Thursday, January 7, 2016

Judging Cultures and Belief Systems To Improve My Own: Part 2

This essay is the second of two parts. Part one described how I realized that how a culture motivates its members to act seems more important to me than whether its spiritual beliefs are strictly accurate:
I've discovered a new question for judging cultures and spiritual belief systems: does your culture encourage and empower you to a) understand your needs, b) express yourself to others and listen to them so that together you can c) meet your needs effectively?
In this second essay, I'll share some thoughts on how to identify needs, how we can know others' and our own needs, and how I attempt to draw practical lessons from observations of cultures I visit.

What are our needs?

The most powerful effect of propaganda, I believe, is to confuse people about their needs. We're told we need to let the state defend us from 'terrorists', but that terrorist label has been applied to peaceful social activists, people only seeking to escape intense suffering (like the muslims in the news as I write this), 'uppity' women or minorities, etc. We're encouraged to feel our worth is defined by our consumption, and to use consumption to respond to emotional problems.

For example, I know a medical doctor who, in response to a depressed patient, decided the patient's depression didn't rise to the level of prescribing anti-depressant drugs. Instead, this doctor wrote a 'prescription' on the prescription pad which told the patient to go home, log into Amazon, and shop in order to feel better. In other words, go home, alone, stare at a screen, alone, spend money you probably don't have or even go into debt, and purchase something which you obviously don't really need, and which will clutter your home and thus cause more anxiety later. This, instead of recommending that the patient learn to and seek to build deeply intimate relationships with other people who can help deal with the underlying causes of the stress.

More examples of needs we're conditioned to have:

We need a 'steady' career which hopefully is also fulfilling. A “good” job is one that is high-paying, not necessarily socially valuable. A 'successful' relationship is one that lasts, not one that lasts only as long as both partners feel happy in it. We need a big house with an immaculate lawn in an area with nice schools and convenient shopping. A good citizen is an obedient citizen, one who helps make things better by working harder and only ever protests the status quo through approved channels, such as letter writing, donating to approved charities, voting, or grumbling at the TV. A nice car is an expensive car. “Good transportation” in the suburbs in which I spent a lot of my adult life meant a neighborhood had such overbuilt road capacity that you could drive anywhere you wanted with minimal traffic in 20 minutes or less.

(I swear, in Sterling, VA I once looked up a neighborhood I was walking through on a real estate website and in the 'neighborhood amenities' section, all it could list was a 7-11 and gas station. But the school buildings were pretty new!)

So our beliefs about our needs can be quite distorted.

It gets worse than that though: humans can have very unhealthy needs due to all manner of emotional trauma suffered early in life or throughout life. Bullies may feel the need to put others down or abuse them to feel better about themselves, trauma victims may feel the need to numb their feelings in order to avoid the pain associated with deep introspection and remembering. Many feel the need to work hard even in unhappy jobs to prove their worth to themselves and others or to find meaning. Others need electronic distractions to numb a constant anxiety or meet an addictive need for stimulus or feel 'connected' to 'friends' through 'social' media. Many parents need their children to 'succeed' to make up for their own compromises and perceived failures - to help them feel better despite their own insecurities.

Many feel the need to avoid deep intimacy with others, including members of the opposite sex, because of physical and emotional trauma associated with past intimacy. Many feel the need to dominate others, often for fear that if they do not dominate (in business, politics, intimate relationships, whatever) they will be dominated, or left to live without. Many seek to maximize their earning potential because the culture of consumption with which they identify, the parties and self-image and fun and neighbors and friends, all depend on that high income. Without it, their social sphere would disappear. Their sense of self would disappear!

I've known people who feel the need to fight with their spouses, as it's the only way of resolving disputes they know. As both partners' parents had modeled angry yelling during their childhoods, each spouse feels a need to fight and act in anger in response to frustrations; it seems just a normal part of relationships to them.

Ok, our needs and our beliefs about our needs can be really distorted!

Ahh, but it gets even more challenging! Then you get into the uber-thorny issues in understanding needs. Some examples:

Imagine how a white family's need for safety leads them to discriminate against black people in housing and job selection, hoping to avoid living and working in high crime areas. In some districts, I perceive that black people do commit more violent crimes than whites. This seems easily explainable by the systemic, structural violence black people face in America, including in part that discrimination imposed by the white family only seeking their own safety. Is the white family's need for safety and their decision to discriminate based on race 'reasonable', especially when individually that family has little control over the levers of government and corporations which largely determine the structural violence?

Or how about a person who, through discrimination or simple bad luck in life, can find no legal work, no legal way to earn enough to even feed a bowl of white rice to the family each night, and so needs to seek illegal income to survive, maybe even involving hurting others through encouraging drug addiction, stealing, or causing injury?

In communities without a commons, and with no tradition of people coming together to discuss shared challenges, the needs of the individual and the group often oppose each other. It's common for many community members, in meeting their need for income to meet their needs for food, shelter, water, and self-worth, to work in fracking, or mining, or some other job that leads to the poisoning of that community's soil or water. In the case of fracking, people are causing earthquakes in their own communities!

I traveled near native communities in Peru crushed into utter poverty by illegal loggers, miners, and fishers, the military and paramilitary forces, kidnappers, and others. The natives' food from hunting and fishing had practically disappeared, the children had been shipped off to official indoctrination centers/schools; their freedom of movement disappeared and their way of life was dramatically altered. Food insecurity was a constant concern for these native groups. And thus many communities actually sold out their forests to the loggers, earning enough to eat awhile longer. This need to eat, a challenge but not a problem before oppression ratcheted up, has lead to the need to earn money, and they take every money-earning opportunity available because such opportunities are so scarce: hence the need to cut their own trees for money. Of course this only further impoverishes them once the money runs out.

So understanding peoples' needs is complicated. Furthermore, understanding needs without understanding the individual's and community's social context seems impossible to me.

Distorted and undistorted needs

I've worked hard to observe carefully what (almost) all humans' common needs are. These probably won't seem surprising: clean and secure food and water, shelter, personal safety, dignity, privacy, freedom to move and express one's self creatively and playfully, a community of people of many ages to whom and from whom each person can give and receive mentorship and love, the opportunity to do meaningful work, deep emotional intimacy with at least a few other people. Certainly there are others – which other common human needs can you think of?

I do not argue that the other needs I listed earlier – the needs for a house full of stuff, nice job title, high government spending on security, etc – are not real needs. They motivate people's behavior, so they seem quite real to me!

I'm still considering how to distinguish some needs from others. How do we compare the need for a large-house-with-lawn with the needs for social acceptance, parental approval, a sense of self-worth, safety, and shelter which the large-house-with-lawn, in some sense, fulfills?

I'm still wrestling with how to understand all these needs. Right now, I consider some needs to be 'fundamental' or 'undistorted' and others as 'distorted'. Clearly the distinction is fuzzy and debatable in many cases, but it seems a useful way to think about needs.

A fundamental, undistorted need is for healthy and secure food. A distorted need is for massive amounts of sugar, salt, and fat, or for branded, GMO, less-nutritional foods which most advertising promotes. The addiction/craving many feel for sugar-rich foods is real, in that it drives peoples' behavior, but it seems helpful to consider it a distortion of the underlying need for healthy sustenance.

So given all this, in trying to understand and learn from cultures I visit, I attempt to understand and focus on people's undistorted needs: are they aware of them? Do they act to meet those fundamental needs, or do they focus more on other, distorted needs? Do they cooperate or compete?

I do not judge 'good' or 'bad', and I do not seek to blame

I do not judge one culture 'good' and another 'bad'. Instead, I ask what lessons I can take away, what would I like to emulate or avoid?

I do observe that some cultures raise children with a distorted sense of their own needs, and other cultures encourage an understanding of their undistorted, fundamental needs. It may never be 100% one way or another, but many cultures do sit near one end or the other of the spectrum!

I also do not blame the victims or even the perpetrators, though I do acknowledge each's role in any unhappy situation. It's not the natives' fault they were oppressed so heavily that the only way to eat was to sell their forests. It's not the childhood rape victim's fault if they feel unable to tolerate certain forms of emotional intimacy later in life. I do not even blame the sociopathic corporate leaders whose personal decisions cause so much damage; upon deep inspection, I've found they're also generally victims of their own trauma: childhood trauma, or deep insecurity, or fear or inability to have emotional intimacy, suppressed feelings of guilt plus unhealthy coping responses, etc.

So I don't blame or label individuals as 'good' or 'bad'. In unhealthy situations, I find victims as far as the eye can see. That's not to say that the suffering is equal: I'd certainly rather be the owner of Walmart than a floor associate or working in a supplier's sweat shop in Vietnam, if forced to choose. It seems obvious that the perpetrator and victim do not seem to suffer equally from an act of violence. Still, perpetrating violence has its own costs: many soldiers, to take one example, suffer severe PTSD – post-traumatic stress disorder – for their role in committing violence, leading to severe trauma, suffering, dysfunction, and even suicide.

The distant corporate and political leaders who orchestrate the violence seem easier targets for blame. And their decisions do lead to great suffering, but there is a power even greater than theirs: the tendency for large groups of human beings, including governments and corporations, to select for sociopathic leaders. Sure, I get angry at the leaders of Coca Cola for corrupting local Mexican or Indian governments so they can take all the fresh water, impoverishing thousands upon thousands of local farmers and causing much suffering. But a CEO who didn't order such behavior would be replaced by one who did, and if this didn't happen, Pepsi would jump in and take that water, or another company would come along. And if a government of the people prevented such corporate behavior, some super power would cause a coup of some sort, as the United States did in Guatamala in 1954 after the Guatamalan government tried to end the brutal labor system and land ownership system which benefited international corporations such as the United Fruit Company, which had close ties with the Director of the US CIA and the Secretary of State.

So long as we cannot prevent sociopathic leaders from rising to the top, I believe we cannot prevent mass exploitation and suffering. So long as politics is more about responding to the needs of a few while managing perception for the rest, we'll see the exploitative behavior we've seen, each person from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy responding to their own perceived influences and needs.

Separately, I recognize that one aspect of successful exploitation is ensuring that there is no obvious way for a native or independent community to protect itself from abuse. Individuals may save themselves by finding a niche in the occupying culture, but the independent culture or community as a whole under attack may not have any real options available. I witnessed this power disparity almost everywhere I went in S. America. Almost always, in superficially free-seeming societies, the oppressor's power is not continuously on display but is nevertheless ever-present. It's something I constantly remember as I observe myself and people around me, and something I keep in mind as I consider how effectively people attempt to meet what I consider their undistorted needs.

Likewise, another aspect of domination is to so impoverish individuals that they have no time or energy to consider anything except where the money for their next meal is coming from. Such a person may not work effectively with others to improve their situation together, as I described in my short story here, but I see no point in blaming or labeling them good or bad.

I'm also not saying we're helpless to stop the exploitation - the Guatamalans escaped international corporate domination for 10+ years between US-approved dictators, and the Chileans elected marxist, pro-worker Salvador Allende before the military coup killed him.  I just note that if we wish to understand our situation and act effectively, we should be aware of each person's needs, motivations, and external influences at each level rather than resort to caricaturing people as villains.

Why blaming often seems unhelpful: it leads to tunnel vision 

In simple situations, blaming seems to work alright: if a guy waves a knife at me and demands my money, I can go ahead and focus on him when I consider the money I'm about to lose, or how I'm going to fight to defend myself, or other possible responses. But in larger-scale social problems, blaming often seems too simplistic to lead to useful conclusions.

I've seen that people who blame one person or group for an unhappy situation often isolate one factor rather than recognizing the constellation of factors which lead to unhappy outcomes. This is why I have found that spending time and emotional energy trying to pin blame on individuals or groups rarely leads to useful insights: it isolates one problem from other problems, over-emphasizing one issue and obscuring others.

Blaming seems to get emotionally heavy; it feels cathartic seeking out a villain or group of villains, but often clouds a deeper, more complete understanding of why unwanted social conditions persist. I've also often noticed that people who insist on blaming individuals will often caricature them. I feel like this is why so many assassinations or revolutions end without the participants achieving their goals: the actions often do not lead to structural change, only a 'change of the guard', and so for most people, little changes as a result.

Instead of blaming, I observe everything I can of cultural elements that lead to positive and negative outcomes. For example, I observe how mindless obedience is taught or discouraged, how learning through personal exploration is encouraged or not, whether individuals are taught to recognize or unconsciously ignore instances of human exploitation and suffering, whether children are taught to wait for heroes or learn from a variety of role models, etc. I consider how healthy and unhealthy cultural elements interact. Then I consider what insights I can draw and apply to my own life and the culture I seek to be part of.

Rather than 'good' or 'bad', I judge whether people's behavior seems healthy, whether people seem deeply happy, satisfied, and fulfilled, whether they exploit others or cooperate. I observe whether people protect the aspects of their environment on which they depend for their health and happiness: clean air and water and soil, rich forests or grasslands, space to move in and explore, etc. Do they maintain dependence on exploitative institutions, or do they work to free themselves from dependence? Do they listen with such an open mind and loving heart that others feel able to express themselves without reservation, or does everyone act guarded even towards their closest family members? To what extent do they recognized their undistorted needs, and to what extent are they able to fulfill them?


In summary: I don't care if you believe in Jesus or Allah or Vishnu or Confucius. Objective accuracy in belief systems seems mostly irrelevant to me now.

Instead I ask, do you recognize your fundamental needs and those of your community? And do you feel motivated to work with others to effectively meet those needs? I do not judge good or bad, or seek to blame, but instead identify cultural patterns that lead to healthy or happy people, and draw concrete lessons I can apply in my own life.

A final note on judging

I seek to work with other like-minded people to build a community, a society, a culture different from the one I grew up in. Many have warned me that it's not 'my place' to judge other cultures or belief systems: who am I to judge? How can I know enough as an outsider to draw any meaningful conclusions?

I'll tell you who and how: I want to figure out what a healthy culture looks like, what a healthy spirituality looks like. How do I do that if I cannot observe others' cultures, and my own, and draw conclusions about them? I carry a deep humility, recognizing the limitations in my capacity to observe, and I desire to update my judgments or hunches as I learn new things. Still, I recognize the need to have the strength to come to meaningful conclusions and behave effectively based on those conclusions!

And so, I observe and ask questions very carefully, and I take what insights I can in order to learn how to live in right relation to other people, to myself, and to the living world around me.