I was reflecting last night on conversations Iâ€™d had with two different people recently. The subjects had been the environment, the state of the world, and the likely directions history will take in the near future.
Both my friends clearly understand the situation that we (humanity) are in. They are not denialists in any sense of the word- they really get whatâ€™s going on.
But, I noted, they were both emotionally distressed about it. And that their distress was causing them to waffle back and forth between seeing the situation weâ€™re in clearly and then switching around to trying to ameliorate it by saying something like, â€œWell, humanity has tremendous powers of creativity – surely weâ€™ll think of a way to avoid these problems.â€
Watching them squirm got me to thinking about what it was that was making them squirm.
One of my friends has older parents who live in a major metropolitan area and sheâ€™s made a commitment to them and to herself to live near them in their closing years. Sheâ€™s also dependent upon them financially as well. Later, when theyâ€™ve passed on, she will be able to live where she wants and how she wants – but for now, sheâ€™s made commitments that tie her to this city.
My other friend had been thinking very seriously about immigration to New Zealand as a result of his analysis of the worldâ€™s situation. But, after a lot of agonizing and thinking about his extended family here on the U.S., he decided that he couldnâ€™t simply abandon them and go off to save himself. So, heâ€™s decided, out of love of family, to stay here with all of them and face the hard times together.
To me, it looks like both of these folks have the same problem. Theyâ€™ve both made emotional decisions to stay but at the same time, they are both confronted with convincing reasons why they should go. Cognitive dissonance is the result. And the way that the mind tries to reduce cognitive dissonance in a situation like this is to try to reinterpret the data that suggests they should leave into something less convincing.
It seems to me that their rational mental processes are being distorted by the presence of emotional non-negotiables in the mix.
When this first occurred to me, it seemed like a bit of an epiphany and I spent several hours over the next day or two noodling it over. In the end, I saw that it was no epiphany at all but just something Iâ€™ve known about and acknowledged forever. Itâ€™s just that I hadnâ€™t quite looked at it from this angle before – especially as it relates to how people see the worldâ€™s current situation.
On the web site Al Goreâ€™s put up about his movie, â€œAn Inconvenient Truthâ€œ, he has a quote that Iâ€™ve admired since I first saw it.
Itâ€™s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.
- Upton Sinclair
This captures a lot of what I thought was my epiphany.
When, in the past, Iâ€™ve asked myself why people seem so obtuse about seeing the state of the world right in front of their eyes, Iâ€™ve assigned the cause to a variety of things like â€˜Heâ€™s a Republican.â€˜ or â€˜Heâ€™s a Libertarian.â€˜ or â€˜Heâ€™s a right-wing Christian.â€˜ or â€œHe has no understanding of science.â€˜. Or any of a long list of other reasons.
But, amazingly, Iâ€™d never seen that all of these folks, just like you and me and everyone else, are encumbered by any number of emotional non-negotiable factors that limit their ability to process the data before them solely on its own merits. We are all twisted by our emotional attachments.
Men who run corporations and have their identities and all of their finances tied up in those endeavors cannot think objectively about the good or ill that corporations do in the world.
People who cannot move away from an area of danger (like my two friends), cannot see the data indicating the danger they are in clearly without cognitive dissonance. And that cognitive dissonance generates stress which the mind will try to lessen how ever it can.
Religious conservatives have staked their faith on the fact that God has everything well under control so how can they objectively view information that shows things are getting badly out of control around them?
Libertarians believe that free markets will find appropriate solutions for all conceivable problems so how can they assimilate the fact that the financial sieves that are multinational corporations and Globalization are steadily increasing the wealth of the very few at the expense of the many.
Iâ€™ve had to smile privately at Republican friends of mine as they held forth on the merits of less government and free markets. And then I watched them stress as they tried to explain why all these â€˜freeâ€™ corporations and â€˜freeâ€™ markets, which only care about next quarterâ€™s numbers, are sending all of our jobs and manufacturing overseas to the benefit of their bottom lines but to the ultimate degradation of the country and the lives of those who live here.
I recall reading a Buddhist tract a long time ago. It said something like,
â€œOne can only see what one is looking at clearly when one doesnâ€™t care what one sees.â€œ
Yep, that about sums it up. And we, all of us, are emotional creatures who are emotionally bound to certain ideas, creeds, places, points-of-view and whatever. And all of us, therefore, are not clear and rational thinkers to the extent that these emotional non-negotiables warp our rationality.
I donâ€™t think any of this changes my prognosis for the world. I still think it is bleak. Perhaps, even more so given that I now see that many (most, all) of us are incapable of rational perceptions due to our emotional attachments. But, it does, perhaps, make the problem a bit clearer.