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Life Arts    H3'ed 6/12/10

Rising above "us against them' thinking

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If there is one belief I cling to fervently, it is the idea that we are all in this together. There are no truly isolated systems. Everything is connected, in some way or other. And to an increasingly large degree; the actions of any one individual, corporation, or government, can affect all the rest of us on this planet. Human beings are quick to assign blame but slower to address the underlying problems and one of the greatest difficulties we face is that we need to work together, to solve those problems. We try to find scapegoats, and then allow problems with our systems to remain, once we have rooted out the individuals or groups within the community who 'caused the problem.' But this does nothing. That's the problem with the 'blame game,' it doesn't solve anything and certainly does not implement any solutions, repairs, or fixes. What's worse; it results in a situation where many people, companies, and governments, spend more time and effort guarding or defending themselves against blame, than they do creating positive change.

The end result of this process is what can be called 'us against them' thinking; and its insidious effects touch almost every area of human endeavor. The worst thing about this mentality is that it prevents or forestalls the kind of cooperation which can solve problems. Perhaps this is part of what Mr. Einstein was talking about; when he said that we can't solve today's problems with the same mentality that created them. But research into the human brain's function indicates a deeper connection as overuse of the 'blame game' and 'us against them' thinking may inhibit our use of the neocortex from which innovation springs, and instead favors the activity and development of the older brain structures in the so-called lizard brain. The saying 'use it or lose it' definitely applies here, as brain pathways put to use frequently are maintained and amplified, while brain structures that are too infrequently used tend to atrophy over time. Maybe some people's brains are too far gone, lacking the capacity to change by moving from this posture despite the fact they are functioning adults, who have their full mental faculties and flexible minds otherwise. But I think most of us retain enough freedom of choice needing only compelling reasons to do so.

The fact is that combating or defending against what is bad or evil uses a different part of the brain than creating what is good, right, and proper. Only the neocortex can explore possibilities and make complex associations. And only a sense of playful exploration and openness turns this faculty on completely, while learned inhibitions and defensive posturing tend to have the opposite effect. When people engage in the "blame game' it matters little which side of the coin they are on. Whether your role is blaming others or defending against blame, taking on this role puts the 'lizard brain' in charge, to some degree and this reduces the capacity for the greater intelligence of one's higher brain and frontal lobes to assert itself. Likewise with 'us against them' thinking. It is simply an extension of the 'blame game,' and perpetuates the notion that we need to find a culprit or scapegoat, rather than addressing the conditions which were ripe for wrongdoing. Sometimes; it matters little who is in charge, as it is the office or station that is mal-appropriate. And sometimes it matters little to folks whether the person who takes a fall is actually the one at fault, so long as there is someone to take the blame when wrongdoing is observed.

Of course; this is somewhat adolescent behavior. But the alternative, rising above the 'blame game' and 'us against them' thinking, is a difficult proposition even for mature adults. The problem is that too many of our role models and leaders engage in this behavior, and it leads many to conclude that it's futile to attempt injecting more maturity into the situation or our discussions about it. I feel strongly that however difficult it may be rising above 'us against them' thinking is likely our only way out of the mess the world is currently in. To say that another way; solving some of the problems we have created will require massive cooperation and collaborations between entities that have regarded each other as opposites, competitors, or enemies, in the past. Without this kind of teamwork, there is little hope for us to make some problems go away. The oil well gushing undersea and spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico is a perfect example. While I think perhaps someone else should be put in charge of the scene than the people who created the oil spill and have failed to cap the gushing well, just blaming BP does nothing to make matters better, and may in fact prevent the clean-up effort from being completed. Some folks want to 'stick it' to BP, but if the corporation is bankrupted they will be unable to help.

In another article, I focused on how the oil spill was the result of false determinism, where folks were misapplying deterministic projections resulting in unrealistic risk estimates and inadequate preparation for worst-case scenarios, like the one we now face. I tried to guide people away from blame-casting, and get them to focus on how our actions and industry practices got us into trouble instead. But people seem intent on hanging as much blame and liability on BP as possible, rather than on getting our government to work with BP in a way that compels them either to engineer a swift solution to the problem, or to yield control and render assistance, so that others can get the job done. By comparison the blame and liability are irrelevant. Fix the problem first! Cap the gusher, and clean up the Gulf. Then figure out why the fail-safe mechanism didn't work and how it needs to be made differently so it can function even under extreme variations of pressure or when compromised and regulate that every deep water rig must have one with the newest design, or adequate over-engineering.

Likewise; in a still earlier article, I said that a share of the blame for the financial crisis must go to the Bad Math in use by the Finance sector, and that we need to fix that problem to prevent more similar crises from occurring, rather than merely blaming culprits and finding scapegoats. Mandelbrot and others have pointed out specific errors made in common practice, which if properly noted could have saved us from the recent crisis entirely. The danger of allowing such systemic problems to persist is far greater than the risk from letting a few "scoundrels' escape prosecution. If the Mathematics was made more true to fact, it would increase the transparency of financial markets, and help to restore accountability to the finance sector. This would of course improve investor confidence, and encourage more people to 'go back into the water' than watching the 'scoundrels' at fault go to jail. It seems likely to me that some of the folks we would target if there were an investigation are not cold or cruel, but rather are constrained by a corporate culture which would rather let certain things remain broken, than admit it is broken so it can be fixed. This is a result of guarding against culpability rather than doing things right. I see this as a clear example of the 'blame game' and the 'us against them' mentality at work again.

This sort of adolescent behavior is what really needs to be addressed, not merely by targeting the people guilty of behaving that way, but by rising above the whole 'us against them' and 'blame game' trip somewhat being more mature and behaving more like adults ourselves. There is plenty in the world to complain about. And people love to complain about other people. Rush Limbaugh must love his job, because he gets paid a lot of money to complain about people he doesn't like, and things that are wrong with the world. But I'm not on that wavelength right now, because I don't think complaints and scapegoating will help to fix the things the world needs repaired and that is the need which must be addressed. If we are too focused on polarized notions like 'Republican against Democrat,' 'Christian against Muslim,' or 'Israeli against Palestinian,' we will miss what opportunities we do have to knit the human community together. We need positive action more than activism right now. Activism perpetuates the 'us against them' notion, in many cases, and that is a notion which has outlived its usefulness, in my opinion.

When Pete Seeger stands with friends on a street corner near my home, to protest the war or advocate for peace, there is almost always a contingent on the opposite corner waving flags and asking people to pray for our troops. Pete has told me himself that those folks and he want the same thing a successful end to the struggle and our troops back home safe. However, the folks on the other side of the road don't see things that way, labeling Pete and friends anti-war demonstrators, some calling him anti-American and so on. They probably see it as their solemn duty to be there and maintain a presence as the "loyal opposition.' But I see the whole interplay as 'us against them' vs. 'us against them.' I would prefer to find ways to help create what is right and good, rather than standing on either corner. Mind you; I think that social protest, fierce opposition, and even armed conflict, all have their place, and are needed sometimes. We must guard our freedoms, protect our communities and nations, and otherwise keep the world safe for civilized people. But if we get too caught up in the spirit of opposition itself, labeling anyone who is not a known friend as a potential target, there is a problem with this. And the answer to the problem is the title of the article.

Rising above 'us against them' is largely a matter of maturity or refinement, in my opinion. Or perhaps it's an opening of the heart that's required in order to be able to see how we are all the same, or have something in common. We share the Earth and the experience of living here with all its other inhabitants. And I feel a strong kinship with my kind, and a kind of patriotism from being a citizen of Earth, but I think we should extend this and not rule out the possibility that folks from beyond this sphere might be friendly too. Though hostile aliens may make for better movie scripts, some level of civilization is likely required for travel between the stars. So maybe Gene Roddenberry's dream of a Federation is real somewhere out there. But even if that is the case, we won't be invited until humanity outgrows some of its adolescent ways. I guess I'm saying that rising above 'us against them' thinking is more universal in its scope and applications than limited thinking would allow. So even if it doesn't get us invited to share the galaxy, greater cooperation and collaboration among humans of all identifications will likely get us to the stars sooner, and will definitely help us solve some of the problems we face Earthside, so that humanity can at least survive long enough to try.

2010 Jonathan Dickau all rights reserved

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Jonathan is a modern Renaissance man. He is a Grammy award-winning engineer, a performer, a writer and lecturer, and a scientific researcher. Since recording "At 89" Jonathan has worked on other projects with Pete Seeger, including a 300 song (more...)
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