We often think people are motivated to do something solely by facts alone. Instead, they are spurred to action by the feeling these facts produce. People make choices and decisions based to some extent on figures and concrete details, but it is the emotional impact these soberly presented bits of information create that really matters. It has been noted many times before that polls and other human-made means of discernment have limits because no one can truly understand what lies inside a voter’s heart. This, in part, is what I mean. Unlike the typical columnist, I do not intend to use this introduction as a segue-way to rip into President Obama and the ineffectiveness of the (for now) Democratic-controlled Congress. Rather, I’d like to go well beyond.
What I am speaking to, in part, is a re-entrenchment of belief systems that see humanity as disconnected from the whole. A few days ago, I discovered a relatively recent video by RSA Chief Executive and former Labour (UK) politician Matthew Taylor on the internet. It discusses, in its own words, the 21st Century Enlightenment now underway. The presentation makes a series of very compelling points. Most notably, if, for example, you want to be a happier person, don’t read a self-help book, just have happier friends. Changes in emotional environment are much more effective then a kind of monastic focus on the self as a means of personal satisfaction and achievement of wisdom. We shouldn’t resist the notion that our decisions are, more than we might wish to contemplate, driven by the feelings that rather bloodless knowledge creates within us. Voters won’t always cast their ballots based on talking points appealing to reason. The most skillful politicians know how to strike the optimum balance between appeals to the senses and red meat platform statements.
For all the centuries of evolution that have come before us, we are still rather primitive in certain crucial areas. As the video points out, we aren’t very good at making long term decisions, we are especially bad at predicting what will make us happy, and furthermore, we are utterly inept at being able to describe what made us happy in the past. 2008 was slightly less than two years ago. The mood in the air nearly twenty-four months ago could not be more distinct from how we are feeling today. Certain pundits, politicians, and notable thinkers gave warning that the Era of Good Feeling then raging was ephemeral and that a recession this intense would prove to be a massive liability. We listened, but I’m not sure we had the capacity to understand. At this point in our development, we can at least identify the problem, but even with advance notice, drafting effective strategies is a severe challenge. Embracing that which we would otherwise derisively noted as irrational is the beginning of knowledge and effective reform.
The developmental psychologist Robert Kagan notes,
Successfully functioning in society with its diverse values, traditions, and lifestyles requires us to have a relationship with our own reactions, rather than be captive of them.
One cannot understand the Tea Party without keeping this in mind, to say nothing of Lyndon LaRouche. Pivoting to Feminism for a brief second, I can’t count the number of times a story about rape or sexual abuse has created a sensation. Motivated by righteous indignation, people seem to leap over each other to register their indignation. Indeed, I have been one of them. But the most intense irony of all is that we are responding in the same fashion as the accused. His (and sometimes her) emotional, rather than rational act, deplorable as it may be, has triggered in us an equally passionate denunciation. My point is not to denigrate a justified and understandable reaction, but to note how quickly our rational selves are cast aside in the heat of the moment. The emotional response is just as intense by the perpetrators as it is for those who condemn it. If we saw cognitive dissonance not as something shameful or worthy of scorn but as a fight between our present and past, we might be really getting somewhere.
On the subject of feeling, rather than hard fact, Western society is completely driven by one critical emotion: shame. Americans have an especially intimate, cultural familiarity with it. Shame takes many forms but can confuse because it rarely shows itself plainly. The onus regularly takes hold early in life. You ought to be ashamed of yourself is the motto of many a parent, including my own. This same simple, but effective point shows up in campaign ads, stump speeches, activist discourse, and routine conversation. If I am overweight and criticized by someone for it, I feel ashamed. If my opinions are passed over or invalidated by someone else, I am meant to feel shame. If I am different from the rest of my peers, the criticism I receive is meant to make me ashamed of who I am. If I am a member of a group that some find to be threatening, I am told to be ashamed of what I believe. If I state an opinion out-of-step with what someone else deems acceptable, I am to be ashamed for even daring to state it in a public forum. Here’s an assignment for those who feel led to do it. Watch cable news for an hour and see how many stories are drafted with shame at its core.
Paradigm shifts are slow processes, but our world is nonetheless embracing the latest one. The pace or the tempo is of much less importance to me than the realization that change is no abstraction, nor is it a now much-parodied campaign slogan. What we expected to see is not what we have been granted, but one cannot ask for change on one’s own terms. Caught as we are between two extremes, both of which influence the other, it is imperative that we take a more realistic look. This doesn’t mean we ought to lower our sights, but that we distinguish the feasible from the impossible. We’ve learned that outdated models are an enemy of reform, but what we struggle now for are the hearts and the minds. Focusing on minds alone will leave us just as confused and discouraged as we are now. Don’t blame the message, blame the blueprints.