Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let's Drop the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys Talk, We Need to Grow Up as a Species

Let's Drop the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys Talk, We Need to Grow Up as a Species

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President Obama has given us a huge gift. It's so big we may have trouble getting our arms around it, but it's potentially life-changing.

In 2008, even though I knew better, I fell for the notion that a more intelligent, reflective and progressive president could deflect our country's, even our world's, downward spin. Apparently a lot of people shared my frame of mind, or, dare I say, my hope.

It's tempting to blame the president for letting us down, or even easier to blame his opponents. But doing that would deny us his gift. Obama's gift is that the very failure we're witnessing -- failure to reform the financial system at the root level necessary to avoid the next calamity or the failure to convince Americans that health insurance reform now is an immediate, moral and economic necessity -- exposes a deeper truth. If President Obama's first year had been more successful, maybe we'd have missed it.

The truth is simply this: Bad people are not the root cause of our problems and "better people" can't make everything right.

Many think of conservatives, long wrapped in "family values," as the moralists, but the tendency to blame shortcomings of character for our problems shows up across the political spectrum. Economist Joseph Stiglitz, in his newest book, Freefall, talks of a "moral deficit" at the heart of our financial industry's woes, and Nomi Prins rails against "greed" on Wall Street in It Takes a Pillage.

Right and Left appear to share at least one common frame: The problem is defects in those people in power. If true, it's easy to believe that changing the people will solve a lot. As long as we believe this, we're in big trouble.

Really accepting Obama's gift starts with letting go of this frame and facing truths about ourselves we'd rather avoid. But the work is worth it. Only with an evidence-based take on ourselves can we move toward the saner, healthier world most people want.

The first part of this frame adjustment is fairly easy to swallow: More and more neuroscience confirms that we are indeed hardwired to care about each other, so we can't legitimately claim great moral victory when we're good. We just can't help it. Cooperation, it turns out, stimulates pleasure centers that are similar to what happens when we eat chocolate! Babies cry at the sound of other babies' cries but typically not at recordings of their own cries. In recent charming experiments, toddlers scurry to help clueless adults, without being asked and with no reward. And in another study, subjects ended up happier by buying a gift for someone else rather than indulging themselves.

Berkeley anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy brings us the greatest news of all. We probably didn't evolve in the same line with extant great apes. Whew. They can be really brutal. We likely evolved our uniquely cooperative nature through eons of distinctive "cooperative breeding," caring for each others' babies, which developed empathy, trust and the capacity to read each others' feelings. But there's more, and here's where it gets touchy.

History and lab experiments provide undeniable proof that most of us, not a handful of bad guys, will commit horrible deeds in the wrong conditions.

Have most of us, for example, really taken in the truth that the Holocaust was not the work of one madman but carried out by millions of ordinary people? And other genocides? The same truth. Like the one in the Congo today, ignored by the world but arguably resulting in even more deaths by everyday people than Hitler's death camps.

To solid historical evidence we can add compelling results from psychological experiments. One is the infamous 1971 Stanford prison experiment, which Dr. Philip Zimbardo had to halt early because his young subjects who'd tested "normal" were abusing each other in ways eerily similar to what happened at Abu Ghraib.

Taking all this in -- truly accepting the good, the bad and the ugly in ourselves -- we can drop the false and failing good-guys-vs.-bad-guys frame. We can grow up as a species. Accepting who we really are, we can identify the conditions shown to bring out the worst. They seem pretty clear. My short list includes concentrated unaccountable power, anonymity and lack of transparency, and scapegoating others.

Whether you would pick these conditions or others, my point is that we can begin to redirect the trajectory we're on -- decimating 100 species a day and causing a billion of our own species to go hungry despite vast abundance -- only if we take this big step: Only if we are determined to stop blaming and create the social conditions now proven to bring out the best in us, the pro-social needs and capacities we know are in there.

How?

By working to flip the conditions proven to bring out the worst in us. We can begin by dispersing power -- by creating new power as we ourselves step up as community problem solvers and by challenging the concentration of power by, for example, getting democracy-killing money out of politics. Only then can we create rules to ensure wealth's dispersion and to hold decision makers accountable.

Helping us to let go of illusion and get a grip on an evidence-based path to democratic solutions could be the real gift of Obama's presidency. Let's grab it.

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Nomi Prins responds:

I agree with France Moore Lappé that categorizing people as good vs. bad or moral vs. immoral, leaves us in a precarious place in which the players rather than the system are seen to have disproportionate "blame" for various crises or extreme lapses of general social, humanitarian or economic judgment. In It Takes a Pillage, and my earlier works, I don't merely blame the players for their choices, but also consider the current system of unbridled global finance and regulatory leniency to be a complete and expensive disaster.

The fact that elite groups of bankers and politicians have the ability to wreak economic havoc on the rest of the nation and the world is inexcusable. The rules, or lack thereof, have been watered down to a such an impotent state, that bankers are in many instances merely taking advantage of a game they (with help from key politicians) rigged in their favor. Their greed is not just for money, but for power and influence as well. I've worked in that world; the drive is real, and it will and does spiral out of control without appropriate boundaries.

As Lappé so eloquently points out, "We can begin by dispersing power." This is why anyone in a position to change the status quo must attempt to do so. The more influential that position, the greater the responsibility; hence, my criticism of the current and past administration's and Congress' inaction in that regard. This is not to say, as Lappé points out, that we don't have a collective responsibility to push for a safer, saner and more stable system. We do. In fact, besides giving up, there is no other option.

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