On this peaceful Sunday morning New York City, here’s what’s happening. About 50 dead and another 40 hospitalized after a mass shooting in New Zealand. The act was committed by a white supremacist, someone anxious and infuriated by the encroaching brown people into his life/turf. All the data show that terrorist acts are mostly committed by such white people, but many people who know of this data insist that terrorism by non-whites is the greater threat.
The college admissions scandal: An unfortunate reaction to the deep anxiety that seems inherent in us, exacerbated– in both the poor and the rich, according to research – by income inequality. A fascinating social science experiment with capucin monkeys demonstrated that monkeys previously content with treats they were receiving became angry, rejecting, and physiologically stressed when they saw another monkey receiving a better treat; suddenly the one they were receiving and previously enjoyed felt inadequate, and they reacted with self-destructive hostility and agita. Physiological measures showed that the monkey receiving the nicer treat also became stressed. We see here that monkeys perceiving income inequality became dissatisfied with their previously satisfactory lot and reacted with competition, self-destructive rage (self-destructive in that they were throwing away food), in short with the same ugly feelings and behaviors we humans show when we get scared. We, too, fall into a silly and defensive anxiety and rage about what the Joneses have.
In a related piece of data, it turns out that helicopter parenting, all the unhappiness and ills such a childhood and family environment causes, is also greater in countries with more income inequality. Again the problem seems to be fear which makes us pull in, shore up defenses, hoard our resources, and view others through the lens of tribalism – “are you one of me or one of them? and if you’ve got more stuff I’m in danger”
Jared Cohen, CEO of Jigsaw – a Google offshoot that studies cyberthreats – described on a morning news program the threats to our elections by Russia in the form of “disinformation” disseminated through hacking of websites, personal accounts, etc. From our end of it – as the laymen, consumers, and recipients of the fake news – we could take some responsibility for what we choose to believe, for vetting the sources of the news (the feeds, the emails, the websites, etc.), for seeking out confirmation from other data sources, regardless of how comforting that news may be. I’m reminded of the cheers that went up in the room I was in while Bush Sr. was debating Dukakis for the presidency in 1988. Bush said dramatically, with great masculine authority, and soothingly, “read my lips; no new taxes”. No-one in the room was listening when less than a minute later Dukakis was pointing out that Bush’s words were “a lovely thought but where are you going to get the money?” We voters, we silly humans, took the easy path, didn’t question the soothing fake news of “no new taxes”, elected Bush, and he raised taxes.
What if we all took some more responsibility? That doesn’t mean the government or Google or Facebook or whoever shouldn’t also do that. But rather than scream at the universe for not feeding us well, how about taking some ownership of what we ingest – literally and figuratively. If you don’t want to waste too much time with television or the Internet, you have to turn them off. If you don’t want to be a victim of fake news, you can consider the sources of your information. If you want a government to responsibly serve your interests, you have to ferret out the truth through the self-serving lies people tell. And to do all that you have to acknowledge your anxieties rather than let them control you.
Here’s an example. My mother was descending into Alzheimer’s, my father was one day trying to tell her something and get her usual support, but she couldn’t focus as she used to and his words fell on deaf ears. He walked sadly away from her across our back yard while she continued to set the outdoor table for supper. His sorrow, hurt, and awareness of the meaning of her lack of response were palpable and painful to see. My nieces, about 8 and 10 at the time, were standing with me watching the scene from a distance. The older one said “poor Irv”, and I suggested she give him a hug. She crossed the yard to do so, my father turned to accept the hug from his granddaughter, and now that he was facing me I saw what was coming. I remember thinking to myself “3, 2, 1, and here we go.” My father caught my eye and said in a booming voice something like “have you gotten your taxes ready for this year kiddo?” He was a self-employed accountant and at the time I think was still doing my annual returns. I started to answer, got about three words out, and he began shaking his head with a slightly exaggerated and weary sense of being smarter than all of us laymen, and he began a short speech: “Kiddo, you gotta be sure that…..” The result of course was that all I could do for him was nod and thank him with a warm smile. At worst – if I were a different person or in a different mood – I would also have gotten myself out of the conversation and away from him as fast as I could.
So here we see someone facing the end of a four decade marriage, facing by association the impending end of his own life, and who knows what else was triggered by that painful moment with my mother – we know something strong was going on in him by his sad walk across the lawn. And at that moment, instead of reaching out he retreats into a self-protective display – most soothingly and urgently to himself – of competence and self-assurance, independence even. In the process he inadvertently pushes away exactly the support that he most needs and yearns for, the support that might actually help him feel and function better. I tell this story because of course my father’s counterproductive reaction to his feelings and situation is not unusual. You can see it all the time around you and I believe it explains most of the tribalism we see in the world today – the terrorism, the rage, the anti-global movement, Brexit, the rich folk cheating on their children’s college entrance exams and applications, radicalism, fundamentalism, and almost everyone who talks too loud in restaurants.
Such a shame because of course it isn’t always thus. We humans are capable of so much more. Yes we are anxious “pack animals”, as a friend of mine argued, but that is far from all we are. We are capable of such depth, such compassion, such insight, such farsight, such numinous. Carl Sagan got NASA to turn the Voyager probe around when it was at the edge of our solar system to take a picture of the earth as seen from out there. He pointed out that this tiny tiny dot, almost undetectable in a vast field of mostly empty space peppered with other dots, “contains everyone you’ve ever met, everything you’ve ever known”. Maybe it touched a few of us. But so often we retreat at the moment of fear. Like my father in the story above, we fail to react honestly with “I’m scared; wanna share a beer?”