New Clear Vision

constructive commentary for the chronically farsighted

When ‘Positive News’ Isn’t

May 02, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Michael N. Nagler, Politics

The Evolution Will Not Be Scientized

by Michael N. Nagler

The outbreak of democratic aspirations in Egypt, which was relatively nonviolent — and successful — was something of a triumph of the human spirit. We could use the boost. The human spirit is under attack not just in despotic regimes from Burma to Bahrain but right here in our own society. Our way of doing it may be subtler, but it’s no less dangerous for that reason. Possibly more so. Think of last year’s 5-4 decision of the U.S. Supreme Court (Citizens United v. FEC) that granted corporations the status of human persons.

We should be very glad that citizens’ groups are organizing to reverse this decision, like the Environmental and Social Rights Amendment, now before the House of Representatives as House Res. 156. But that decision did not come from nowhere (any more than the Egyptian uprising, for that matter). It was the logical, inevitable outcome of a deep cultural trend that has been pushing its way into our consciousness and taking over our worldview at least since the industrial revolution.

As my colleague Carolyn Merchant makes clear in her important book, The Death of Nature, in order to clear the way for industrialization, people, by some unconscious consensus, pushed aside a millennia-old worldview in which the Earth was a living being. In effect, they desacralized nature in order to exploit her (or it). The leaders of this trend later hailed Darwinism, which seemed to ‘liberate’ them from the idea that life was driven by some meaningful purpose, that there might be a higher consciousness behind the apparently random play of matter and energy that makes up our visible world. We have had almost four hundred years now of a ‘science’ that reduces everything meaningful about us to genes and hormones, or to neurons: as one popularizing neuroscientist, V. S. Ramachandran, recently interpreted some of the latest findings for us, “If all this seems dehumanizing, you haven’t seem anything yet.”

Even more potent than ‘science’ in this gleeful destruction of our image is popular culture itself. We are exposed to between three and five thousand commercial messages a day, each one telling us that happiness comes from outside us and we are doomed to compete for diminishing resources in order to find it. Recently four very young boys, the oldest of them fourteen, broke into a school and vandalized it, taking the children’s pet hamster and torturing it to death. When they were asked why they did all this they could not come up with a reason, because the real reason is the all-pervasive violent imagery of the TV, movies, and video games that soaks through their consciousness without their knowledge. According to a massive study recently reported in the New York Times, narcissism, depression, and anger in the lyrics of popular songs have “increased significantly in the past three decades.”

Orwell had it almost right: an attack on human dignity has come to characterize our age, but it is not out in the open like the paralyzing image he leaves us with in 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.” Rather, it has become a quiet part of the woodwork of our mentalities, leading us to stand by while lawyers provide cunning justifications for torture and judges transfer the sanctity of human life to profit-making corporations. During the Cold War, I pointed out that we were doing a similar misallocation of reality: cities full of real people became ‘counter-value targets’ while inanimate bombs were named ‘fat man’ and ‘little boy.’ I used the word ‘blasphemy,’ for I did not think then and do not think now that it’s too strong a word for that process.

Some may wish to dismiss all this as a philosophical, or even theological issue, but it has inescapable political consequences. Dr. Ramachandran’s breezy acceptance of dehumanization should send a chill and sound a serious warning, not only because this is manifestly bad science but because dehumanization is both the enabling condition and the final effect of all violence. You cannot build a world in which human rights matter if you have a worldview in which human beings don’t really matter, when we are collections of particles acted upon by chance — when, as another scientist put it, “we are bags of genes.” It is no coincidence that it was Martin Luther King who said, “we must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ civilization to a ‘person-oriented’ civilization.”

My latest encounter with dehumanizing science was, of all places, in a progressive journal. The big ‘news’ in this article was that trust, love, and sex-drive are now “known” to be the result of certain brain chemicals. The journal in question is called Positive News (no. 6, Winter 2011, pp. 1 & 9). Personally, I think this is the most negative news imaginable, not just for progressives, who are seriously undermining their own programs by perpetuating this dismal worldview, but for every one of us.

There are signs that this depressing image is losing its grip, that people are looking around in growing desperation for something nobler to hold onto. A growing number of scientists, for example, are saying no: consciousness, free will, faith, love, are all potent realities. If science can’t account for them it is not because they don’t exist but because we don’t have the right kind of science — or the right frame of reference to interpret what science tells us.

Anyone who wants to help this great change should realize that it cannot be brought about only by political or legal arrangements. A humane world, a world of justice and freedom, will not be ushered in by a wave of the political wand. It will come into view when we become aware of the implications of our deeper beliefs and are courageous enough to stand up for a noble — and ultimately realistic — vision of the human being.

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 as co-Chair 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.

0 Comments to “When ‘Positive News’ Isn’t”

  1. Professor Nagler argues that one of the consequences of industrialization has been that people have become de-humanised, and expected to behave like machines. This is true.
    However, I want to argue that ‘dehumanisation’ is more to do with ‘elitism’, whereby ‘some’ classify themselves as superior to ‘the rest’.
    ‘The rest’ have been defined officially as less than human: as 2/3rds of a human, or as animals, as fit for extermination.
    I am reminded of these classifications by the memorial at Auschwitz, where many people gathered last weekend to remember the 6 million Jews that were gassed, 1939-1945.
    I am reminded of these classifications by the anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as the first President of the United States of America. This anniversary marked the ascendancy of the European plantation owners, and the designation of Africans in the USA as ‘not human’.
    These acts of dehumanization were possible as the result of the domination, the military victory, of one set of people against others. The National Socialist government in Germany saw themselves as the representatives of the Aryans, duty bound to purify their race by killing all who were inferior. The plantation owners in the USA were the winners of the war against the English, and were determined to set up a society in which the white European owners were all equal and free and independent. These rights of man were denied to the Africans and the Indians in America.
    Throughout history ‘elites’ have been established as the result of wars. In Europe, the Roman Empire; the Saxons; the Normans; the Roman Catholics; while in Asia, the Moors; the Mongols. Across the globe, the English built up their Empire, conquering the local tribes and setting themselves up as the ruling elite.
    These elites controlled wealth, and initiated capitalism, in the past and at the present. Today there are 10.2 million people who control wealth and capitalist investment, among whom are 1211 billionaires. These form the global financial elite. They operate the free market capitalist system, searching for growth and greater profits for their corporations [themselves], indifferent to the trials and tribulations of ‘the rest’.

  2. don salmon says:

    Hi J Kelvyn:

    I think that Dr. Nagler is talking about something significantly deeper than conflicts between classes. he’s talking about something that has happened in the last 4 centuries, a delusion that’s come to take us over. When the great scientific geniuses like Galileo and Kepler developed their methods, they understood – as, though this may be surprising to many, many of the scholars in the church did too – that the concepts of “matter” and “gravity” and other similar ones were simply that – convenient concepts to explain the regularities in our experience. By the 19th century, these concepts had become idols – that is, something we created but came to believe had independent reality. So now science is pervaded by such idols as “matter”, “energy” (richard feynman – “we have no idea what energy is”), “fields”, “quarks”, etc – things understood to be wholly independent of any form of knowing or perceiving. This is an entirely unwarranted faith-based view, since even the most hardened materialist philosophers will admit, when pushed, that there is simply no way to prove the existence of anythign entirely independent of knowing of some kind (which doesn’t mean they believe in idealism; no philosophical position is intended here). The only thing that scientists are able to say positively about the “real” world is that it is NOT aware, NOT conscious, NOT alive, NOt possessing anything that we relate to in our experience.

    This is what Dr. Nagler is pointing to, I think. And to the extent it is not just a philosophic matter but pervades every aspect of our schooling, heathcare, economic system, etc, the dehumanizing effect of a knowledge system rooted at its core in the idea that ultimately, what is most important and most real is dead, non conscious, non intelligent, possessed of no qualities whatsoever – is profound.

  3. don salmon says:

    by the way, if anyone comes across this comment and would like to explore more, my email is [email protected]. My wife and I are working on a video series with this theme. We have one video somewhat related to this on youtube, which you can find by searching “Beyond the matrix: the only way out”. I would also recommend Will Wilkinson’s essays on New Clear Vision, as he points toward the same fundamental view.

  4. Don,
    what I want to explore is the ways and means by which a knowledge system that is rooted in the quantum world and the uncertainty principle, leads people to exterminate billions of others in genocide and racism; and bring whole populations into wars that result in the death of millions, year after year; and deny others their human rights because they are considered to be ‘sub-human’ or ‘not human’.
    Richard Feynmann may not have known what energy was. But he reports that he cheered and partied with his colleagues on the Manhattan project, after the successful detonation of the nuclear/plutonium bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in Japan, and the immediate death of many millions of Japanese. He writes that he only realised the impact of the bombings later when he was dining in a restaurant in a big city and accepted that diners like him would have been disintegrated between mouthfuls of food and drink. If he had had these thoughts first, he may not have worked so intensely on nuclear fission and fusion.

    go to…….A Discourse: Social Ecology

  5. don salmon says:

    I don’t understand – you write as if you’re disagreeing with me but I agree with what you wrote. did you read my letter?

  6. I do agree, but with a different emphasis.
    I was uncertain about your comment that ‘Nagler was talking about something significantly deeper than conflicts between classes’.
    The records of the last 400 years reveal how the elite classes have been able to organise matters so as to kill the many for the benefits of the few. What does that tell us about the many and the few?


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