Escape 26: It’s all about you and me. Yes, it’s personal, but the personal is the social.
So, I’ve managed to stay on schedule and write a blog post every day for the last 25 days. It’s been an exercise in discipline as much as anything. Why have I done this? Why have I done anything in my life? Why have you? I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and reading all the relevant material I could get my hands on. A lot of my attention has been and still is on the concept of morality and what it means to me as an individual and to the various groups I ‘belong’ to. In thinking about this, I like to use the metaphor of the dance.
Life for each of us is a dance, a dance between self-aggrandizement and self-effacement, between ego and group, between me and you and all of us. As an individual animal I need to eat, drink water, sleep, breathe air, shit and piss. I could say that I also need to have sex, but that’s really quite optional. Obviously for societies to survive some people need to have sex for the purpose of making babies, but not every member of a group needs to participate, as long as a ‘sufficient’ number do. So, I have my needs and you have your needs. Like sex, we have needs that involve other people. Sex is a basic social act. We need to cooperate to do it. Most of us have a sex drive (Freud called it the libido), but it varies in intensity from person to person. One thing is certain and that’s that we need the company of others. We are a social species. Of course, in a sense, all species are social, but we don’t all equally enjoy the company of others of our species. In some species life is pretty much a solitary experience, individuals coming together for sex and for not much of anything else. We humans are quite gregarious, by and large. We like and need contact with others. We know how devastating it can be when we don’t have meaningful human contact with others; we languish and die. We also know that the most devilish of all punishments is solitary confinement. We literally feed off of each other, as Kirby Farrell wrote so eloquently about in his blog post I reposted here today. Yet, there’s a problem we have to deal with as individuals in our social relations. In fact, as Norbert Elias argues, there is no such thing as a human individual, we are really interweavings and interdependencies. We know nothing, are nothing outside of our groups. Maybe after long years of effort we can learn to live by ‘our own devices’ but only because we take a whole lot of cultural baggage with us including material artifacts, things to do things with, tools for instance.
A hundred years ago, Thorstein Veblen teased classical economists for their view of us as “homogenous globules of desire” bouncing off of each other in the market as if we and society were two separate things. We are not. We are society. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t exist without us. No. The existence of societies is not dependent on any number of discreet individuals, but only on the existence of a ‘sufficient’ number of individuals. ‘My’ society doesn’t stop functioning because I die. It’s not dependent on me. I, however, am dependent on it. To use an analogy, on the one hand, if I were a drop of water in a river, I could easily be ‘extracted’ from it and the river would still flow. If the river dries up, on the other hand, there can be no individual drops. Becker struggled with precisely these issues.
As individuals we need to feel that we have value. We need to feel that the space we take up on this planet is justified. We need to feel important, to know that our lives have meaning. We do not get this meaning from our bodies, by eating, shitting and pissing. So we do things as individuals to convince ourselves of our importance.
Enter the dark side of social life: Becker says that we now have a general theory of human evil. It’s the result of “man’s hunger for righteous self-expansion and perpetuation.” (p. 135) Often we exercise our hunger for self-expansion at the expense of others. We do this as siblings vying for our parent’s attention, by cutting another driver off in traffic, by shouting at a clerk, but we also do it in large groups through warfare, ‘ethnic cleansing, scapegoating and discrimination. The more power we have the more we can incorporate others in our self-expansive strategies. If I say to you ‘thanks for your time’ I’m tacitly acknowledging that I’m using you for my own purposes. If I ask you for a coffee I’m asking you to take time out of your life to do something for me. That may be a small thing, but small things add up so that sometimes we all but become slaves to others. Human relations are not always ‘win, win.’ Corporations appropriate the labour of thousands of people. As Becker writes:
We might say that there is a natural and built-in evil in social life because all interaction is mutual appropriation…social life seems at times life a science-fiction horror story, with everyone mutually gobbling each other like human spiders….My point in lingering on this is to show that we can have no psychology of evil unless we stress the driving personal motives behind man’s urge to heroic victory.
Of course, heroism is only possible within a society’s boundaries. No one can be a hero in a vacuum. Heroes can only be heroes if we collectively consider their actions heroic. And, as we know, heroes can lead us all into an orgy of personal self-expansion. That’s why we follow them with such devotion, but more so, we follow the group that creates the heroic possibility in the first place:
The individual gives himself to the group because of his desire to share in its immortality; we must say, even, that he is willing to die in order not to die.
Of course: if our group is the source of life and if that group dies, then we die permanently, body and spirit. So we have to defend our group with our lives. Don’t forget the aphorism from the first chapter in EFE. Evil is disease and death. To defeat evil means to defeat anyone or anything that would contest the values, morality and power relations in the group. “Men kill lavishly out of the sublime joy of heroic triumph over evil. Voilà tout.” (p. 141)
I think it is time for social scientists to catch up with Hitler as a psychologist, and to realize that men will do anything for heroic belonging to a victorious cause if they are persuaded about the legitimacy of that cause.
The ‘cause’ in the last sentence of the quote above could be a marriage, a friendship, a small business, art, a hockey tournament, saving whales, fighting Stephen Harper, building pipelines or opposing them.
Enough for now.