Collective Wisdom Contemplative Activism

This uncoordinated Western dance should give us all cause for pause

The metaphor of the dance is something that has occured to a number of people who have described our response to the corona situation. But the institutions, and the wider populations of the West have been engaged so far in a really uncoordinated, frankly hard to watch group dance. Rather like watching a bunch of people who’ve only danced techno suddenly try to do line dancing, there is a lot of stumbling over each other. I have found it distressingly clumsy, and not because I am that worried about Coronavirus personally, or even socially, but because I am worried whether we can manage to navigate our way through the complexities of the near future, when we can’t even handle something as well understood as an extremely nasty cold virus. I also have renewed hope — not because of how we’ve responded to the corona crisis, but because of what it gives us a chance to learn. I hope that the lesson we take away from this is not that our societies need to learn more about virology and quarantines, as much as we need to re-learn how to build and to give trust — to be people that can work effectively together.

Without descending into any self-hatred, lets ask ourselves how wrong this summary is: The medical community suggested simple anti-viral choreography (limit travel, limit contact, test, test, wash, stay home) well before the outbreak, but rather than quickly taking this advice, we’ve done a slow shuffle towards half-hearted lockdowns. They are clearly going to take much longer than they need to because they are spottily observed and enforced and in most English speaking countries, incompetently managed. This means a likely depression and further chaos.

I have deep concern about the climate and civilisation, generally, so I have mixed feelings about this all — in my opinion some other straw would have broken the back of the beleaguered camel whose tiny cells we are. Or to use another metaphor, this could be like the fender bender that the dumbass driver needed to experience, to scare him before he makes a flaming ball of wreckage out of himself and his passengers. Before this pandemic I actually agreed with climate extremists like Kevin Anderson that we needed a planned recession to reduce greenhouse gases, but instead we’ve stumbled our way into one. Maybe it’s better to be lucky than to be good, but the point is that our performance shows that as a society, we aren’t prepared to navigate the future.

My intent is not to blame anybody, but simply to reflect on how we got here, and on what this might really teach us. The essence of coordinated dancing is trust and we’ve lost it. Blind trust in a bad dance partner can be dangerous, but everybody doing their own thing is where we’ve gone in our minds, our culture and on the dance floor and it shows. 

Before reviewing our failures in greater detail, I will give credit first – maybe we really are following deeper instincts towards a needed breakdown. Maybe the dance needs to be interrupted by painful stumbling for all parties to realise that there must be a better way and take the time to learn how to dance better. When I go to a shop in my rural Ireland I see some fairly half-hearted attempts to observe social distancing. I don’t blame people, some part of me thinks we need this and fears a neat and sudden ending that would feel strangely premature. I admit finding a silver lining in every day’s news of stubbornly stable levels of new infections across the West, and I, like many I talk to (quietly), almost feel a need to take part in the half-assed distancing, and to risk becoming an addition to Covid statistics because that’s what it will take for the great pause to drag on. 

But at the same time, I realise that our uncoordinated muddling is stupid, when seen against the alternatives we could have — such as a society-wide twenty hour work week during which we’d be seeing our friends and family in between our gardening and book-reading. But the great pause is here, and lets be honest we weren’t getting here through coordinated political dances anytime soon. I wrestle with the ambiguity of this all, delicious and repugnant in turns. I hope the rest of this doesn’t sound too harsh, I just want to be honest, there’s such a thing as too much politeness, especially in times of crisis.

The first sign of uncoordination happened when one by one, western nations waited for the virus to move out of the realm of abstraction and “become real” on live television, before admitting that maybe it wasn’t an Asian problem, a media creation designed to scare us, or a fantasy. We slowly admitted, maybe, just letting everybody do their thing, and relying on individual actions guided purely by enlightened self interest might not produce the collective action we needed in the time frame required. The reaction of many people was to start reading up on epidemiology, and virus statistics — to train themselves on epidemiology, rather than listen to epidemiologists. It was a democratic reaction, as we see it, but ineffective. 

To reiterate — it really is a new version of a well known cold virus. Even if it is deadlier, because we have no immunity yet, it is not dissimilar to things we’ve seen before and have studied for centuries. We have people who have been preparing for new viruses, of unknown deadliness, and known uncommunicability to come from unknown places for years. The basics of epidemiology have been stable for over one hundred years. We just have to get out of our own way, and listen to those people, like we listen to auto mechanics and paramedics.

But we didn’t, so after lurid images of stuffed Italian hospitals and pleading Italian doctors, our people and governments listened to the medical community, and governments took on, or were forced to take on, responsibility to direct the collective fortunes of their nations. Equally reluctantly, the populations have decided to listen, mostly.

Let me be clear — I really wish that I believed that the US, where I was born, and the UK where I spend most of my time now, were collectively ready to act in a free and inspiring way. We could see that we face a formidable challenge, put differences aside, come together, and each be relied upon to do our part to get infections down, so that we can be back out in the streets, like in many Asian countries. But it is hard to believe that this would be possible. The rate at which the virus is decreasing in Western countries means that it will take months for infections to decrease to manageable levels. 

When contrasted with China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, where governments enjoy either the obedience or willing support of the population, the arc of the virus in the West, where individualism is a religion and the governments are neither trusted nor obeyed are stark. It is notable that Germany where people obey traffic controls and even punk rockers don’t jaywalk has infection trajectories resembling like Asia. The experience of SARS is part of the reason for success in Asia, but let’s not forget that Korea had 3 cases of that virus (fewer than France, Germany, or the US), and SARS did not really spread much in 2002 — why? 

The governments of the most affected countries gave directions that interfered with personal freedoms and people listened. Koreans didn’t have an outbreak, they learned from those who had worse experiences. Asian countries didn’t start wearing masks after SARS, it was already an old habit. Asian cultures tend to have a more collectivist mindset, and place value on working together. The West has developed a nasty tendency of resenting anybody that we perceive as telling us what to do, and has decided that expertise and authority are synonyms for oppression.

And there is a lot to that. But there’s also a lot missing.

Seen in the best possible light, governments and academic institutions are the means by which “we, the people” act and think together, especially in the face of threats. There are some things which must be done in unison, like moving a couch, and the more people involved, the harder it is to achieve coordination. Some jobs, like building highways and stopping epidemics require millions of participants. That is where the government is supposed to come in. The old creation myth of democracy was that we created the government with a social contract, between all members of society and freely chose to keep to our word.

The reaction to the Corona virus has reflected a much darker view, in which the government and academia are run by “them.” “We” have no way out of the contract, and don’t feel like “we” signed it. There are a number of visions of who “they” are and who “we” are, but what matters is that “we” don’t trust “them” very much. So when scientists (them) initially spoke, both we, the population, and many of the politicians we’ve elected were skeptical. Nearly everybody is cynical about politicians. 

So really, what the West was not in position to do was listen to its experts.

Instead, almost the entire Western world waited to implement and then to endorse the lockdown until they seemed on a pace to rise to infection levels that were as high as Hubei, the most affected province of China. Now that the virus has multiplied, we need social distancing to be observed almost completely, to drive infections way down — not simply to low levels, but almost to extinction. For every couple of days we waited to act on advice, we now wait a week in mostly porous lockdowns for the infection rates to fall by the same amount. If even several hundred uncounted cases survive when lockdown restrictions are lifted, we risk a new explosive growth, because the vast majority of us have not acquired immunity, despite all the hubbub.

Wuhan, Hubei’s major city was on lockdown for more than 2 and a half months under an authoritarian lockdown. How long we are trapped in our houses depends on how quickly we manage to achieve decreases in case counts that resemble Hubei. For the most part, Western countries have first hoped that social distancing will be observed spontaneously, and then enforced it more strongly, little by little, using a top-down approach. It has taken a long time for us to accept what a quick and successful lockdown would require — out of the millions of people who are infected, almost nobody shirks. 

You can see this from the examples displayed below — data from Korea shows a much faster drop off than in Spain and Italy, see worldometers for data from China, Japan and Taiwan which look pretty much the same. Many don’t trust Chinese statistics but neighboring countries show that quick decreases in the disease are possible. In contrast, in Italy, it took two and a half weeks after the peak of the infections, for the number of new patients to dip below half of the largest day for the first time. France, which has been the most authoritarian in its lockdown out of the Western countries, has managed the fastest decreases. This doesn’t mean authoritarianism is the only response — but it does mean that acting together by any means is effective. Whether we need to be forced to act together is obviously up to us.

Data ource for all charts: Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering

I am not trying to properly place the blame for this state of affairs. I don’t blame politicians (too much) for not taking stronger actions sooner: If they had taken strong actions early, they risked being called fascists (as some were) because without visible evidence that the coronavirus is deadly  and difficult to contain, they could not justify themselves to a skeptical and divided public. It would be nice to have fearless politicians, but we don’t elect truth-tellers. I really wish we’d tone down the hateful attacks on Trump and Johnson who filled a political vacuum that we all contributed to. I disagree with them, but they are not “the problem.”

I also don’t blame people for mistrusting their institutions and leaders. We all know that something is rotten at high levels, and it would take a whole blog (at least) to address the thorny question of why I think we should now trust the same governments that hardly convicted anybody involved in the 2008 financial crisis. A simple answer is that pandemics, economic depressions, and famines, like climate breakdown, benefit very few people. Why did they let it happen, you ask? Nobody’s in charge when nobody trusts anybody.

No one person could have changed this dynamic, but we are all responsible — we can respond. That is simply a truth that we have to wrap our heads around. 

Collective action determined by politics always determines what individual choices are available to us, it has never been any other way, and it never will be. If we continue to see everybody involved in politics as inherently untrustworthy, we will continue to choose our politicians badly; seeing vile motives behind every utterance. It would be foolish to think of politicians as inherently trustworthy, as well. Unfortunately, we need to form institutions that we can trust — and for that we need levels of engagement in conversation and action towards new social structures that we have not seen for a very long time. We need to start conversations with open minds, so that others trust that something will come out of them.  We knew it was time for this before this crisis, I hope we accept this now.

To end, that is why I am a lot less interested in talking about the Coronavirus itself, than how we learn about ourselves through our handling of it. Our lack of an ability to dance together means we still have some time in lockdown to think about how to be the kind of people who can act together and meet the challenges that history will throw at us. Climate change, AI, and other events we didn’t anticipate are coming and we can be a lot readier for them than we were for the Covid-19. Paranoia will not save us, we can instead worry about how to be a community that cares about each other, and cares enough about the future of others to reflect on how we got here, how we create institutions and politics we can trust, and how we can act together more effectively in the future. It is a long conversation and a big project — so let’s get started.

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Letting go of Being Enlightened

It is strange for me, at this time, to be putting the last touches on a paper on collective wisdom, which argues that to navigate the future well, we Westerners must grapple with our deep attachment to some of our foundational ideas. Is now the time when we start to truly realise that, when we declared our enlightenment a few centuries ago, we were a bit premature, and make a course correction?

I don’t know, but I feel certain that our decision making is impaired by massive attachments to these notions: that we can control fate through reason and science, that we are separate individuals living “our own lives”, and dogmatic ideals of equality. In the paper, I discuss how these ideas relate to our inaction in the face of the long-standing threat of climate change. Here, I discuss here how they have affected our coronavirus response. 

To be clear, I don’t want to tie coronavirus too tightly together with climate anxiety of the last year. Diseases have moved from animals to humans every decade or so, HIV in the 80s, SARS in the 2000s, COVID-19 in late 2019, at least partially because of our invasion of remote habitats. So I am not so sure that the coronavirus proves that now is the crisis point, but it is definitely an opportunity to wake up, and be in a better collective frame of mind to handle future challenges. 

We’ve heeded warnings about the coronavirus about as well as our governments heeded climate scientists, up until the point when Italy, the birthplace of the renaissance, was consumed by crisis — why is this?

To start, like in climate change, effective action on the virus requires the collective, through the government, to interfere with individual rights. The idea of the government shutting things down runs so strongly against our ideas of individuality that we literally could not conceive of the actual necessary measures until hundreds of thousands of deaths were just about to be a reality. With the air about to be filled with viruses that stood a good chance of killing our parents we are dispensing with the well worn ideas about how as individuals we were each going to make socially responsible free choices, and started doing something that would actually work. Like confining ourselves to our houses. And we’ve needed to do the same thing with climate change for decades rather than waiting for everybody to make ecological consumer choices. Maybe now we’ll think about it. To be clear I am not arguing for obedience.

I’ve always seen the American rock song “Life is a Highway” as the perfect artistic glamorisation of our individualist ideology. Life itself is like a man-made expanse of impossibly flat asphalt that we can drive down in our individual cars at our individual will. 

In reality maybe life is a forest where if you’re left alone in it you won’t last very long – and that, is what “community” means. We can no longer afford to see this as “political” talk — dirty and to be avoided. What we have to avoid is disdain for others and moralising. Let’s face it — we’re almost all super-individualists (yes, that includes me), and it doesn’t work. Pointing the finger and trying to appear morally superior is just another way of being different.

Nature has never been easy to live in alone.

This is not the only reason why this virus and climate change have gotten so out of control, they are something of “perfect storms.” Just as there is never one reason why a person becomes known as the best in their field, there is no one reason why a crisis comes to be the worst we have seen.

We live inside a myth of rational control of the world and certain progress. We didn’t take the coronavirus or pandemics seriously because diseases of this kind are simply a thing of the past, according to these myths. SARS was often regarded in the West as the world health system crying wolf rather than a pandemic narrowly averted, as it was within professional circles. We have been unable to realise how close we’ve come to this before because it doesn’t fit into the story of progress.

Another reason is that we have let belief in equality reach extreme and absurd heights, to the point that the idea of expert knowledge, paradoxically, is seen as old fashioned. Just as in climate change, the opinions of any critic is treated as “equal” with that of scientists. The reason why we have vaccines for many viruses and could believe that diseases were a thing of the past is because of highly developed systems of education that allow some people to spend their lives understanding viruses. What technical progress we’ve achieved has been done by experts, who supported by wider society.

But, expert knowledge is distrusted because the practice of rationality has been so overused and abused, partially because we try to explain everything, even things we can’t explain. As we’ve seen recently with overused words such as mindful, organic, and “green” there is a centuries long tendency to market ideas and products by using the words “scientific” and “rational.” The academy and professions are supposed to be like certification bodies, that do a good job of making sure the label science is well-used, but they’ve been overwhelmed or compromised, at times. We have been told, for instance, that economics is a rigorous science, with its equations that make individual happiness synonymous with consumption and individual free time, with no place for empathy or concern. Mainstream medicine prescribes addictive drugs for distress. I think now demonstrates the need for building trust in institutions and experts, but this is a two way street, it requires institutions and expert communities that are able to admit that they are sometimes wrong or morally compromised. And in order for them to admit these things, we have to be ready to forgive past missteps, as much as possible.

Collective Wisdom Contemplative Activism

Collective blind spot #3: the equality complex

This blog series has focused on three revolutionary ideas that have slowly turned into dogmas: the faith in the power of rationality and scientific inquiry, individualism, and equality. I am arguing that seeing these enlightenment concepts as “the truth” has created our most dangerous collective blind spots.

Equality is the most difficult of these ideas to question. Almost all of us owe a great deal political movements that used ideals of equality as a rallying cry. Most of us come from ancestral lines who were peasants and serfs or were enslaved. A central tactic in their arguments and battles for the rights we now have, was to point out the vast similarities between themselves and humans at vastly different positions in the social hierarchy. Arguments that we are equality have brought groups closer together but not to equality. It has been barely more than 100 years since women could vote, and non-white people have been denied the vote until very recently by people that called themselves democratic. It has been a historical eyeblink since anybody but Kings and nobles had a real say in any country on Earth. As activism based on ideology of equality has achieved these thngs, the ideal of equality has become very ingrained.

So our attachment to equality is understandable. Another principle that we hold deeply is open mindedness and the notion that truth can always be questioned. These principles, actually, made it easier, not that many generations ago, to question the extreme inequality between people. The right of Kings to rule was yesterday’s dogma.

In order to demonstrate that equality is something of a dogma, I will ask you to consider these statements:

Money is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with money is.

Achievement is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with achievement is.

Being good looking is not a source of suffering, but an obsession with being good looking is.

There are many things that do not cause suffering, but an obsession with anything is a source of suffering.

My experience is that most people would agree with these, but many get uncomfortable if I repeat:

equality is not a source of suffering, but the equality complex (an obsession with it) is.

This last statement is a quote from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It is the only statement of his (that I know of) that reliably seems to raise people’s defences. There are good reasons for that defensiveness, but still I want to ask if it is a sign of dogma. If we think dogma has costs, then we should look more deeply to see what those are.

Or perhaps I should say: when Thich Nhat Hanh says the above quote, people are puzzled, but when I repeat it, they often say: ”…but we can’t just accept massive inequality!”

Now one could say that it should be obvious I am not saying that we should accept massive inequality. If I said “I think being obsessed with looking good causes me suffering” would it be reasonable to conclude that I mean “I am happy to look terrible.” No.

But, of course, I am a white male Zen non-master, and am privileged in western society, which is privileged relative to the whole world. So some people that I have spoken to have reasonably suspected me of using Thich Nhat Hanh’s quote to preserve these privileges. As long as I am selfish (I have an ego) there will always be an element of that, I will be defensive and ignorant because not being conscious of how I am unfairly advantaged is the easiest way to keep my advantages. I think many white males would report that it would be nice if they could get through a day without being reminded of inequality in a way that makes them feel guilty, but if white males try, we can understand why other people don’t sympathise with us that much.

The reality of equality is, however, that few people anywhere have shown the total belief in equality required to give away enough of their money to be equal in financial privileges to others. Speaking collectively, though we may have high ideals, these are not supported by deep convictions about equality in the West, or as a society we would be making ambitious plans to share our wealth. Foreign aid is less than one percent of most rich countries’ GDP and whether our foreign aid is well spent is a hotly debated issue.

At this point we can say that our ideals are bulls**t and commence hating ourselves and maybe even humans, generally. But to do this misses the point of ideals. Ideals are representations of the way things could be that we hold close to our awareness, ideas are images “about” life, life itself will never be ideal. The amount of resentment and hatred in around ideas of equality reflects exactly the same intellectual

Some people think that, by accepting that we fall short of ideals, we opens the door to simply being nationalist or racist. But the door to these things has always been open – just not ‘officially’. As world politics shows, despite decades of being taboo, these ideas are still here, and growing lately in their potency.

On the other hand, if we claim to actually live up to our ideals of equality, those of us who want the West to reckon with its historical legacies of colonialism and violence are easily dismissed as hypocrites. We are better served by the combination of high ideals and compassion for both ourselves and others that ancient wisdom traditions advocate, but which is absent from our current public discourse. If we have an obsession with equality, this translates into a lack of compassion and an acrimony that is stiffling a discourse which has to include six billion people.

The global warming crisis is going to make the shallowness of our interest in equality abundantly clear. We have to admit that we have not shown equal concern for our children as we do for ourselves, much less for people in other countries. We westerners are going to continue to be asked if we will let in refugees from abroad, and our proclamations that we deeply believe in the equal worth of all human lives will be put to the test. So far, the results are not very heartening.

The most necessary step to prepare ourselves at the emotional level is to act more consistently with our high ideals of equality is to accept that all egoic people, which in practice means all people, have a tendency towards selfishness and group identity that means we care more about ourselves than others. Habits like drinking too much or shoplifting, or telling lies are always easier to work with when we are honest with ourselves about their existence. Proclamations of belief in equality do little to change our passion and pleasure-driven habits, and trying to hold onto or enforce these ideals with an iron grip turns into resentment, or an absurd twisting of the truth in order to escape guilt and shame. We can constantly be conscious of and try to transform our tendency to love ourselves more than our neighbour, but this tendency will not easily go away in white western males, or among The West as a whole as it relates to the rest of the world.

This is because of ego and power. Having power (as we usually define it) means that you don’t have to be equal if you don’t want to be. Having an ego means you don’t want to be equal.

None of this means that we shouldn’t aspire to fairness, we should. What it means is that, as long as there is power and selfishness, there will not be equality. If we expect their to be equality when there is not then we get hatred. When there is hatred, there is friction lies and no-communication, and all of these things get in the way of meaningful action.

So for purely pragmatic reasons, we will need to find a way to be less reactive when ideals of equality are violated. If the environmental movement hatefully says we must treat all others with complete equality, it risks undermining its own credibility, because only saints really achieve this. We have to be careful not to produce paralysis from fearful inaction, but also hateful action, both deepen an ecological disaster which is tragically unequal in its consequences. The climate crisis may be so brutal in the choices that it presents to the privileged and well-armed West that norms of equality and universalism themselves will be challenged. If we end up replacing these ideals themselves with a return to open chauvanism, that will be the greatest tragedy – but it is a real possibility that is not taken seriously mostly because it is too unpleasant to consider.

As hinted above, I feel that re-integrating what wisdom traditions such the major religions and indigenous traditions have to teach us about love is the best way of really understanding, or even moving beyond our current ideals of equality. Love operates in a much different way than moralistic judgements about equality, but one which is hard to intellectualise, which is why love has found itself out of place in our rationalistic world. It is, however, something that seems to create social change more effectively than does our current heavy moralism, as the work of the greatest peacemakers of the twentieth century showed. Future blog posts will discuss this point in the context of Art / Earth / Tech’s new initiative for contemplative activism.