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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Changing the Story, Part Three

The combination of themes #3 and #7 from the previous two essays are pivotal to the functioning of our present Story and so I am addressing them in some detail.

(3) Belief in agency (human agency and supernatural agency) rather than events being moved by the immediate and direct action of preceding events and the statistical properties of randomness.

(7) The belief that humans are individual self-reliant units of action: each person is seen as a fully independent actor making from the world’s opportunities what they can (moved properly by acquisitiveness).  Success and failure are equally earned only by the amount and quality of effort.  Circular reasoning is generally applied: success (by the standards of #4 and 6) equals effort; failure equals sloth.

Agency is both one of the most powerful themes and one of the least thought about or realized.  The human world seems to operate on pure agency: we imagine something, study the possibilities, design a method, gather the requirements both informational and material, execute the details of the plan and produce the result; looks like agency through and through.  But what if this is not how things really happen?

When agency is combined with #7 – individual self-reliant units of action – an image of how the world should, and must, work is formed: an every ‘man’ for himself image.  When selected bits for story are gathered and the missing pieces rationalized, it is a powerful and compelling narrative.  Woven together with God given rights, human exceptionalism, the practical and social utility of material possessions and the attractiveness of personal superiority, the narrative begins to concretize into an unbreachable bulwark against criticism or the concerns of those who have not attained equal levels of impunity over the masses and nature.

The trouble, of course, is that the narrative and its supporting structures are just wrong in every detail, but most importantly and least obviously in its most basic assumption of agency.  But, if agency is not the explanation, then why does it seem to be?  There are several reasons, a central one being a fallacy of inductive reasoning: only recognizing the class of cases that support such a view.  Another failure of reasoning comes from the uncritical acceptance of the independence of action.

Viewed from the perspective of distance it is clear that the conditions of a society, the state of technological development and the general process of idea formation combine together to produce the possibility of particular changes, ideas and “discoveries.”  Any look at the history of new ideas finds several people discovering the same thing independently within, often, only months of each other [1].  And for those who have made an impression on recorded history, there are certainly many more who would have produced the discovery (possibly in even better form) in a few additional months or years.  This is clearly the case with scientific and technological developments and there is no reason that the process should be any different for commercial enterprises.

In this revised Story theme the society sets the tone, the technology and intellectual environment supplies the tools and the population supplies the people.  The people who find themselves in a position to reap the greatest benefits realize that theirs is the good fortune bestowed on them by accidents of birth, genetic good luck, being passed over by disease, abusive treatment or other debilitation and generally being in the right place at the right time.  A plot-line in this alternative theme would be that while the desire for success and the effort expended for it can be seen as personal virtues, and that a person can take pride in them, such positive qualities belong not to the person alone, but to the supporting community as well (that personal action is nothing without the community within which it occurs is so obvious that it is often missed – does a man alone on a desert island printing a million dollars make a noise!?).

A subplot would be that the person in the focus of success recognizes the supporting structures and accepts the benefits with humility making sure that the larger community is compensated for its contributions.  In this Story millionaires/billionaires would be immoral thieves stealing from the community, taking vastly more than their actual contribution to either the community or its economic system; stealing from the only source available, the compensations that should rightfully be made to others for their contributions supporting community. It is understood, in this subplot, that all productive action arises from the whole community through its supporting infrastructure: physical, intellectual and emotional.

In this new Story, agency is a short-hand for the summary of history and present state creating a focus for action into which walks a single person, group or community.  This only appears to be a more difficult idea because it is not well formed in our present Story, but is still an important part of the Story of many other societies and has been a central part of the Story of ourselves from our past. Very particular historical trends have led us US of Americans to the peculiar design of our present Story.

Self-reliant individualism is just as fragile an idea when removed from the protection of its dominating story; and for many of the same reasons (it is expected that a society’s Story would be broadly internally supporting).  The origin and metaphor for such an idea can be seen with great clarity and emotional affect driving from eastern New Mexico into west Texas (especially effective from the seat of a motorcycle – an ‘individual and self-reliant’ form of travel):

The “empty” plains, cactus meadows, mesas and arroyos gradually give way to fields, clearly carved from the native soil.  The fields surround isolated stands of various farm buildings, which in turn surround a house, usually at the end of a narrow gravel track, well off from the paved farm road.  It is easy to see why the inhabitants of that house would feel that they had “done it all themselves.”  The present Story doesn’t count the laborer, the subduing of the Kiowa, the education and inculcating of work ethic and so much more. 

The farmer can look at the fields of Sorghum, seeing in the distance the raw scrub country of the Llano Estacado, and feel a pride both justified and unjustified.  With his work-rough hands, sunburned skin and eyes, his various injuries and suffering all summarized in the miles of red fields that represent not only his labor, but the money that will pay the loans, the workers and suppliers; all of ‘it’ on his and his family’s shoulders: it is easy to not see the army of others that made it possible, easy to see the payments made to bankers, taxes, to farm laborers, to services, insurance, suppliers and others as payment more than enough, easy to ignore the debt to the larger community that, frankly, cannot be seen from the front porch or the seat of the tractor.

But this farmer is no more individual, no more self-reliant, than a baby in the womb; it is a self-serving illusion.  Acting in self-interest is not self-reliance.  He or she is surrounded by literally millions of people without whom all that is taken pride in would be impossible.  And in an ethic of this part of the country – “charity from no one and a helping hand to all (unless you are not sufficient like me)” – an argument can be even be made to the farmer that those millions are owed a compensation for their contribution. 

The first on the list is the governing structure that enforces contracts, guarantees certain economic protections, combines the taxes of multitudes to improve roads, to make towns possible, to create a climate of safety so that the doctor, lawyer, hairdresser, auto parts store, gas station and a hundred other businesses are just 15 miles down that improved road.  At the other end of the continuum of contributors is the meat marketer and meat-eater that buys the beef feed by the sorghum from the nearly endless and lovely red fields. And less obvious, but just as vital, is the social stability created by education, communication, challenges to bigotry and a broad social expectation for the acceptance of others as honest brokers.

An interesting and vital twist to the present Story is that the farmer has some justification for believing the theme of individual self-reliance; the farmer doesn’t have to be crazy to have that crazy idea.  The great danger comes when investment bankers, politicians and the like try to cloak themselves and their actions in that part of the story.  They have to be insane to believe that they are individual, self-reliant or anything other that a cog in a machine from which they have found a way to steal [2].
* * *  
The other themes in our present story can be similarly treated, but I will only briefly rewrite them in forms for the Story that I am proposing as more appropriate to reality.

(1) Humans are a species with exceptional qualities, but so are all the others; our adaptations are just more powerful and therefore more dangerous than most.  We must actively arrange our lives, communities, societies and productions to function compatibly with ecological reality.

(2) Human life has no special permission for our activities.  The mystery and beauty of earth, life and universe require no imagined supernatural entity to give them validation.  That we have come to exist by the billions-to-one chance motion of planet and molecule is more awe-inspiring and spiritually engaging than an imagining distilled out of our own needfulness and lack of understanding.

(4) Humans create hierarchies of value as a way of organizing behavior.  It is natural, but unjustified, to assume that one’s own community and ways of being are superior to others.  But since each community (ethic group, racial identification, etc.) considers itself to be superior to another that, with equal justification, considers itself superior, then the table is set for either conflict or laughter.

(5) It is in the biology of humans to follow, in general terms, the evolved primate patterns of social organization (it is this fact that makes ape and monkey social behavior seem so familiar to us).  However, this normal part of our biology needs to be tempered by the incredible power of our numbers and technology.  We need to be aware that our biology can be easily fooled now that we are out of the woods and that a small consistent percentage of people will attempt to dominate others by methods fair and foul.

(6) The biology of humans makes easily identifiable differences the basis for worth and value; that is why all societies develop “badges” of various kinds.  The bases of worth and value are determinative of the motivational structure – the incentive system – of the society.  Material possession as raison d'ĂȘtre is characteristic of a degenerate social order and must be struggled against as it continually presses forward its form of easily identified difference.
* * *    
With these 5 new themes, with some distillation of the above argument to replace the present #3 and #7,  with the process of plot and subplot filling in the holes as elements of the themes are made into narrative,  then a new Story structure would form. I leave it to the reader to tease out how these new themes would address and modify our actions on the specific issues that we face today.

[1] Chuang Tzu and Socrates, Newton and Leibniz; Darwin and Wallace; Marx and Henry George; Michelson, Lorentz, Poincare, Einstein, Planck, Minkowski; the list of mutual and multiple discoverers/uncoverers would be endless.

[2] I do not intend hyperbole. It is true insanity to consistently believe and act in denial or violation of reality – regardless of whether those around you are also so acting. 

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