Friday, March 13, 2009

The Rules #1

I am one of those cursed souls who does not accept easy explanations. They bring me no comfort. In fact, easy explanations make me incredibly nervous. When I hear people dismiss things out of hand with a “Well, you know what they say...”, the ellipsis might as well be trailing off a cliff in my mind. Maximum frustration is derived from any inference that it is one of “God's Mysteries”. I've read the Bible and in no place does it say “Thou shalt not be curious.” I understand that part of any religion is to offer an explanation for the unexplainable but this is 2009, we're well past the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Reason, isn't that kind of thinking obsolete? We have answers now. Even if we don't have all the answers, we have a system for discovery.

I want to know, I want to understand. I want answers and I know that I'll spend the rest of my life in pursuit of them. This may bring me no peace but it will certainly not be boring.

Part of figuring things out is establishing a framework of understanding. Touchstones, benchmarks, solid or at least semi-solid footholds and cornerstones from which one can anchor other theories and cling to while exploring other concepts.

Now, as an empiricist, I recognize that any attempt to define a constant in an ever changing world could be at least futile and at most delusional, but I've seen enough evidence to conclude for my own conscience that there are certain constants that can be reliably counted upon to be true.

In my years of fascination with Human Nature, I've started this tiny notepad file. It's moved with me from computer to computer, from diskette to CD-ROM to thumb drive. It's labeled simply “The Rules” and every time I come upon one of these constants, I write it down for safekeeping. I am certain that this is in no way a complete list. There are any number of them that await adequate reinforcement or the proper definition. Some of them have made the list only to be removed later as my perceptions change. A number of them have been aggregated as two or three concepts are distilled down to an underlying concept or truth. I have always thought that I'd jot these down in a book some day but I think I'll throw them out here. I've recently been inspired by Neil Gaimen's blog to get off my tuckus, start blogging again and... well, I needed a topic. So here we go. Please keep in mind that these are in no way ordered by priority or importance, except for perhaps the first one.

Rule #1: People are People

Yes gawd help me, right off the bat I'm adding so much dignity and gravitas to my little wack-a-doo theories by naming one after a bit from the Muppet's Take Manhattan. But before you click on that Facebook link, hear me out.

As human beings, we are not wired to be a society. We're wired to be a tribe. A small group of like-minded people that can be trusted. We take comfort in the tribe and when their isn't one, our mind invents one. We seek to differentiate ourselves from the everyone by identifying with a small group. Be it a job, hobby, style, like, dislike or whatever. Short people, fat people, long hair, short hair, IT professionals, foodies, Virgos, homeowners, Americans, motorcyclists, vegetarians, 3rd shifters, Europeans, Wisconsinites, white trash, blah blah blah blah.

Some of these groups are very rigorous and insular. Some can barely be said to exist at all. Often it is pressure or a threat from outside that determines how tight knit and well defined the group is. The more widely perceived and more dangerous the threat is, the tighter a group will circle the wagons.

That sounds somewhat bad but having been a part of such groups, I don't wonder at the appeal. Within the group, drawn together for mutual benefit, the camaraderie and solidarity is euphoric. Soldiers speak of their “comrades in arms” with such fondness and I understand the sentiment.

This is the good side of the tribal instinct and this is why it worked so long as a survival trait. The mental reward for forming a group and the fact that the reward grows as the threat grows is a fantastic motivator for cooperation.

But there is a dark side to this trait as well. For as we knit ourselves together into a cohesive “Us”, everyone outside our little circle becomes “Them” and for every ounce of altruism we feel twords our beloved “Us”, it's matched by fear and suspicion of “Them”.

It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone's fault. If it was us, what did that make Me? After all, I'm one of Us. I must be. I've certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We're always one of Us. It's Them that do the bad things.“ - Terry Pratchett, Jingo

It's a step down a very dark and dangerous road to set a group apart as Them. It's so natural and easily done but the forces you are toying around with are fundamentally responsible for the vast, vast, vast majority of human tragedy.

Call Them what you will, people don't like Them. Eventually, if they feel threatened enough by Them, they start thinking of ways to deal with Them. This is where things start getting nasty.

Genocide defines the The 8 Stages of Genocide and you'll find the very first stage strangely familiar.

1. CLASSIFICATION: All cultures have categories to distinguish people into “us and them” by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide. The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Catholic church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide. - Gregory H. Stanton, President, Genocide Watch

Now not all acts of distinction between groups lead to genocide. Let's be fair. I don't think we'll every see a World War between Blonds and Redheads. (not to say that wouldn't be cool). But everything that has later turned into War or Genocide or killing in general, has to pass through that thought process to get where it is going. It's the “gateway thought”. When you define Us and Them, death is at the far end of that thought process.

This is my favorite picture in the world, because, well, it is the world.

I'm not the only one to notice the complete lack of national borders when viewed from above. I'm also not the only person to notice how frail and tenuous our grasp on life is. Here we sit, on our little blue marble, on the shores of the galactic beach, with crushing pressure and boiling lava below us and freezing vacuum above. Our thin, thin strip of life giving, habitable space that houses all our hopes, dreams and useless conflicts.

Once you've seen this, how can there ever be a Them again? In the great cosmic sense of things, are our manufactured differences of politics, religion, culture or taste worth much of anything? Are they worth killing each other over?

To make it acceptable to define and delineate any group makes it acceptable for anyone to do to me. It means I can be quantified and organized and walled off. Because the same thought process that defines Them decides what They should have for food, drink, opportunities or freedom. It's at the heart of segregation and war. It cheapens my life and my worth.

And so, I reject it. I reject Them. There is only Us. We. Humanity. I understand that our cultures make us colorful, but we are Humans first, everything else second. As it should be.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. - United States Declaration of Independence, Continental Congress, July 4, 1776

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, - Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, December 10th, 1948

And so, in the end, the rule is this: People is People. We are more alike than we are different. We are all human beings. Whatever our differences of culture or ideology, we are fundamentally connected by our humanity.

That's a rule.