and Central America, but who felt in deference to the reports, the government must be in control, believed in the government despite the reports of Casement, defended England as doing good bringing civilization to the uncivilized. Those are who we identify with, not Casement or the Congolese heaped in a mass grave. We living now in this First World identify in practice, not with the oppressed, but the oppressors. Our identity is with the population who despite hearing of the horrendous exploits of the East India Company continued to buy the fabric and tea and spices that made life in Britain so much better.
How can I say this, suggest we are on the wrong side of the equation. Really. Our wonderful society. So….. our cell phones require for their operation a number of rare metals. Many of those rare metals are mined by children, by indentured people, in conditions that lead to early death and great suffering, not unlike the Irish or the Congolese or the Brazilians in the past. While yes there are more people in the world today than the 18th century, there are also more slaves and indentured people today than in the 18th century and those slaves, actual slaves today are working for us no differently than when on a plantation a few hundred years ago .
The abuse of these indentured people and children is why we can pay less for our phones, get ourselves a good deal. Isn’t that exactly what we demand of the phone providers, like the demanded of the cotton merchants. We want cheaper phones –that’s where are voices are raised today -not raised to end the slavery today. Truth of it. Not what we want to hear aobut ourselves for sure,, not the person we want to see when looking in the mirror.
We prefer to think of ourselves fighting for freedom, not like all those others watching the grain ships arrive from Ireland, fine cotton from the Americas, luxury goods from India. If we are to be upset about slavery, it’s not the slavery in the 18th century, and the historical people who promoted slavery riding on the bronze horses that we should be upset about; if we want to be upset, surely it would be about the slavery today that we profit by. But we don’t, and and I indict myself more than anyone. We complain that our cell phones are too expensive. Exactly like the 18th century consumers complaining about the cost of Chintz.
Gold companies, the darlings of our Canadian stock exchange and provider of jobs, enablers of pension fund profits to support us in our retirement, and abundant wealth for our society give us those great benefits on the backs of communities in developing nations where our Canadian company does its mining. Well people in those communities around the Canadian gold mine have thanks to us a pollutied toxic lake, a lake they stand hopelessly next to that once provided them a sustainable diet of fish. Standing there staring out at the poison water, they breathe poisoned air, poisons that deforms their newborns. No Canadian court is arresting the executives and putting them in prison. No pension fund is demanding they do; no Canadian electorate seems to care either. Those standing by the lake, all lost to them including life itself for many, stand there with bodies poisoned, lake poisoned, and they know it is those people wearing that red and white flag with the cute maple leaf in the centre, that we are so proud of, those healthy flush-cheeked Canadians that are responsible.
I watch documentaries and I identify with exploited people depicted, but I’m wrong. They no doubt see me living here, even simply as I do, see me as part of that corporation, a beneficiary certainly of the actions of that gold company mining gold in a foreign land, me getting all the benefit from taking from them their livelihood and quality of life and life itself. Me. That’s me in the mirror. Me who has a cell phone and wouldn’t want to spend twice as much for it or do without some other bauble I bought with what I saved on the phone purchase. I wouldn’t want our children to be going down a dangerous mine shaft every day, let alone that they be injured in the playground; so we have lots of rules for construction of playgrounds and ground cover that is soft so they won’t get hurt if they do happen to slip, but children dying before they are 12 so I can have my smart phone at a good price, well that’s all right, or it might not be all right but I’ll just keep using my phone because I’m really good at justifying my situation so I don’t look bad to myself. It’s other Canadians, maybe rich ones or corporate bosses or ones with political influence who I can blame. I don’t want to think of myself as a bad person. There are others, not me, who should be doing this. I’m not Wilberforce… Exactly. I’m the person who heard Wilberforce and left the hall, chatting all the way back to my home.
Now that I know how my cell phone is made, the cat’s out of the bag for me. Now I have to do cartwheels to avoid actually doing something about it. Truth is I am weak. I need your help. I need you to help me. I’m an old man. I don’t have the energy I once had. I don’t have any margin of money to play with if we’re to keep our home, feed ourselves, and enjoy our activities. If I go this alone, it’s just going to be the same story I’ve been through before: I pay a price for some idea, but no one else does, and I get the short end of the stick, am left standing with nothing. Sure, I can point to a lot of injustices in my life, having to pay my own way since age 14, abuse, the unjust actions of two institutions that denied me a third of the pension I earned. Even so, I’m doing fine. I love everyday I get up, am grateful for every day. But 70 million people in the world were migrants last year, 35 million of them children. The 20% of the world that I belong to put more fluorocarbons into the atmosphere last year than ever before. And our action is to the detriment first felt by underdeveloped nations before us who have nothing to do with the global warming effect. There are children in my city who go hungry. There’s more than enough food in the world to feed everyone. More than enough of everything that everyone can have enough to live on, not suffer, not die before their time. I wouldn’t like to die before my time; how can I let someone else die before their time to provide the 80% of the world’s resources just for us over here?
So how do we get out of this? How do I? How do we become Wilberforces? We have to do it together. Anyone of us acting alone will only hurt ourselves and our families. A lot of people are working on this already, fighting year after year against the injustices today, not in the past, but today. Working to eliminate systemic racism and poverty and inequality of wealth…They need our help. Urgently.
What do I have. I’m not been much good at anything like getting my way in the world, making things happen. I worked away alone on my radio show including people along the way, but it was a solitary work for a small audience. My colleague at the station and friend had 30 people in his apartment to work on the show, a community he inspired and organized and rallied. I don’t have that. Not in me. All I have is what I write. Why I’m writing to you, starting a conversation. Asking for help.
What I am trying to do here with this uncomfortable post? Sort things out in my own mind? Ask for your input? Convince myself, I’m not so tired. To get on with it. Together we’ll get a better answer to this; people in England after some time came around to Wilberforce, and maybe more for economic factors than for moral reasons, but they did eventually. I need help because I’m not good at this, but I want to be actively more on the side of Wilberforce. Do my part. Join in. Stop worrying. Writing, this is my start. Even if no one will be reading it. Something. So what do you think of all this?