Note: If this is your first time visit to my blog, thanks for coming. That said, this is not a place where the typical reasons are advanced for current events, nor typical theories supported. What this blog strives for is a larger coherence in actions of large social networks and their occupants. In no way, shape or form does this mean that everyone else’s opinions are wrong, and mine are right. Many people can give excellent insights into what is going on in the world. The unique contribution of my writing is attempting (!) to show how all these things are linked together with stages of societal and personal evolution.
This involves a trip into The Matrix. But the Matrix isn’t some weird world where humans are plugged into some bizarre stack and serving as batteries while the few Woke individuals heroically fight for the Truth. The Matrix is our combo tightly-coupled/loosely-coupled social network of people, surrounded by circumstance, that creates our impulse to act.
How that impulse to act works is keyed largely to your own level of personal development — your agency and level of identity that has been shaped by a variety of forces. Of course, this includes your family background, the background culture you grew up in, your education, gender, class and so on. All these are comfortable models we’ve been taught that discriminate our “Why” for action. But there are other things — often more profound — that dictate our more powerful drivers for our behavior. Experiences and relationships with others shape our minds. And travel, the social structures, with their inherent dynamics, incentives and penalties, all condition us on a daily basis. Trauma as well is a powerful force, and often hides under layers of assumed virtue in the face of others — as well as offering a ladder to higher behaviors we may not believed that we have in us.
Through all this is one very important thread — empathy. Empathy is explored extensively on this blog, and it is far more than just giving someone a hug. It involves a stack of neural functions, ranging from mirroring, to emotional connection and attachment (the familiar definition), through conscious and larger connection with others. Though the intensity of empathy waxes and wanes in all our interactions, it is always present. It is not something to be turned on or off — its base function is deep in our brainstem and automatic function. But the higher, more complex forms can (and must!) be cultivated.
Empathy matters because it serves as the information coherence function for one’s connection to their social network. We all know that words are not enough to convey all the information necessary in any conversation/interaction. Yet capturing how much information is lost is something that is really poorly studied by academics, who we count on to figure out such things. The reasons are not particularly simple — but the main one is that academics exist in low empathy social structures, and don’t get much practice with it. So they mostly ignore it. This blind spot is profoundly hurting our society, because the practice of empathy is how we wire our brains. We don’t understand much of how we know. Instead, what is granted as a substitute is an increasingly fine-grained surface-level portrait of an increasingly complicated landscape.
And when we don’t understand the deep “How” of what we know, then, well mistakes, misrepresentations and such happen. But it is more perilous than that — we leave ourselves open to manipulation from others. We grasp for surface-level photos of representative markings — from black masks, to swastikas, to Hawaiian shirts. All these are poor indicators of anything, because if someone wants to lie, it’s much easier to change out your mask color than rewire your actions and intents.
In simpler times, with far fewer people in far greater spaces, these types of things DID indeed come into play — but with lesser consequences. Skin color, accents, clothing were, and still, to some extent, indicators for particular groups existing inside our culture and the world. But in today’s hyper-connected world, where much habit-based mixing is allowed, they are all poor indicators. You’re as likely to find a vegan right-wing fascist as a meat-eating left-wing communist.
Though even those two terms (fascist and communist) are really relatively meaningless. They describe philosophies that exist as convenient labels, and tell you very little about the people whose actions are being prescribed. Most people couldn’t even tell you what most of these terms mean any more. And if they could, they couldn’t begin to tell you how to set up a government that might implement them. Separate most people from the majority of the labels they use and they will rapidly become angry. It’s what psychologists would call a boundary violation — where you’ve denied them a part of themselves that’s deeply rooted in their core emotional identity, it doesn’t make them happy. Those labels do not exist on a conscious level. They don’t dictate actions that a person might take, though that is what matters — especially in crisis.
And academics, by and large, spend almost all their time on label refinement. It’s not totally a useless exercise. But as sophistication and fine-scaling grows, as a guiding principle mode of thinking, everyone gets lost in the details. Very few people pause, put their hand on their chins, and say “What would Karl Marx do in this particular circumstance?”
What happens instead is what I call ’emergent behavior’. It’s what your intuition tells you to do. It’s not solely from your gut, either. If you’ve practiced slowing down, looking at certain key indicators, and self-calming, your intuitive action can be surprisingly rational. This is a transcultural understanding, and you can read anyone from Plato to Bruce Lee to find specific examples. But most people don’t do this. Acting quickly and within the context of how we feel — how our limbic system tells us to act — has helped our genes from getting eaten by tigers for hundreds of thousands of years. Act now, analyze later, if at all.
We need a different way, especially in these crazy times, of analyzing our situation. And that’s where understanding empathy and connection comes in.
Let me tell you a little bit about me. I have been a teacher (professor, TBH) for over 36 years. I run a large, successful program where undergraduate seniors receive exactly the kind of education, if you’d ask anyone on the street, you’d want them to receive in engineering. They design products for companies, very loosely supervised, and with vanishingly minimal intervention from me. They are amazingly successful. They, of course, have their knowledge scaffolded out by my colleagues teaching them various subjects, that they usually forget. Then they are placed in environments where results are emphasized, as well as justification of results. They love me, for the most part, and I love them as well. But they really think I’m an idiot, because I’m always cracking some stupid joke, or looking away when they ask a hard technical question. It takes the average student of mine 10 years of latency before they figure out what happened to them. Then they come back and give me money for the next generation of students.
I rarely lecture, though I do deliver soliloquies on why things matter. I learned a long time ago that if you lecture — deliver information in an Authoritative/Authoritarian format, only at best about 20% gets through. What typically happens is the information is tagged out with one of my stories, and promptly forgotten. For people to really learn something, I have to create conditions for emergence — where students, with some given background, placed inside a circumstance, through relating to each other and specific actions they determine — come up with the answer themselves.
The first step involves having them learn to trust themselves, in both their choice of colleagues, as well as their own abilities. As they struggle, they learn calibration. And they learn to read their friends as well. That exercise creates nuance in their thinking. Not all people can be trusted to do a particular set of calculations well, or machine a part. But over time, students working together must evolve those abilities or they will not achieve their own goals.
It is NOT a conscious process for most. But it expands how they perceive the world. Now, instead of this small part of the world being viewed in black or white/knowing or not knowing, there are shades of gray. These changes take time, of course. But this is how we wire the brain — through that connection/experience process, with some facts sprinkled in to make the cake more tasty.
Contrast what is described above to most of the education students received. Now you have an insight into why we are having a meta-crisis. Instead of building agency and independent thought, we’ve coasted on our laurels and occupied more and more of student time with attempts to program them. The problem is, without that mix of relational interaction, it simply doesn’t work.
And three things come to the fore as part of our meta-crisis.
- Because we do not practice with empathy anticipating what others will do in safe, controlled circumstances, we lose the ability to project what others will do, given data, in larger circumstances. We lose a larger sense of consequentiality.
- Because we practice fragmentation of how we know — assorted, scattered facts, not connected in any mode of deep history, mostly arranged to satisfy some complicated negotiated knowing — we never develop the ability to back up and see the big picture.
- Because we educate individually, in a competitive environment, to the exclusion of almost everything else, we feel comfortable sorting all sorts of people into categories and classes, deserving and undeserving due to a fragmented moral sense, and we simply cannot understand others’ circumstances, nor, more importantly feel their pain.
Loss of anticipation, learning through fragmentation, and inability to feel others’ pain. These are the three lessons we burn into students’ brains. They all create a crisis of lack of empathetic development.
All are curable and fixable in the context of any stated religious belief system. There is no stated moral conflict with any written codex of belief. But if we are not aware of the other side — the higher road — we will act emergently with these low-empathy principles in mind. Our knowledge can be used against us. And we won’t even know it’s happening.
There are no easy paths out of complex and complicated situations like the current rioting over George Floyd’s murder under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota. But there is, using an understanding of empathy, an easy way to sort people who would plunge this country into a civil crisis or war that will destroy the lives of many of us.
Relational diversification, or relational disruption is the separator. Relational diversification is a necessary component of higher level empathetic behavior, and more evolved societies. The more, diverse, different people you know, with more experiences different from yours, are the necessary ingredient for wiring your brain to handle complexity.
That ability to handle complexity matters in modern society — and if it seems modern society is more complex than when you were growing up, it is – by the day. My own children are products, and programmed by global culture. My oldest son loves Japanese anime, Korean soap operas and BBQ. My younger son has taken tennis lessons in Vienna, Austria, programs computers, and is training to run a marathon.
All fine — but what empathetic complexity really allows us to do is process the information necessary to live in that complex society without emotional confusion and anger. It doesn’t delete a moral code that allows individuals to turn a blind eye to others’ suffering. It is not a sop to post-modernism. At the same time, difference and novelty do not confound — they mostly complement, and create conditions for us to draw healthy boundaries between us and our environment. We are less a label, and more a person.
What it really does is allow increased population density, as well as increased productivity necessary to feed and clothe all the people that live here. Without it, without that ability to connect across to others, we simply cannot maintain modern society.
If we don’t choose the path of societal and social empathetic evolution, what that means is that lots of people will have to DIE. Or rather, be KILLED. Simpler, lower empathy systems cannot maintain the populations nor the population densities we have on the planet.
Many people dysfunctionally fantasize about this type of global crisis, because across the world, regardless of nationality or location, the last part of the 20th Century has largely been free of mass killing. Yes — there are examples otherwise. But compared to centuries before and the long view — all things considered, the world has not done so badly. I read (or actually listen to) many long-history books on my bike rides, books like Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads, which is large breadth view of history from China to the Near East. Stacking dead bodies is something that humans have done, with regularity, from time immemorial.
If you want to return to those forms of governance and development, you simply have no idea of the horror and suffering involved, or you are disordered. We’ve had a little glimpse into what it means to return to the 9th Century with ISIS, Syria, and the entire situation in the Middle East. We often focus our attention on slavery on the tragic conditions of African-Americans in the United States. But slavery has a much longer history than that. People have been taking slaves ever since humans organized themselves into tribes, probably over 20,000 years ago. Mostly a product of conquest and capture, slavery became popular when certain tribal winners could afford to keep slaves. One can read about the story of Cabeza de Vaca, a failed Spanish conquistador, for more insight. It takes a certain level of sophistication to have slaves, because, for the most part, you have to feed them if you want stability. And you, of course, must have power and the ability to control. Often material, in terms of weapons and such, there are other ways of controlling people, asking them to forfeit their agency completely to the needs of their overlords.
Here is the insight — what slavery also requires is traumatic psychic destabilization of the slaves. Trauma isn’t a bug — it’s a feature. While there might have been some rare number of “kind” slaveholders, that’s really not the way the social system works. One must decide that the slaves are non-human, which requires suppression of the ability of the slaves to conceive of themselves as part of humanity. But it also requires derailing empathy in the slaveholders. You must deny the flood of signals coming from your empathy detector, into your brains that the people whom you are beating or killing, are humans.
And that fucks YOU up.
This traumatic destabilization reduces coherence in how your society thinks. The dissociation, emergent from the trauma, and necessary for short term mental survival, drives other bad stuff. When you start denying your core neural programming — that you’re connected to a living thing that looks like you save for superficial differences — you mire your own thinking at the Magical level. And that ungrounding has far-reaching consequences. I wrote here about the Aztecs, who had basically convinced, through savage warfare, neighboring tribes to send them their young people for both slaves and to serve as a reliable food source. An otherwise sophisticated society became hooked on the belief that the sun and moon literally rose on their actions (think about that from a perspective of egocentricity!) which involved regularly killing, eating, and enslaving people. Coupled with disease, it was that loss of grounding reality that caused their utter collapse and destruction by a literal small handful of Spaniards, who managed to reach out across the Aztec’s historic enemies and destroy them.
The point is that their practice as a society created the conditions for leaving reality behind with that magical viewpoint. When you leaven society with trauma-as-practice, you may survive for a while at the developmental level that you’ve arrived at. But by denying the need to evolve, you’ve also created the circumstance for civilizational collapse. You need to not only traumatize your source of slaves in order to keep preying on them. You also need to create scripts that intrinsically traumatize the rulers as well.
And that destroys your resilience. Something comes along, disease, climate change, or the death of George Floyd. And you come undone. That is what is happening now.
The idea that these things happen because of large scale disturbance is weak. For sure, famine can be a problem. Big things can matter. But the inherent fragility in the system means that small things can turn into big things relatively quickly. A rag-tag army of Spaniards that would have had no chance of survival had they shown up on a united Mexican mainland would have been killed relatively quickly. But because of the fantastic disconnection from reality engendered by the culture of trauma of the Aztecs, one crack led to the downfall of an empire.
The continued maltreatment and traumatization of our African-American brothers and sisters, along with undocumented immigrants, is not only perpetrating trauma on these populations (children in cages at the border, and my own damning favorite — 25% of all African American children will experience eviction before age of majority.) It also keeps both the victims and the larger perpetrators locked in a magical trauma cycle. Yes, it is true — some manage to climb out of the cycle. But a large majority — large enough to polarize our nation — are not climbing out.
And it’s not about the money. The rich in this country overwhelmingly make their money off of money. An entire sector of our economy is dedicated to squeezing out value out of instruments like the stock market through minute differentials in timing of buying and selling. This creates no value, and much fragility. The Fed prints $6T dollars in a day to save the stock market. This is NOT about the money.
But there is really only a very weak movement to change things. And that is the real first thing that has to change. Yes, the movement, indeed, must be inclusive, and listen to African-American voices. There is simply no way to gain insight into the complexity of how specific laws and rules, some well-intentioned, some far less so, play out without listening and understanding to the affected cohort of people.
But at the same time, more listening is not what is needed with regards to moving on basic needs. Who can argue that people need basic health care, housing, and food? You don’t need to be African-American to understand those basic things. Ignorance and a lack of empathy should not be a dodge for privilege.
There is excellent research out there that looks at some things like our policing systems, and how they need to change. We should use specific research to drive change. At the same time, we need to develop far better and agile “test and adapt” cycles to public policy. That will involve evolving the consequentiality of thinkers up and down the governmental scale. None of this is easy. We have created too many people through our educational system (that must also change) with the three flaws.
With regards to our current crisis in protest, I do not particularly care whether people promoting violence are Antifa or white supremacists. Their goals are the same — relational disruption. Both parties believe that relational disruption will lead to better things. For the first, it is collapse of what they believe is a capitalist system that offers no quarter for anyone who isn’t an already designated winner. For the second, it is some magical concept of holy homeland for the white race — whatever the hell THAT is.
But the empathetic physics also tell me that in the context of the disruption people will have to die — lots of people, because there are simply so many of us. And in order to get back to the homogenization of population, or back to dramatic traumatic suppression of an entire group of people, there’s got to be killing. That alone should send shivers up everyone’s spine.
The problem we are facing with the current protest movement goes far deeper, though, than Antifa, or White Supremacists. The protest movement itself is extremely unevolved. One can be for police reform, for example. But that has to mean something, and right now I can’t seem to figure out what particular policy anyone is championing. Getting rid of the police isn’t an option — every place where you put in civilian militias ends up with a certain percentage turning into Death Squads. Though they may exist in Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s legislation docket, there is no proposed national legislation that is regularly reported on. This is likely a failure of the media. But activists are supposed to get out there in the public eye and inform.
And this has been the history of all Trump middle-class protests. Turn-out is good, but inevitably, it’s a crowd. No one collects contact info, the social network cohesion is low, and all you have to do is show up with a sign or a pink hat. I’m ON the side of women’s rights, Black Lives Matter, and most of the anti-Trump sentiment. I see it as many of the labels issued in the protests.
But building a better world doesn’t happen through jingoism. Better worlds are built through understanding systems and how they function — especially in a crowded world, with the crazy amount of income inequality that differentiates lived experience and destroys empathy. Better worlds start when we understand how the game of money is increasingly rigged to disenfranchise large segments of the population through meaningless work, as well as trapping large segments of the population, through a loss of opportunity and advancement, in jobs that no one wants to do. It may not be as bad as the Aztec’s concept of haute cuisine slavery. But it is still destructive of the soul, and the human potential present.
One need look no further than the current COVID-19 outbreaks in the meatpacking industry . The real story of the COVID-19 meatpacking outbreaks wasn’t the virus itself. When one looks at the numbers for mortality or harm, they were about average for the population. Sad, for sure. People died. The real story was how abysmal the workers’ situations were, and how little hope they had for change. Undocumented, uneducated, and trapped by a legal system designed to slap those that might protest, companies like Tyson or Smithfield know what will happen if they pay their workers more. They’ll leave.
Large protest movements like the ones current in society can be a start for people to meet like-minded people and start the process of larger change. But at this point, they are also open to disruption because of the lack of organization. And crazily enough, part of the reason for the lack of organization is social media. Social media can be a powerful platform for getting the word out, or getting everyone to show up at a particular city square at a particular time.
And that denies the people involved in the movement from getting the experience necessary to evolve people who can create real change. When what you need to do is come up with the most inflammatory messaging to get people to turn out, that may pump up your numbers. But getting people emotionally excited, and then teargassed, doesn’t make for people with both the evolution and sophistication to parse the circumstances that created the misery in the first place.
As we’re seeing, it’s also giving the relational disruptors on both sides an opportunity to get their licks in. Where I sit today, I am still hopeful that this latest run at the machine will die down after a while. Things still have not reached Ferguson-level violence. But I could be wrong.
It is useful to contrast our current protest efforts with what is happening in places like Hong Kong. I’ve written about this here. The short version — Hong Kong protestors don’t have access to social media, because the government won’t allow it. But the result is that they’ve had to evolve far more agile and responsive methods of protests. People are identified by their physical, as well as organizational abilities. Grandmas sit on the edge of crowds, feeding water to the younger males and females in the middle. Messages are passed between cell phones via AirDrop. All this makes such protests much harder to disrupt. And it also makes people count on relational cohesion. You can bet good money there are Chinese disruptors in any protest crowd in Hong Kong. But just like viruses that can’t get their R0 on, their effect is tremendously limited.
Will the Hong Kong protestors prevail against the Chinese government? At least they’re giving them a run for their money. Part of the Chinese government also realizes that there is a long empathetic game to be played over Beijing’s control. They could send in their troops and have a massacre in the streets, as Donald Trump has alluded to doing with our own protests. But they also know that such tactics inevitably backfire, and lead to one’s own undoing.
What are the challenges moving forward? There are historic systems of oppression and power that have been in charge of this country forever. Anyone that denies that is smoking crack. But the DeepOS of these systems largely lie buried. They may have front men at the police station, and it is true that those systems need to change. But more than anything, they are deeply rooted in the maintained ability of the system to not care about the fate of large sectors of the population — including those that are not African-American. Those systems, while not colorblind, look to maintain poverty levels, and lack of education, through indifference and neglect — both emergent reactions — as well as any act of racism. Those are the systems clapping for ‘essential workers’ during the pandemic, while denying people the wages necessary to feed their families. They are a manifestation that simply appears as the result of the social system. And they leave behind increasingly larger sections of the white population as well. I come from one of those areas myself.
And we live in such an economic system of abundance, there is simply no need for any of it. My privilege is barely (if at all) affected by anyone else’s transition into a stable living condition. For the last three months, the COVID-19 outbreak has shown us demonstrably that there is more than enough food for all. There can be enough housing for all. And if we evolve ourselves with empathy, we will no longer tolerate an educational system that creates people that inherently will NOT create an inclusive, nurturing society. Because of COVID-19, colleges have even taken baby steps, setting aside the various entrance exams (SAT, ACT, etc.) that are used to gradate entrance. This is far from enough — I have worked with underrepresented minority populations for almost 30 years, and the idea that someone is going to come out of a traumatized background and suddenly excel in college is not backed up by the larger statistics. This is not to take away from those that do. But we must change our minds and start thinking in terms of populations, as well as statistics, in a compassionate and empathetic manner.
There are African-American voices speaking profound truths at this very moment. I have always been a fan of Reverend William Barber. Killer Mike, giving his speech just a couple of days ago, nailed it. Today on Twitter, I discovered Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, Caleth O. Wright. He nailed it. Cardi B — nailed it. There are many voices. I have local ones that show up on my FB page who say smart and wise things all the time. We should listen.
At the same time, it is important not to discount our own voices — not just in terms of expressing incomprehension of someone else’s experience. Speak for yourself regarding your ignorance — I’ve worked on these issues for years. By forfeiting our own voice in deference to how to fix some of these problems, we also look for absolution of responsibility. It’s not enough to express guilt for White Privilege. Lots of people have lots of expertise to solve lots of these problems. Listening is important. Synthesizing even more so. The ability to assimilate new information and change one’s mind? That’s the killer app. That’s the empathy thing.
I could go on. But this is enough. The path forward is to recognize the role of connection, the people that this connection will create, and the solutions that they in turn will create, as our main road to fixing our deep problems. It is time to realize we cannot cast things in terms of Left or Right, or these easy characterizations that have fooled us for so long. The only path forward is to do the hard work of Enlightenment. With everyone. This is a contrived crisis, that exists to maintain the mental models across the status quo.
The road ahead is more obvious than we think. We have to grow up. The answer is to get real. Let’s do it.