16 September 2008
The Left, the Right and the Spiritual Path
The simultaneous election euphoria in Ecuador and the United States accompanied by a fortuitous encounter with a highly recommend podcast ("Living Dialogues" hosted by Duncan Cambell) has inspired me to share some thoughts about the nature of our democracies, our political parties and the world view they stem from.
Episode 63 of the above podcast is part two of an interview with author George Lakoff called The Evolutionary Challenge of the 21st Century for the Political Mind. Among the many interesting points he brings up, one really stood out for me. Here he explains why people favor conservatism or liberalism:
"Our first experience with governance is in our family. And so we recognize family members and we also experience being governed. And that over and over is raised to a metaphor that a governing institution is a family. ... Now, that’s important because in this country, we have two very different understandings of what families are. Strict father families (SFF) and nurturing parent families (NPF). And the SFF has a motive thought and a morality that goes with it. It says that you have a mother and a father. The father is head of the family, he’s there to protect the family, mommy can’t do it, to support the family, mommy can’t do it, and kids are born bad. They just want to do what they want and they don’t know right from wrong, the good strict father knows right from wrong, and it’s his job to punish the child when they do wrong, so that the punishment will be painful enough so the child will do right and not wrong and therefore develop discipline. Discipline [leads people] to be moral and with that discipline they can go out into the market and become prosperous. So if someone is not disciplined, [he or she] is not going to be prosperous. And so if you see someone who is not prosperous, it means they are not disciplined. If they’re not disciplined, they can’t be moral. And if they’re not moral, they deserve their poverty."
This model of family is then projected on to our political, religious and even business leaders. Think of the mostly absent father that lets the political or religious system or the market take its course - read: let the disciplined and obedient float and the inordinate and miscreant sink - until some people need correcting so they may develop discipline. Love through fear and a paternalist sense of respect. This family model developed during humanity's collective childhood while strict father figures that made all of the decisions were in all likelihood quite necessary.
However, as humanity has slowly matured, a different family model has become more prominent. Mr. Lakoff continues, "And similarly, you have a progressive view (based on a Nurturing Parent Family) where empathy is central and not just feeling empathy but acting on it. Being responsible, being strong, being resolute, having good judgment. That is what is required for a true nurturer. And what you do in such a family is you raise your children to be nurturers of others, to empathize, to be responsible for yourself, to be responsible for others. It is the opposite of indulgence. And what that means is a parent is there for the protection of a child and the empowerment of the child. That’s what government is about in progressive thought. It says you start with people caring about each other. The government is the instrument of that. How does it work? The government protects and empowers. It’s not just military and police protection; it is environmental protection, worker protection, consumer protection, safety nets, health care. And empowerment is not just roads and communication systems, it’s educational systems, it’s the banking system, the energy system. It’s the stock market, the SEC upholds it. It’s the court system for contracts."
This model seems to allow for a growing group of mature people to work together towards solutions that satisfy everybody involved. However attractive this description may make it seem, its not accidental marriage of convenience with laissez-fair capitalism and moral relativism has clearly demonstrated it to be riddled with essentially the same pitfalls as the first model. Thus, democracy, one of the crowning achievements of human evolution, is currently "defined as the dividing of people according to interest, talent and ideology, who then 'negotiate' decisions... The purpose of each component group is to win. The means to this end are economic advantage and the mobilization of support to overwhelm the opponent." (Arbab, 215) Both family models actively uphold this form of democracy.
A new family and administrative model is currently emerging from our collective, nascent spiritual consciousness. A basic principle enunciated by Baha'u'llah, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith, is that "Religion alone can, in the last resort, bring in man's nature such a fundamental change as to enable him to adjust the economic relationships of society." Especially in light of the almost inviolable separation of church and state, comprehension of the significance and implications of this concept are crucial at this point in time as the world's citizens search for permanent solutions to the multifaceted problems that envelop all of humanity.
All of the problems that humanity suffers are essentially spiritual in nature. In other words, even the most perfect administrative and economic structures, either at the macro or micro level, would in time deteriorate if they were not based upon fundamental spiritual truths that inspire individuals to act selflessly. Any transformation of society and its structures must be accompanied by a simultaneous transformation in the individuals that make up this society, otherwise this process will not be complete nor will it last. Although the following quote by 'Abdu'l-Bahá focuses more on the economic side of the issue, it helps illuminate this idea:
"The fundamentals of the whole economic condition are divine in nature and are associated with the world of the heart and the spirit. ... Manifest true economics to the people. Show what love is, what kindness is, what true severance is and generosity. ... Economic questions will not attract hearts. The love of God alone will attract them."
Central to the mission of any administrative institution therefore, would be identifying the spiritual framework within which individuals can serve their true purpose. Generosity, solidarity, broadening loyalties, engaging in a productive livelihood, eliminating extreme poverty and wealth through justice, properly assessing and rewarding currently undervalued contributions to society like that of women and farmers, serving others, and cooperation are just a few examples of the spiritual qualities that underlie a healthy society. Effective means to educate the populace about the nature and importance of these principles, as well as actively creating channels through which they could be expressed at the individual, community and institutional levels would give genuine meaning to interaction.
Two principle characteristics would define this new family model and the institutions that represent it. First, the primary posture of these institutions would be that of learning. Second, they would necessarily rest on the organizing principle that each human being must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.
Decisions motivated by partisanship, by a desire to maintain economic or political power or by special-interest groups, widen the gulf between the benefits society offers to the laborer and the capitalist. When one sector of society benefits at the expense of another, the entire society suffers as a consequence of the conflict that is inevitably generated. If, however, policies are made by a diverse body of informed citizens whose interest is the general welfare of the region, and the general electorate is educated to understand that criticizing these policies will only result in further disunion, traditional concepts of power and authority will be transformed into a genuine posture of learning.
Thus proper governance at all levels should be viewed as "the collective investigation of reality and the rational analysis of options." (Arbab, 215). A sincere search for truth and a dispassionate, flexible collective decision-making process meets success to the extent that a posture of learning is adopted. Sincerity and detachment are only two of the many spiritual qualities that members of these institutions (as well as the members of society at large) would necessarily acquire and deepen to ensure this process does not degenerate into "conflict and power play."
My point in delving into a more spiritual "family" model is that nurture and empathy, although a significant step in the right direction, do not resolve the basic issues that keep our democracy within its current adversarial framework. Nor will they help us rise above bipartisanship as conservatives will continue to react to, what is for them, the incomprehensible motherly nature it offers as a governing pattern and liberals will continue to react similarly to what they see as paternalistic and authoritarian leadership styles. The only way to transcend bipartisanship is to explore and gradually build upon the spiritual foundations of human relationships.