24 February 2010

Giving Up and Taking On

This is another post that I've revamped a bit for publication in Decatur News Online - I encourage you to click through and read it there. Thanks for your support of my fledgling publishing endeavors!

08 February 2010

Inherently Violent?

While I was watching the Super Bowl with some friends last night, I heard one friend remark something to the effect of “OK, enough testosterone already!” She was commenting on what she perceived to be the pervasive nature of violent or combative images throughout the evening – and not merely the sight of very large, very athletic men hitting each other as hard as they could on the playing field. She was speaking more about the commercials, and the ceremonial flyover of fighter jets, and the sideline antics. My initial response to her was essentially, “But we're an inherently violent society, what do you expect?”

Upon further reflection, of course, I find my words to have been inaccurate. It's not so much our society that's inherently violent; rather, it seems that violence is inherent in our species, and not just ours. Alfred, Lord Tennyson famously noted that nature is “red in tooth and claw”, and proponents of evolution later used the phrase to describe the describe the behavior of members of a species struggling to prevail in the “survival of the fittest”. Over time evolutionary theory has itself evolved, and now many scientists support a theory popularized by Richard Dawkins (in his book The Selfish Gene) known as the gene-centered theory. In brief, this theory holds that natural selection operates not merely on the macro level of individual members of a species, but on the micro genetic level whereby genes themselves are engaged in a competition of differential survival.

That's perhaps more of an aside than necessary. The main point I'm trying to make is that throughout the history of our species, those individuals with the genetic makeup that allows them to succeed in situations of direct competition (and often violent competition) over and against other individuals of our species or other species have been the individuals most likely to reproduce and have their genes continue on for generations. Conversely, those individuals who did not succeed in (violently) competitive situations did not have the opportunity to pass along their genes to the next generation (or have the opportunity to see the sun rise the next day, for that matter). A quick note: It's not only our species that has this history. If you've ever seen video of some of our closest evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees, committing infanticide against members of other unrelated chimpanzee clans, you'll have had a chilling reminder of this.

So that's how we got to where we are today: The genes that encourage success in violent competition are the ones that have had the most success in reproducing themselves and finding expression in members of our species (i.e., people). At the same time, however, religion and other elements of society have had some success in delimiting the acceptable boundaries of violence. Thus, we consider murder to be wrong, as opposed to other instances of injuring or killing another human being that much of society considers acceptable such as self-defense or defense of others. On a societal level, that notion of self-defense can manifest itself in police or military members using deadly force in ways that are generally acceptable to the vast majority of society. And for other people who are highly skilled at violent competition, there are outlets such as football. Yes, I know I'm painting with some broad strokes here.

Along with the evolutionary theories of competition and differential survival, some theorists propose ideas that fall under the broad heading of epigenetics. One line of thought in epigenetics (literally, over genetics) is that societies can influence which adaptations are rewarded by influencing which members of a species are allowed to prosper and reproduce, which could in turn effect the genetic makeup of the population. In essence, the environment winds up influencing heredity. [It's at this point that I look to my mates who are experts in evolutionary psychology and philosophy of science to step in and correct where necessary my descriptions of all of these theories in my last few paragraphs!]

In the same book, Dawkins coined the term meme (rhyming with gene) as something that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Now, there are books and articles galore about the concept of memes, and I won't even attempt to scratch the surface of those here. Suffice it to say that subsequent meme theorists have posited the notion that religions, political doctrines, and other systems of ideological thought are memetic in nature, being memeplexes or clusters of memes.

One problem with memeplexes is that they don't necessarily have to benefit genes in order to replicate and spread. However, it intuitively makes sense that if a particular memeplex is such that its replication will eventually wipe out all members of a species that carry it, it will eventually fall by the wayside. Here's where I'm going to take a bit of a leap. Is it possible that we as a species, or as individual members of our species, have now reached the point in our evolutionary history that we can consciously effect changes in our evolutionary future? Can we begin to choose memeplexes that will be for “the greater good”, benefiting more members of our species – and for that matter, other species as well and even the planet as a whole? Many religions and other philosophical systems contain memeplexes that call on their members to act with compassion toward others, to love one's neighbors, and to live in peace. Can we really embrace those in the fact of our genetic impulses toward violent competition? Can we consciously become more inherently loving and peaceful creatures? And by doing so, can we thus begin to consciously effect our own evolution as a species? I'm not yet convinced of the answers to those questions, but I think they are vital if we are to have any future as a species or a planet.

02 February 2010

The Fame Monster In All of Us

Yes, I'm going to use the Grammys, and specifically Lady Gaga's performance with Sir Elton John, as a jumping-off point for this page of musings. For those of you who missed it, here are three separate links to various videos of the performance; I'm sure there are copyright issues with these being available on the web so they'll probably be taken down at some point, but I don't think you'll get in too much trouble just by surfing over to YouTube (disclaimer: that's not to be construed as legal advice). And another disclaimer – I'm only a casual fan of Gaga's, so if you're reading this as a serious devotee and I get something wrong, please be gentle in your excoriations.

Whether or not you just watched the video, here are the relevant points. At one point in the performance an emcee-type character decries Gaga as a monster, probably referencing her album The Fame Monster (thus the title of this post). She's thrown into a fiery pit, but re-emerges below seated at a dual-keyboard piano opposite Sir Elton (one musician whose outfits, in his heyday, could keep up with hers). She strikes a monster-esque pose (was she referencing Thriller?) and shouts “Take my picture, Hollywood! I want to be a star!” The top of the piano is covered with outstretched arms reaching upwards. I wasn't sure what to make of the arms at first, but as the show continued I was struck by how many performers either interacted with the fans in mosh pits in prominent view, or walked out to an adjacent stage in the midst of (and above) the middle of the audience, or both. Then I understood the arms on the piano (maybe) – they were like the outstretched arms of the fans, reaching up in idolizing adoration to touch the musical stars. So, by her flamboyant outfits and over-the-top references, Gaga was parodying the quest for fame and adoration that so many celebrities seem to pursue.

Why are we so obsessed with fame? Why do we idolize celebrities? Think on this: They don't call the show American Pop Star, they call it American Idol. What is it about fame and celebrity that people seem to love, and at the same time hate? I think it's simply a matter of wanting to be known, and the fear comes from the fear of being known too thoroughly. As Gaga herself said about one of her songs, Beautiful Dirty Rich, “On one level it is about wooing the paparazzi and wanting fame. But, it’s not to be taken completely seriously. It’s about everyone’s obsession with that idea. But, it’s also about wanting a guy to love you and the struggle of whether you can have success or love or both.”

To know me is to love me? That may be what we want, but it's also what we fear. We all long to be known, to have our voices heard, to somehow stand out in the crowd of infinitely multiplying media outlets and ways of broadcasting ourselves (some poor fools even go so far as to write a blog) and dehumanizing work and traffic jams and an ever-shrinking, ever-flattening world that seems to spin faster every day. Yet we're also afraid of being known, at least being known too well, because we assume (consciously or unconsciously) that if someone really got to know us, the good and the bad, there's no way they'd want to have anything to do with us, let alone love us. That's also why the symbols of fame at the Grammys were mosh pits and outstretched arms reaching up to musical celebrities up above. They're up there and we're down here, and we idolize them up there with their fame and their celebrity, even though we can't really ever touch them.

I think this also applies to our worship of the divine. For millennia humans tended to worship a God on high, a God who was distant and unknowable and unreachable, no matter how much we stretched out our arms to try to touch heaven. There were some exceptions along the way – in the Christian tradition these exceptions were the medieval mystics like Hildegard or Julian – but they were definitely exceptions to the rule. In the last century or so of Christianity there's been a new trend. Particularly in evangelical Christian circles nowadays, it's very popular to claim Jesus as one's “personal Savior”, the implication being that one enjoys not just some distantly worshipful relationship with God, but that on some deep level there's an intimately personal connection between the believer and the divine. I'll leave to others to judge the theological soundness of either of these approaches; for now, I'm only interested in this longing to know and be known, and to be loved and accepted through and in spite of that being known.

Are there ways we as humans can do that with each other? Sometimes it's easier to imagine a divine being who fully knows, accepts, and loves us than to imagine that our neighbor, our colleague, our friend, or our spouse could do the same. One way to cultivate this kind of knowing-love is to model it. Referring back to my previous post on cynicism and the heart of the warrior, we need to be willing to be known in intimate ways. The being-known that is fame isn't intimate – it keeps its distance and is safe and protected, craving the adulation of outstretched arms but not being willing to risk revealing its true self. Once we quiet our own fears and set them aside, we can give others the space to let themselves be known by us. We can have to have the courage to listen rather than speak, to demonstrate to our friends (for starters) that we want to know them for who they are, and that we won't reject them once they reveal themselves to us.

A traditional Hindu greeting (that you might know from yoga classes) is “namaste”. Literally translated, this means “bowing to you/him/her”. The more symbolic meaning, and the meaning usually associated with it in more generic spiritual teachings, is something like “The divine in me acknowledges and adores the divine in you.” That's another way of getting to the same safe place. If I acknowledge that you embody a spark of the divine, and that I also do, then we share a common bond of the divine spirit (whatever you might choose to call it), and we each are of infinite worth. Then we can begin to break down the barriers that divide us, and without fear we can know even as we are known.