I have spent a lot of time contemplating what has turned our culture from one in which topics could be discussed, acknowledgment could be made for parts of the opposing arguments which had merit, and indeed that people could blend notions from both sides and come up with something they could agree on, or at least agree to disagree on, without malice. That is, argument by persuasion. A well-known rhetorical means of solving problems. Aristotle liked this approach to argument. But it appears to have now bitten the dust.
North Dakota, the state I live in, was once a progressive state. We are the only state in the union with a State Bank and a State Flour Mill, remnants of North Dakota’s progressive era. I also remember when those representing the state, whether local or national, cared about their constituents enough to work to bring about some sort of equality of income for state residents. Those days are long gone. Instead, the state legislators in North Dakota are trying to hide what they do. In the last election, the voters passed a referendum to require the state to provide transparency in it’s spending. The referendum passed, but the legislators immediately tried to pass a bill to override the referendum. As Tyler Axness says, why would any voter in North Dakota vote to keep these people in office. Good question.
In discussions with others, I have tried to express distress at the viciousness of people’s notions of rightness and wrongness, something which has become a real problem with President Trump spewing forth hateful tweets like a fire hydrant. What does the American public fear so dreadfully that this constant harangue doesn’t offend them? Tyrants have used fear to control people since time immemorial. Indeed, Julian Jaynes wrote about this 50 years ago in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes, a psychologist, posited that human beings, when living in small groups, listened to inner voices to decide how to behave. Minds were truly bicameral. In these small groups, people generally behaved for the benefit of the group, not consistently for the benefit of the individual alone. Jaynes suggests that once people started living in large groups, they lost this inner guidance connection and began to listen to some outside person who grabbed power and maintained that power by creating fear in followers. Certainly Hitler did this. And unfortunately, social media has made it very easy to set up this kind of fear-managed control over people’s thinking and actions.
I have sat by and watched the ugliness go back and forth between people, preferring not to become the center of a firestorm. Recently, however, I began posting, trying to express the notion that the extreme belief that only the speaker has the ultimate truth serves no useful purpose except to generate more and more extreme nastiness. Iain McGilchrist in The Divided Brain has created a video on the differences between right-brain thinking and left-brain thinking and how people get stuck in the narrowness of one or the other. Sorry to ruin a good video, but the right-brain thinkers are the ones who get boxed into narrow thinking.
As I pondered these issues, I began to try to respond to particularly offensive screed, at least to me, regarding generalizations about liberals, conservatives, or political figures. I discovered something I hadn’t expected. Every single effort I made to try to look at larger, general principals, those to whom I was responding took personal offense, as if I were attacking them for not just what they said, but for who they were. I got responses like “how did you get to that subject?” As if I were changing the topic to some issue that had no relationship to what was being discussed. At times I’d get angry responses back with a litany of all the lifetime achievements one had made and a snarky response about what had I done in my lifetime. Suggesting someone be careful in making generalizations about people elicited an angry, self-centered response. There is apparently a true inability to stand back and see the larger picture.
Arno Gruen wrote a fascinating book, The Insanity of Normality, about social sacrifice of ourselves to meet the expectations of society. He sees the sacrifice of self leading to a kind of public narcissism which damns those who choose not to “behave” in the ways society requires for social acceptance. He in essence elaborates on the notions of Julian Jaynes.
Wikipedia’s definition of narcissism helps clarify this distinction:
Narcissism is the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealised self image and attributes. This includes self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance.
Interestingly, narcissism is recognized by those who study it as more or less untreatable. Arno Gruen’s schizophrenics laughed when they saw Ronald Reagan on television. Gruen credits them with being able to discern reality from propaganda even though they themselves were the ones labeled crazy.
I think I am beginning to see why this self-centered feeling of righteous indignation is so impervious to reason.