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I see life as an adventure of the mind and imagination. Whatever we do, wherever we go, however we thrive, it is our minds that define us as uniquely human, some weird and wonderful thing in this vast and varied universe of ours. The desire to help others discover that is a big part of why I’m a teacher.

We should all be students, all of our lives, because our world grows the more we learn about it, our lives expand and grow richer, our own identities deepen and ripen, who and what we are becomes something more than what it was. It’s easier to believe that about great literature, great music, great art, but I’m going to make the case for something not everyone realizes is so incredibly beautiful.

Mathematics is one of the great products of human genius. It is not the only one, maybe not superior to others that occupy its heights, but neither inferior to them. It occupies a pantheon of human consciousness that includes great literature that can take you on journeys of the imagination into ever deeper and subtler spheres of reality; brilliant music that provides not merely a beat to move to but an intricate language of tightly woven sounds that speaks to our very soul; philosophies and sciences and fine arts of various kinds.

But math is not least among them, and perhaps is most remarkable of all, music that has not been played, science unyoked from the constraints of observable reality or at least stretching an ever-more elastic tether to them. It distills some essence of the universe, of the macrocosms and microcosms, of ubiquitous and eternal forms, speaking a language that crosses cultural and linguistic barriers and historical epochs with a completeness that not even music and the fine arts can attain.

Math is the purified mind, the celestial symphony, a strange and beautiful sphere of human thought, god’s own soliloquy echoing within us. And when applied to the practical questions that assail us, either directly or through its verbal twin of logical analysis, it enables us to do better, to discipline our passions and channel our thoughts, to arrive at wiser rather than more foolish conclusions. It is a vehicle of both beauty and purpose, a tool and an instrument, delicately plucked to play truths too subtle to otherwise hear.

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(This is the first half of “It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done”, which I decided to break down into two separate posts, the first, this one, addressing the dimensions of inventiveness, scope, and intensity by which transformational events or movements can be measured, and the second one, Transforming America and the World, addressing the social movement that I think should be occurring right now, and that I would like to help catalyze, that I think could put into place a nucleus of a deepening and expanding popular commitment to the cultivation of a more rational and more humane society.)

I recently posted the following Nelson Mandela quote on several of my Facebook pages: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One woman commented that it reminds her of the thesis she is trying to finish, which made me think about the different levels to which this quote applies. Certainly, her comment is a fair one, and familiar to most of us: Personal thresholds, challenges, major tasks we are undertaking can feel daunting, even impossible, until they are done.

Many things feel that way, but there is a hierarchy of magnitudes involved that is worth exploring. There are things that require great effort and time and endurance by an individual, that many have done before, such as graduating, or writing a thesis, or passing the Bar Exam. There are things that have never been done before, such as inventing a new device or creating a new organization (that particular device and that particular organization never having existed until created). Even more so, there are things that have never been done before, and affect a whole society. And most of all, there are things that have never been done before, and change the world, dramatically.

To capture some of the nuances and complexities to this formulation, I’d like to conceptualize it along three axes. The first axis is how novel the thing being done is, whether it is just one instance of a familiar form (e.g., writing a thesis), or a relatively new form (e.g., composing a multi-media thesis affecting all of the senses in a coordinated way to achieve a combined aesthetic and intellectual effect). Obviously, there is a range of degrees of possible deviation from the archetype, from minor changes in formatting to major changes in structure and form and function. As the deviation from the archetype grows, the nature of the innovation moves from being quantitative (a change in degree) to being qualitative (a change in kind).

The second axis is the scale of change, in terms of how many humans are (or how big a swath of the natural universe is) affected by it. Finishing a thesis is, generally, a personal milestone, with only a very marginal impact on the world at large. Forming a new government, organizing a successful political or cultural movement, changing long-standing social institutions (hopefully for the better), are all milestones that affect larger populations in more dramatic ways.

The third axis is the depth and breadth, or intensity, of the change thus achieved, not so much in terms of the number of humans affected, but more in terms in the degree to which they are affected. A promotion in a job, for instance, affects one person to one degree, while emancipation from slavery affects one person to a much greater degree. The passage of a new federal law that makes a marginal change in an existing social institution affects a society to one degree, while the drafting of a federal constitution affects the society to a more extensive degree. Again, there is a range on which such impact can occur, from the very marginal to the extremely revolutionary.

One of the ways in which an innovation or movement can have a deeper and broader impact in this last sense is the degree to which it reaches into the algorithms of change, and affects not only the current status quo, but the manner in which status quos themselves are determined. A law, for instance, affects the current status quo, while a Constitution affects how laws are passed and implemented. A scientific discovery affects our current state of knowledge, while the development of scientific methodology affected the manner in which our knowledge is acquired and accumulates. Impact is generally maximized by reaching down into the algorithms of change, and modifying procedures or methodologies by which particular instances of change occur. (See, e.g.,The Algorithms of Complexity, Second-Order Social Change, The Variable Malleability of Reality, and The Wizards’ Eye for more exploration of this concept.)

I’m going to focus for the remainder of this essay on society-wide changes of relatively large magnitude, looking initially at the degree of variation in how innovative the changes are (i.e., the first axis). I will then discuss, in the next essay, one such proposal I have long been making, that is a social movement aspiring to a rather profound informal change in how we go about governing ourselves (in other words, focused on innovation in the algorithms of change rather than in the particular instances of it), that is rather highly innovative. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, though it may seem impossible, it can be done. (See the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for more discussion of that social movement.)

Oversimplifying a bit, there are two kinds of things that have never been done before and change the world: Those that are of a familiar type (those that are of a type that has been done before), and those that are of an unfamiliar type (those of a type that has never been done before). For instance, inventing the car, or airplane, or space ships, or personal and hand held computers, are all things that had never been done before, and changed the world, but were of a familiar type (technological innovation). Similarly, Abolitionism, the Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement, past national independence movements, were all things that had not been done before (each nation seeking independence had never sought independence before), but were all of a type that had been done before (movements to extend rights to those who had been denied them, and to secede from superordinate political entities).

There are things that had never been done before, and were of a type that had never been done before. For instance, the Constitution of Medina, drafted in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohamed, is often considered the first written constitution to form a new government in world history. (The first in American history was drafted in Hartford, Connecticut in 1638, forming a government comprised of three towns.) Such innovations are all the more portentous for not only having transformed a society or the world in their own time and place, but also for having established a new form by which future transformation can occur (they change the template, paralleling in terms of degree of innovation the dimension involving the depth of the transformative algorithm). It is a beautiful irony of history that America’s crowning and defining formative achievement, the drafting of our own remarkable Constitution, draws on a form invented by the founder of Islam, a religion and culture currently (and tragically) reviled by a large faction of very counterproductive Americans.

The invention not just of new instances of a previously existing form, but of new forms entirely, requires more imagination, more willingness to try the seemingly impossible, for not only does it involve confronting a status quo that appears too overwhelming to transform, it also involves doing so in a way that no one before had ever contemplated.

Of course, nothing is ever completely new: There are always predecessors of some kind or another, similar innovations to draw upon. Prior to the Constitution of Medina, there had been written laws, from the Ten Commandments to the legal codes of Hammurabi in Babylonia and Draco in Greece. And prior to these, there had been unwritten laws, reflecting varying degrees of formality and clarity of definition. New forms, new memes, draw on the wealth of material produced previously, amalgamating, synthesizing, innovating on the margins. (See the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for an in-depth exploration of how this process occurs and what it looks like.)

In other words, the degree of inventiveness lies on a continuum, from very marginal modifications of existing forms, to dramatic new departures that explore avenues not yet explored. Revolutions of great magnitude involve a confluence of highly innovative, highly impactful (i.e., algorithmic rather than superficial), and society-or-world-wide changes rooted in a sense of history and the opportunities existing, thresholds arrived at, in a given time and place. I believe that here and now is such a time and place. (Please see Transforming America and the World for a discussion of why and how.)

Buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards

(This is the second half of “It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done”, which I decided to break down into two separate posts, the first, Dimensions of Social Change, addressing the dimensions of inventiveness, scope, and intensity by which transformational events or movements can be measured, and the second one, this one, addressing the social movement that I think should be occurring right now, and that I would like to help catalyze, that I think could put into place a nucleus of a deepening and expanding popular commitment to the cultivation of a more rational and more humane society.)

I believe that America today is ripe for a social movement that draws on these understandings, and that promotes a new paradigm for change that can have profound effects over time. We are clearly at a threshold in American history, with two opposing forces reaching a pinnacle of definition and passion. A combination of technological advances (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?), our historical trajectory, and recent historical shocks have placed us in that kind of hyper-activated state that generally precedes major paradigm shifts. There is a clear and real danger that the paradigm shift we might experience will be an odious one, destructive to ourselves and to humanity. But there is also a very real potential, one which must be vigorously embraced, that the paradigm shift we experience will be a laudable one, beneficial to ourselves and to humanity.

But accomplishing the latter requires an authentic act of courage, not just a repetition of our familiar patterns of action and reaction. We need to divert some small fraction of our resources, some of our time and effort and passion, away from the endless urgency of now, away from the particular issues over which we are wrangling, away from the familiar game of electoral politics, and into a truly transformative movement. Politics as usual will continue apace, and it may even be the case that no actual resources, no actual time or effort or passion is diverted from it, since the new movement may well generate new resources, new time and effort and passion, that more than compensates for any that was drawn from existing efforts.

But it’s time for an act of courage and imagination, an act of reaching for what seems to be the impossible but in reality is not (and, in many ways, is more attainable than some of the more superficial goals to which we devote ourselves, because it faces less resistance). It’s time to move along the continuum of inventiveness, and along the continuum of impact (into the depths of our algorithms of change), and transform our society, and our world, in a fundamental way. That may sound dauntingly bold, but it’s been done many times throughout world history, and it’s been done by those who seize the opportunity to do it. Now is such a time. The opportunity is upon us.

To summarize my proposed social movement very briefly: I call it, alternatively, “the politics of reason and goodwill,” or “transcendental politics,” or “holistic politics” (see the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for a more complete explanation and exploration of this idea). I’ll refer to it here as “PRG” (the acronym for “politics of reason and goodwill”). It is as cultural as it is political, recognizing that politics is at root a competition of narratives (see, e.g., The Battle of Narratives, Changing The Narrative, The Dance of Consciousness, and The Politics of Consciousness), and that the most profound political changes are fundamentally cultural in nature. PRG thus bears as much resemblance to cultural (and religious) movements as to political ones, a characteristic common to some of the most successful social movements in our history. (For instance, the Civil Rights Movement had a major religious component, with its leaders and infrastructure being rooted in the southern black church network, and invoking religious symbolism and cadences.)

PRG is comprised of three interrelated components: 1) Meta-messaging, which is the composition, accumulation, and dissemination of messages promoting a commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and pragmatism in service to humanity (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives, “Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, and Politics Isn’t Everything…, for more in-depth discussion). 2) Specifically tailored community organizations and networks of community organizations, drawing on all of the community organizational material already in place, which are dedicated to promoting civil and open-minded dialogue and a sense of mutual identification and mutual interdependence (See, e.g., Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). And 3) the creation and on-going development and refinement of a system for accessing easily understood competing arguments on all matters of public concern or public policy, filtering them only for the degree to which they are well-reasoned (i.e., peer-review quality) arguments which apply reason to evidence, and ensuring that the goals and interests they purport to serve are made as explicit as possible (see. e.g., The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified and A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How”).

These three components interact in the following ways: The community organizations are a forum designed to draw on the competing reasonable arguments on matters of public interest and concern, while the meta-messaging can be disseminated, in part, through those community organizations as well. The explicit purpose of the community organizations is to celebrate and realize our civic responsibility as citizens of a nation and members of a community (and of humanity), so it makes sense to, for instance, not only designate a time and place to discuss this issue or that, but also to designate a time and place to watch or read, say, A Christmas Carol (or more modern works that explore similar themes), and discuss what lessons it holds for us as citizens and members of communities. This would be a national (or international) movement whose purpose is to increase our commitment to and realization of the application of reason and imagination to the challenges facing humanity, given precise definition and form.

People (such as cognitive scientist George Lakoff in The Political Mind) often argue that people do not generally arrive at their opinions and conclusions through rational contemplation and rational debate, but rather by emotional appeals to their pre-existing frames and narratives. My third component (as I’ve listed them here) seems to fail to recognize this. But PRG is a bit subtler than it seems, and follows a pattern already established by which reason has gained a greater purchase on society than it previously had.

I do not expect that any time in the foreseeable future there will be any large number of people actually belonging to the community organizations envisioned by this movement, or accessing the competing arguments made more accessible by this movement, but I do expect that a small minority doing so will create a nucleus of credibility that will generate an attractive and transformative force beyond that small minority of people. Thus is the nature of successful social movements; they do not start with a society in agreement with their goals, but rather draw a society into agreement with their goals, by appealing to existing frames and narratives in effective ways.

Reason and imagination applied to evidence (and other objects for contemplation) in service to humanity is not just a methodology that a minority might adhere to, but is also a narrative that many already acknowledge the value of. Few in America today would explicitly admit, to themselves or others, that they are irrational and inhumane people. That is not how modern Americans in general would identify themselves. But many are irrational and, to some extent, inhumane people, and I’ve noticed in public discourse that many of them implicitly, just below the threshold of conscious recognition, are vaguely aware of it. That creates a huge opportunity for social change.

By addressing the individual issues or instances of this competition of narratives, we are sucked into the frames that opponents adhere to, and stuck on a treadmill of shouting past each other ineffectually. But by addressing the underlying, agreed-upon values of reason and imagination in service to humanity, we make the ground more fertile for those positions that actually do emanate from these values and this commitment, and less fertile for those that don’t.

We have a compelling historical precedent for how successful this can be: The Scientific Revolution. People may not, in general, be most persuaded by the most rational arguments, but disciplined reason certainly has gained a very powerful and pervasive foothold on global humanity through the evolution of scientific methodology (and the various forms of scholarship that emanate from it) over the past few centuries.

Science has transformed our lives in numerous ways, on numerous levels, including not only the technological advances facilitated by it, but also the social institutional ones. Our own somewhat sanctified Constitution, claimed as the secular holy document guiding those in our nation most obstructive of the influence of reason in service to humanity, is, in fact, a product of Enlightenment thinking, which itself was an extension of the Scientific Revolution into the sphere of rational self-governance.

PRG also builds on historical precedents that are various instances of applying that rationality (and passion and compassion along with it) to the purpose of humanity. Movements which extended rights and protections to those who were denied them, which confronted the use of power to oppress and exploit, which addressed our inhumanity to one another and sought to improve the condition of those born into the least advantageous opportunity structures, are almost universally admired and revered movements in our national and world history. There will inevitably come a time in human history when people will reunite those isolated instances of a commitment to humanity into a comprehensive commitment to humanity, transcending and improving on past attempts to do so, incorporating more modern knowledge and insight into the effort.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time it was ever attempted. The dominant world religions today are rooted, at least formally, in such a commitment, though, again, those who are most obstructive to the movement I am outlining are those who claim to be the most devoted adherents to those religions. But this, while a lesson in the power of hypocrisy, is also a positive portent, for the underlying frames and narratives of compassion and humanity don’t need to be implanted anew; they merely need to be activated for the purposes of recruiting those within reach of persuasion, and marginalizing those beyond that reach. Again, that is the familiar pattern of historical social movements.

So PRG draws on two sets of frames and narratives, two underlying values, already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and already formally almost universally accepted in our nation: Reason and Compassion. The degree to which they are in practice rejected is the challenge we face, but it is a challenge in which we are invited to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, for in the overwhelming majority of cases, irrationality and inhumanity are exercised by people who identify themselves as rational and humane people. A remarkable core of them will remain completely insulated against any intrusion of actual reason, or the demands of actual compassion; but they will play into a growing narrative, that PRG will be consciously cultivating and disseminating, that they are the Philistines of our day, the Scrooges before the transformation, that which we strive to transcend rather than that which we strive to be.

This narrative is not a hard one to cultivate and disseminate. It is favored by reason, and it is favored by humanity. In the long run, as both Martin Luther King Jr. (adapting an earlier quote) and John Maynard Keynes have noted, reason and humanity prevail. It falls upon us to expedite their journey, and avoid the potentially catastrophic eruptions of irrationality and inhumanity that occur during the incessant short-term detours from that path.

PRG is what I see as part of a more general probable trend: The generalization of movements that were incubated in more particular forms and enclaves. Science has grown as something that scientists do, and that we indirectly accept (or resist) as having some authoritative power by virtue of its proven quality for reducing bias and increasing insight. A commitment to humanity is something that has resided semi-dormant and frequently betrayed in our dominant world religions. But its sublimated influence can be seen in the historical (even if constantly embattled and betrayed) commitment to social justice and equality that have helped forge the dominant developed nations of the world. Few would explicitly reject the suggestion that we should all be more rational, or that we should all be more humane. Cultivating that nucleus in intentional ways is the fundamental challenge facing humanity, now and always.

And it is the nature of history that such nuclei expand into general populations in various ways. In ancient civilizations, mathematics was something that a few elites used for elite purposes; now it is something that many use for many purposes. Science began as an esoteric endeavor discussed by philosophers and ignored by others; now it is something that virtually all of us defer to in various ways, even those trying to reject its specific findings are limited to doing so within the logic or language of science itself.

One of the most insidious of inhumanities, racism, which has existed throughout world history, is a discredited form of thought in modern nations, largely now relegated to the most sublimated forms, only able to thrive at all by claiming not to be what it is. Whereas a few short generations ago many would have applauded the lynching of a black man for glancing at a white woman, far fewer would today (perhaps marking progress against sexism as well). More humane memes have indeed gained greater purchase, despite the degree to which malicious ones persist alongside of them.

(I envision something similar for public education, and legal services, and a variety of other social institutional forms: What was once more diffuse, done by individuals and families to the best of their ability, became professionalized, and developed within that context. But there is a next threshold of development that takes that developed form and engages a larger population in the endeavor once again, getting families and communities more involved in the education of our children, and making legal services more accessible to lay people through resources designed to provide them with tools. This alternation of centralization and decentralization, facilitating a coherent progression, is, I think, one of history’s underlying themes.)

The coherent paradigm of social thought and action presented here, and throughout my essays on Colorado Confluence, which lays out the nature of our shared cognitive and social institutional and technological landscape, and considers how to maximize our own ability to affect it in profoundly beneficial ways, is one that can and should guide us far more so, and more intentionally, and with more discipline and focus, than it has.

Human history is the story of human consciousness, of its growth, of its implementations, of its unintended consequences, of its abuses, of its spread and of the forces it puts into play. In the spirit of reaching into underlying algorithms, we need to be conscious about the development and implementation of our consciousness, we need to be intentional about it, we need to use it as a vehicle for its continued growth and continued implementation, not in the haphazard and frequently self-destructive ways to which we are accustomed, but in increasingly focused and intentional ways. We need to realize that just because this particular, quixotically ambitious transformation of reality hasn’t yet occurred does not mean that it can never occur, or that we can’t be the agents for its occurrence.

Forming a social movement similar to PRG is a marginal innovation with potentially world revolutionary implications. It will not change what human beings are, or the underlying nature of our shared existence. But it can, over time, create a force that propels our shared story down dramatically more beneficial channels. And that is what being a human being is all about.

It will continue to seem impossible…, until it has been done.

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(This is a long one, but please bear with me: It gets to the heart of my project here on Colorado Confluence, that I need others’ help to incubate and realize. This is one of those cases in which someone gets a glimpse of some possibility, a real possibility within the reach of motivated human beings, and passionately wants others to get a glimpse of it as well, so that it can become a part of what defines our future rather than just a forgotten thought that never takes hold.)

I recently posted the following Nelson Mandela quote on several of my Facebook pages: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.” One woman commented that it reminds her of the thesis she is trying to finish, which made me think about the different levels to which this quote applies. Certainly, her comment is a fair one, and familiar to most of us: Personal thresholds, challenges, major tasks we are undertaking can feel daunting, even impossible, until they are done.

Many things feel that way, but there is a hierarchy of magnitudes involved that is worth exploring. There are things that require great effort and time and endurance by an individual, that many have done before, such as graduating, or writing a thesis, or passing the Bar Exam. There are things that have never been done before, such as inventing a new device or creating a new organization (that particular device and that particular organization never having existed until created). Even more so, there are things that have never been done before, and affect a whole society. And most of all, there are things that have never been done before, and change the world, dramatically.

To capture some of the nuances and complexities to this formulation, I’d like to conceptualize it along three axes. The first axis is how novel the thing being done is, whether it is just one instance of a familiar form (e.g., writing a thesis), or a relatively new form (e.g., composing a multi-media thesis affecting all of the senses in a coordinated way to achieve a combined aesthetic and intellectual effect). Obviously, there is a range of degrees of possible deviation from the archetype, from minor changes in formatting to major changes in structure and form and function. As the deviation from the archetype grows, the nature of the innovation moves from being quantitative (a change in degree) to being qualitative (a change in kind).

The second axis is the scale of change, in terms of how many humans are (or how big a swath of the natural universe is) affected by it. Finishing a thesis is, generally, a personal milestone, with only a very marginal impact on the world at large. Forming a new government, organizing a successful political or cultural movement, changing long-standing social institutions (hopefully for the better), are all milestones that affect larger populations in more dramatic ways.

The third axis is the depth and breadth of the change thus achieved, not so much in terms of the number of humans affected, but more in terms in the degree to which they are affected. A promotion in a job, for instance, affects one person to one degree, while emancipation from slavery affects one person to a much greater degree. The passage of a new federal law that makes a marginal change in an existing social institution affects a society to one degree, while the drafting of a federal constitution affects the society to a more extensive degree. Again, there is a range on which such impact can occur, from the very marginal to the extremely revolutionary.

One of the ways in which an innovation or movement can have a deeper and broader impact in this last sense is the degree to which it reaches into the algorithms of change, and affects not only the current status quo, but the manner in which status quos themselves are determined. A law, for instance, affects the current status quo, while a Constitution affects how laws are passed and implemented. A scientific discovery affects our current state of knowledge, while the development of scientific methodology affected the manner in which our knowledge is acquired and accumulates. Impact is generally maximized by reaching down into the algorithms of change, and modifying procedures or methodologies by which particular instances of change occur. (See, e.g.,The Algorithms of Complexity, Second-Order Social ChangeThe Variable Malleability of Reality, and The Wizards’ Eye for more exploration of this concept.)

I’m going to focus for the remainder of this essay on society-wide changes of relatively large magnitude, looking initially at the degree of variation in how innovative the changes are (i.e., the first axis). I will end with a reminder of one such proposal I have long been making, that is a social movement aspiring to a rather profound informal change in how we go about governing ourselves (in other words, focused on innovation in the algorithms of change rather than in the particular instances of it), that is rather highly innovative. As Nelson Mandela reminds us, though it may seem impossible, it can be done.

Oversimplifying a bit, there are two kinds of things that have never been done before and change the world: Those that are of a familiar type (those that are of a type that has been done before), and those that are of an unfamiliar type (those of a type that has never been done before). For instance, inventing the car, or airplane, or space ships, or personal and hand held computers, are all things that had never been done before, and changed the world, but were of a familiar type (technological innovation). Similarly, Abolitionism, the Suffragettes, The Civil Rights Movement, past national independence movements, were all things that had not been done before (each nation seeking independence had never sought independence before), but were all of a type that had been done before (movements to extend rights to those who had been denied them, and to secede from superordinate political entities).

There are things that had never been done before, and were of a type that had never been done before. For instance, the Constitution of Medina, drafted in the 7th century by the Prophet Mohamed, is often considered the first written constitution to form a new government in world history. (The first in American history was drafted in Hartford, Connecticut in 1638, forming a government comprised of three towns.) Such innovations are all the more portentous for not only having transformed a society or the world in their own time and place, but also for having established a new form by which future transformation can occur (they change the template, paralleling in terms of degree of innovation the dimension involving the depth of the transformative algorithm). It is a beautiful irony of history that America’s crowning and defining formative achievement, the drafting of our own remarkable Constitution, draws on a form invented by the founder of Islam, a religion and culture currently (and tragically) reviled by a large faction of very counterproductive Americans.

The invention not just of new instances of a previously existing form, but of new forms entirely, requires more imagination, more willingness to try the seemingly impossible, for not only does it involve confronting a status quo that appears too overwhelming to transform, it also involves doing so in a way that no one before had ever contemplated.

Of course, nothing is ever completely new: There are always predecessors of some kind or another, similar innovations to draw upon. Prior to the Constitution of Medina, there had been written laws, from the Ten Commandments to the legal codes of Hammurabi in Babylonia and Draco in Greece. And prior to these, there had been unwritten laws, reflecting varying degrees of formality and clarity of definition. New forms, new memes, draw on the wealth of material produced previously, amalgamating, synthesizing, innovating on the margins. (See the essays linked to in the first box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for an in-depth exploration of how this process occurs and what it looks like.)

In other words, the degree of inventiveness lies on a continuum, from very marginal modifications of existing forms, to dramatic new departures that explore avenues not yet explored. Revolutions of great magnitude involve a confluence of highly innovative, highly impactful (i.e., algorithmic rather than superficial), and society-or-world-wide changes rooted in a sense of history and the opportunities existing, thresholds arrived at, in a given time and place.

I believe that America today is ripe for a social movement that draws on these understandings, and that promotes a new paradigm for change that can have profound effects over time. We are clearly at a threshold in American history, with two opposing forces reaching a pinnacle of definition and passion. A combination of technological advances (see A Major Historical Threshold or A Tragically Missed Opportunity?), our historical trajectory, and recent historical shocks have placed us in that kind of hyper-activated state that generally precedes major paradigm shifts. There is a clear and real danger that the paradigm shift we might experience will be an odious one, destructive to ourselves and to humanity. But there is also a very real potential, one which must be vigorously embraced, that the paradigm shift we experience will be a laudable one, beneficial to ourselves and to humanity.

But accomplishing the latter requires an authentic act of courage, not just a repetition of our familiar patterns of action and reaction. We need to divert some small fraction of our resources, some of our time and effort and passion, away from the endless urgency of now, away from the particular issues over which we are wrangling, away from the familiar game of electoral politics, and into a truly transformative movement. Politics as usual will continue apace, and it may even be the case that no actual resources, no actual time or effort or passion is diverted from it, since the new movement may well generate new resources, new time and effort and passion, that more than compensates for any that was drawn from existing efforts.

But it’s time for an act of courage and imagination, an act of reaching for what seems to be the impossible but in reality is not (and, in many ways, is more attainable than some of the more superficial goals to which we devote ourselves, because it faces less resistance). It’s time to move along the continuum of inventiveness, and along the continuum of impact (into the depths of our algorithms of change), and transform our society, and our world, in a fundamental way. That may sound dauntingly bold, but it’s been done many times throughout world history, and it’s been done by those who seize the opportunity to do it. Now is such a time. The opportunity is upon us.

To summarize my proposed social movement very briefly: I call it, alternatively, “the politics of reason and goodwill,” or “transcendental politics,” or “holistic politics” (see the essays linked to in the second box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for a more complete explanation and exploration of this idea). I’ll refer to it here as “PRG” (the acronym for “politics of reason and goodwill”). It is as cultural as it is political, recognizing that politics is at root a competition of narratives (see, e.g., The Battle of Narratives, Changing The Narrative, The Dance of Consciousness, and The Politics of Consciousness), and that the most profound political changes are fundamentally cultural in nature. PRG thus bears as much resemblance to cultural (and religious) movements as to political ones, a characteristic common to some of the most successful social movements in our history. (For instance, the Civil Rights Movement had a major religious component, with its leaders and infrastructure being rooted in the southern black church network, and invoking religious symbolism and cadences.)

PRG is comprised of three interrelated components: 1) Meta-messaging, which is the composition, accumulation, and dissemination of messages promoting a commitment to reason and imagination and compassion and pragmatism in service to humanity (see, e.g., Meta-messaging with Frames and Narratives“Messaging” From The Heart of Many Rather Than The Mouth of Few, and Politics Isn’t Everything…, for more in-depth discussion). 2) Specifically tailored community organizations and networks of community organizations, drawing on all of the community organizational material already in place, which are dedicated to promoting civil and open-minded dialogue and a sense of mutual identification and mutual interdependence (See, e.g., Community Action Groups (CAGs) & Network (CAN)). And 3) the creation and on-going development and refinement of a system for accessing easily understood competing arguments on all matters of public concern or public policy, filtering them only for the degree to which they are well-reasoned (i.e., peer-review quality) arguments which apply reason to evidence, and ensuring that the goals and interests they purport to serve are made as explicit as possible (see. e.g., The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified and A Comprehensive Paradigm for Progressive Thought and Action; or “Yes We Can, and Here’s How”).

These three components interact in the following ways: The community organizations are a forum designed to draw on the competing reasonable arguments on matters of public interest and concern, while the meta-messaging can be disseminated, in part, through those community organizations as well. The explicit purpose of the community organizations is to celebrate and realize our civic responsibility as citizens of a nation and members of a community (and of humanity), so it makes sense to, for instance, not only designate a time and place to discuss this issue or that, but also to designate a time and place to watch or read, say, A Christmas Carol (or more modern works that explore similar themes), and discuss what lessons it holds for us as citizens and members of communities. This would be a national (or international) movement whose purpose is to increase our commitment to and realization of the application of reason and imagination to the challenges facing humanity, given precise definition and form.

People (such as cognitive scientist George Lakoff in The Political Mind) often argue that people do not generally arrive at their opinions and conclusions through rational contemplation and rational debate, but rather by emotional appeals to their pre-existing frames and narratives. My third component (as I’ve listed them here) seems to fail to recognize this. But PRG is a bit subtler than it seems, and follows a pattern already established by which reason has gained a greater purchase on society than it previously had.

I do not expect that any time in the foreseeable future there will be any large number of people actually belonging to the community organizations envisioned by this movement, or accessing the competing arguments made more accessible by this movement, but I do expect that a small minority doing so will create a nucleus of credibility that will generate an attractive and transformative force beyond that small minority of people. Thus is the nature of successful social movements; they do not start with a society in agreement with their goals, but rather draw a society into agreement with their goals, by appealing to existing frames and narratives in effective ways.

Reason and imagination applied to evidence (and other objects for contemplation) in service to humanity is not just a methodology that a minority might adhere to, but is also a narrative that many already acknowledge the value of. Few in America today would explicitly admit, to themselves or others, that they are irrational and inhumane people. That is not how modern Americans in general would identify themselves. But many are irrational and, to some extent, inhumane people, and I’ve noticed in public discourse that many of them implicitly, just below the threshold of conscious recognition, are vaguely aware of it. That creates a huge opportunity for social change.

By addressing the individual issues or instances of this competition of narratives, we are sucked into the frames that opponents adhere to, and stuck on a treadmill of shouting past each other ineffectually. But by addressing the underlying, agreed-upon values of reason and imagination in service to humanity, we make the ground more fertile for those positions that actually do emanate from these values and this commitment, and less fertile for those that don’t.

We have a compelling historical precedent for how successful this can be: The Scientific Revolution. People may not, in general, be most persuaded by the most rational arguments, but disciplined reason certainly has gained a very powerful and pervasive foothold on global humanity through the evolution of scientific methodology (and the various forms of scholarship that emanate from it) over the past few centuries.

Science has transformed our lives in numerous ways, on numerous levels, including not only the technological advances facilitated by it, but also the social institutional ones. Our own somewhat sanctified Constitution, claimed as the secular holy document guiding those in our nation most obstructive of the influence of reason in service to humanity, is, in fact, a product of Enlightenment thinking, which itself was an extension of the Scientific Revolution into the sphere of rational self-governance.

PRG also builds on historical precedents that are various instances of applying that rationality (and passion and compassion along with it) to the purpose of humanity. Movements which extended rights and protections to those who were denied them, which confronted the use of power to oppress and exploit, which addressed our inhumanity to one another and sought to improve the condition of those born into the least advantageous opportunity structures, are almost universally admired and revered movements in our national and world history. There will inevitably come a time in human history when people will reunite those isolated instances of a commitment to humanity into a comprehensive commitment to humanity, transcending and improving on past attempts to do so, incorporating more modern knowledge and insight into the effort.

Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time it was ever attempted. The dominant world religions today are rooted, at least formally, in such a commitment, though, again, those who are most obstructive to the movement I am outlining are those who claim to be the most devoted adherents to those religions. But this, while a lesson in the power of hypocrisy, is also a positive portent, for the underlying frames and narratives of compassion and humanity don’t need to be implanted anew; they merely need to be activated for the purposes of recruiting those within reach of persuasion, and marginalizing those beyond that reach. Again, that is the familiar pattern of historical social movements.

So PRG draws on two sets of frames and narratives, two underlying values, already deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and already formally almost universally accepted in our nation: Reason and Compassion. The degree to which they are in practice rejected is the challenge we face, but it is a challenge in which we are invited to ply the lever of cognitive dissonance, for in the overwhelming majority of cases, irrationality and inhumanity are exercised by people who identify themselves as rational and humane people. A remarkable core of them will remain completely insulated against any intrusion of actual reason, or the demands of actual compassion; but they will play into a growing narrative, that PRG will be consciously cultivating and disseminating, that they are the Philistines of our day, the Scrooges before the transformation, that which we strive to transcend rather than that which we strive to be.

This narrative is not a hard one to cultivate and disseminate. It is favored by reason, and it is favored by humanity. In the long run, as both Martin Luther King Jr. (adapting an earlier quote) and John Maynard Keynes have noted, reason and humanity prevail. It falls upon us to expedite their journey, and avoid the potentially catastrophic eruptions of irrationality and inhumanity that occur during the incessant short-term detours from that path.

PRG is what I see as part of a more general probable trend: The generalization of movements that were incubated in more particular forms and enclaves. Science has grown as something that scientists do, and that we indirectly accept (or resist) as having some authoritative power by virtue of its proven quality for reducing bias and increasing insight. A commitment to humanity is something that has resided semi-dormant and frequently betrayed in our dominant world religions. But its sublimated influence can be seen in the historical (even if constantly embattled and betrayed) commitment to social justice and equality that have helped forge the dominant developed nations of the world. Few would explicitly reject the suggestion that we should all be more rational, or that we should all be more humane. Cultivating that nucleus in intentional ways is the fundamental challenge facing humanity, now and always.

And it is the nature of history that such nuclei expand into general populations in various ways. In ancient civilizations, mathematics was something that a few elites used for elite purposes; now it is something that many use for many purposes. Science began as an esoteric endeavor discussed by philosophers and ignored by others; now it is something that virtually all of us defer to in various ways, even those trying to reject its specific findings are limited to doing so within the logic or language of science itself.

One of the most insidious of inhumanities, racism, which has existed throughout world history, is a discredited form of thought in modern nations, largely now relegated to the most sublimated forms, only able to thrive at all by claiming not to be what it is. Whereas a few short generations ago many would have applauded the lynching of a black man for glancing at a white woman, far fewer would today (perhaps marking progress against sexism as well). More humane memes have indeed gained greater purchase, despite the degree to which malicious ones persist alongside of them.

(I envision something similar for public education, and legal services, and a variety of other social institutional forms: What was once more diffuse, done by individuals and families to the best of their ability, became professionalized, and developed within that context. But there is a next threshold of development that takes that developed form and engages a larger population in the endeavor once again, getting families and communities more involved in the education of our children, and making legal services more accessible to lay people through resources designed to provide them with tools. This alternation of centralization and decentralization, facilitating a coherent progression, is, I think, one of history’s underlying themes.)

The coherent paradigm of social thought and action presented here, and throughout my essays on Colorado Confluence, which lays out the nature of our shared cognitive and social institutional and technological landscape, and considers how to maximize our own ability to affect it in profoundly beneficial ways, is one that can and should guide us far more so, and more intentionally, and with more discipline and focus, than it has.

Human history is the story of human consciousness, of its growth, of its implementations, of its unintended consequences, of its abuses, of its spread and of the forces it puts into play. In the spirit of reaching into underlying algorithms, we need to be conscious about the development and implementation of our consciousness, we need to be intentional about it, we need to use it as a vehicle for its continued growth and continued implementation, not in the haphazard and frequently self-destructive ways to which we are accustomed, but in increasingly focused and intentional ways. We need to realize that just because this particular, quixotically ambitious transformation of reality hasn’t yet occurred does not mean that it can never occur, or that we can’t be the agents for its occurrence.

Forming a social movement similar to PRG is a marginal innovation with potentially world revolutionary implications. It will not change what human beings are, or the underlying nature of our shared existence. But it can, over time, create a force that propels our shared story down dramatically more beneficial channels. And that is what being a human being is all about.

It will continue to seem impossible…, until it has been done.

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I recently posted on three of my Facebook pages (my personal page: http://www.facebook.com/steve.harvey.313; my Colorado Confluence page: http://www.facebook.com/ColoradoConfluence; and my Politics of Reason, Humility, and Goodwill page: http://www.facebook.com/Reasonandgoodwill) the following:

For those on the far-right who like to claim that “the founding fathers” all meant for this country to be as they envision it, here’s an interesting passage from Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin (page 315): “Another…proposal Franklin made to the Pennsylvania convention (in 1776) was that the state’s Declaration of Rights discourage large holdings of property or concentrations of wealth as ‘a danger to the happiness of mankind.'” What vitriol our modern faux-patriots would heap on Franklin, one of the most revered among those same “founding fathers” in their own day, were he alive to participate in political discourse today!

My point was less to promote Franklin’s specific position than to promote the notion that the “founding fathers” had amongst them a broader range of ideas than is sometimes supposed, and that we should honor them not by constricting our discourse to a false presumption of what “they” thought, but rather should honor them by discussing a range as broad as they did. Franklin was by far the most revered generally, and amongst the “founding fathers” themselves, in their own day (until Washington won the War of Independence, and knocked Franklin down to the second most revered), and that he had proposed an idea that would be denounced by the members of a particularly virulent right-wing ideology today that claims to be most in sinc with the “intent” of “the founding fathers” speaks volumes about how constricted our national discourse has become.

The guilt for this ideological narrowing of our national mind doesn’t belong to the right alone; the left has its own sacred cows, its own ideological false certainties that are insulated from reason and evidence and further examination. But I do not find that left-wing corpus of false ideology to form the major thrust of our national collective consciousness, and certainly not its most counter-factual and counter-rational elements.

Though many on the right decry the “creeping socialism” of American domestic policy, the large administrative state along with its regulatory and redistributive functions, its public investments in public programs, is not the result so much of left-wing ideology as of pragmatic problem solving over a period of generations. It was, in fact, the broadening of the American mind through lived history, through trial and error, through the organic processes of social institutional growth and deepening in response to the challenges of shared life.

The principle force in the narrowing of the American mind is on the right, tightly constrained within a set of very narrow and inflexible assumptions largely divorced from historical, economic, legal, or, in general, social systemic evidence, analysis and lived experience. This set of ideological shackles takes several forms: 1) a false and ideologically convenient reduction of the Constitution to “the confirmation of everything we believe whether that’s what the Constitution actually says or not,” 2) an “economically illiterate and disgracefully cynical” (in the words of The Economist magazine) political agenda, and 3) an uncompromising fanaticism, served by a simultaneous rejection of scholarship and hollow pretense to be supported by it, to name a few.

On many right-wing sites and pages, a rational argument (if presented by an infiltrator such as myself) simply can’t be followed, in an almost Keystone-coppish spoof of discourse, a political ideological rendition of “who’s on first?” Amidst the bizarre barrage of school-yard taunts and infantile pejoratives, simultaneous defenses and indignant denials of implicitly racist or quasi-racist attitudes, can be found an underlying thread of pure, unadulterated, unexamined irrationality and ignorance. Reason is not only rejected, but reduced to the status of undifferentiated subjective opinion, “your reason,” as if logical argumentation applied to reliable evidence is no more reliable than random bigotries, just one more set of arbitrary opinions among many, and not the one to their liking.

Overly aggressive right-wingers insist that George Zimmerman should never have been arrested because he, the armed pursuer and fatal shooter of an unarmed teen engaged in no illegal behavior at the time the pursuit began, was merely defending himself and his property, while the unarmed victim of the shooting, reaccting to being pursued struck out at Zimmerman, was not.

On one anti-immigrant site, arguments included the notion that since some illegal immigrants commit predatory crimes, not being more aggressive in the enforcement of immigration laws is an insult to the victims of such crimes. When I pointed out that this is precisely the same logic used to support overtly racist beliefs, by holding an entire race or ethnicity accountable for the real or imagined crimes of any of its members (a tactic that can be used to impugn any large group or race or ethnicity, since as a matter of statistical probability there will certainly be crimes committed by some members of any such group), the reaction was, of course, a string of dismissive and highly inappropriate pejoratives, and an insistence that their views can’t possibly bear any resemblance to racism, because they are indiscriminate in their hatred of illegal immigrants. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of categorical prejudice having broader applicability than its “racist” incarnation (leaving aside the issue of whether there isn’t, really, a specifically racist element to their antagonism), but were relentlessly bellicose and belligerent in their inability to do so (uttering such apparently timeless gems as “retard,” “idiot,” and, yes, “illegal lover,” the last while denying any similarity in form to racism…!).

There are, of course, the homophobes, the Islamophobes, and the various other incarnations of the “us v. them” mentality, full of hypocrisy and inconsistency. These are people who claim to be the ultimate defenders of the Constitution while simultaneously insisting that to allow Muslims the same First Amendment freedom of religion rights accorded everyone else would be a travesty against our nation.  (One of their arguments is that Islam isn’t a religion, but rather a plot for world conquest.) These are the people who complain about an overly intrusive government who simultaneously insist that government must discriminate against people on the basis of private sexual orientation. It’s a paranoid and bellicose attitude toward the world.

The Obama-haters form a cross-section all their own, frequently overlapping with other variations, but a distinguishable sub-set in its own right. Whether one supports or opposes President Obama’s policies is not the defining distinction here: It is certainly possible to oppose those policies without belonging to this particular variation of this particular cultural pathology. But, for many, hating Obama is a religion, and the justifications highly exaggerated or fabricated, and imbued with a seething hostility. Some justify this by the similar dislike by many on the left of the previous president, George W. Bush, though I find it hard to equate outrage at a president who treated the world as our enemy (and did so in eager defiance of international law and human rights) with a president who merely tries to use government to meet the needs of the most needy among us. (Indeed, treating the world as our enemy is precisely one component of this right-wing mania, while meeting the needs of the most needy among us is precisely what they most vehemently oppose.)

Irrational bigotry, anti-intellectual dogma, unreflective and fully insulated false certainties, are the fabric of this ideology. But it is not just another cult, another little outgrowth of that ever-present but rarely dominant mindset found among religious fanatics and overzealous ideologues. It is a coalescence, a mutation of both of those categories merging into one, an overzealous ideology for religious fanatics; a religious fanaticism for overzealous ideologues. And, like an astronomical phenomenon with a growing gravitational field, more and more of right-wing American society has been sucked into its vortex, from fundamentalist religious fanatics, to grease-painted anti-government lunatics, to all varieties of xenophobes and hostility-driven personality types (though, again, to be fair, one far smaller and less threatening nest of hostility-driven ideologues is still thriving on the left as well).

Of course, as with all of the most virulent, anti-humane movements of world history, it is staunchly anti-intellectual. It has branches that reject some major and not particularly scientifically contentious scientific theories such as Evolution and Global Warming. It has branches that dismiss modern economics and want to replace it with a dogma derived from the work of a century old non-empirical Austrian economist instead. The complex and sophisticated accumulated knowledge of our civilization is considered irrelevant to this faction, because only that which supports the preferred predetermined conclusion is admissible.

It belongs to the class of ideologies and movements that includes the Inquisition, Bolshevism, Nazism, the Khmer Rouge, the Ku Klux Klan, and McCarthyism. Some aspects of it are directly descended from the same lineage of national ideologies that opposed the ratification of the Constitution, defended slavery and opposed abolition, and defended Jim Crow and opposed Civil Rights. It is in many ways milder than these predecessors and cousins, but more insidious for being so.

It isn’t just that these rather unsavory political attitudes and emotional dispositions form one major faction within our society, but rather that they have been (and may or may not still be) growing in influence while simultaneously insulating themselves from any intrusion of fact, reason, or human decency. In the 1970s, we saw TV’s Archie Bunker (wonderfully portrayed by the very talented Carrol O’Connor) as a relic of a soon-to-be transcended past, the bigot so archaic and comical that it was not a matter of great concern. But Archie Bunker was both less virulent and more marginal in his day than our neo-Archie-Bunkers are today, whose bigotry is more insidious and sublimated, and whose numbers, perhaps, are waxing rather than waning.

I am always a bit skeptical of any claims of exceptionalism, whether American exceptionalism, or the constantly repeated and rarely accurate belief in some exceptional aspect of one’s own time and place. My own version of it, voiced here, needs to be taken with a grain of salt as well: Bigots have plagued every generation. Their numbers and influence have often been greater than they are today, and their actions more violent and predatory.

What is exceptional about the present version, what worries me about it in a way that the past incarnations might not have, is that it is a mutation of that attitude and orientation that makes both its possessors and a far larger number of potential new recruits more easily taken in. It is a version that denounces racism while preaching it, that appeals to the baser nature of human beings while providing what to those so inclined is a credible cloak of respectability.

And it is a vibrant and robust current historical trend that stands in stark opposition to the deepening and broadening of human consciousness in service to humanity. When those among us who are hopeful and humane, who would rather see us become more rather than less wise and compassionate as a people, look at this trend, we see the antithesis of the future we know in our hearts is both possible and perhaps inevitable. We see Scrooge before the transformation multiplying and growing more intransigent, and Marley’s Ghost and the Three Spirits safely locked away. We see the perhaps momentary, perhaps more enduring, victory of malice and avarice and ignorance and irrationality.

The narrowing of the American mind may not be exceptional, but it is legitimate cause for concern. And those among us who favor the blossoming of human consciousness instead need to think long and hard about how to confront it, and work long and hard and smartly doing so.

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On a Facebook post extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, a fellow named Bryan made the following comment:

Viewing human dentition, arrived at after about 7 million years of evolution (based on the new fossil finds last year), it would appear that meats were always part of the Almighty’s diet plan for our species. The veggie-only folk are certainly entitled to their opinion about how to feed THEMSELVES, but their argument that it is the preferred method for the species is both inaccurate and self-serving.

My response:

Bryan, we evolved as animals adapted to the African savanna, following the logic of evolution, which is that those genetic variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future. One of the products of that process was the human brain, mostly evolved to manipulate the complex small muscles of our fingers, but incidentally facilitating the development of language, which set into motion a similar evolutionary process: Those cognitive variations which continually reproduce successfully are perpetuated into the future.

In other words, we are not just anatomical beings, but also conscious beings. Citing our anatomy as though we are under some obligation to choose behaviors and customs suggested by it sounds reasonable to people who aren’t, because we defy our anatomy all the time, and to marvelous effect. We train some among us to perform complex surgical procedures, or apply other medical treatments, to combat perfectly natural deadly or debilitating diseases or conditions. We invent instruments to enable us to do things that our anatomy does not enable us to do.

Our craving for fat and sugar is probably due to the combination of our need for some small amount of both and their relative scarcity or difficulty of obtaining in the African savanna, such that our primal predecessors could never get too much of either. Should we abide by that anatomical dictate, and eat as much fat and sugar as we are anatomically predisposed to desire?

No, of course not. Anatomy is what formed us; consciousness is what guides us. The latter does not have to acquiesce to the former in ways that the latter discovers to be dysfunctional or otherwise undesirable.

Having said all that, I don’t tend toward high-minded moralism, and don’t seek some morally perfect universe. If I did, I would probably be adamantly opposed to the consumption of meat. There are many reasons why, as conscious beings, that is a sensible position. The healthiest of all diets, if one is careful about satisfying all nutritional requirements, is one without meat. Food production maximization per acre of land excludes raising animals for meat (which is a nutritionally inefficient use of land). The slaughter of animals that feel fear and pain to satisfy a mere desire of our own should give us pause. It’s really a very reasonable position. And we are capable of reason, regardless of how our teeth are shaped.

By the way, I eat meat.

This isn’t the kind of thing that I would usually reproduce here as a post, except that there’s something about it that strikes me as getting to the crux of the matter (“the matter” being the continuing development and implementation of human consciousness, in all matters): We need to be careful to distinguish reason from rationalization. And the way to do that is, like the delightfully relentless child, to keep on asking “why?”

Bryan cited human dentation as proof that we are “meant” to eat meat. Why? What does it mean that “we are meant to” do or be something in particular? Who meant it? (Bryan, apparently, would answer “the almighty.”) Why do we have to acquiesce to what that real or imagined “meaner” meant for us? How does it stack up against what we, individually or collectively, “mean” for us to do here and now? Are our concerns for optimal use of available land, compassion for creatures that feel fear and pain, and human health all irrelevant if someone can argue that we are anatomically constrained to disregard all of those concerns?

This is one more incarnation of the tension between reason and rationalization, between analyses based on minimal assumption and assumption supported by minimal analysis. And that, I believe, is the tension that defines the distinction between much of progressive and conservative thought. (I’ll add one caveat: There are some aspects of progressive and conservative thought in which the roles are reversed; the optimal “ideology” is one which captures the reason that appears in each while weeding out the rationalization that appears in both.)

What serves us better than rationalizing preferred conclusions, entrenched habits of thought, on the basis of irrelevant or cherry-picked or fabricated supporting evidence, is to recognize that our current understandings and knowledge is less dispositive than we would like to believe, and to strive to apply reason to evidence, leavened with and inspired by disciplined imagination, in service to humanity. When we do that, we aren’t likely to argue, for example, that human dentation prevents us from changing paradigms in a way which better utilizes available land, better serves our health, and better exercises our compassion.

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As I have discussed in A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization and Do Deities Defecate? (among other essays), what people conceptualize as “god” may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “infinity,” “eternity,” and “love.” It may well be as legitimate an object of conceptualization as “consciousness,” which, indeed, it is closely related to.

As humans, we know that we subjectively experience the existence of human “consciousness.” We have minds, which, by and large, are the expression of the functioning of our physical brains, in interaction with one another and our environment. We normally conceptualize this consciousness to be an individual-level phenomenon, each of us having our own, the connection among them being tendrils of communication among separate nodes of consciousness.

But this individual-level conceptualization becomes suspect on closer examination. We think in languages, using concepts, drawing on stories and narratives and sciences and philosophies that we did not individually invent. We wield metaphors and analogies and a wealth of material that preceded our own individual consciousness, with only a very slight individuation of that cognitive material on the margins identifying our own consciousness as unique, as differentiated from the collective consciousness from which it was born and in which it is embedded. (See, for instance, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, for a vivid description of this collective consciousness.)

So human consciousness, in a sense, is not so much individual as collective, a shared process in which our individual participation provides the robustness and creativity, but in which our collective participation defines the scope and substance. But it is still strictly “human,” right?

Few who have ever had a beloved pet would be in complete agreement with that assessment. Our family dog Buttercup is clearly somewhat “conscious,” aware of our love for her and of hers for us, communicating her desire to play, to go out, to be petted, with ease and determination. She is excited at the prospect of walking to school with my daughter, where she knows she will get to run in the park on the way, and receive affection from the other children upon arrival. She has both human and dog friends that she recognizes and greets and communicates with on a rudimentary level. She clearly possesses some degree of what humans call “consciousness.”

To explore that “lesser degree” of consciousness so clearly evident in large mammals, it’s useful to switch from the cultural (consciousness as a function of language and symbolic communication) to the biological (consciousness as an expression of genetic codes). The human mind, as an artifact of the human brain –which is an anatomical product of an evolutionary process of genetic reproduction, mutation, and competition for reproductive success– is clearly not absolutely unique. Like the individual in a society on the cognitive level, the human mind is the individuation of a biological and genetic theme. We see similarities to it among other large mammals, and even among very different animals, in some ways: when an insect scurries away from danger, the scurrying LOOKS a whole lot like fear, even if it isn’t. But maybe the resemblance isn’t completely irrelevant after all.

What distinguishes humans from all other creatures on Earth (with the possible exception of some large sea mammals) is cognitively complex symbolic communication (i.e., “language,” though the qualifier “cognitively complex” is necessary, due to the complex languages of many other creatures, such as bees, whose intricate dances indicate where the nectar is to be found). And, indeed, it is that cognitively complex language which has created the echo of genetic evolution particular to the anthrosphere: Human History (and the cultural/political/economic/cognitive evolution that defines it).

But that cognitively complex language is the product of a very slight genetic variation. We are genetically barely distinguishable from other large apes, more closely related to Chimpanzees than Chimpanzees are to Gorillas or Orangutans. So while language gives our biologically-based consciousness a particularly robust expression, it does not remove it in essence very far from our nearest biological relatives. They, too, have a nearly equal quantity of the individual-level stuff of consciousness, but merely lack the complex tendrils of communication that launch that consciousness into the societal level of development and expression.

What we see by looking at consciousness both through the lens of a cultural and human historical context, and the lens of a genetic and natural historical context, is that it is neither a particularly individual level phenomenon, nor an exclusively human phenomenon. It is, rather, something that is “out there” in the fabric of nature, finding different degrees and forms of expression in different contexts.

Neither is it any coincidence that these two lenses are both “evolutionary” lenses, one the lens of biological/genetic evolution and its products, and the other cultural/memetic evolution and its products. “Consciousness” as we know it, both in terms of the expression of the functioning of the human brain (a product of biological evolution), and in terms of the expression of the cognitive material accumulated and refined through communication among human brains (a product of cultural evolution), is an expression of evolutionary processes.

What is the exact nature of the connection between “evolution” and “consciousness”? Here’s one surprising suggestion: Both can be defined as the purposeful refinement of behavior and form in response to experience. Evolution is a process driven by the lathe of trial and error, in which the forms and behaviors (those genes in general) of living organisms are refined over time in response to relative reproductive success, preserving those that are most reproductively successful. Human consciousness is a process driven by the lathe of human experience and communication, in which those forms and behaviors (those cognitions in general) that are most copied by others are the ones that are preserved.

In fact, biologists routinely use the language and mathematics of economics to describe evolutionary and ecological phenomena. They refer to “strategies,” and employ the microeconomic tool of analysis known as “game theory” to analyze the evolution of competing biological strategies. Biologists are quick to emphasize that this is a metaphor, that there was no conscious intent behind the evolution of competing reproductive strategies, that they just “resemble” intentional human strategic action, that they just resemble “consciousness.”

But might this not be a bit anthrocentric of us? I am not disputing the recognition that biological evolution is not the intentional product of a centralized mind in the same way that human strategic behavior is (though, as I indicated above, even human strategic behavior, when involving any organization of human beings, has a decentralized element to it as well). But I am bringing into question the sharp conceptual differentiation between a process that we recognize as consciousness because we subjectively experience it, and the process that produced it that appears to be remarkably similar in form.

Might it not make more sense to conceptualize human consciousness, which is the product of evolutionary processes that envelope it and preceded it, as similar to those processes, rather than conceptualizing those preceding and enveloping processes as being similar to human consciousness? If it were not for the fact that we are human beings, subjectively aware of our own consciousness, wouldn’t it be more rational to give priority to the biological and historical progenitor of our consciousness than to its by-product (i.e., human consciousness)?

This conceptual journey began with the human individual, and panned out to identify consciousness as a function of the human collective, and then panned out futher to identify consciousness as a function of the evolutionary ecology of the planet Earth. Can we continue panning out, to see these all as nested levels of a coherent aspect of nature, that is woven into the fabric of the cosmos, and that finds different kinds of expression at different levels of manifestation?

Fritjov Capra, UC-Berkeley Physicist and author of The Tao of Physics, wrote more recently in The Web of Life, that a biological paradigm was replacing a physical one as the fundamental paradigm of Nature. The reason for this, posits Capra, is that the emerging science of complex dynamical systems (best known as “Chaos Theory”) is discovering that the kinds of processes most commonly associated with organic processes, with life, are far more widespread, far more fundamental, far more woven into the fabric of Nature, than we had previously realized. The universe and its subsystems are, in many ways, more like a vast living thing with living things nested within it, than like a dead mechanical device comprised of nested levels of mechanical components.

Even physics itself, moving toward String Theory, a mathematical model of “The Cosmic Symphony,” seems to be increasingly compatible with this view.

If it is more an organic than mechanical universe; if human consciousness can be recognized as a direct “echo” of preceding and enveloping natural processes; and if we step back in yet another way and recognize that the mere existence of human consciousness demonstrates that Nature is somehow inherently capable of producing such a phenomenon, that matter and energy can be arranged in such a way as to become “conscious,” and if we contemplate the mind-bogglingly subtle and complex coherence of the universe and its myriad subsystems, is it such a leap to conceptualize the universe itself as a conscious entity, the fabric of Nature being, in a sense, “consciousness”?

Isn’t it that primal wisdom, that neolithic recognition, that has found expression in the form of God and gods? The error is not in the conceptualization, in the use of the metaphor and the exploration of reality that it facilitates, but rather in our conceptualization of conceptualization itself. We can’t seem to make the move from recognizing that what we hold in our minds and what those thoughts refer to are never identical, that we are always reducing, simplifying reality into forms we can grasp and work with, that reality itself is always more subtle and complex than our conceptualizations of it.

We seem to have fallen into two distinct patterns of error: The religious one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as intentionally ruled by an anthropomorphic God that thinks and acts suspiciously similar to how a human being thinks and acts; and the atheistic one, in which the world and universe is conceptualized as a dead machine in which random chance produced the otherwise unremarkable isolated phenomenon of human consciousness.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ancient civilization that was most remarkable for the florescence of rational thought and subtle and insightful natural philosophies was also most remarkable for the incomparably robust and rich mythology that it produced. The ancient Greeks demonstrated that when we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of the human imagination, we are most prolific and innovative in the generation of the products of human reason as well. The two are more intimately related than we sometimes realize.

So, while I believe that literary gods serve us better than literal ones, I also believe that investing in the processes of consciousness serves us better than entrenching ourselves in its ephemeral products (see, e.g., Scholarship v. Ideology, Ideology v. Methodology and An Argument for Reason and Humility). The error is not that our literal gods need to be replaced with an equally off-the-mark recognition of their literal absence, but rather that we need to refine our entire relationship to reality, understanding that our conceptualizations are just that: Conceptualizations. Our own consciousness best articulates with the consciousness of which we are a part when it does so most flexibly, most humbly, and most imaginatively. The gods beckon us to know them better by knowing less and contemplating more.

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Writers and rebels, earnest young activists, starry-eyed romantics and unrequited lovers all have one thing in common: They yearn. Yearning, untempered by reason and humor, is pathological, the author of many unnecessary tragedies and many lonely, painful lives. But reason, and even humor, untempered by yearning is empty and often cruel, the stuff of a heartless and oppressive existence. Yearning is pain, but its absence is not pleasure; it’s absence is soullessness.

The early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber wrote much about the rationalization of society, its evolutionary force, its greater efficiencies, but also the trap that it sets for us. It is, Weber said, an iron cage, from which we cannot escape. Like the people caught in the cogs of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, or the savage trapped in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, or McMurphy lobotomized as he flew over Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest, the machine of society eats us alive.

But these all emphasize how that oppressive force is imposed from without, at most glancingly alluding to the way in which it is accepted from within. The Frankfurt School of Sociology, synthesizing Weber, Marx and Freud, and perhaps a touch of Sartre as well, into something richer and more insightful than any of their paradigms were on their own, came closest to focusing on this dynamic, on this internalization of the seductively oppressive machine which envelopes us. But, if anything, they erred by underestimating its real benefits, and the difficulty of preserving those benefits while minimizing its spiritual costs.

The machine is neither bad nor good in and of itself. It is a robust producer of wealth, in ways that evaporate if that machine is dismantled. But without spiritual and emotional yearning to give that machine its soul, the comfort it offers is the comfort of a living death.

Long before authors and philosophers shined their light on the machine which encompasses us, they shined their light on the poetry of our existence. Humanity’s first epic stories, indeed, our first philosophies, were epic poems, with loving and angry gods favoring and disfavoring our struggling heroes, magic and monsters enchanting and challenging them, glory or horrible failure always in the balance, neither certain, either one possible.

The Hercules we’ve forgotten in our Disneyfied distillation of world folklore and mythology was a violent hot-head who murdered his entire family in a fit of divinely-imposed rage and died in horrible agony by donning a poisoned cloak. And yet he was one of the greatest heroes of Greek mythology. Heroes before the machine weren’t sanitized human beings who we loved because we wrote them without flaws, but rather were yearning human beings trapped in the passions of existence, who we loved despite their flaws.

This classical humanism, celebrating the complex beauty of human existence, was reborn in the Renaissance, after Europe’s Medieval excursion into a world imaginarily reduced to saints and sinners, nobles and peasants, chivalrous knights and infidel villains. Shakespeare knew that all the world’s a stage, and we but actors upon it. He knew that we were just spirits, and that our cloud-capped towers, gorgeous palaces, and solemn temples all appear and disappear in a dance of our creation and time’s destruction.

Of course, in every time and place there is, in reality, a bit of both forces at work, the forces of repression and the forces of liberation, the former sometimes co-opting the latter’s name (as in our own current time and place). There are always those engaged in the dance of consciousness and aspiration, and always those engaged in the implicit opposition to it. But a time and place, a culture, is defined by the balance among these two, by which is more honored and which is more reviled.

The real project of modernity, the real goal of progress, is not to honor one and revile the other, but rather to appreciate the value of each, and the best ways to articulate the two. Strange as it may sound, repression isn’t all bad and poetry isn’t all good, but, though we don’t understand that, we still manage to err on the side of too much repression and too little poetry.

I contrast “repression” with “poetry” rather than “liberty” because liberty, real liberty, is a function of a blend of repression and poetry, not the complete absence of either. I am not now using the word “liberty” in the narrow political sense born of the late 18th century Enlightenment era political revolutions, but rather in the sense of the liberation of the human spirit from the shackles that we impose on it. Ironically, that narrowly defined political “liberty” has evolved into an ideology which stands largely in opposition to that more profound spiritual liberation, a vehicle of spiritual repression rather than of spiritual liberation, negating what should and could be the ultimate goal of our existence, insisting on the contraction of human consciousness and the dominance of extreme individualism rather than the ever-increasing realization of our humanity.

But that subtler, deeper liberation of the human spirit, something accomplished not just in mutual isolation, nor just in concert, but rather a bit of both, requires both the repression of mutually imposed discipline and responsibility, and the poetry of passionate yearning and a tolerant appreciation of one another’s humanity.

Though our prevalent ideology rhetorically dismisses repression as an unmitigated evil, it actually embraces it in practice as an unmitigated good, for we live in a time and place that smirks at the poetry of life, and believes only in the machine. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing the government, but the two are far from synonymous, government sometimes counterbalancing other parts of the machine in ways which reduce its oppressiveness. There are those who think they oppose the machine by opposing corporate capitalism, but those two, as well, are far from synonymous, corporate capitalism being a vital part of the drama of life, and the government we invoke to oppose it really not all that poetic itself.

And there are those who think they oppose the machine by belonging to enterprises, often nonprofits, that work toward reform, but, unless their minds liberate themselves from the machine as well, unless they appreciate the value of yearning and the poetry of life, they, too, are trying to change the machine by being the machine, and the changes, though they may be beneficial, will not be revolutionary. 

But to the extent that all of these sectors do comprise aspects of the machine, that does not mean that our duty is to oppose them. Our duty, rather, is to make them all more subservient to our souls, to our poetry, to our spiritual and emotional yearnings. We do not cure the machine by being the machine; we do not humanize one part merely by championing an equally dehumanized counterpart. And to do that, to champion more poetry to invigorate and humanize the machine on which we depend and which we should not strive to discard or dismantle, we need to be conscious of the ways in which our current algorithms, our current methodologies, serve efficiency at the expense of imagination, and, by doing so, actually reduce efficiency in the process.

The poetry of life isn’t just a necessary component of our humanity; it’s also a contributing factor to our efficiency and effectiveness. Weber’s iron cage of rationality presupposed that ever-increasing rationality, in the sense of an ever-more machine-like existence, is an unstoppable evolutionary force because it produces ever-increasing efficiency, but we’ve seen much evidence that there is a point of diminishing returns, a point at which more liberation of human imaginations yields more productive outcomes, and too much regimentation diminishes rather than increases the full realization of even our narrow economic potential, let alone our human potential more broadly conceived.

We waste our valuable human resources, our valuable consciousness, by assigning only those who satisfy our check lists of qualifications to the tasks to which those checklists apply, and relegating those who are less well regimented to the margins of society, where their often extraordinary potential is simply wasted, and their lives unfulfilled. Businesses and nonprofits, enterprises of all sorts, need to look beyond their checklists, need to look beyond the machine of which they are a part, and consider the less easily reducible qualities that some could bring to their endeavors. The gains in productivity and creativity would be enormous.

The poetry of life is a value too little considered, too poorly understood, too infrequently invoked and cultivated. It cannot replace the machine, for poetry does not put food on the table. But the machine cannot replace it, for mere economic production does not satisfy the yearnings of the heart and soul. Nor does economic production achieve maximum efficiency when the poetry of our lives is completely disregarded, for that poetry, that imaginative, yearning, passionate aspect of who and what we are, is a creative force, one which has practical implications and benefits when harnessed to that purpose.

We do not exist merely to exist. Our consciousness allows us to pursue purpose, and that purpose can and should be more than mere prosperity, mere political liberty, mere participation in the rationalized mechanisms of our collective existence. The growth of our consciousness, of our compassion, of our wisdom, and of our ability to take care of one another and offer one another opportunities to yearn meaningfully and functionally, to sustain ourselves both materially and emotionally, to discover the full depth and breadth of our humanity, is something truly worth living for.

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I believe in the human endeavor. I believe in our ability to become ever wiser and more compassionate as a society. I believe that the technological and social institutional innovations we’ve come to take for granted, many of which were unimaginable just a few short generations ago, are ripples on the surface of an unfathomable sea of possibilities, and that what we accomplish in generations to come, like what has come before, will appear in retrospect not just to be more of the same, but rather profoundly revolutionary and transformative, and acceleratingly so.

But there is nothing automatic about the direction this punctuated evolution takes, and no guarantee that it will be benign rather than malignant. In what ways and to what extent, in service to which emotions and inclinations always vying for dominance within and without, we free the genius of the many, this captive giant fuming within her prison of oppression and repression, of intolerance and intransigence, will determine what wonders and what horrors we unleash.

Will we find new, more sterile and yet more virulent ways to enslave minds and souls, to shackle the human spirit by overlords of fear and bigotry, using our genius against itself in acts of brilliant inhumanity? Or will we harmonize more deeply and fully, through soaring but disciplined imaginations, with the malleable but coherent dream of which we are but a part?

Our minds form an ecology of their own, with flora and fauna of our fancy reproducing, evolving, giving way to new forms. We thrive best when we harvest most of that cognitive diversity, articulating the novel into the complex, sublime whole, accommodating more, suppressing less. So it’s no surprise that a sociologist such as myself, who perceives us less as a collection of individuals and more as slightly individuated moments of a shared consciousness, would become an advocate for mental diversity and mental freedom, for that mind we share does not best thrive by imposing as much conformity as fear and convenience counsel, but rather by tolerating as much non-conformity as wisdom and compassion allow.

If this movement, and this organization, were just about helping those in mental or emotional distress to find greater harmony within and avoid the ravages of a brutally destructive psychopharmacological paradigm imposed from without, that would be more than enough to inspire me to join in the effort. But it’s also about all of us together finding a richer and subtler harmony among ourselves and beyond ourselves, about that mind we share spiralling toward enlightenment, and about the increased wealth of joy and wellness we can produce together, from which we all can draw.

It’s to that latter ideal that all of us who believe in the human endeavor ultimately aspire.

(For essays and vignettes related to this one in various ways, see, e.g., Kick-Starting A ClearMind, Symptoms v. Root Causes, An Eddy In The Stream, The Politics of Consciousness, The Fractal Geometry of Social Change, The Hollow Mountain, and A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill.)

Click here to buy my e-book A Conspiracy of Wizards for just $2.99!!!

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Most readers are aware that the title phenomenon is commonplace in human affairs, but, especially in the blogosphere, it is so pervasive, so ubiquitous, that the direct and constant encounter with it is overwhelming. On various blogs and comment boards, I have found that merely by relentlessly questioning people’s assumptions and conclusions, arguing on-topic and without ad hominems, I have consistently become a lightening rod for the most persistent, obsessive, and abusive vitriol imaginable. I regularly attract virtual stalkers and harassers, some of whom react with an almost Tourette-like reflexiveness to any scent of my existence.

On a prominent (and, in many ways, exceptionally good) Colorado political blog on which I participated for years, after such experiences repeated at an accelerating rate over that entire period of time, in an email exchange with the nominally anonymous owner of the blog, I felt as though I had stepped through the looking glass, for this individual (who, along with his real or imaginary partners, strives mightily to assume an aura of disembodied authority, using the first person plural in all self-references, habitually assuming a dismissive and disdainful tone), for he ascribed the vitriol to me, while blithely exonerating the stalkers, harassers, and frothers-at-the-mouth, implicitly agreeing with them that the publication of relentless intellectual arguments that cause discomfort in others is what is the true affront to human decency.

Don’t get me wrong: I do not claim, and have never claimed, that my personal defects and faults are not a part of this dynamic. Clearly, I could be more diplomatic, more solicitous of other people’s sensibilities, less “pompous” and “condescending” (some of the kinder descriptors of me favored by my detractors). I won’t try to determine to what extent these perceptions of my personality are an artifact of the broader dynamic I am describing, and to what extent they are truly my own, but I will admit that I believe that both components are implicated.

But our humanity is always a part of the equation, our imperfections and personality flaws always affecting our interactions. Why would extreme, explosive, obsessive expressions of rage or hatred be considered less vitriolic than the perceived pomposity and condescension of compelling and focused arguments? Both the “more legitimate” reason that such perceived pomposity and condescension communicates a lack of respect, a lack of acknowledgement of one’s own reality, and the “less legitimate” reason that the perception of such pomposity and condescension is an artifact of one’s own investment of ego in the false certainties that are being challenged, point to the same thing: Such discussions are perceived in terms of competing egos unless great pains are taken to ensure that they are perceived otherwise.

In a sense, I’ve just brought into question my own premise described in the title of this post: Is such “belligerence” really irrational? Isn’t it, on some level, true that what those others perceive as my pomposity and condescension is, in fact, an expression of my ego gorging on my ability to “win” an argument? And isn’t that an aggressive act, a kind of assault on others that invokes legitimate feelings of rage?

Yes, on some level I think that this is true. But it is also like resenting your opponent in an athletic match for out-performing you, because those same people are engaging in the same “competition,” striving to assert their own egos through their arguments on the topics of discussion. One woman, for instance, insisted that to believe in god was to adhere to a neolithic absurdity, and became very upset with me when I presented what I think was a pretty sophisticated argument why this is not necessarily so (see A Dialogue on Religion, Dogma, Imagination, and Conceptualization, though the ad hominems are omitted). Another became very hostile when I challenged her passionate insistence that the best thing progressives could do now would be to withdraw all support from the Democratic Party. Another regular poster reacted with similar (though more clenched) hostility when I effectively challenged his assumptions on education reform. In all these, and other, cases, their egos were no less invested than mine; they, no less than me, in a contest that they wished to win.

Yet, it all depends on what set of rules you have implicit in your mind while playing this “game.” For instance, few if any regulars on the blog in question appear offended by, or even cognizant of, the disdainful and dismissive aura of disembodied, superior authority cultivated so assiduously by the blog owner(s), though I find it far more “pompous” and “condescending” than my own form of argumentation, which never fails to admit to my own defects and humanity, but focuses intensely on mobilizing compelling arguments both untempered by social niceties and unreliant on ad hominem attacks.

I believe that this is because the rules of their game are: 1) Do not ever challenge the premise that, while people have strongly held conflicting opinions, the goal is not to reduce mutual false certainty and arrive together at improved understandings, but rather only to win political victories that advance one’s own dogmatic beliefs at the expense of the dogmatic beliefs of others; 2) It is perfectly acceptable to be vitriolic, disdainful, and dismissive of others, if you do so without violating rule number 1.

In other words, it’s acceptable to argue a position, but only if it is done without any intention of actually challenging the assumptions and conclusions of others; rather, it must be done in service to superficial political victories rather than any attempt to affect human consciousness. This is why it’s just as acceptable among these particular actors to focus in on completely irrelevant issues with which they might score political points as to make a compelling argument, and, in fact, more acceptable to do the former than to do the latter if the latter is done in a way which too profoundly challenges people’s assumptions and conclusions.

This was in fact summed up by one poster on the same blog, less inclined to vitriol and less antagonistic toward me than others, who counseled that I shouldn’t keep asking people to question all that they think is true. I replied that that’s not such a bad role to play, and there should be room on each forum for at least one person to play it.

And that gets to the crux of the matter: He or she who plays it becomes the center of a storm of vitriol for playing it, because what people least want is to have their comfortable false certainties challenged. One of the posters recently most antagonistic to me, assuming the job of posting constant, meaningless, snide attacks following every comment or post of mine, summed this up in an unintentionally flattering way: He wrote, “just drink the hemlock already, Socrates” (the point being that Socrates, who was famous for forcing people to question their own assumptions and conclusions, was sentenced to death for “corrupting the youth of Athens” by inducing them to question the certainties that the Athenian people considered sacrosanct).

A column printed in last Sunday’s Denver post, by syndicated columnist Froma Harrop, “The Op-Ed Pages Are No Tea Party” (http://www.projo.com/opinion/columnists/content/CL_froma21_08-21-11_C7PQ3VU_v11.390da.html), addresses one aspect of this issue: People resent compelling arguments that challenge their beliefs. As she writes:

My definition of incivility is nonfactual and uninformed opinions hidden in anonymity or false identities, and Internet forums overflow with them. When the comments gush in from orchestrated campaigns, other thoughtful views get lost in the flood. That can create two desired outcomes for the organizers. One, the writer gets cowed into thinking he or she has done something awful and holds back next time. Two, commentators outside the group see what’s up and don’t bother participating.

Vitriol without a smart argument is a bore. It’s not the vitriol alone that makes people most angry. It’s a strong argument that hits the bull’s-eye.

I would amend what she says slightly: It’s not only orchestrated campaigns that drive out other voices, but spontaneous group think, especially the highly aggressive and vitriolic kind. This is one aspect of the dynamic I’ve experienced, particularly on that Colorado political blog on which I participated frequently for a long period of time: While I was quite popular at first (winning or being runner up in their periodic “poster of the months” elections several times in succession), the belligerent voices of resistance to the role I was playing grew in number and intensity, while the calmer and more friendly voices correspondingly fell silent.

It wasn’t, I think, initially that very many of the latter group defected to the former, but rather that they ceded the field to them, loathe to get mired in the muck of contesting those angry voices. Then, over time, the growing imbalance creates a self-reinforcing impression of general consensus, that more and more people feel compelled to either acquiesce or actively adhere to. In fact, the one poster who has been most relentless most recently, appears to have been so to gain entry into the “clubhouse” with the sign out front “no stinky Steve Harveys allowed.” The vitriol serves to help consolidate a group-identity defined by the unwritten rules I stated above, rules which I consistently violated.

This dynamic permeates political discourse and political action, pushing out the questioning of assumptions or the quest for anything transcendent of current realities, enshrining and entrenching a certain kind of shallow ritualism, a competition of relatively arbitrary (and underexamined) opinions, played out professionally by strategists and tacticians rather than by those whose aspirations look beyond those exigencies of politics. And all of this is in service to the definition of borders between in-groups and out-groups, ultimately the least progressive and most regressive of all human forces.

An example of the professional political dimension is apparent in a correspondance I had with Senator Mark Udall’s office. First, I want to emphasize that I like Senator Udall, and do not aim this criticism particularly at him or his staff; it is, rather, indicative of something endemic to politics as it is currently practiced, and understandably so.

I sent Senator Udall (and a slew of others) a synopsis of my “Politics of Reason and Goodwill” proposal (see The Politics of Reason & Goodwill, simplified). His office sent back a letter, signed by him, blandly thanking me and stating his belief that, yes, reason and goodwill are laudable goals. It was clear that whoever responded to my proposal either did not read it or did not understand it, because it really has very little to do with some bland reaffirmation that “reason and goodwill are good” (rather, it’s a detailed, systemically informed plan for how to increase the salience of reason and goodwill in public opinion and policy formation).

The generic response from his office, totally missing the point, to a novel idea reaching beyond the mud-pit of politics is illustrative of how foreign these concepts (i.e., reason and goodwill) really are to politics, so beaten out of the actual practice that the mention of them triggers a reflexive dismissal of the reference as naively oblivious to political reality. As I said, I don’t really blame Senator Udall and his staff: This is how they’ve been trained and socialized. This is what experience has taught them. And that, combined with the time pressures on them and the volume of correspondence they receive virtually guarantees such a knee-jerk response (if any response is given at all).

Neither among the rank-and-file, nor at the highest levels, can we easily break through our investment in our current level and form of consciousness. Among the chattering masses, pushing in that direction violates a jealously guarded norm of conduct. Among the seasoned professionals, it violates the perceived lessons of history and experience. But it is precisely the most profound and important of all challenges facing us.

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