Archive for the month “April, 2012”

Instinctive Complexity

By J. Peder Zane

Do we look before we leap? Think before we act? Are we rational beings in control of our behavior or hostages to primal instincts and irrational impulses?

These questions have come to the fore as scientists have become increasingly impressed by the extent to which human activity is controlled by mindless habits, unconscious thoughts and untested assumptions.

If people were airplanes, we’d be on autopilot most of the time.

This idea has been popularized through the field of evolutionary biology, which argues that human behavior is guided by deep-rooted survival strategies developed over thousands of years. And it informs a successful subgenre of books kick-started in 2005 by Malcolm Gladwell’s mega-seller, “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.”

Followers include “Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior” by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman; “The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives” by Leonard Mlodinow; “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein; and “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” by Dan Ariely.

Challenging the idea of free will, these books detail how often we are guided by thoughts, assumptions and impulses that conflict with our stated desires. Like the angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, this double-consciousness explains why we stop at Ben & Jerry’s right after we’ve vowed to lose weight; why we tend to follow the leader even as we think of ourselves as creative rebels; and why many of us harbor ugly racial and ethnic stereotypes even though we know they are false.

Just thinking about all this mindlessness will give you a headache! In fairness, it’s not all bad: If we had to think about everything, we’d never have time to do anything.

Though powerfully descriptive, this line of thinking is hardly new. Plato and his ancient Greek pals trumpeted reason as an antidote to the irrational, uncontrollable forces they saw driving the world.

Like it not, the “truths” of the human heart and mind were articulated long ago – read the ancient philosophers, the world’s great religious texts and a little Shakespeare, and you’ve covered the bases. In each historical epoch, we don’t create new ways of seeing the world but, like diners at a Chinese restaurant, pick different options from a long-established menu to satisfy our current needs.

The question is not whether people are guided by unconscious forces – always have been, always will be – but why we find this insight so appealing right now?

I believe it’s because this approach speaks to our complex relationship with the larger world. While plumbing our psychology, it also seems to describe our culture.

In these fast-paced times where massive global forces seem to affect every aspect of our lives, the idea that we are at the mercy of powerful, invisible forces makes sense. At a time when many of us rely on technologies we don’t understand, invest in financial markets that seem beyond reason and see the price for food, gas and other essentials determined by the politics of countries we’ve barely heard of, our impotence is palpable.

At the same time, this framework suggests a primal authenticity, connecting us to our basic humanity amid all this confusing complexity. It says that no matter how much we may shape and change the world, we are still, at heart, creatures of the Earth, moved by timeless instincts more powerful than anything we might create. I’m a weak, impulsive animal; I’m keeping it real!

Ironically, this line of thinking may also be resonating now because of our recent success in debunking time-honored notions of human nature. At the beginning of the 20th century, most Westerners had fairly firm ideas about it. Eminent scientists wrote books detailing the essential nature of various groups – the ingrained, unalterable habits that made one race different from the next.

Sigmund Freud spilled barrels of ink detailing the eternal instincts that drive all humans and the forces that make women so different from men.

Today, much of that work seems like pure hooey. The great movements for civil rights convinced us that people aren’t all that different. We realized that it wasn’t scientific facts but imposed ideologies that led us to slice and dice one another into various camps.

This point was driven home once more in a 2008 New York Times Magazine about declining birth rates.

“Around the world, even in developing countries,” the article reported, “birthrates have plummeted – from 6.0 globally in 1972 to 2.9 today – as populations have shifted from rural areas to cities and people have adopted urban lifestyles.”

This trend is most pronounced in many Asian and European nations where the birth rates have slipped to around 1.3 per woman – well below the “replacement rate” of 2.1.

The article offers a host of economic and cultural forces to explain this. What impressed me about this dynamic was how it upended a “basic fact” I was taught growing up: that humans are driven by the biological imperative to procreate, to spread our seed, to give our DNA everlasting life.

Apparently not. And if we can tame that drive, we can do anything.

The mind is more powerful than nature. It enables us to make and remake ourselves and the world. Instead of describing our inherent weakness, books like “Blink” and “Sway” are cautionary tales about what happens when we leap before we look, when we act without thinking.

They remind us of the closest thing we have to an eternal truth: The mind is a terrible thing to waste.




Lack of Curiosity is Curious

By J. Peder Zane

Over dinner a few years ago, the novelist Lawrence Naumoff told a troubling story. He asked students in his introduction to creative writing course at UNC-Chapel Hill if they had read Jack Kerouac. Nobody raised their hand. Then he asked if anyone had ever heard of Jack Kerouac. More blank expressions.

Naumoff began describing the legend of the literary wild man. One student offered that he had a teacher who was just as crazy. Naumoff asked the professor’s name. The student said he didn’t know. Naumoff then asked this oblivious scholar, “Do you know my name?”

After a long pause, the young man replied, “No.”

“I guess I’ve always known that many students are just taking my course to get a requirement out of the way,” Naumoff said. “But it was disheartening to see that some couldn’t even go to the trouble of finding out the name of the person teaching the course.”

The floodgates were opened and the other UNC professors at the dinner began sharing their own dispiriting stories about the troubling state of curiosity on campus. Their experiences echoed the complaints voiced by many of my book reviewers who teach at some of the nation’s best schools.

All of them have noted that such ignorance isn’t new — students have always possessed far less knowldge than they should, or think they have. But in the past, ignorance tended to be a source of shame and motivation. Students were far more likely to be troubled by not-knowing, far more eager to fill such gaps by learning. As one of my reviewers, Stanley Trachtenberg, once said, “It’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t care about what they don’t know.”

This lack of curiosity is especially disturbing because it infects our broader culture. Unfortunately, it seems both inevitable and incurable.

In our increasingly complex world, the amount of information required to master any particular discipline — e.g. computers, life insurance, medicine — has expanded geometrically. We are forced to become specialists, people who know more and more about less and less.

Add to this two other factors: the mind-set that puts work at the center of American life and the deep fear spawned by the rise of globalization and other free market approaches that have turned job security into an anachronism. In this frightening new world, students do not turn to universities for mind expansion but vocational training. In the parlance of journalism, they want news they can use.

Upon graduation, they must devote ever more energy to mastering the floods of information that might help them keep their wobbly jobs. Crunched, they have little time to learn about far-flung subjects.

The narrowcasting of our lives is writ large in our culture. Faced with a near infinite range of knowledge, the Internet slices and dices it all into highly specialized niches that provide mountainous details about the slightest molehills. It is no wonder that the last mainstream outlet of general knowledge, the daily newspaper, is suffering declining readership. When people only care about what they care about, their desire to know something more, something new, evaporates like the morning dew.

Here’s where it gets really interesting. In comforting response to these exigencies, our culture gives us a pass, downplaying the importance of knowledge, culture, history and tradition. Not too long ago, students might have been embarrassed to admit they’d never heard of Jack Kerouac. Now they’re permitted to say “whatever.”

When was the last time you met anyone who was ashamed because they didn’t know something?

It hasn’t always been so. When my father, the son of Italian immigrants, was growing up in the 1930s and 40s, he aspired to be a man of learning. Forced to go to work instead of college, he read “the best books,” listened to “the best music,” learned which fork to use for his salad. He watched Fred Astaire puttin’ on his top hat and tyin’ up his white tie, and dreamed of entering that world of distinction.

That mind-set seems as dead as my beloved Dad. The notion of an aspirational culture, in which one endeavors to learn what is right, proper and important in order to make something more of himself, is past.

In fairness, the assault on high culture and tradition that has transpired since the 1960s has paid great dividends, bringing long overdue attention to marginalized voices.

Unfortunately, this new freedom has sucker punched the notion of the educated person who is esteemed not because of the size of his bank account or the extent of his fame but the depth of his knowledge. Instead of a mainstream reverence for those who produce or appreciate works that represent the summit of human achievement, we have a corporatized and commodified culture that hypes the latest trend, the next new thing.

A fundamental truth about people is that they are shaped by the world around them. In the here and now, get-the-job-done environment of modern America, the knowledge for knowledge’s sake ethos that is the foundation of a liberal arts education — and of a rich and satisfying life — has been shoved to the margins. Curiously, in a world where everything is worth knowing, nothing is.

The Lost Art of Empathy

By J. Peder Zane

Nothing symbolizes the nastiness of American politics better than the constant calls for civility.

Every time some loudmouth goes off the rails – Rush Limbaugh insults a law student, Bill Maher describes Sarah Palin in terms we can’t reproduce here – heads shake and fingers wag amidst the strident demands for decency.

But notice that those calls come from one corner at a time: liberals only get their knickers twisted when conservatives cross the line; mega dittos in reverse for conservatives. The pleas for civility are really just a cudgel one side uses to smack the other. It is opportunism posing as high-mindedness.

No one sees the speck in their own eye because, well, they don’t see it. Combatants on each side of the partisan divide view their opponents in extremely ungenerous terms – as mean, selfish, radical communists/fascists. And it all seems fine. After all, one person’s insult is another person’s truth; one person’s harsh words are another person’s telling it like it is.

The calls for civility are doomed so long as, in our heart of hearts, we don’t feel particularly civil toward one another. And, we don’t. That’s why we have handed large chunks of the public discourse to cable TV blowhards and editorial page gas bags who express the vox populi through ad hominem attacks.

Make no mistake, they are prospering because they speak for us – ok, not you and me, but everybody else. They dominate our discourse because we let them. We, in turn, sound more and more like them.

The calls for civility may be better than nothing, but they set an awfully low bar. Civility is the bare minimum. It’s how we act towards those we don’t respect, the slight restraint we exercise when what we really want to do is punch someone in the nose.

If we want to move our politics and culture in a positive direction we should stop calling for civility and start practicing the lost art of empathy.

We should try to see things through the other person’s eyes, try to understand how they think and feel and why their view of the world makes sense to them. Instead of telling others what we think, empathy empowers us to ask where they’re coming from.

Practicing empathy does not mean that we will adopt their point of view. In fact, it may lead us to disagree with them even more strongly, especially if the other person is a virulent racist or a suicide bomber bent on targeting civilians. But, even in such extreme cases, empathy enables us to recognize their humanity. Just like us, a mixture of experience and education, desire and need, has led them to adopt views that make sense for them (even if we conclude that those views are dead wrong or even immoral).

Despite the white-hot rhetoric spouted so easily these days, few Americans are extremists. They are fellow human beings doing the best they can to find meaning in a hurly burly world.

Empathy fosters humility and respect by reminding us that our view is only one way of looking at things in a world with few absolute truths.

Empathy is particularly useful in political debates because it helps us find common ground – to see a little bit of ourselves in our opponents. Today’s hot buttons issues are controversial precisely because there are appealing arguments on each side. Although we tend to paint such questions in black and white – you’re on one side or the other, for or against – they pulse with the tension of competing values. To cite three examples:

  • Our views on taxes hinge on the balance we strike between private property and one’s duties to the state.
  • Our views on the criminal justice system hinge on the balance between security and liberty.
  • Our views on abortion hinge on the balance between protecting life and self-determination.

We all strike a balance that works for us in the same way: by embracing views that reflect our view of the world and that will, we believe, advance our self-interest, which is a complex mix of economic, social, intellectual and psychological factors.

The art of empathy helps us focus on this common struggle, spurring us to treat one another with decency and respect. It also increases our chance of changing minds – knowing what’s important to your opponent is the most powerful tool in any negotiation.

This is not an easy skill. Truth be told, I struggle with it every day. But that hard work seems preferable to surrendering to our toxic politics which are preventing us from confronting the immense challenges we all face together.

J. Peder Zane teaches Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Augustine’s College. He is the author, with Adrian Bejan, of “Design in Nature: How the Constructal Law Governs Evolution in Biology, Physics, Technology, and Social Organization.”

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