Life Lessons for Changing Times
Presented September 23rd, 2018
I was pleased when Wendy called 13 days ago asking if I would do a reflection today, I’ve never really believed the ones I`ve given before were good enough. I enjoy the work because it helps me clarify questions I have. I want to be entertaining and challenging but lately there is so much going on in the world I`ve only felt bewildered. Wendy sensed my hesitation and to make it easier she suggested I use the life story I’ve done here before. Its full of adventure, dangers, some victories, losses and recovery but I said it wasn’t sure where it was, but she was sure it would I would have a copy on my computer.
There is a link between one of the quirks in my brain, my way of being and the age in which we live. My wife thinks I have a mild case of ADHD which among other things may explain why my personal filing system is not good in an age when there is an endless number of things that need to be filed. So, it was a problem and it took me a few days to find a version of the story due to mislabelling but my original hesitation wasn’t just whether I could find it but whether I still wanted to talk about it; and I was thinking about what new things I might share with you. For most of us some memories can be painful despite a happy ending, my life is old news. It’s a common feature of older people to look back at life but to motivate me to do something I need to look forward even though my feelings about the new are colored by the past.
Wendy and I also talked about the fact that congregations including Unitarians are mostly women these days and felt we need to recognize that in some way. So besides being a token traditional male I may as well tell you why I’m proud of my gender, my age, and heritage. I’ve skated around the subject over the years because of fears of landing in politically incorrect territory. So, I’m stepping out of my usual especially Canadian response of just saying sorry for my demographic in general and at the risk of offending I’ll tackle the subject head on. I`m tired of shouldering the blame for societies ills. We don’t have all are answers but the questions are clear, and we are running out of time.
My inspiration this morning is primarily two prominent authors: Steven Pinker the Canadian American cognitive- psychologist and linguist at Harvard whose most recent best-selling book is Enlightenment Now: The case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress and the Israeli historian and publishing phenomenon Yuval Noah Harari whose latest book is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century.
I’ll argue one of the requirements to solve our current situation is humility something both these authors make it very easy to attain.
Both focus on the topic which is capturing our collective minds these days; from 157-year-old Economist magazine to the leadership of almost every political party on earth to the best sellers in the non fiction category is what is the future of Liberalism the system that generated the prosperity and progress of the last 200 years.
In his first chapter Pinker begins with a quote from Kant who helped launch the enlightenment in a 1784 essay demanded we “Dare to Understand” to free ourselves from religious and political authority. Which updated by the physicist David Deutsch’s defense of enlightenment who claims progress is possible in all fields, scientific, political and moral. Optimism is the theory that all failures — all evils — are due to insufficient knowledge. Problems are inevitable because our knowledge will always be infinitely far from complete. Some problems are hard, but it is a mistake to confuse hard problems with problems unlikely to be solved.
We are generally not particularly rational creatures living our lives and making decisions according to facts and figures but on narratives both individual and shared by our communities.
In 1938 there were 3 that dominated the world which were created in London, Berlin and Moscow. In 1945 we destroyed one which was Fascism, in the 1981 we destroyed Communism and in 2016 Liberalism came under serious attack. Perhaps for a good reason because now it seems unable to deal with the really pressing problems facing our species. Are there better stories to replace it with it?
As my demographic proved in the USA in 2016 and in Ontario in 2017 many people are not happy with the trajectory we are on and when in doubt we revert to feelings not facts. Over reaction to fear is what mammals do. The human mind evolved to be afraid. For millions of years survival meant assuming the sound of rustling leaves was a predator, so to avoid being lunch rather than having lunch it was better to worry than not. We are here because each of our ancestors survived, fearful even when it turned out to be the wind. One result is that, we have had an enormous over reaction to terrorism which in North America and Europe since 2011 is about 75 people a year, but 1.25 million people die every year in car accidents and the 3.5 million die that will die of sugar and 7 million from air pollution. And even car accidents are way down in terms of miles driven because of the same rules we solve all problems we analyse data and then design safer cars, better roads and better laws. When problems get focus we start solving them.
So the question is not if we can stop worrying, we can’t its hard wired into our brains but can we upgrade what we are worrying about? Our response to fear or uncertainty is that we follow the person with the loudest voice equating it with strength which is as primitive a response as I can imagine. We also revert to religions which although no one from Iran to North Korea, or from Poland or Israel or the southern USA use religion any more as we did only a few years ago for health care or economic policy but its still useful in stoking the fires of racism and xenophobia while there is no doubt at all the biggest challenges are technological disruption and climate change.
If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament you are on the right track. Global processes seem to be too complicated for any single person to understand. How then can one single person avoid falling victim to propaganda and misinformation?
Pundits want to blame some one and it seems easier to blame old white men for giving us Trump and Ford or do I say in defense was it the 40% of us that didn’t vote? As Hillary Clinton learned blaming people with her basket of deplorables comment its counter productive and results in resentment and anger.
We are familiar with Joseph Campbell who pointed out one of the core elements of all cultures is that we seek to inspire in young people the life of a quest, the desire to be a hero. From the Odyssey and Iliad to various scriptures to Star Wars and Super Hero comics we idolize those willing to fight and sacrifice for the community. And for those of us born just after the war that is what our fathers and mothers had done. Life was defined by unquestioning duty to the nation and the family. We live in structures not of our own making.
We forget in the quest for justice for the victims of colonialism what were the causes and who were the victims. For example, for every Lord and Lady in dazzling capitals where policies were set in motion there were thousands of regular folks dying on the front lines, in ships, down mines, in factories working 12 hour days and 6 day weeks in filthy cities dead by age 40 doing their duty for family and community. I wonder is the rush to apologizing for the residential schools in part a cheaper and easier way to get past that ugly chapter rather than cleaning the water we dirtied in the first place? I’ve lived in native communities and the issues are not simple regardless of the effort extended. When I lived in the Arctic village of Rankin Inlet on the north west shore of Hudson Bay every house, the heat, the light, the school, the nursing station, the adult education center, the water, sewage treatment, the food, the police station, the power station, the satellite hookup, the airport, radio and TV and staff to keep it all going was paid by Ottawa. Rankin has it better than many Northern communities, it is one of the most successful Arctic communities.
The old man in me notes that whether it was the theological authorities, or all male parliaments or segregated societies, groups in power never smile and hand over power. From colonies to minorities of all kinds power must be seized and defended our best response is to share. As Rev. Fiona reminded us last Sunday the Catholic Church didn’t pat the first Unitarian voices on the head, hand over a few golden chalices and wish them luck, people died defending a new more tolerant religion.
For centuries the largest number of emigrants who first arrived in North America if they survived the journey at all came because they were dying of famine and disease at home largely due to the changes wrought by technology, a blind force in which all the actors were merely playing their assigned roles. The same drivers of human migration for 70,000 years. Some of the first Greek colonies in Italy became the Roman Empire and war and the profits of slavery was the constant theme.
For every politician in a remote capital there were nuns and priests sent abroad at great expense away from their own families and communities to some remote outpost ordered to carry out a policy which was thought to be a good thing, sacrificing their lives for their community and culture. The same people allowed mine owners to send children as young as five into coal mines to pull carts, sent their own children away to expensive and often brutal boarding schools where physical discipline that today we’d call abuse was considered beneficial, most people my age can recall the phrase issued from stern faces “children should be seen and not heard”.
When we get discouraged by current events we forget the kind of people we come from where death was the most common element making us all comrades or enemies according to religion or class or culture. The culture that gave the west all the blessings we enjoy and the ideals of equality and human rights we consider universal also sent men to be slaughtered at the rate of thousands an hour during the major battles of world war one, white Christian nations who were not sure why they were fighting at all, for God, King and country what ever that meant. They were each other’s largest trading partners. So how do we know what to do to solve problems such as repairing the harm of residential schools or other ongoing inequities or injustices? What truths are real?
Harari argues the logical and most effective principle to guide our actions is first how to reduce suffering?
People change and often quite suddenly. Germany went from the Weimar Republic a progressive democratic moral and liberal country the first in the world to create legislation to legalize homosexuality to the Nazis and back to be a global leader in moral behavior in a few generations.
The Dutch and modern example of how countries should do things stopped fighting the Nazis after 4 days but as soon as the war was over they raised an Army to take back its colony in Indonesia fighting an incredibly violent war for over 4 years to keep it.
What produces such rapid changes?
For the first time in history infectious disease kills more people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, violence of all kind kills fewer people than accidents and accident rates are way down. The amazing thing is the narrative that produced these results is under attack because Liberalism seems unable to solve new problems but there are always problems. Have we finally met our match as a species or is this just another phase in our march forward?
Its was not until 1947 that the world formally outlawed war and except for a few regional conflicts we have be war free. It was laws established in the 18th century under the principles of Kant, Spinoza, Smith, Hume and Locke derived from millennia of gradual improvements in jurisprudence that in the 1970’s enabled Ruth Bader Ginsberg to lead the battle in courts for female equality; which in turn influenced the entire world. She used the law while an all male committee of politicians attacked Anita Hill ensuring another reactionary misogynist sat on the US Supreme Court for life. As Ginsburg says progress is gradual two steps forward and one step back, don’t lose faith this to will pass. We forget how both on the one hand sudden and the other gradual that progress advances. But we are running out of time to deal with the problems coming in clear view. Our feelings are not enough.
How can we protect ourselves from the damage caused by feelings? Richard Dawkins hugely respected professor of evolutionary biology mused recently he couldn’t understand why he had a vote on Brexit since he was no expert in economics or international trade. If not internationally admired PhD’s why ordinary citizens successfully led by obviously self-serving rabble rousers like Nigel Farage and Boris the mouth Johnson. The excuse used by Winston Churchill that for all its faults liberal democracy is the best of the worst kinds of government but is the best of the worst the only option?
Certainly, the law and democracy are core values of a vast majority of progressives and conservatives a like, but the dawning of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are offering ways of finding truth that our fear ridden, feeling driven minds evolved for living in small groups on the Savanna seem able to solve. Most of us are too busy to even join the debate with the time required to care for ourselves, make a living, earn some security, build a career, support partners, children, parents and our immediate communities.
Now the process of learning has been automated.
Given the inadequacy of our feelings and beliefs to discern truth why wouldn’t we want to consider how we can use AI to solve problems we appear to be incapable of solving?
Mark Zuckerberg the founder of Facebook and arguably one of the worlds most powerful men has a legion of psychologists and engineers at his command has figured out how to hack into our brains. He uses Augustus Caesar the greatest ruler Rome ever produced as his mentor believing very tough decisions are critical to achieving greatness, colleagues call him a ruthless decision machine.
Zuckerberg’s wife Priscilla Chan is a pediatrician who became concerned about the lack of organ donors, so she got Mark to see what they could do, and he got his psychologists and engineers to create an organ donor app for Facebook and bingo donations soared.
Corporations and our enemies took these technologies and use the same skills to hack our brains for more nefarious reasons. What can individuals do? Robert Mercer an ultra right-wing billionaire funded Breitbart and Cambridge Analytica to hack enough brains to get Trump elected with the help of Russia using the same tools.
We are still led by stories meaning poets and artists are important guides to what is important, but Science Fiction confuses intelligence with consciousness so its over concerned with wars between humans and robots when the real concern should be with billionaires and algorithms.
Hitler was successful in part because of his mastery of the latest technology in mass media especially radio, film and print, the telephone helped him organize with lessons from psychology he used to enforce terror and the soviets learned from him. New technologies and the mergers of biotech and infotech can give dictators control previous dictators couldn’t even imagine.
It dangerous when new technologies emerge before balance between ruthless forces and benign forces are rebalanced.
Thousands of years ago humans invented agriculture, the result a very tiny elite was enriched beyond all imagination and almost all the rest of the people were soldiers, serfs or slaves working from dawn to dust in the blazing sun.
To day technology has enriched a tiny elite beyond all imagination and most of us work in cubicles or walk zombie like in the streets glued to smart phones. Do you think they control technology or does technology control them? Although I`d much rather do my 40 hours with breaks in airconditioned spaces than do 80 hours of field work under a whip.
What has all this to do with my subject, the future of liberalism and what can we do in our overly busy lives? Hariri said liberalism succeeded because it outsourced decision making. Central committees simply did not have the resources to collect enough data to make good decisions. Millions of entrepreneurs large and small who knew their customers made decisions every day and the people decided who won and lost with their pocket books.
Today with unlimited computing power and infinite amounts of data there are alternatives, but we need to be watchful it’s happening whether we want it or not.
The oldest advice from the ancients is “know thyself“ how else you can figure out if what you are saying has been planted by some corporation that knows you better than yourself that has planted a meme in your head. What is really you? Are we the stories we post on Facebook or a less sunny version? Its never been more important as Amazon, Coca Cola, Google and the rest are racing to capture our minds. The beautiful pictures of young people smiling in Coke adds are not the person losing a limb to diabetes or merely a much lesser person than you can be. To know yourself you will have to run fast but leave your illusions behind they are very heavy.
Liberalism took the bold step of saying there is no universal meaning its only what you create. But a thousand years ago Buddhism claimed we are nothing but cosmic vibrations, nothing has meaning, get over it.
In conclusion Pinker says “we will never have a perfect world and its dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions but this one is true, true to the best of our knowledge which is the only truth we can have. As we learn more we can show which parts of the story continues to be true and which ones are false — as any of them might be, and any could become.
And this story belongs not to just one tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist. It requires only the convictions that life is better than death, and health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
May it be so.