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There are some things we should all be able to agree on. We should all be able to agree that more rational understandings of the challenges and opportunities we face as a society are preferable to less rational understandings. We should all be able to agree that “rationality” is not entirely subjective, and that if we can establish with sufficient cogency that something is indeed more rational or less rational, we should favor that which has been cogently demonstrated to be more rational. We should all be able to agree that, all other things being equal, a kinder disposition is preferable to a crueler disposition, more empathy is preferable to less empathy, caring about others is preferable to not caring about others. The preceding should be our common ground; we should fight first and foremost to establish it as our common ground. And we should be able, from that common ground, to identify that which is consistent with it and that which is antithetical to it, that which should be embraced by all and that which should be rejected by all, that which is the expression of what I described just above and that which is the opposite of what I described just above.

Obviously, irrationality* and cruelty are the antithesis of reason and kindness. And let’s allow that they are not binary, but rather poles of continua defining a complex space within which actual ideological positions and dispositions fall. So let’s begin by identifying that which is consistent with reason. (*I am actually referring to one kind of irrationality here, “dysfunctional irrationality,” as distinct from things which are “irrational” but wonderful, including, for instance, emotions and spontaneous generosity that gratify us or motivate us or lead to better outcomes but are not the product of rational thought on our part. “Dysfunctional irrationality” is that kind of irrationality that leads to unwise choices and undesirable outcomes. Distinguishing between the two is, indeed, a vital skill to develop. “Irrational,” for the remainder of this essay, refers to “dysfunctional irrationality.”)

Consistent with reason, we should all be able to agree that it is a complex and subtle world, that the comprehension of even the most brilliant among us is limited, that most of us aren’t the most brilliant among us, and that we all have cause for humility, that humility helps inform wisdom by allowing us to recognize how little we know and understand and continue to learn and understand ever more as a result. Indeed, reason is a function of knowing that we don’t know rather than of assuming that we do, and then using disciplined methodologies to determine what actually is and is not true. We can, therefore, add humility to the elements of what should be our common ground, what we should all agree is worth striving to cultivate and commit to, both within ourselves individually and among one another socially.

Consistent with reason, we should all be able to acknowledge our interdependence, our interdependence with one another and with the natural and physical world around us. Clearly, we require air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat, and a certain range of temperatures and other environmental conditions within our physical tolerance in order to survive. We also require other human beings in order to survive; even the most extreme survivalist, who goes off into the wilderness naked and without any tool or weapon of any kind, relies on knowledge and skills taught to them by others or acquired from others in some way. And few if any are that extreme; most rely at least to some extent on weapons or tools or equipment others have made. The rest of us rely on one another so constantly and in so many overlapping ways that we don’t even notice how ubiquitous our interdependence is.

Our interdependence goes far beyond survival. The languages we think in, the religions or philosophies we hold to be true, the scientific theories we acknowledge or apply, the rituals and tasks in which we engage in the ordinary course of our days and our lives, the techniques we utilize, the skills we employ, the norms we adhere to, the values we embrace, the music and art and recreations we enjoy, indeed, by far the greater part of who and what we are, is the expression of a collective existence and a historical evolution that we have inherited and are an integral part of. In fact, both physically and mentally, we are far more similar than different, an array of variations in how collective genetic and cultural material is combined and expressed, with occasional, very slight modifications on the margins. Our individuality is an expression of our interdependence.

There are quite a few other understandings that flow naturally from these foundations, such as the fact that we live in a predominantly non-zero-sum rather than zero-sum world, in which there are far greater gains to be had through successful cooperation than there are through its absence. We could, in fact, build an entire paradigm out of these basic axioms and their logical implications, informed by the research and practice of many others over many generations as well as by our own work in the present and future. And we could, while perpetually developing that paradigm, perpetually apply it, engaging in organizational efforts to draw people into the shared endeavor of being informed by it, informing it, helping it to evolve, and implementing it in our daily lives and our various collective endeavors.  I have begun to do so, with the help of others I’ve attracted to my initial framing of our shared cause (and who are now participants in its continuing evolution), calling this intellectual and organizational and behavioral paradigm “Transcendental Politics.”

So, we’ve identified some things that define or are logical implications of what we should all be able to accept as our common ground: a commitment to reason, a recognition that reason isn’t purely subjective, a reliance on objective criteria in determining what is reasonable; a commitment to kindness, to empathy, to putting ourselves in the shoes of others and caring about their welfare as well as about our own; a recognition of our interdependence on multiple dimensions and in multiple ways, how much our interdependence permeates our lives, how much we as individuals are an expression of it; and our recognition that we live in a predominantly non-zero-sum reality, in which cooperation yields greater benefits than its absence does. What, then, are some of the things that are antithetical to this common ground? What is the antithesis of our Transcendental Politics?

We’ve already established that irrationality and cruelty (including a lack of empathy) are antithetical to Transcendental Politics. We can add to these, based on the preceding discussion, that a lack of humility, a failure to acknowledge our interdependence, and an inability or unwillingness to engage in or seek out cooperative solutions to conflicts or shared challenges are all antithetical to Transcendental Politics. There are three further things that, though to some extent inevitable and in some ways beneficial, seem to be implied as aspects of the antithesis of Transcendental Politics: dogmatism, individualism, and tribalism.

First, let’s carve out their range of utility. While substantive dogmas, such as off-the-shelf ideologies that assume truths not necessarily in evidence, are counterproductive, methodological and attitudinal “dogmas” can be quite useful. A dogmatic commitment to the methodologies of reason and to respect for our shared humanity is, I would argue (and am arguing), a very positive thing. We’ll reserve the word “dogma,” therefore, for substantive dogmas rather than methodological and attitudinal dogmas. I refer to such substantive dogmas as “false certainties.” The counterpart of false certainty is “wise uncertainty,” the expression of intellectual humility. (Methodological and attitudinal “dogmas,” conversely, we will refer to as “disciplines.”)

Individualism and tribalism, in certain forms, have many benefits as well. Our individualism provides us with the intrinsic benefit of “liberty,” our freedom to choose our own destiny (leaving aside for the moment the philosophical question of free will and determinism). But it also provides collective benefits in terms of how robustly we contribute to our collective welfare. Extreme individualism, however, that is predatory or parasitic or unable to engage cooperatively with others, is neither personally nor socially beneficial. It is a rare narcissist, a rare sociopath, who is truly happy with their narcissism or sociopathy. And it is a poorly functioning society that is made up primarily of such people.

Tribalism, our impulse to gather together into groups that share a common identity, also has many benefits. There are the intrinsic benefits of shared identity and camaraderie as well as the functional benefits of working together for mutual benefit. Individualism and tribalism are, in one sense, opposites, in that some pure form of extreme individualism would prohibit identification with a tribe to which the individual belongs. But individualism and tribalism are also parallel and complementary, in that both are identities that are held and are distinct from other identities held by others, leading either to conflict or cooperation (or non-engagement) between and among the various such entities (whether individuals or tribes).

Extreme individualism is, therefore, sociopathological, and extreme tribalism is similarly dysfunctional on a different level. Healthy individualism, which recognizes interdependence and seeks out mutually beneficial cooperative relationships where possible, is sometimes called “enlightened individualism.” We can therefore call the tribalistic counterpart, which recognizes tribal interdependence and seeks out mutually beneficial intertribal cooperative relationships where possible, “enlightened tribalism.”

While extreme, pathological individualism is incompatible with tribalism (as well as transtribalism), there is an intense form of ideological individualism that is also highly tribalistic, the individualism becoming an integral part of the tribal ideology. To distinguish this form of intense ideological individualism from the sociopathic variety, I’m going to refer to it as “hyper-individualism,” and, for consistency, will refer to extreme tribalism as “hyper-tribalism.” This ideological hyper-individualism sees people as first and foremost individuals and tends, as a result, to downplay interdependence and be more inclined to see the world in zero-sum rather than non-zero-sum terms. It also tends to be more reactive than proactive (since proactive policies usually involve navigating interdependence), and more oriented toward prevailing in conflicts than in avoiding them through mutually beneficial cooperation.

The tribal identity that incorporates this ideology is therefore naturally hyper-tribalistic as well, translating the hyper-individualism into the tribalism. It has strong and unchecked attribution biases (biases that favor one’s own tribe and disfavor other tribes with which one doesn’t identify in terms of how attributions are made), is more combative, is less aware of intertribal interdependence, is less inclined to seek the mutual benefits of intertribal cooperation, is more reactive than proactive, and so on.

Transcendental Politics is the discipline and social movement dedicated to transcending those aspects of our individualism, tribalism, and dogmatism that are antithetical to reason, kindness, empathy, humility, a preference for mutually beneficial cooperation, and a preference for proactive rather than reactive solutions. These three things exist distributed individually and in various combinations and forms throughout our ideological and cultural spectrum. They can be found on the left, on the right, in the middle; in the form of egotism or religious fanaticism or ideological zealotry. They are problematic, each on their own.

But when they combine into a single ideological and social package comprised of dogmatism, hyper-individualism, and hyper-tribalism, that ideological and social package becomes the antithesis of Transcendental Politics in its entirety. (Arguably, Transcendental Politics is the antithesis rather than thesis here, born in response to this toxic blend of hyper-tribalism, hyper-individualism, and dogmatism that has long been nascent in American culture but has recently coalesced into a tangible force in our national political and cultural landscape.)

That particularly toxic concentration of all three antitheses of Transcendental Politics, however, is augmented and reinforced by positive feedback loops with political opposition that is imbued with too much dogmatism and tribalism (and sometimes individualism) as well. The form of opposition to that toxic concentration ends up being part of the problem rather than part of the solution to it. And that is why Transcendental Politics is not embedded in the partisan divide; it seeks to encourage and facilitate the transcendence of dogmatism, hyper-individualism, and hyper-tribalism throughout our political and cultural landscape, creating feedback loops that reinforce imagination, kindness, and humility and reduce irrationality, cruelty, and false certainty.

Developing a paradigm inevitably results in the creation of a language for that paradigm. In the language of Transcendental Politics, mobilizing more imagination, kindness, and humility in our political positions and behaviors is, by transcending our false certainties and tribalistic animosities, politically “transcendent.” Those qualities of imagination, kindness, and humility are contagious; the more of them we see on display, the more they spread, just as their opposites are contagious, the shared endeavor we’re in being to spread those transcendent qualities rather than the qualities that they seek to transcend. The real political divide, therefore, is not between the right and the left, but rather between the thesis and antithesis of Transcendental Politics.

(cross-posted on SquareState: http://www.squarestate.net/diary/1137/a-progressive-new-year-the-ongoing-project)

I think most people who self-identify as “progressives” are, at root, committed to advancing the cause of reason in service to universal goodwill as the driving force of public policy. Unfortunately, we are all less than perfect on both dimensions, often failing to be either particularly reasonable, or particularly motivated by goodwill. But if we are serious about our commitment to improving the quality of human life by employing more reason in our public policies, more in service to humanity (and, by extension, all that humanity depends upon), there are things we can strive to do, dimensions we can strive to improve on, to advance the cause to which we are all committed.

In A Proposal: The Politics of Reason and Goodwill, I outline three components of the individual and collective disciplines that would best serve the on-going progressive project: 1) The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge; 2) The Cultivation of Social Identification; and 3) The Activation of Interpersonal Kindness. I describe each of these three, and penumbral aspects of the overall proposal (such as the commitment to process), in detail in the post linked to above.

One aspect of the first component (“The Compilation of Social Systemic Knowledge”) is the creation of an overarching social systems paradigm through which to compile and evaluate all competing ideas, one which does not start with any inherent political ideological bias, and in fact accommodates currently conflicting analytical and ideological paradigms. I have outlined such an overarching paradigm in The Evolutionary Ecology of Social Institutions and The Fractal Geometry of Social Change.

One aspect of the second component (“The Cultivation of Social Identification”) is finding frames and narratives that resonate with the frames and narratives of those who either are not “progressives,” or are “progressives” of the sort that are promoting just another blind ideology (precipitously certain substantive conclusions) rather than a commitment to reason in service to goodwill (a procedural and methodological discipline). In A Political Christmas Carol, I’ve provided an example of the kind of “messaging” I’m talking about (and that George Lakoff was referring to in his book The Political Mind). By associating the currently prevalent extreme-individualist ideology with a character almost universally pitied and disdained, and a reason-in-service-to-goodwill approach (what I consider to be the essence of progressivism) with his almost universally appealing transformed self, the gravitational cognitive force of progressivism is marginally increased, drawing more of those toward it who are capable of being drawn toward it. Since we know that social attitudes and ideological centers of gravity shift over time, we know that current distributions are not fixed and immutable; a major challenge is how most effectively to sway the zeitgeist in the direction of reason and goodwill.

Of course, one lonely act of such messaging on one blog is not going to do the trick. We need to flood discursive space with this kind of messaging; not, as some believe, only with the kind of mechanistic and reductionist sloganeering that has served the Right so well (though, yes, some of that as well), but also with the deeper appeals to human souls which is where the Progressive comparative advantage lies. We don’t want to become just an equal-and-opposite counterpart of the Tea Party; we want to be the clear distinction from all that is wrong with it, the opposition to irrationality and belligerence, not to perceived enemies and reductionist boogeymen.

And, finally, one aspect of the third component is the organization of community groups dedicated not to anything overtly political, but rather only to strengthening our communities and increasing our interpersonal commitment to reason and goodwill. The value of this is not only intrinsic, but also increasing the association of empathy-based policies with interpersonal goodwill, something which helps erode the successful Libertarian meme of government as some external entity imposing its will on an antagonistic public. If we want to promote progressive public policies, which use government to improve opportunities and enhance the quality of life, we have to associate support of such policies with actions in our communities based on that same attitude. This helps dispell the enervating argument over whether government itself is “good” or “bad,” and refocus on the inevitable fact that government is the battleground over whether our public policies will be yielded to the interests of the most wealthy and powerful, or will be successfully harnessed in service to humanity. I have made some efforts on this dimension as well, organizing the South Jeffco Community Organization, an on-going project I will return to after I clear my plate of some other more immediate and pressing obligations.

My point here is that there is a pretty clear path forward for a progressive movement that wants to be effective at the most fundamental level, and that there are clear substantive steps we can all take in service to that path. Our almost absolute focus on who is elected to office and how successfully we compel them to do our substantive bidding is sub-optimal on several levels: 1) It reduces us to mere equal and opposite counterparts of the advocates of irrationality and belligerence, and leaves many marginally engaged moderates seeking some midpoint between the two camps, as though that were the definition of “reasonable;” 2) It fails to attend to the very real issue of how often and to what extent our substantive bidding is imperfectly informed and conceived, and the resultant need to place more emphasis on the procedural discipline of discovering the best policies motivated by less certainty of the infallibility of our current understandings; and 3) It fails to address the more fundamental determinant of public policy, the zeitgeist, the popular political ideological center of gravity. There is, of course, a place for traditional political activism, but if we really want to catalyze and institute social change, traditional political activism alone is not enough.

If we redistributed the resources of time, money, effort, and passion currently invested by American Progressives in progressive advocacy in more targeted ways, looking beyond the superficial political arena, and focusing more on the ultimate political battlefield (the human mind), and doing so in well-designed and coordinated ways, we would have far more success at moving this country in a progressive direction. Here’s to the hope that we begin to do so.

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As the author of a fantasy fiction novel, I carefully avoided the good v. evil dichotomy, because the narratives we use to capture it routinely fail to, reinforcing oversimplifications that are already too thoroughly embedded in our consciousness. Instead, the dichotomy at the center of my mythology was Order v. Chaos, with each being in some ways “good” and in some ways “evil,” but their interplay occupying a more sublime role in the definition of our reality.

However, as I shift my focus from the descriptive to the prescriptive, from analyzing to advocating, the need to define “good” and “evil”  becomes more pressing, the reality that some notion of what serves humanity’s interests v. what doesn’t has to inform both our personal choices and our public policy preferences.

The ways in which I am about to use the word “evil,” and perhaps the ways in which I am about to use “good” as well, may seem exaggerated. The familiar meanings of the words are reserved for more extreme instances, more exceptional degrees. But the point of this essay is to emphasize what an error that really is, that those extreme instances and exceptional degrees are comprised of and catalyzed by all of the small, almost trivial, instances of “good” and “evil” that fill our daily lives and our moment-by-moment choices.

The traditional meanings of the words, and the weight given to what they represent, may also create a false impression that the identification of so much ubiquitous “evil” is oppressive, that it takes life too seriously. This customary reaction to these new, more encompassing, and more useful definitions of “good” and “evil” also has to be revised; the struggle to do “good” and avoid “evil” is a constant of life, embedded in the minutia, and therefore should be taken as much in stride as the struggle to live a healthy life, to earn a living, to be a good spouse and parent and child and friend. We should be able to laugh at ourselves when we fail, even knowing that our failures in this regard make some marginal contribution to the sum total of “evil” in the world. And we should reward our own and others’ successes, as small as they may be, with the acknowledgement due to having truly contributed to ” the good”.

In some ways, we lack the vocabulary to identify the goals that define “the good.” If I say that it is the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human happiness (and thus of acting in ways which contribute to them), someone will say that it is something more than happiness that we seek. So I’ll co-opt a word to encompass that “something more,” including all that it might entail: Well-being. That which is “good” increases the quantity, quality (breadth and depth), distribution, and sustainability of human well-being. In fact, I would say that it involves increasing the well-being, along all of the aforementioned dimensions, of all conscious entities, to the extent that they are conscious.

For those who want to apply reason and goodwill without any preconceived constraints, this creates a very functional focal point. It avoids both the insinuation of mystified abstractions into our morality, and the convenient biases of various “-centrisms,” including anthrocentrism. It takes nothing for granted, but provides a framework through which to discover a morality which serves the well-being of all those who have any consciousness with which to experience it.

“Good” is comprised of all instances of adherence to this ideal, while “evil” is comprised of all lapses. An important point of departure is to realize that we are all some mixture of the two, all defined by some successes in committing ourselves to the ideal of the “good” as I’ve defined it, as well as by some lapses. I, for instance, recognize that my definition of “good” probably recommends vegetarianism, since when large mammals are slaughtered for my dinner, it is an act which ends the well-being of a somewhat conscious creature. But I am not a vegetarian. By my own definition, I am somewhat “evil.”

“Good” and “Evil” are not a dichotomy, but rather values on a continuum, with higher values comprised of and catalyzed by the accumulation of smaller values. Every horrendous act of violence occurs in a context rather than a vacuum, a thousand trivial cruelties having fed into it. Every glorious act of generosity or nobility occurs in a context as well, one built up from numerous small acts of kindness. To reserve the concepts of “good” and “evil” only to the exceptional dramatic culminations embodied in a few, of all the mundane and trivial choices by all of us over the course of our lives, is to disregard the responsibility we all have for both, and the ways in which our mundane daily choices create both.

But this raises another counterintuitive facet of the paradigm of good v. evil that I am advocating, one which is a rather enormous departure from past conceptualizations: “Evil” is not the inexcusable extreme that our religions have tried to make it, but rather the accumulation of mere ordinary lapses. Our traditional conceptualization of evil as the cackling villain who delights in others’ suffering is both too exclusive, and too routinely disregarded as something trivial and acceptable when it in fact occurs (as it so frequently does). “Evil” is nothing more or less than the surrender to our baser natures, while “good” is nothing more or less than the on-going effort to act with more reason, humility, and goodwill instead.

We should not beat ourselves up for our lapses, or beat others up for theirs. But we should hold both ourselves and others responsible for them. They are ordinary, routine, such a pervasive part of our lives that they become normalized, accepted as just the way things are, often even justified as good clean fun. This happens because we do not want to impose on ourselves the oppression of constant recognition that many of our own actions are in fact small instances of “evil,” and so define their evilness out of existence. Or, in some cases, we recognize that it is evil, and delight in it, knowing that we lack either the will or the discipline to alter our behavior, and so instead, to reduce our cognitive dissonance, alter our judgment.

But these choices erase the opposition to “evil” within ourselves, and instead projects all opposition onto others. Instead of being forgiving of both ourselves and others, we perceive nothing to forgive in ourselves, and no need to forgive it in others. Instead of gently holding both ourselves and others to a higher standard of conduct, we hold ourselves only to the standard we have become comfortable with, and hold others to the standard we are comfortable imposing on them, never noticing the double-standards that inevitably ensue. We lapse into in-groups and out-groups, with those defined as “the other” meriting no tolerance, while both ourselves and those with whom we are identifying meriting no criticism (the classic expression of in-group/out-group biases).

These thoughts are inspired today both by the amount of vitriol directed against me in some places (currently only by people who have never met me), some of it deserved and some of it not, and by the amount of vitriol I have directed at others, usually in reaction to provocations of belligerence, but still lapses that can’t simply be defined out of existence. One thing is certain: We should never experience joy in inflicting harm on others, whether we believe they deserve it or not. And the blogosphere has become a place where recognition of that obvious truism has apparently completely evaporated. Though it may sound hyperbolic, the internet, which has accelerated and amplified so many aspects of our existence, has accelerated and amplified this ordinary “evil” as well. It is a breeding ground of our baser natures, and a place where people inflict harm on others with glee, rarely if ever pausing to be ashamed of having done so.

I am not going to become a vegetarian, at least not yet, but I am going to make a redoubled effort not to feed my own inner-demons, not to acquiesce to my own aggressive or defensive instincts in my interactions with others, particularly in this medium which is so conducive to casual brutality. And, in this moment, I feel no anger toward those who have similarly erred, with whom some mutual antagonisms have grown, who take such continual delight in trying to “take me down a peg”.

This is our true shared endeavor: To seek to lift one another up rather than knock one another down. To forgive ourselves and others quickly. To admit to our own errors more eagerly than we criticize or ridicule others for theirs. To take no delight in others’ weaknesses, but rather to help them find their strengths. To be more committed to acknowledging and addressing our own foibles, without losing our sense of humor in the process. To laugh with one another rather than at one another. To refrain from inflicting suffering as a form of entertainment. To sincerely strive to increase the quantity, quality, distribution, and sustainability of human (and animal) well-being. To be good, and to help one another be good, in our shared effort to improve the quality of our lives.

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