Despite the howls of protests from Ayn Rand’s acolytes who will stand firm on the unbridled virtues of the market, we must, if we are to understand liberal democracy as a system of political order, make a distinction between democracy itself and its materialistic cousin, capitalism, both of which have been, in the popular imagination, conflated. There is no reason to presume that the kind of global free market capitalism we see today is either entirely compatible with or even necessary for a democratic society. This, needless to say, requires greater exploration and more space and is hence grist for another essay. Suffice to say that one can have free market capitalist nations that are not democratic, like Singapore, China or even the UAE.
In this post I will examine what I believe is the core disposition that makes it possible for a host of other positive dispositions to develop.
Given the fact that much of our conscious, subconscious and even unconscious selves are a product of the goings on within the squishy mass of roughly 3 lbs of water, fat and neurons that we call our brain, it can safely be said that we mostly exist in our heads. This biological fact pretty much condemns us to think of ourselves as the nodal point around which everything else revolves. In other words other people, the waiter who brings you Caramel Frappuccino instead of the Java Chip Frappuccino you know you asked for, the President who thinks Transgender people should be allowed to use any bathroom consistent with their gender identity, the math teacher who flunked you in high school, your favorite aunt, friends, lovers, even the furniture, the trees, clouds, the Milky Way, microbes and the weather are relevant only in so far as they affect us negatively or positively. Come to think about it, this is not very different from the way absolute monarchs, megalomaniacal CEOs and totally, off the charts, tyrannical dictators think.
Democracy itself is more than the institutions, the laws and the rights that are bequeathed to the citizenry. If we are to not merely be passive consumers of democracy (parasites would probably be a harsh word), it is important that we also recognize that this unique system of government, more than any other, requires us to contribute actively in its creation, growth and sustenance. We do so by consciously taking on responsibility for educating ourselves about key issues of societal concern, voting, participating in our community and local decision making, engaging in community activities and doing what is necessary to protect and nurture the political system. This requires more than knowledge, skills and good intentions, it requires certain dispositions that, while not unique to democratic citizenship, are fundamental to its long term well being and survival.
The first and most vital disposition of all, without which democracy its elf would be meaningless or doomed to fail is:
The disposition that acknowledges that we are neither everything nor alone!
The virtues of the ‘unnatural’:
To live in our heads is ‘natural’- since it is our brains that give rise to what we call our minds, which in turn helps conceptualize and define who we are and how we respond to the world around us. For those who might, at this point, interject to talk about how society socializes us I would say, yes, indeed it does. Society is merely the many other people around us (each trapped in their own skulls and similarly self absorbed) all trying to get everyone else to behave in ways that would work positively for them.
Even as we recognize any genetic basis that allows humans to manifest altruism or empathy it is vitally important that we recognize that despite it, biologically speaking, we are mostly self-centered. All education, indeed civilization itself is an attempt to help us think beyond our limited personal selves. Hence all real education is ‘unnatural’ in that it requires us to transcend the ways in which we come genetically and biologically pre-wired and the ways in which society, itself, very successfully re-wires us from a very early age. Everything else is merely propaganda masquerading as education, designed to ensure the continuity of society. This is equally true whether it be collectivist societies such as the Babylonian, ancient Roman, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, medieval Italian, 18th century Brahminical, colonial Britain, Saudi Arabian, the Taliban or the atomized consumer societies of the 21st century that churn out worker bees for the military-industrial (and post-industrial) complex.
The need for deliberate cultivation:
Any education that aspires to bring out the intellectual, emotional and creative best in the child must start with helping it learn how to think in ways that are not wholly self-referential. In other words our young and by extension, all of us can, through education and modeling by our elders and peers, develop appreciation for the world outside our own heads. In doing so we learn to recognize and accept the fact that, strange as it may seem, everything is not about us. There are few things as radical as this discovery for a child- or a society.
Education in our confoundingly complex and confusing age requires that we learn how to think holistically and not merely in terms of isolated data, factoids, technicalities or dualities. The human brain is uniquely disposed to react to emotionally stimulating and provocative stimuli. These stimuli, triggering our basic emotions such as fear, anxiety, hope and love, offer us limited and even skewed perceptions of reality.
Most people can detect elementary patterns, few of us are able to comprehend the ways in which complex systems work. Understanding complex patterns and systems requires us to, at least temporarily, put aside what we already know about how the world works and unlearn. This process is potentially transformative. However, it is seriously hampered by our natural enough affinity and attachment to what we already know or believe. The key is to recognize that our ability to understand the world or our own selves is limited by the very narrow bandwidth within which our senses allow us to perceive the world. Amongst the many surprising realizations that real education can deliver is the ability to recognize that our identities, be they around gender, race, nationality, culture or political ideology, are very tenuous constructs and it would behoove us to not take them too seriously or get too attached to them! Needless to say this would be deemed wholly subversive if not ‘treasonous’ in many cultures and societies.
Beyond materialism and without surrendering:
Selflessness, much advocated by religion, is often viewed in terms of our ability to be materially generous with others. However, the disposition of selflessness is more complex and deeper than the ability to share our worldly possessions. Some religions also link selflessness to the ideal of submission and surrender. These ideas are intriguing and even profound when viewed in the context of immersing oneself in work and learning; developing intimate relationships; and in seeing oneself as a part of the immense complexity of life itself. However in the political and intellectual sphere they usually breed tribal loyalties, unquestioning belief and contribute to the oppression of those who are, for whatever reason, unwilling to go along with the prevailing doctrine. Above all these are not traits that are useful to citizens of a liberal democracy who require robust critical thinking, an ability to collaborate with diverse stakeholders and the creativity to engage in an extraordinarily complex world.
When uncomfortable or threatened our survivalist and baser emotions, fear, jealousy, envy and hatred tend to overwhelm us and the self-centric dispositions such as defensiveness, impatience, insecurity and aggressiveness surface. Subtler dispositions such as curiosity, humor, receptiveness, openness and compassion recede into the background and over time we can even lose our capacity for them. This is because, when threatened we tend to view things in the most binary, simplistic and dualistic terms. We also lose our objectivity and any wisdom that we might have been capable of, retreating, instead, into our most subjective, tribal and egotistical selves.
Spiritual leaders, philosophers, poets and even neuroscientists will tell us that to avoid regression into our worst selves it is necessary to deliberately cultivate the disposition of Selflessness. In my experience selflessness is a state where we transcend the notion of being atomized (i.e., possessing a well defined, isolated and separate self), recognizing instead our complete and total connectedness with others. In other words that, as physical and biological creatures, we are neither alone nor everything! Science tells us that every cell and atom in our body is made up of materials that were generated by the explosions of stars. In the language of poets, songwriters and astronomers we may indeed be- stardust. Seeing ourselves as connected not just to the stars but also to all other beings on the planet and every other human being, including the people we are not fond of or even those we see as our mortal enemies, is the best antidote to our simultaneously overfed and yet severely under nourished Egos.
The disposition of Selflessness helps us to:
- embrace skepticism about the infallibility of our own minds and become conscious of our narrowly subjective and reactive selves
- embrace objectivity and develop the instincts necessary to engage the world with thoughtful and deliberate reasoning without being unconsciously subjective and self-referential
- appreciate that there is much that we do not know and that even what we know is probably faulty because our sensory equipment, compared to even many other living creatures, is so basic.
- recognize that our cognitive tools are primitive, we constantly make errors in determining what is factual and what is not (fake news anyone?); deriving inferences from an incident; or coming to conclusions when presented with faulty or even accurate information. While our senses can be somewhat augmented, at least through the use of technology, our ability to make accurate inferences, conclusions and decisions can only be improved through critical thinking education.
- embrace humility, given that we humans are so enormously handicapped by our limited range of perceptions and understanding.
This is not to be mistaken for merely controlling our emotions and activating our neo-cortex or rational mind. Real Selflessness is not suppressive, coercive or passive, rather it brings to the fore, as a default instinct, the objective and rational mind as well as our subtler sensibilities and our more generous emotions. Ironically, it is when we are most selfless that we bring our most complete and richest selves to the situation.
We manage the Self by recognizing its pervasive existence and erasing or obliterating its boundaries so that its definition is more fluid than rocklike. At the very least, putting the self on the back burner is critical to being a good learner since being in a fluid state not only allows us to learn and grow, it also allows us to integrate what is different (the ‘other’) into our selves. In a selfless state our mind is able to respond to the world around us- uncorrupted by narrow self-interest, identity or even memory. Most of all, our self-referential, biased, lazy and convenient constructs limit our ability to learn and respond to complexity.
Being selfless also has a singular effect on other dispositions. In the next post I will talk of the ways in which this overarching disposition supports other dispositions such as attentiveness, empathy, humor, self-deprecation, openness and generosity