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Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Disease of Division [6]

A lot of us pooh-pooh the idea of unity between humans. In life, however, it's all about the same side of survival. That we have evolved this far outside of our caves at all owes much to the spirit of sharing.

Although it's outside the remit of this article to investigate how (or why) humans formulated the idea that the best method of survival was the route of domination, new science tells us the opposite: the unique nature of the evolution of our brains, which separates us from our closest genetic primate cousins, owes its existence not to the divisions between humans, but the connections they make.

I've written before about a Horizon documentary for BBC Two called "What Makes Us Human?" in which it was discovered that what separates us from our primate cousins is an inherent ability to come together to solve a problem. These cooperative connections - fostered in the right environments - are what made our brains evolve so differently from any other in the animal kingdom.

What makes us so different from the rest of life on the planet (though I am yet to see evidence that we have more social intelligence than dolphins) is not our superiority, or because we were created as special overseers to every other living thing made to serve us, but due to our innate humanity to connect with others.

Everything we do is about connection; love, sex, murder, war - it's about reaching out for the right, or wrong, reasons, or simply because reaching out is what humans do. As a dolphin is born primed to expect the sea, we are born expecting to share social contact. This unspoken human covenant to share and work together is a part of our human culture, whatever race, colour or creed you happen to be.

But our nature is easily corruptible. It is very pliable. Especially from a young age, and in our formative years there is a lot that can happen to switch off our humanity. Like the killer whales of the seas (which are really dolphins) we can become the most dangerous and destructive force in our environment. Some of the most famous monsters in film and literature have been created (very literally) as a caricature or allegory of us.

As this series on division continues, a militant splinter group described as ISIS or ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has drawn global condemnation following their attacks on the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit, and their threat to take Baghdad. ISIS has quickly developed a reputation as one of the most extreme groups operating in the region, but their existence should not be a surprise to us - they are the product of our actions, of our legacies of response to past challenges.

This is not to excuse terrorism willing to live and die by the sword. Something will have to be done; you can't just pray or wish the cancer away from the body. Innocent people are being killed and displaced from their homes. But, however much we may want to wash our hands of responsibility, Western allied soldiers have been doing that in Iraq and Afghanistan these past decades (and for centuries).

The issue is that once the body has caught this kind of cancer, every action is responsive, rather than preventative. We need to ask what environment triggers the animal in us that destroys, and what environment triggers the human part in us that sets us apart from the animal kingdom, which makes us share and work together to evolve to better things.

If you've read even one single sentence of this series, you'll get your epiphany now: it's the politics of division that fosters the animal in us, rendering our humanity a figment of the imagination. It's only by fostering an environment of unity that we become a civilisation civilised and stable enough to progress with the limitless potential afforded to us by being alive.

Civilisation wasn't a concept invented by the ancient Greeks, or the ancient Romans, or even the ancient Egyptians. Civilisation goes back further than the Assyrian, Babylonian and the Sumerian. It is in our genetic make-up, in our every gene to be "civilised". Thus wanting to be democratic, to be kind to others, to be tolerant of different beliefs is not exclusive to a single race or nation.

In our human history, these concepts may have first been caught and written down in certain languages, and by certain people identifying themselves as certain races (although many nations revising history today try to adopt these people as part of their "race") - but that doesn't mean true democracy is Greek, or Roman. Or even British or American. True democracy is human.

Democracy is not the ancient Greco-Roman form of government where the power is invested in the mob of Rome. Democracy isn't about paying lip service to a majority you use to put you in power, and mould to your own ideologies. Democracy isn't about the dominance of one ideology over another. It's not popular politics where you blind-side the majority with circus tactics or provide bread for the masses to keep you in power.

Democratic governance is invested in all the people, especially those who didn't vote you in. In fact, you have a greater responsibility to them, and the minor and major minorities in your nation, to respond to their views and incorporate as many of them as possible into the working of government. It's they who will keep you grounded, and incorruptible from the pliable hands of power.

It's useless to lay a historical charge or blame at the foot of one civilisation or another for taking us down this route of division throughout the ages. That's the type of moralising historian we need to shy away from. It would be easy to blame the ancient Egyptians for their hierarchical society, or the Greeks for their racist and misogynistic classicism (which they translated into Christianity), or the Romans for their greedy desire to own everything and make it "Roman".

None of that is democracy. None of that is what makes up our human values. So what does? Or more precisely, what should?

Where True Wisdom Grows

In talking about democracy, when I've used the symbol of a tree as an analogy for my law students, I haven't done so because I thought they lacked the ability to understand complex philosophies without dumbing it down for them. I say democracy is like a tree, because I believe it to be a fitting symbol for what democracy should stand for.

True democracy should be like a tree, as natural to our nature as a tree is to the planet, and just as important to its survival. A tree acts as the lungs of the world, and so, too, does democracy allow us to breathe and grow and progress under its shade. But it all depends on the soil, and how we nurture it. Each democracy will differ according to where it's grown, and how it's pruned, but all trees at the root needs to be the same for it to survive - it must preserve the sanctity for ALL life.

After all, if we are to live solely by the law of the jungle, what right does the lion have to judge the wolf? When we start dividing up our communities and treating them differently according to skin colour or belief, we begin to erode the liberties set to protect all equally. You become democratic in name only, and civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself in this way from within. Or to use another relevant paraphrase here - whilst the vessel may live, only a shadow of the soul flickers.

Thus none of the philosophical debating over the rule of law, over ethics, over politics will work unless we have that fundamental respect for life. Only from that seed will all true democracies grow - and although each tree of democracy will grow uniquely according to its own environment, it will still be one that recognises and protects and affords the dignity all living things have by right of birth.

This isn't an American way of thinking. It isn't simply a British value. This isn't even what we believe democracy is all about. But it will have to be. Only then will politics become more than about division. Only then will the moderate, peace-loving members of our communities stand wisely in silence against the extremists. The more we progress, the harder it will be to fight our true nature of wanting to work together, rather than rally against each other.

Sceptics will call such thinking a "weakness", and that for the survival of the fittest such namby-pamby beliefs would mean total annihilation. But we have some ways progressed from that: we no longer throw our more vulnerable babies down wells or abandon them to die in forests as the Spartans did to wean out the weak amongst them. But violent adulation for strength and competitiveness, and the treatment of the vulnerable as possessions with no right to participation, have yet to be relegated to the past. These divisive views still infect everything, from the American collegiate fraternities and their "Greek" way of life - as in the Steubenville High School rape case - to the highest office of politics.

We now realise that it indeed must be the meek who inherit the earth for civilisation to survive. It's from the "weak and vulnerable" our next leaders must come from. Those individuals who wouldn't have had a chance at life in Sparta, those we label wrongly as disabled (for it's people who can't deal with them that have the real disability), those who have embraced their "weaknesses" are the ones we must look to as our wisest teachers. They are our inspiration to guide us towards our true human nature - people like Stephen Sutton.

They know what it's like to face challenges on a daily basis that many of us can hardly fathom. Their "weakness" is their strength, while our strengths make us too weak to see that our failures can yet be the greatest teacher, to help us succeed in growing a forest full of democracies on our planet.

Or is this just foolish, heartfelt stuff that has no place in the day to day reality of lives? We believe that the road to the heart somehow cuts off the road to the mind, but in many ways it clears a path to the brain. And where there is a merging of the two, wisdom grows.

A classic Western example of wisdom can be found in Socrates, the Greek mystic and philosopher. Given the choice of escaping from his Athenian prison or facing his own death if he remained incarcerated, Socrates chose to spend his last days in jail, where he discoursed with friends about the meaning of life. He held the conviction that life is meant for sharpening the eye of the soul, a better and more permanent instrument with which to see truth than the eyes of the body, and he believed that an escape would belie the fundamental premise of his teaching.

Whenever we display a wise outlook, use common sense and good judgement, it's the sum of learning and emotional experience bolstered by the teachings of great thinkers. We understand what is true, right or lasting through the intellectual power to decide wisely, and that comes in partnership with the brain and heart. You cut off one, you eventually lose the other. Socrates had the heart to remain steadfast to his teachings, but he was also a rational man, too.

Rationality is what we use to maintain equilibrium within the partnership between the head and the heart. Some of us will run to run away from ourselves, others will run off to find themselves, but how many miles do we need to clock until we realise that the longest (and most important) journey we ever need to make is those few inches from the heart to the mind?

And it's our humanity, that inexplicable thing which makes us human, which allows us to traverse rationally between the two, and against any culture that says we must idolise killing, or hurt the weak. When we fail to use such wisdom, instead of our true nature, it's this false nurture of violence that prevails.

As a result, the divisions in our societies, and across the world, will continue to grow as we remain nations of killing and blood-letting that focus on the dominance of factions in religious ideology, or on the purity of racial lineage rather than the reality of genetic diversity.

We'll be unable to escape the politics of the past, or the wars we've fought that have forged ties of hatred lasting for centuries. We'll still need summits on sexual violence in war and genocidal crimes against humanity.

Until we can break the chain, we'll continue to divide each other, and raise children who will start the cycle all over again - to take sides when really, when it comes to the most important issues and priorities in life, there is none to take.

Main | Part one | Part two | Part three | Part four | Part five | End of Part six

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