The more I’ve been drawn into advocacy and participation in politics from a citizen perspective, starting with a focus on healthcare reform and following it into the larger stream, the more I’ve wondered how our society in the US has become so polarized. The usual explanations seem unsatisfying. I have been baffled by the inherent contradictions in positions on both sides of the aisle. Sure, it’s easier for me to spot impossible beliefs on the conservative side—but I’m becoming more able to spot similar impossibilities among the progressives.
I kept having the feeling that somehow or other we are missing the central core of our delusions. Fighting the surface arguments has been futile at best and has only generated more and more Hydra heads at worst. I’m sure most of you who have “discussions” with opponents have noticed that no matter how many times you have a clear win on one debate point, even one your opponent seems to run out of defenses for, the same darn sound bite pops up again the next time as if you had never said a word.
At first it just frustrated me, until I realized how useful the information was. If a part of the political delusion seems persistent, it may not be the underlying problem. If so, we should stop jousting at it and instead follow the path further. Just as in psychoanalysis, if we can bring that deep, maybe subconscious “complex” into the light, we might have a hope of becoming functional adults.
This week, I finished Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle For America’s Soul by Gary Weiss . I encourage all of you to read it, whether you are a follower of Rand or not—Weiss has striking insights into how Rand’s meme of self-interest morality has increasingly shaped policy, and how it has been recombined in unexpected ways with ideas that should have ruled it out, like Christianity. It sounds like the cultural version of Internet malware, infecting the unwary and taking over good programs for malicious purposes.
Weiss is not a follower. He advises us to be alert to Rand so we can fight against her more effectively, and proposes a competing ethic of societal responsibility. I don’t think he got to the core either, because even the most eloquent arguments for social responsibility, some from old-school conservatives, have utterly failed to quarantine the malware.
So what’s at the beating heart of this destructive philosophy? Here’s what I think. It isn’t religion, and I’ll explain why in another post. It isn’t big or small government. It isn’t compassion, intelligence, fear, greed, hunger for power, morality, a work ethic, reverence for life at either end-point, sexism, racism, or lack thereof. I’ll try to take up each of those at some point later. I don’t even think it has to do with selfishness or altruism.
The way I see it, there’s a single fatal flaw in Rand’s philosophy, the same one that underlies many other irrational trends in politics. It’s this: her entire thesis rests on the concept that only selfish acts are moral. The only way such a system could possibly work to our personal advantage is if we are able to create a closed system where others’ actions and circumstances don’t significantly affect us—and we can’t. To the extent we believe we can operate in man-as-island mode, we are deluded.
We are connected. We are connected not just to each other but to everything living, to the physical components of the planet itself, to the moon, to the solar system and beyond. There is just no way to get away from it—it underlies the laws of nature. We each exert our own tiny bit of gravity, our own tiny conversion of food energy to heat and motion, our own flapping of the proverbial butterfly wings that combines with other flapping to shift a storm front.
I’m calling my “philosophy” Connectionism partly because it rhymes with Objectivism, Rand’s philosophy, and I want to throw it out there in direct competition. “Connectivism” is already used in education circles. I added the word Rational for several reasons—first, plain unmodified Connectionism is a computer-related theory. Second, I want to highlight the fact that Rand’s philosophy is not objective but instead highly irrational. And third, I want to focus on the purely empiric proof for connection effects, not the intuitions about them. Unlike Rand, I am not excluding religion if it fully embraces connection effects, but atheism fits just fine. For some of us, religion is the poetic, metaphorical and subjective experience of connection, and we use it to reach parts of our brain that linear thinking doesn’t penetrate.
Proof of our connection is everywhere, if we pay attention. Women, ever noticed that when we are around each other enough, our menstrual cycles start to synchronize? If we are neurologically normal, we have mirror neurons in our brains that cause us to reflect each other’s facial expressions and body language mostly without even knowing it. This creates contagious moods, besides helping us communicate. If my neighbor flushes her leftover medicine down the toilet, it gets into the water supply and I or someone else within 6 degrees from Kevin Bacon will eventually get a little. A single instance would cause such a tiny or remote effect I probably wouldn’t notice it—it would be sort of homeopathic—but multiple instances from many persons will add up to a recognizable outcome. The many droplets will merge into rivulets, then streams, then rivers and oceans.
Rand’s concept of “parasites” in society assumed that it is possible to stop feeding them, at which point they will either realize “their” errors (not ours) and become productive, independent persons or just die off without causing us damage. Rational Connectionism says that while such die-offs do happen and may not seem to affect the selfish, there is damage to all of us. When it is small, we don’t notice—when it is remote, we may mistakenly attribute it to another more visible cause. But when intentional withdrawal of resources affects large enough groups, the gangrene will seep into the water table and poison us all.
Rand bizarrely ignored history—if she had thought about it, she would have noticed that the oppressed or resource-less don’t just die like slow-boiled frogs. Sure, they may simmer an awfully long time, but eventually they wake up and revolt. If they are rat and flea infested, they get various plagues that escape the confines of their homeless camps and make their way into the mansions of the wealthy, past the gates and guard dogs. If they go bankrupt in large enough numbers, they will tank the biggest stock portfolio.
Some conservatives instinctively realize this and try to combat it by rigidly controlling what the rest of us do. We say gay marriage doesn’t affect them, but they know it does without being able to explain why, so they try to stop it. As a progressive, I would rather say that gay marriage would affect us positively, by encouraging stable relationships and making our culture more open and creative. The idea that we can limit the potential effects of others by controlling them is also wrong—the potential is still there, although it may seem less obvious. The problem is that we have mostly evolved to resist control when the stress of that control exceeds our comfort. Our distress, even if it doesn’t succeed immediately in overcoming power, will affect the entire system in negative ways.
Which brings me to how the central delusion affects progressives. We make the mistake of saying our individual actions are private and don’t affect others—they do, every one of them, whether others know what we are doing or not. Instead, we ought to honor the connections and point out how our freedom in certain areas can improve the environment for others. We have a certain tendency to over-regulate in some areas, triggering excessive stress in conservatives and the resulting effort to control us. Some have the illusion that we are not just connected but literally “one”. Our oneness is more like the oneness of a chain with many links or a body with many cells—we are not a single-celled amoeba, and that distinction is critical. Otherwise we fall into the real risk of a tyranny of the majority, putting the “we” before the “me” in a heavy handed way.
Even our altruism can get perverted. Rand instinctively knew something was screwy with over the top altruism, and she was right—there is no such thing. We can’t be pure altruists any more than we can be purely selfish—if we hurt ourselves to help others, we are still poisoning the water. We can also hurt others by interfering with their ability to contribute and encouraging learned helplessness. Conservatives over-apply that concept, but we progressives under-apply it.
Politically, embracing Rational Connectionism would mean that for every policy position, we must consider strongly how effects on those who seem remote from us or who live in an extreme minority situation would feed back into the system and on us. This is different from Utilitarianism—it is not an easy math where we can just choose what benefits the most people. It would also include how what we do with other species and the environment might affect us. I wouldn’t expect it to lead to the exact same conclusion by every person, only to bring our discussions onto more rational ground. Just as it is hard to predict the weather, we must expect we will not always get our connection predictions right.
What about morality? Morality doesn’t just drop out of the sky—it is not as relative as it sometimes looks, either. If I fully accept that we are connected, that there is neither pure selfishness nor pure altruism, such knowledge should lead me towards treating others respectfully. If I am not self-hating, the emotion that should logically arise is love, empathy and warmth.
I Googled “Rational Connectionism”, using quotations, and pulled up only one link to a computer course. So at least the term is somewhat new to Google. The philosophy is of course nothing at all new—I’m not that smart. John Donne, among others, said it much more beautifully. That doesn’t mean we can’t take it up as a sword to pierce the monster heart of delusion.
If you want to comment, please challenge yourself to do so on non-partisan grounds—for every criticism you make of one political party, find the flaw in your own. How do your own policy opinions take our connectedness into account? How can we collaborate to expose Rand’s fatal flaw and kill the beast?