One of our biggest challenges, as we seek to craft more effective strategies for living more decently, is to understand the precise nature of the problem that makes this seemingly straightforward goal so difficult. For starters, we need to understand that compete and win, dominate and control – the values that are so wildly over emphasized in our culture and so frequently referred to in these Reflections – are not the fundamental problem.
To the contrary, properly managed, these qualities are helpful aspects of our overall human arsenal. In appropriate situations, a competitive spirit sharpens our wits, motivates us to higher levels of performance, and creates an intimate bond with co-competitors. And far from being wrong, lying to a would-be rapist or the Gestapo – control by deception – is an invaluable skill. See Reflection # 30, In Defense of Our Troubling Values.
In a similar way, focusing our reform energy on specific attributes of the culture also misses the mark. Efforts to reform the financial system or clean up the environment – while vitally important – will never lead to a fundamental alteration in the ways in which we live.
Instead, the last 40 years have taught us that, for example, if we limit the flow of money in one area of the political process, it will almost immediately be redirected into other channels; defeating efforts at campaign finance reform. And if an impeccably humanistic education became the official norm – and nothing else changed – the great bulk of us would simply tolerate this impractical, airy/fairy curriculum, finding other venues in which to focus on the art of competing and winning.
So if the fundamental issue isn’t specific aspects of the culture or the values it promotes, what is the crux of the problem? It is the process by which these values infiltrate into virtually every area of our lives. This process is like a giant, voracious amoeba that, silently and unseen, oozes into – and co-opts to its competitive, acquisitive outlook – virtually every institution, movement, relationship, and way of operating in the world.
This Reflection offers examples of how deeply this process infects two of our most private and, seemingly, benign of human activities: Humor and reason. By focusing on these less obvious examples, I hope to persuasively illustrate how shockingly deep and widespread this phenomenon really is.
Doing so, I am not suggesting that humor and reason are bad. To the contrary, logical thought, and the ideas and theories it fosters, are indispensible tools as we seek to create better lives and a better world. See Reflection 21, Theory Matters. And humor, done well, can offer highly effective, cut-to-the-bone social commentary (as well as good fun!). But because humor and reason are such critical tools in our effort to make things different and better, we need to be especially alert to the mainstream culture’s remarkable ability to twist – even them – into mechanisms that perpetuate and expand its vise-like grip on our lives.
Jokes, quick quips, irony, and sarcasm are deeply woven into the fabric of our lives. The little jolt of pleasure that a funny remark provokes is a constant, very welcome companion as we tend to our day-by-day chores. But if we hope to be a force for change, we cannot uncritically give ourselves over to our instinct for teasing and sarcasm. Why? Because of the (largely unacknowledged) role humor plays in reinforcing and perpetuating the mainstream culture’s dominant values.
Anger is an integral part of our fight or flight brain and is specifically designed to overpower someone else’s will. Given the culture’s emphasis on domination and control, it is no surprise that anger and aggression are endemic. But explicit anger risks unwanted consequences: Alienation of an important person, social stigmatization and, of course, retaliation.
So one of humor’s unstated but very important roles is to offer an acceptable social cover for anger. A joke can be utterly benign – even warm and loving. But the same joke, told with different intent and timing, can also be a searing putdown.
In this way, humor provides a double cloak of non-accountability for anger. First, it is often difficult to gauge the joke teller’s intent. Is this a manipulative act of aggression? It certainly feels that way, but how can I be sure? In addition, even when the intent is clear, effective counter-measures are almost impossible. Making the effort, the victim is likely to be greeted with one of these all too familiar, accountability denying response: “Just kidding!” or “What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?”
Humor is also a very important bullying tactic in the context of a debate or dialogue. When I was a practicing lawyer, a smart aphorism I frequently heard was this: “The first person to get angry, loses.” So a very common, but unacknowledged tactic of a smart attorney is to needle your opponent into an attack that makes the other participants uncomfortable.
And, of course, when humor is employed as a more direct mode of attack – as ridicule – it can be an enormously effective tool of domination and control. One dismissive comment, provided it is funny and will-timed, can be a devastatingly effective way of disqualifying the position of the person on the receiving end.
This phenomenon may seem relatively benign, but it isn’t. We are a culture that has largely lost its ability to engage in civil dialogue; one that acknowledges and respects difference and looks for common ground. So if we are serious about counteracting the massive infiltration of the mainstream’s culture values into our lives, we cannot engage in indecent humor just because we enjoy its emotional “hit” and are susceptible to its disarming charm.
Many of us think of reason as an unalloyed good. While our emotions often seem unreliable and potentially damaging, we view our ability to think calmly and logically as a mature and stabilizing force.
The problem with this view is that it ignores the reality of our biology. Our emotional brain is, actually, far more powerful than our thinking brain. In fact, all data initially enters our brain through its emotional side. Why? So that before anything else happens we can determine whether something is highly pleasurable – to be pursued – or dangerous – thereby triggering our fight or flight system. Only then does the data migrate into our thinking/reasoning brain.
Thus, while the mainstream view is that the rational brain limits and controls the emotional brain, the opposite is closer to the truth. It is the emotional brain that, far more typically, harnesses the thinking brain to its purposes.
As Jonathan Haight describes it, our thinking brain is predominately a lawyer, advocating for the things our emotional brain impels us toward. And, as Edward O. Wilson notes, “we make decisions for reasons we often sense only vaguely, and seldom if ever understand fully.”
Trusting our reasoning abilities as cool and objective – when, in in fact, they are anything but – they are ripe for infiltration and co-optation by the culture’s mainstream values. All too often, we weave webs of logic that are, unknown to our thinking brain, a cover for emotional drives that are – given the culture we live in – aggressive, controlling, and manipulative.
In this chilling quote, the psychologist and social theorist, Jordan Peterson describes the deadly extremes to which this process can go:
I understand and having understood, I impose order on reality. That’s what every ideologue and utopian does. It’s convincing and, I think, the reason people do this is partly because they want an explanation for their being. More important than that, however, is that they want a mask that covers up their tendency to atrocity with the appearance of virtue. Most utopian thinking is of that sort even though the mask can be very well argued.
The consequences of this process can wreck havoc in our lives, at both a personal and political level. Operating unseen and unacknowledged this process has led, over and over, to murderous rampages by political and religious zealots. Equally, it has more quietly shredded one intimate relationship after another as the parties battle about who is “right,” certain that their problems would be solve – if only the other person could understand.
If we hope to create better lives and a better world, the fullest possible understanding of this process of infiltration and co-optation is vitally important. Why? Because, failing to understand its breadth and depth, we will never be able to craft strategies that are equal to the challenge we face.
Absent this understanding, the best of us – those who actually care – will continue to be channeled into activities that seek to soften our indecent system’s excesses: Elections, legislation, lawsuits and, of course, a myriad of (shamefully underfunded) services to the culture’s endless victims. And with our good energy and attention diverted away from the disease that really ails us, the mainstream culture’s headlong pursuit of private wealth and power will continue unabated.
Radical Decency, by offering an alternative set of values – applicable in all areas of living – offers a way to deal with this core issue. It is not designed to supplant the very useful, but more limited, reform efforts that are our current focus. Instead, it offers a more comprehensive context in which each of these activities can be pursued.
In this way, the good people who promote current reform efforts can expand their potential impact and, crucially, understand how deeply interrelated and mutually reinforcing their seemingly separate pursuits really are. Then, hopefully, they can be knitted together into a unified and far more effective movement for change. See Reflection # 45, Re-visioning Social Change Work, and Reflection 56, Religion – Debasement, Inspiration, Lessons Learned.