Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Gut Responses and Rational Choices

The outrage this fall perpetrated by members of our Federal Government was for me a lesson: I want to know that my actions do not produce consequences that violate my deeper values. No matter how passionate I am about a particular issue, I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bath. I believe in the democratic process, which is often messy. But to risk catastrophe for the sake of an issue seems cynical and just plain stupid.

A recent review in The Atlantic magazine by Robert Wright (“Why We Fight—and Can We Stop?”) looks at the work of people who study why humans seem to drift into tribalism—the feeling of “it’s them or us”—when larger issues and commonly shared values are at stake. Some of it, at least, appears to come from the distant past, when people lived in isolated little groups. Identifying one’s self with one’s neighbors, perhaps threatened by outside groups, was an effective way to survive. In today’s world, we’re all too much mixed together for that to be fruitful any more. We’re all in this together, when it comes to living our lives in peace and pursuing prosperity. When a cell phone call to a friend in Nigeria is as easy as one to our next-door neighbor, our tribe—or religion or color or sexual preference—isn’t so important.

I live in a co-operative community. We in Centennial Farm are very fortunate to have had good, reasonable people on our boards of directors. They do not always agree on how to do things, but underlying their differences there seems always a sense of decency and compassion. They are, of course, elected by the community, and that says a lot for the decency and compassion among our fellow residents. Like them, we can disagree on details, and even make an effort to change things we feel are called for. Still, under those differences I feel a common sense of who we are as a community and the kind of place we want to live in.

In Centennial Farm we have two Phases, two governments, two boards, two political institutions. But we have one Clubhouse Committee, one Social Events Committee, one newsletter. Our Rules and Regulations—through the efforts of joint board meetings—are identical. Our by-laws are practically the same, even though they are legally distinct. There are no border crossings, no little signs to tell us we’re in Phase I or Phase II. (In my high school geography classes I learned that the United States and Canada share “the longest undefended border in the world.” I thought that was remarkable, even at that age.) You can see the border between Phase I and Phase II on a little map in our Directory of Residents, but there are no stakes in the ground. The Farm is one community. We all know it. And that knowledge makes a big difference in how we feel about the little problems that come up from time to time.

The big problem, Wright says, comes from the fact that we decide things more from the urges of our guts than we do from our rational minds, whether we know it at the time or not—and sometimes in spite of our knowing. I know that that second Grey Goose martini will make me loggy and unresponsive to people (I drink to feel good about being with others), but sometimes “more” seems “better.” Alas.

The problem goes from there all the way to whether or not we try to make other countries conform to our ideas of justice and compassion and cooperation and mercy. Winning is sometimes more satisfying than being at ease with differences. The old Peter Sellers movie, Dr. Strangelove portrays the problem well.

It’s tempting to wish that our federal governing representatives could think the same way. Yes, the desire for larger values is harder to hold onto with the huge difference in scale between my little community and the United States government. But human beings have that inborn urge to cooperate as well as the inborn urge to defend against “the others.” Whatever made us that way might be sitting and watching right now, waiting for us to choose.

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