The game of ‘telephone’ was great for giggles when a pre-teen. However, the real-life effects of communication failures as adults rarely get the same response. Certainly the consequences tend to be larger and often longer-lasting, especially when attempting to have others buy-in to your vision.
Such consequences are keenly felt when having difficult conversations with loved ones and when attempting to get multiple levels of a business to connect with a new message. The two situations may at first appear completely contrary, but the level of intimacy involved is no different. The message or vision you’re trying to share is an extension of your Values and hence who you believe yourself to be. The context may be different, but not the process.
Vision Must Be Reciprocal
Being caught up in a vision, personal or professional, can be intoxicating. Often the trainings involved for instilling a corporate vision can have similar props to, and feel like, a religious revival meeting. Special speakers, games that induce a feeling of connection through shared levels of mortification, and dress-code. The most ingenious is name badges, as the sweetest thing a person can hear is the sound of their own name, only increased by the belief: ‘a complete stranger knows me!’ That we so often forget our names are emblazoned in colorful marker right on our chest only points to a passive blindness in the face of the desire for recognition.
All of these strategies are targeted to get buy-in, the individually felt ownership of a collective vision. How this plays out between the conference and the day-to-day living in the office is where the proverbial rubber and road meet.
When middle managers were aligned with top management’s strategic vision, things played out as the widespread view of visionary leadership would suggest: the more these managers engaged in visionary leadership (by communicating their vision for the future and articulating where they wanted their team to be in five years,) the greater the shared understanding of strategy in their team, and the more the team was committed to strategy execution.
For managers that were misaligned with the company strategy, however, the dark side of visionary leadership became evident. The more these misaligned managers displayed visionary leadership, the less strategic alignment and commitment were observed among their teams.
The focus on middle management is key here. Visionary leadership at the top all too often becomes an extension of the conference/revival mentality, where the mere presence of a dynamic and charismatic person is thought to be sufficient. Unfortunately what’s missing in this standard view is a recognition of everything else that went into the initial training. The collective feel, as it were, gets lost.
This is why middle management is so important. They become the signal-boosters for the visionary hub. For this reason, middle managers need to be strong leaders themselves, possessing the capacity of sharing a vision. However, this very strength, when unbound from the greater vision, starts a business version of ‘telephone’ that gets ugly. The process happens in two stages:
Without reciprocity, without consistent communication between the governing vision and middle management, the strength needed to spread a message gets used to fill in perceptual gaps.
Those perceptual gaps will inevitably be filled in by what is felt to be important by the person in their individual space. Ego always trumps vision when a consistent message is missing.
How does one escape this destructive game? By building on Values.
Values as Messaging
External behavior is primarily concerned with aligning the world with an internal desire or vision of ‘what should be.’ We act in ways we’ve learned from past experiences, will result in people and circumstances shifting to what we want/expect. These desires are grounded upon a set of Values, signposts for what is important to us in a given situation/context.
How do you ensure that managers are aligned on your company’s strategy? Our experience working with companies around strategic alignment suggests it starts with creating strategic alignment among middle managers before strategy execution efforts begin. This should not be one-time communication but a dialogue; people will only take ownership of strategic change if they are consistently persuaded by its value.
The “strategic alignment” spoken of above should start with an identification of those Values which support the ‘Governing Vision.’ As noted in the image below, Values are the bedrock for making sure a vision is accepted at every level of an organization.
This process works for several reasons:
Values are universally understandable, stemming from the shared experience of being human.
A ‘Governing Vision’ is supported by Values through an articulation of what those Values mean in practice, i.e. Principles. This keeps each level of management from filling in the gaps of what Values mean. When uncertain, refer to Principles.
Principles are the support beams connecting Vision and Values. They keep a Vision from being too vague and too specific, resulting in either the chaos of competing visions at all levels, or an inability to be flexible within changing contexts.
A ‘Guiding Vision’ fails when there are too many voices clambering to be heard. To make these voices turn from being a disparate group of instruments into an orchestra, individual buy-in is a must. As when we gain coherent and consistent direction in our individual lives through what we care about, our Values, so too can organizations.
Stories are how we bind individual perception and social reality. Consider from a nautical metaphor, where stories are the lines connecting individual boats with the social pier. Sure, the boat exists but until it gets close enough to dock, the details of its make are uncertain and the quality of its captain is unclear. Without stories, nobody would have access to the inner worlds of others. Further, without them, the substance of who we are would be dismally small, cut off from the expanding presence of so many other perspectives. A dock without boats is a sad place.
Now, ‘stories’ are the narrative version of what we perceive with our senses. Think of a rock or tree. When they become ‘the rock struck me’ or ‘the tree fell over,’ we’re giving a structure to experience, providing ourselves an order to what otherwise would be a haphazard array of individual moments. It happens so seamlessly, attempting to think of experience as anything else is almost impossible. To help, consider a cartoon animation. There are many individual poses, incrementally streamed together into what we then see as movement. Much the same occurs in our brains and when we mentalize it through language, we get stories.
Weaving the World Together
This process of binding disparate pieces of reality to build the structure of our experience is why it’s so difficult to question our opinions. Further, it’s also why when our worldview is confronted, we often feel threatened or under attack. Perspective isn’t merely something we have, it’s the fundamental ground upon which we interact in and with the world. Coming back to the nautical metaphor, it’d be like someone removing and inspecting pieces of the hull from your boat as you come in to dock. Similar occurs when we question ourselves, ripping the floorboards out and letting in water. Talk about scary!
The binding process is automatic and unconscious for the vast majority of us in the majority of our lives. Ponder for a moment just where your thoughts come from, they arise without consideration fully formed and connected. Even attempting to think about your thinking requires the same process for those same thoughts are arising just as fully formed as the ones you’re attempting to contemplate! This can be amusing, but also frustrating and, when we police our thoughts from a desire to control them, is completely futile.
This is where mindfulness practices can be helpful, not for control, but for being more aware of our thoughts/impulses at any given moment. Being ‘caught up’ in a thought/feeling is to fall victim to the notion that a singular story encompasses the whole of your experience. Mindfulness helps us identify the ‘thinker behind the thinking’ and recognize how much broader our potential is than any single thought/feeling can hold.
Reliance on the Personal
As we recognize no single story can hold the entirety of our own experience, so it becomes easy to see how no single story can hold the entirety of anyone else’s experience either. I’m reminded of the movie “Stargate” where movement through different galaxies is explained. You need six points of reference to identify a destination, but you also need a place of origin. That origin is individual perspective and the destination is the story cobbled together from several points within experience.
With such an image in mind and the power of interstellar travel firmly in our imagination, it is little wonder we all rely so heavily on personal stories or ‘anecdotes’ to structure what we believe to be true about ourselves and the world.
Importantly, “anecdotal evidence” does not simply mean “my own personal experience.” There is a causal connection being made between perception and what the world is or is supposed to be. Going back to “Stargate”, we don’t select disparate points haphazardly, but with the bedrock belief that in doing so we are defining a particular location in the universe. In other words, within the world of personal belief, there exists in the space between perspective and destination a sacred connecting line of ‘WHAT IS.’
We like our stories to be right, otherwise we wouldn’t be telling them, and they certainly feel right because having that feeling means we get to move forward in the world as if we know what’s going on. Thankfully, questioning our stories doesn’t require us to act as if we’re cast adrift in a world without meaning and truth. What it does require of us is a willingness to accept the limits of perspective and to actively engage in more perspective-taking. We may not be traveling amongst the stars, at least not yet, but our universe will still get a whole lot bigger and provide a greater potential for our lives.
There’s a sense of empowerment in describing a personal experience as unique, special or otherwise different than anybody else’s. In particular when it comes to difficulty, a unique status builds a space for dismissing the wisdom of others and provides the ground for accepting its potential insurmountable quality. How often have we heard someone, when confronted by clear objective advice, say: “yes, but my situation is different”?
Certainly each situation, difficult or easy, is different in the sense of being built out of the particular variables in your life. However, at the level of principle, at the level of usable and workable life-skills, the differences are far outweighed by the similarities of both being human and living in a generally homogenous society.
People are Unique, Relationship Skills are Not
Which brings us to how particular forms of relationship are somehow intrinsically different than other forms. As a starting place, let’s consider ‘relationship’ as any form of interaction between two or more people and/or objects. The qualities that change are the depth of the connection and the extent of the effects. Because of those changes we apply different labels and judgments as to their meaning and importance.
Let’s be clear: you have as much of a relationship, at this base level, with the chair you’re sitting on as you do with the person you’re having sex with. If you don’t believe me, imagine that chair suddenly disappearing and you having an immediate intimate connection between your backside and the hard floor beneath you. Yes there was a relationship involved and just because you took it for granted doesn’t mean it didn’t exist. In fact, that very lack of awareness is often at the heart of so many difficulties in any form of relationship.
Monogamy vs Polyamory
With this understanding of ‘relationship’ in mind, we can look at two general labels or forms of relationship: monogamy and polyamory. Broadly speaking, the difference between the two is the latter allows for, if not is always engaged with, more than one sexual partner, usually with the intention of doing so within an agreed-upon level of commitment. That latter point of commitment distinguishes polyamory from, say, swinging. Honestly, there are numerous ways of looking at this and the point isn’t to get bogged down in minutiae.
Below, you’ll see a Venn diagram of “Relationship Problems” within monogamy and polyamory. This is not supposed to be indicative of how everyone views the differences, it’s just an example, albeit one with a list that seems to be offered up quite regularly.
Relationship Problems = Being Human
Let’s get the conclusion being offered here, contrary to the diagram, out of the way: there is simply no relationship problem that is different in kind between any form of relationship. The differences are always the particular variables involved, not some issue uniquely found within a particular relationship form. Further, the skills needed to address problems are generalizable across all the forms.
All of the problems here indicated are quite possible in any relationship between two or more consenting human beings. What the form of relationship will change is the quantity of the type of problem being dealt with and differences in the, hopefully discussed, agreements made between those involved.
Take for instance ‘hierarchy,’ a problem that supposedly only exists in polyamory. The complaints that “he’s married to his job” or “I’m a gamer widow” come to mind and those are just two. The inevitability of making choices concerning the priorities of interests is not solely the purview of a particular relationship form. The type of choices available will change, but that’s true of every relationship.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in monogamous relationships who believe they’ll never have a problem with their partner loving someone else more or having to deal with being a priority.
On the other side, take “wanting to be intimate with other people.” To say this isn’t a problem within polyamory is to offer an idealized form rather than any practical reality. One of the stereotypes often encountered by people who label themselves polyamorous is the assumption they want to have sex with any and everyone. Not only is this not true, but typically the desire, when it does arise, is not immediately acted on without concern or discussion with the others involved. In that sense, the desire (a profoundly human emotional inevitability) is a problem, it’s just being handled differently and, hopefully, with a lot less melodrama.
Unfortunately, there are any number of people in polyamorous relationships who think they’ll never have to worry about being bored, or being concerned about whether they or one of their partners is getting too close to someone else.
What a Different Form Can Help With
The issue here is one of exclusivity, a belief that a form of relational connection cuts you off from potential struggles of being human. The problem with a hyper-focus on differences in relationship forms is two-fold:
One: there is much wisdom to be found from people engaging in different forms that can be of immense use in whatever form you’re currently involved in and…
Two: believing the form of relationship you’re in excludes you from having particular problems will result in being blindsided when they do happen.
What a look at different forms can give us is an appreciation for the vast potential in human connectivity. It is truly beautiful and wisdom is found in seeing how different forms deal with problems that arise. There are undoubtedly numerous behaviors that can be used in your form of relationship without compromising the agreements you have with your partner(s). Taking a look can be part of any journey you’re on with whoever is with you.
Popular sayings and cliches abound. Songs are written as odes to and diatribes against. Lives are made and destroyed in its embrace. The forms it takes are at the center of social debate and religious theological musings. The nature of love guides, shapes, cajoles and inspires a host of behavior. Yet rarely does any of it bring us closer to an understanding of just what it is. Like referring to sleep as that thing we do when we’re not awake, noting the behavior inspired by love gives us much to discuss, but seeing any commonality is a bit more difficult.
What makes the situation even more compellingly frustrating is there exists no commonly understood definition of emotion either. With this in mind we can turn to a discussion of emotion by Daniel Siegel as it relates to attachment in his book The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. For Siegel, emotion serves the purpose of linking differentiated, or separated, parts. As in psychology with the linking of child to caregiver, or the sociological linking of individual to group, emotion is the process of binding these disparate and differentiated parts into a coherent whole. How this is applied to love as a particular manifestation of emotional energy is where we turn to next.
Love Binds What Is Thought Separate
When we love we are not simply noting the casting outward of a feeling but acknowledging a recognition of union amongst differentiation. What love is, is a counter to disillusionment, the opposite of dissociation, the cure to ennui and it knows only expansion. When we see union as the fundamental ground of our being-ness, love provides a space for certain behavior to emerge from it. Life-giving and respectful, cherishing that which helps life expand and progress. Differences become variations of unity rather than held up to show separation. When loving another it is within this unity, a conscious recognition of an interconnected existence. We celebrate in all their nuances the person in front of us just as we celebrate those around us and she or he who stares back in a mirror.
I have loved many people, just as I am quite certain those reading this have loved many as well. I love my family, I love my friends and lover, those who are no longer in my life and those who are merely tangentially connected to it. I love the song I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz and how when the subject of the song is shifted from a singular person in front of you to humanity as a whole there is only an expansion of meaning rather than confusion, a quickening desire to not give up even as the skies get rough, to make a difference and not to break or burn, learning to bend and acknowledge who each of us is and what each of us isn’t and who I am even in the midst of it all.
All of this, all of these manifestations of love are encapsulated within a singular term and yet at no time is there a flatland of feeling, a singularity to how such a feeling of love is to be felt. There is instead an allowance for gradations, for nuance and depth. Love is joyful exuberance within the process of this celebration, bound with the threads of our relational reality. We hold that space and by doing so find that love brings peace, a commitment to growing understanding and an expansion of life’s expression.
Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.
As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.
A Restricted Vision
Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.
The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.
How often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.
By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.
Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.
The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.
Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.
America’s most powerful social product may very well be that of the politicized identity. Pick a label, shove the entirety of a person into it, then use this narrow caricature to condemn, belittle, dismiss, celebrate and worship, depending on whether you like or don’t like said label. Any attempt at bringing up dialogue, suggesting that a person is more than any singular act or name, is met with varying degrees of disgust and declarations of not being a true ‘x.’ What that ‘x’ is inevitably centers upon the easiest and quickest way to differentiate that person as other, as different. Don’t agree with me? Well, it must mean you’re not a true Christian, Atheist, Liberal, Conservative, Democrat, Republican, Jew, Muslim, etc. The result of this slicing up of our humanity is a bloody floor littered with the ruins of potential conversations, personal growth and democracy.
Disagreement is inevitable, vilification is not. For every person who has an opinion that is inaccurate, that very same person has one that is/was true. Every person who has lied, cheated, or said something foul, that very same person has likely loved, cherished and said something supportive. We are amazingly capable of calling out our own moral failures as blips on the channel of our right-ness. Yet we dismiss the other person’s moral failings as intrinsic and unchanging qualities of their programming. Our humanity, the shared reality of what it is to be a human being, provides us the space to be both liar and saint, villain and hero, often within the same episode of our lives. The focus on one over another is not a sign of progress, it is promoting the myth of self-righteous authoritarianism.
What each of us cares about is not so different than anyone else. Our Values are universal, the behavior we use to manifest them is most certainly not. How a person gets from a Value to a Behavior is through their perspective/worldview. Simplistic labeling moves us right past what we have in common as human beings and places the entirety of our emphasis on a single sliver of behavior among the vast panoply of human life.
Beginning with what we have in common is not about dismissing the very real harm done through bigotry, hate and fear. What it does is remove the automatic association between what we care about and our behavior. Doing so recognizes that all of us act on our interests and for the promotion of what we care about, while also allowing for disagreement on the means. This keeps open the potential for change, for even the subtlest of shifts in worldview, because if two or more people care about the same thing and show it differently, then there is undoubtedly more ways of doing so, ways that are less destructive and more communal. A focus on what we do not have in common leads only to continued separation and various forms of open warfare.
Our shared humanity does not call us to agree about everything or to ignore pain and suffering. What it does is remind us that we are still connected to one another despite our disagreements and that one person’s pain and suffering can exist even as another’s does as well. Our growth as individuals and as a species will be based not on who is ‘true’ to a label, but upon whether we’re able to break free of the constraints such names make upon our behavior.
“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’
I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll
The humor of impossible thoughts is found in our refusal to consider any of our own thoughts as belonging there. Why of course someone else might think the impossible, but not me, says the self-assured mind of every human being. We are dedicated to our picture of reality. What each of us considers wrong or impossible says a great deal about that ideological perspective. To practice pondering the impossible is to step outside our mental boundaries and see what wasn’t caught in our framing.
Traveling down the road of the impossible is filled with anxiety. The depth to which we rely on our sense of being right and our belief that the vision of reality we hold is wholly accurate cannot be overstated. Consider for a moment a time when you found out you were wrong about something important, that sense of being off-balance and the gut-wrenching concern over what else you may have mistaken. For most of us that experience is short-lived, our minds eagerly moving on to what is more basic to human experience, that of feeling right, even if it is feeling right about having been wrong.
While the road of the impossible is not one of ease, it is an inevitable journey each takes with every realization that a small or larger piece of our worldview no longer is able to shape the experiences we’re having into a workable whole. The anxiety involved can be a seen as a form of aggression, us seeking to hold our experience within a particular set of boundaries and the larger reality pushing back, a bending and bowing out the frame. Which brings us to fundamentalism:
“In its avoidance of difference and diversity, in its turning its back on tolerance, fundamentalism is actually terrified of aggression. In fact, fundamentalism seeks to manage aggression out of existence.” (Samuels, 2005)
Contrary to the picture of the fundamentalist, particularly the religious kind, being a gun or flag-waving belligerent, the outward display hides a deep-seated need for the world itself to no longer be pushing against the boundaries they’ve set up. Let’s face it, if the world completely and utterly conformed to the dictator’s or zealot’s every ideological whim, there’d never be a perceived need to do anything by force. It is precisely because the world and every person in it exists in varying degrees of freedom that some form of force is committed, though always with the hope of eventually creating a world where nothing ever steps outside the constraints of their perspective.
“Fundamentalism offers fundamentalists a chance to avoid the knock-on effects of an encounter with social, cultural and political differences. The fundamentalist self is thereby protected from inner and outer experiences of conflict and aggression within the self. Aggressive rhetoric and pronouncements made by fundamentalist leaders are not the same as the ordinary reciprocal aggression engendered by a real and mutually enhancing meeting with someone or something strange and new… Such pronouncements construct a perimeter within which aggression does not show itself.” (Samuels, 2005)
That world of ease and lack of aggressive push-back is precisely why fundamentalism is a form of psychological escapism. Whether we ourselves are using it to some degree or fascinated by someone else wrapping themselves in it, the enticement is universal. Make no mistake, fundamentalism is not itself constrained by ideology. It is not a force found only in religious circles or despot-leaning political ideologies.
When we come across something that doesn’t fit neatly in our picture of the world, that initial pushback is fundamentalism’s sweet voice. Our avoidance is concerned with not wanting to deal with the aggression of a reality bigger than any one of us. When labeling a person to dismiss them, it is fundamentalism making barriers. What differentiates a ‘true believer’ from a ‘false’ one becomes a way of establishing the echo chambers of personal security. Declaring our personal experience sacrosanct and incapable of being criticized is the force of fundamentalism attempting to limit reality to the confines of our need to be right.
The lure of dogmatic belief or fundamentalism is one we are all prone to and it is insidious precisely because the end result, that of feeling right, is so basic to our continued living within a world that constantly and often in surprising ways, reminds us of our limits. Denying those limits through mental escapism will only ever blind us to the expansive reality waiting to be explored.
Nobody holds to a belief that they knowingly acknowledge is wrong or inaccurate. There is an emotional and identity-defining weight attached to each belief. For every incremental increase in resources (time, energy, money, relationships) spent on maintaining a belief, the greater the feeling of attachment and the less likely a person is ever to question the legitimacy of their claim. What area of life the belief connects to is incidental, what matters is the felt feeling of attached weight, the degree of importance a person places on it. This mounting pressure encourages us to bond together in groups, to spread the weight among the like-minded.
A mob is any group of people holding to a particular belief or set of beliefs, with the primary purpose being abject support of said belief with a demand for purity. This support may masquerade at times under the guise of rational inquiry, with questions often in the form of conspiracy building, but it is the purity standard that makes it into a mob-mentality. The belief cannot be questioned and stands as the means to differentiate the ‘true’ from the ‘false’ believers.
While for some the immediate example of a cult comes to mind, this behavior is not found only in religious groups, but is intrinsic to humanity. Political ideologies? Go to a rally and the lessening sense of individuation combined with an increase in emotional fervor will have you feeling larger than yourself. For that matter, many music concerts can encourage a similar feeling with rhythms of sound and body melting the barriers between self and other. In either situation, if you were to dare question what was going on, let there be no doubt you’d be met with varying degrees of anger and violence of one form or another.
A mob need not be a large group either. If you’ve ever met that couple utterly convinced of the rightness of their job venture or the sanctity of how they treat others despite chaos all around them, you know what abject support and purity looks like. Further, mobs are not constrained by physical proximity, as any social media messaging board or comment section can attest to.
“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us.” (Schulz, 2010, p.4) Unfortunately accuracy is as much a question of individual perception as it is about representing fully the myriad connections of reality. We search for information that supports the beliefs we already hold (confirmation bias) or to add other beliefs that support an overall worldview (internal coherence). Contrary to some who think bias is an act one consciously engages in, it is instead an inevitable and universal behavior. The question is not whether one is engaging in bias, it is the depth of one’s awareness of doing so and desire/intent to mitigate it in some way.
A piece of information ‘makes sense’ or a new belief ‘holds together’ based on the emotional criteria of whether such aligns with a personal identity or felt sense of self. As stated previously, this weight can be overwhelming, particularly when faced with a broader reality of facts and people that either don’t fit the worldview or are in vocal disagreement. The mob is a rescue from the uncertainty brought up by contrary information, a balm to the anxiety induced by skeptical inquiry.
Skepticism has two paths of discovery. The first is universal and exists alongside bias, where instead of focusing attention only on that evidence which is supportive, it draws the mind’s eye to all that doesn’t. The second is an active pursuit, a willful conscious deliberation upon what doesn’t fit in one’s beliefs, joined with a humility based on the long litany of historical protestations of having found truth only to be later chagrined at falling short.
Universal Skepticism is a form of psychological scientific method, parsing out the outliers in experience and shifting one’s worldview to allow for growth and change. Willful Skepticism is far more rare and often, despite boasts to the contrary, little more powerful than the Universal. A significant factor in how far skepticism plows the field of beliefs is the depth of one’s identification with the mob.
Remember that the mob is characterized by abject support and purity. If one looks around and sees in their friends, acquaintances, online communities, etc., little to no questioning of fundamental beliefs, then the mob is likely to be called home. If those who disagree are slandered, name-called, inferred or directly declared as being deficient in reason and intelligence, then it is the mob that one is part of. If one believes that their group is set against by the forces of the world in an US vs Them battle for the future of a family, community or nation, it is the mob that is being held close.
The mob is a haven precisely because it is based on one of the greatest feelings in life: that of believing one is right. Skepticism, both Universal and Willful, is the exact opposite: believing that no single or set of beliefs is ever absent the potential for being inaccurate in whole or in part. The mob is not contrary to humanity any more than skeptical inquiry is, though most certainly they each strengthen different features and encourage different behavior. The kind of person and community grown will be determined by the resources placed in pursuit of one over the other.
Schulz, Kathryn (2010-05-25). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Overwrought declarations concerning the security of a nation’s people is the bread and butter of modern politics. Every potential leader of the self-proclaimed free world attempts to outdo another with over-confident pronouncements of their ability to defeat the enemy and keep us all safe. Just who “the enemy” remains to be, years and decades down the road of military engagements, is left to the practice of reinforcing memories of great emotional power. The notion of having nuanced, layered, dialogue about the variables involved in warfare and the attempt at destroying ideas with bombs is never broached. In fact, the closest we get to a conversation of this type is an almost adolescent obsession with labels.
Regardless of this lack of acknowledging the complications involved with international ideological warfare, rest assured that each potential leader will offer their variation of, quoting Obama: “Let’s kill the people who are trying to kill us.” However, the how of a war’s delivery is at least as important as exploring the why of its start and continuation. The why helps us identify the worldview and values we bring to what should be the last resort of inter-personal behavior. The how determines whether once committed we don’t lose sight of the better angels of our nature.
No form more perfectly embodies the way America does warfare than the focus on air power and drones.
1. Depersonalized Technology
From the latest gadget coming out of Silicon Valley to the ability to reach the upper reaches of our stratosphere with almost casual indifference, the power of technology is a social obsession even as it so quickly becomes banal.
“To the United States, a drone strike seems to have very little risk and very little pain. At the receiving end, it feels like war. Americans have got to understand that. If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly—I don’t think we do, but there’s always the danger that you will—then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park, because that’s what they can respond with.” — Retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal in an interview with Foreign Affairs.
There is a curious and frightening aspect of human psychology that only the personal is deemed worthy of exploration, because only the personal has any emotional power attached to it. What technology provides for us is a means of distancing our potential emotional connections. We need never question what use it is being put to beyond our immediate surroundings.
“In fact, 12,000 or so strikes after Washington’s air war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq began in August 2014, we now know that intelligence estimates of its success had to be deliberately exaggerated by the military to support a conclusion that bombing and missile strikes were effective ways to do in the Islamic State.” (Tom Dispatch)
Unfortunately, our immediate environment is constrained by the extent of the questioning we bring to any situation. We have then a causal loop of insularity, with technology removing us from considerations of consequence, which then limits our ability to see beyond our own neighborhoods, our own borders.
“Even as air power keeps the U.S. military in the game, even as it shows results (terror leaders killed, weapons destroyed, oil shipments interdicted, and so on), even as it thrills politicians in Washington, that magical victory over the latest terror outfits remains elusive. That is, in part, because air power by definition never occupies ground. It can’t dig in. It can’t swim like Mao Zedong’s proverbial fish in the sea of “the people.” It can’t sustain persuasive force. Its force is always staccato and episodic.” (Tom Dispatch)
This lack of consequentialist thinking removes us from consideration of our goals. It should be shocking to hear of 12,000 drone strikes in a war that has gone on for 15 years. There are teenagers who have never known a time in America’s history where war was not a constant. Yet questions are rarely raised.
“Lethal force will not be proposed or pursued as punishment or as a substitute for prosecuting a terrorist suspect in a civilian court or a military commission. Lethal force will be used only to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.”
Solutions to ethical questions about the use of force are not easy and they are certainly not simple. What is equally not simple are the consequences of the continued use of force.
From Foreign Policy: “However, whenever human rights groups produce credible reports about non-American civilians who are unintentionally killed, U.S. officials and spokespersons refuse to provide any information at all, and instead refer back to official policy statements — which themselves appear to contradict how the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations is supposed to be practiced.”
When the form of force being used is fundamentally about providing increasing distance between the users and the place of effect, then it becomes even more imperative that we actively engage in seeking to explore those consequences. Unfortunately, as noted above, what is deemed not personal is rarely explored. Worse, what is not personal to the user may in fact be deeply personal to those suffering the effects.
From The New York Times: “The proliferating mistakes have given drones a sinister reputation in Pakistan and Yemen and have provoked a powerful anti-American backlash in the Muslim world.”
“Are our enemies any less resolutely human than we are? Like us, they’re not permanently swayed by bombing. They vow vengeance when friends, family members, associates of every sort are targeted. When American “smart” bombs obliterate wedding parties and other gatherings overseas, do we think the friends and loved ones of the dead shrug and say, “That’s war”? Here’s a hint: we didn’t.” (Tom Dispatch)
The users of technology are not different than those who have to deal with the effects. The lack of face-to-face delivery offers a physical distance that allows for moral ambiguity to grow and cognitive dissonance to not be dealt with. There are articles upon articles about online bullying and how the modern internet age of removing face-to-face interaction contributes to a lack of empathy and therefore a rise in behavior otherwise considered abhorrent and not acted upon. This process is no different in other forms of technology use, yet the consequences within warfare are generational in scope.
The Responsibility of War
“The utilization of force should carry with it the fullest attempt at matching projected action with internal value. If the action ceases to reflect or even begins to tarnish the value it seeks to support, then force and violence become less a tool of last resort and more a hammer seeking nails wherever they may be found. This connection is why it is incumbent upon the population and their representatives to do the utmost diligence in deciding when to use force. We have tasked our soldiers not merely with the protection of our national interests, but to do so at the cost of their lives and pieces of their humanity.” (Reflecting on the Armed Forces: The Other 1%)
“For a democracy committed to being a great military power, its leaders professing to believe that war can serve transcendent purposes, the allocation of responsibility for war qualifies as a matter of profound importance.” (Bacevich, 2013)
When we are no longer aware of or find ourselves much concerned with how our government conducts itself in the utilization of deadly force, this should serve as a scarlet flag waving upon our conscience. Yes, warfare seems to remain a necessary tool in the continued evolution of our fledgling civilization. No, warfare should not be dealt with heads held low and minds shut-down to consequence. We are not tasked as citizens of this world to merely ponder the importance of our singular lives, but to reach out and drive back the shadows of our own self-deceit.