Dear Mr. President,
Welcome back. My apologies for delaying the third part of this letter.
The challenges for me in thinking it through and writing it down have been twofold… beginning with the need to summarize deep human motives for scapegoating and ending with my own desire to tie such motives to a key point in Part One of this letter: the world’s inattention to Pakistan’s amazing yearning for democracy, and their real capacity to establish it.
Besides the phenomenon of mimesis, human history points to another hidden motivation for scapegoating to which none can claim immunity.
I got my first inkling of this motivation under rather unlikely circumstances. Quick story, if I may.
In early March, 1997 I was in Bangalore, India with a group of fifteen westerners, and one afternoon we were sitting on a dirt floor inside an airy tent-looking-building that could have held three hundred of us. And we were doing something westerners sometimes do when they go to India… we were listening to a spiritual teacher hold forth on our naïve and insufferable questions.
Someone asked, “What is the highest spiritual knowledge?”
The teacher paused for sometime and in his pause I anticipated some generic sermon on love or peace or empty mind. Some guru kind of answer.
And then he answered in one word.
I could feel my face scrunch up. “What!” I responded to myself.
“Discrimination.” he said again, then paused and continued, “Knowing the difference between what is permanent and what is not.”
I thought what kind of lame and obscure answer is that? This is the highest spiritual knowledge? Somebody please tell me I didn’t come all the way to India for this.
Ironically, what I now think he was calling forth with this one word – discrimination – was a practical and, to me, not particularly “spiritual” way of addressing a confounding and paradoxical human experience, mostly unseen and unconsidered in our daily lives.
In our attempt in this letter to get to the roots of scapegoating, this all too human paradox is also our second “lowest common denominator:” the existential experience. And it appears to be the elephant in the room, a deeply personal experience that informs the way we feel about our daily lives, an experience we’re constantly dancing around or managing in one way or another, yet with little or no awareness of it being there.
Quick review. We’ve already looked at mimesis – a measurement of the degree of sameness in a culture – and how this sameness increases group tension from internal members competing to fulfill the same desires. Mimesis is social mechanism.
To avoid internal group violence, highly mimetic groups will instinctively activate this mechanism by opening an escape valve for that tension… scapegoating. And scapegoating works well to lower, not the mimetics in the group, but the tension arising from it.
Scapegoating, then, is natural, a “human instinct”, programmed into human group behavior as a defense mechanism.
But if scapegoating is natural, it is also irrational. And we instinctively know that too, don’t we?
But how can that be?
Otto Rank, one of a handful of brilliant men who created the science of psychoanalysis wondered the same thing. Late in his career in the 1930s he laid out for skeptical colleagues in Beyond Psychology, an “irrational basis of human nature which lies beyond any psychology, individual or collective.”
We humans are conflicted by nature.
And the unsettling and disturbing experience of this conflict is what we call “existential.”
But we said the existential experience is also a precursor for scapegoating!
Uh oh. Looks like an ugly downward spiral.
On one side we have deep personal feelings of unlimited possibilities for expansion of ourselves, biologically exempt, seemingly immortal, unbounded in our capacity to think, create, experience and become.
On the other side we have deep personal feelings of doom. Regardless of our unlimited potential, we are merely creatures who will die.
In the real experience of ourselves, we are living miracles, angels in bodies, untouched by time.
Also in the real experience of ourselves, we are living targets of instant death, with the inglorious and anonymous fate of ants.
A perplexing situation. To call it “existential” is almost to whitewash it from the overwhelming anxieties and depressions it can – and does – let loose.
What to do?
Humankind has developed civilization, culture, religion… a mass of strategies and social structures … to help bolster the good view we do have of ourselves and of the world.
But human nature has also invented a million distractions, not the least of which are prejudice, hate and war to repress our overwhelming fears to help us feel like we’re in control.
But under the best of circumstances, what exactly are we in control of, anyway?
For starters, we didn’t ask to be born, nor did we contribute to the recipe of our genetic make-up. In our bodies trillions of subatomic interactions move in just the right way, and do so in the amount of time it takes the reader to say, “holy smoke”. You get the picture. Our existence has little to do with our actual control of things.
In this sense, nothing in our existence seems permanent. Even worse? With exception to our knowing that life will some time end, everything in life itself, everything in our existence… is subject to doubt.
Or is it?
Everything in our existence?
What about our existence, itself?
Is our existence subject to doubt?
Can we say, “I have some doubt about whether or not I exist right now.”
Doubt is apparently a key function in anyone’s healthy life maintenance. Human beings doubt, and everything inside and outside us is subject to doubt. Our bodies, our minds, our well-being, our love ones, friends and neighbors… all subject to human doubt.
All except our own existence.
If I cannot in any way doubt my own existence, then what is it and why does it seem to stand alone in such an obviously unchanging way?
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am.”
But the certainty of our existence, right now, isn’t a thought. It seems to be deeper than thought…
Rather, it’s a basic feeling… coupled with a basic awareness… an awareness that I exist, a “who” with no discernible qualities other than a kind of “taste.”
Let’s go back to what the Indian teacher discussed as the highest knowledge. Discrimination. Knowing what is permanent and what is not. It all seems laughable, at best.
Still… it seems strange, does it not, that by some instinct (or whatever you prefer to call it) we do yearn for something permanent, something eternal, something beyond our mortal selves?
Scholars like Ernest Becker tie such yearning to our fundamental and over-whelming fear of death, and the subsequent denial of death we conjure up as an anxiolytic for our fear. Makes sense to me.
And yet perhaps there is something else in play, something other than fear, and our weird management of it.
Let’s do a little self reflection.
You, the reader, right now, have a sense of who you are… a sense of your own existence.
Now think for a moment. Is this sense of who you are somehow different from your sense of who you were when you were ten years old?
How about five years old? How about your earliest memories of your sense of who you are?
Besides the obvious differences in emotions, thoughts, experiences, memories, understanding of the world, etc., there is no change at all in this sense of who we are… in our undeniable existence.
And this isn’t some subtle or obscure or mystical realization. On the contrary, upon self reflection, it seems way too obvious.
It’s weird. Our existence appears to be not only beyond all doubt, it also has this unchanging quality to it.
What does it all mean?
I don’t have a clue. Not even a speculation.
And yet, this presence, this “being-ness” may deeply play a role in the “existential experience,” especially if we consider all the nifty ways we have of dealing with the downside-negativity of the “existential experience,” like assigning timeless or godlike qualities to things in our life that are neither, like money, like fame, like youth, etc.
In other words, regardless of metaphysics… doesn’t matter… Our “beingness” has a basic feeling of permanency to it. And this feeling is of precious value to us.
Is it then possible, that we are afraid of losing it? Losing not just our bodies but our beingness? Losing something that feels rather timeless? Assigning an end (or a death) to something that doesn’t appear to have had a beginning… at least not one we can remember, or conceive of… unlike the body, the beginning of which, and the end of which, we at least have a sophisticated intellectual and scientific view?
“No wonder” (quoting Becker) we’re batshit crazy. No wonder our tranferences, our projections, and yes our scapegoating are so destructive of self and others. We do indeed confuse that which feels permanent with that which isn’t.
Kierkegaard, Otto Rank, Ernest Becker and other resolve this paradox in an action that is not different from the essence Islam (a religion the west dearly loves to scapegoat) … surrender to the Divine.
I think somehow that Erich Fromm was trying to get at this in his work, “To Have, Or To Be.”
When we are oriented to “the being-ness” mode of our existence, we have some sense of our authentic existence, and are able to deal with the “terrors” of life in more healthy ways. Right now, we apparently don’t, and definitely aren’t. Some people say video games create violence. Perhaps however, violence, out of the fears from which it grows, creates video games… and now video war.
If you were “to have” democracy, you would have it with holidays and music and ceremony and flags…
But if you were “to be” democracy, you and your family and friends and neighbors would intelligently and peacefully and with a full sense of the goodness of who you are, take to the streets.
If we take a moment to think about it, Pakistani people are not our scapegoats, they are, for the world right now, our teachers.
Des Moines, Iowa
[My thanks to E. James Lieberman and Robert Kramer from whose many brilliant works I caught many helpful glimpses online.]