New Clear Vision


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Approaching Spiritual Life

September 25, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Michael N. Nagler, Politics

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Tackling Mounting Social Problems with Individual Judgment

by Michael N. Nagler

In 1925, Gandhi unveiled what he called the “Seven Social Sins” in his newspaper, Young India: (1) Politics without principles; (2) Wealth without work; (3) Pleasure without conscience; (4) Knowledge without character; (5) Commerce without morality; (6) Science without humanity; (7) Worship without sacrifice.

Today I think we need to add an eighth: “Entertainment without common sense.”  The idea that we can “entertain” ourselves by appealing to the worst we’re capable of is one of the most destructive notions in our rudderless world.  Reams of scientific research have shown that exposure to violent images that paint a demoralizing picture of human nature make us sick and unhappy, and eventually a menace to those around us.

Somehow, we are not able to assimilate and make use of this research — or for that matter the evidence of our own feelings and experiences.  The reason, I believe, is that we lack a good model of who we are and the importance of what goes on in our mind.  The opening line of a text central to Theravada Buddhism is very clear on this point: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.”  The images we entertain — and the drives those images evoke in our consciousness  — shape how we think and what we will do, more surely than hormones or our DNA.

Add to this that viewers are being immersed in a world of fantasy that progressively weakens their hold on reality, and how can we be surprised when a man imagines he’s in a Batman movie and opens fire in a theater?  Yet The New Yorker for August 27 casually ran an article called “Creep Shows” about a genre that turns sex into a cold, dark fantasy.  The article ends with the appreciative observation that, “Z. and his actors and crew have discovered something cold and lewd in the human heart and have found an effortlessly expressive way of dramatizing it.”  Great.  In time, they can make creeps of everyone who watches!

There is no question that things “cold and lewd” dwell in the psyche.  But so do things warm and creative.  Which part do we want to bring to life?  Studies have shown that seeing images of people like Gandhi or Mother Teresa predispose viewers to compassionate action as surely as watching the ‘cold and lewd’ stuff makes us more unhappy and aggressive.  Given that this kind of choice is so important to our happiness and our role in the world, why are we making the wrong ones?

A contemporary and very popular Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, once said that our biggest problem in the West is our indifference to the crucial difference between good and evil.  As a generalization I don’t think this is entirely true, but when we ignore what science and our spiritual traditions are telling us, when supposedly sophisticated writers fail to think about the sickness or health of our own minds, are we not getting close to that kind of ignorance?

In his complacency-shaking speech about the Vietnam War in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. made the ominous pronouncement that, “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”  In our entertainment life we seem to be not just approaching spiritual death but embracing it.  And I don’t think we can afford to overlook  the connection between the images we entertain in our minds – which is now heavily conditioned by our viewing habits — and how we vote.

But the bright side is, all ignorance can be cured.  What we’re dealing with here is definitely a kind of ignorance.  Not an ignorance of the facts — as mentioned, the facts are on the table but everyone’s ignoring them.  It’s a kind of tragic numbness to the beauty, sensitivity, and meaning of life.  It shows up in other ways as well; think of the infamous Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court that gave corporations the rights of human beings.  Opponents of this decision — and fortunately they are getting numerous — are rightly upset with its political effects, namely that it gives undue influence to corporations; but underlying the decision is a deeper distortion of truth that negates the inherent meaning of a human person.  “Only individuals have souls,” Marshall Frady once wrote, not collectives, especially ones organized for profit or for power over others.  Democracy — rule by the people — has no meaning if people have no meaning.

Citizens United can be addressed politically, e.g. by Move to Amend which is seeking an amendment to the Constitution specifying — which should not have been necessary! — that ‘only a person is a person, and every person is a person’.  We can address creepy “entertainment” forms even more easily, just by using our individual judgment (and of course, whatever opportunities we have to encourage others to become aware of the problem and change course).  Those would be key steps toward tackling the mounting problems facing us: economic, planetary, and social.  Dr. King would say that we would now be approaching not spiritual death, but life.

Michael N. Nagler, Ph.D., is Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley where he co-founded the Peace and Conflict Studies Program. He is the founder of the Metta Center for Nonviolence, serves on the Board of Directors of the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. Among his many publications in the field of nonviolence, Dr. Nagler is the author of The Search for a Nonviolent Future: A Promise of Peace for Ourselves, Our Families, and Our World (New World Library), winner of the 2002 American Book Award.

1 Comments to “Approaching Spiritual Life”


  1. As with most human emotional and psychological responses, the acting out of violence is a complex psycho-social phenomenon which cannot be attributed to any one causal factor (other than, perhaps, poor early parenting).

    From a Scientific American article of Jan 11, 2011:

    Psychologist Craig Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University, has authored several studies on the effects of violence in television and video games and contributed to a 2009 policy statement on media violence from the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The evidence is now clear and convincing,” the report asserted: “media violence is one of the causal factors of real-life violence and aggression.”

    But that causal factor does not operate in a vacuum. “Extreme acts of violence such as this shooting never occur with only one risk factor being present,” Anderson says. Among the common risk factors: gender, age, a history of childhood abuse, a variety of environmental and genetic factors – and, in many cases, access to firearms. “The key point that I try to make to people is that multiple risk factors are in play,” Anderson says. “So it’s a leap to try to claim that any one risk factor was key.”

    Some researchers, such as psychologist Christopher Ferguson of Texas A&M International University, dispute the causal relationship between viewing violent media and acting out violently in real life. “There is still some debate about whether it is a risk factor, and I would argue that it’s not,” Ferguson says of video games, noting that violent crimes among juveniles have been on the decline even as games have increased in both prevalence and graphicness.

    Similarly, studies by Ferguson and by other researchers, such as economist Todd Kendall, have found a decrease in rates of rape that coincides with increased availability of pornography. “Once again you see this sort of inverse relationship across not just in the U.S. but in other countries as well between pornography consumption and the actual rates of sexual violence,” Ferguson says. That does not mean that video games prevent violence, or that pornography curbs sexual crime, but it does highlight the difficulty in establishing a casual relationship between any one medium and a group’s behavior, let alone the actions of an individual.

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