Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Case for Cruelty

I saw a great guitarist this weekend, Michael Chapdelaine, an accomplished classical guitarist who is most noted for his fantastic pop covers. It was a house party in a small living room, so there was a lot of interaction between performer and audience. The first thing I noticed about him, right when he walked into the room, was how calm he is. He seemed totally at ease and free of anxiety. It wasn't very surprising when later he mentioned he is a practicing Zen Buddhist. I don't know much about Buddhism, but this isn't the first time I've met someone who radiates inner peace and later found out they were a Buddhist. We can't be sure if Buddhism truly guides people to tranquility or if tranquil people are simply drawn to Buddhism (likely both are true to some degree), but there seems to be something to it.

Tranquil people are really worth their weight in gold. They're the types you want to surround yourself with, while keeping the dramatic people at arm's length. Anxiety is contagious. We see that all the time. One person emits anxiety and the uneases ripples through the group like a wave, with an uptick in fidgeting, foot tapping, and throat clearing. Tranquil people are anxiety neutralizers. They're like baking soda in the freezer, or an active carbon filter. When they're around, everyone else feels at ease. Ideally, every social gathering should have one of these types present. (Otherwise alcohol is the typical substitute.)

Whatever your thoughts are on religion or Buddhism, this man was spiritually enlightened. On this blog we're typically concerned with intellectual enlightenment. Human nature is a triad composed of mind, body, and spirit, which is approximated in Christianity with God the Father, the omnipotent; Jesus, the physical incarnation; and the Holy Spirit. Most people believe we need to live with each in equal proportion for proper balance. Christianity would seem to imply an ordering. God is foremost, followed by the son, and the Holy Spirit playing a more minor role. Given the spiritual wisdom of Jesus, the order of importance overall is really Mind > Spirit > Body. Intellectual enlightenment is the most important component of the three because intellect is the unique gift given to humans. All things have a physical embodiment, and many animals display emotion, but intellect is the sole domain of humans. To call intellect no more important than physical well-being or emotional concerns is to resist one's own humanity. Genesis makes the point very clear. Mankind did not emerge thanks to the Tree of Physical Health or the Tree of Spirituality, but the Tree of Knowledge.

At some point during the performance, the guitarist was talking about how his favorite arrangements were those that conveyed songs that had a component of anger too them. (He's quite fond of Somebody That I Used to Know.) He said he had learned to embrace the full range of human emotions, including anger, except that he just couldn't comprehend humans' ability or propensity to be cruel to each other. This seems to be a common condition for thoughtful or enlightened people. It is the great tragedy of humanity, that we could build so much and then destroy it through war. The key component of this is frustration. It seems so irrational. But there is an order to this. We can't escape the cruelty paradox, but with deeper wisdom we can at least soothe the frustration. Cruelty has played an important role for humans, and, surprising as it may sound, we would not be here without it.

The Social Brain Hypothesis is the leading theory from anthropology for the evolution of human intelligence, and argues that the primary selective pressure was internal, not ecological. Most people would likely assume we evolved from ecological pressures. For example, to survive under predation by lions, or harsh environmental conditions. Yet these kinds of pressures face nearly all organisms, and all have evolved much simpler solutions than the human brain, which is by far the most complex structure in the known universe, and which comes with costs. It has extreme energy requirements makes childbirth difficult and risky.

The social brain hypothesis posits that the primary evolutionary force on intelligence was other humans. There are two aspects to this. First, humans are tribal, and human tribes are complex. Those at the top acquire better reproduction opportunities, but getting to the top requires the cognitive ability to navigate the complex social situation. The second aspect is that smarter tribes are likely to displace duller tribes. The uncomfortable aspect of evolution that people prefer to ignore is that it requires death by competition. The prairie grasses that give Illinois its nickname prospered at the expense of the oak forests that preceded them in wetter times. The Megalodon was driven to extinction by sharks and killer whales. And nearly every tribe or nation on earth that occupies some location displaced other people that were there first. Certainly intelligence yields an advantage in tribal and national rivalries, and there is empirical evidence to support it. For instance, Indo-Europeans, who birthed the most successful nations in history, displaced the Neolithic farmers of Europe and modern genetic testing shows they are indeed more intelligent than those they displaced. The Indo-Europeans also had an advantage as they were the first to domesticate the horse, but we assume greater intelligence yields a greater rate of technological progress. The Neolithic farmers themselves dominated thanks to their invention of agriculture. We should suspect they were more intelligent than whoever they replaced.

At any rate, the theory provides a reason for cruelty. If more intelligent tribes did not displace and kill less intelligent tribes, human intelligence would not have improved much. Without improved intelligence we'd not have agriculture or writing or beautiful classical guitar compositions. In Genesis, the Tree of Knowledge was provided by God, but in reality the tree was paid for by many thousands of years of men killing each other for access to resources and women. This doesn't sound like a revelation the should ease the consciences of men pondering the great tragedy of human cruelty, but in fact it should. Knowing there is a cruelty paradox is a much better position than frustrated grappling with the question of why cruelty should exist at all. We can deal with paradoxes. Duality of nature seems to be the norm and, as mentioned here before, if you find yourself in some field of thought that embodies no duality, tradeoffs, or paradoxes, then either you don't understand the field adequately or there is an opportunity to make a breakthrough in that field.

Mr Chapdelaine is comfortable with the range of human emotions, including anger. That is because we understand that the dark emotions, while dangerous in abundance, can also be dangerous if absent. This seems to be a fundamental principle of psychology. We strive for a balance of emotions, not the removal of bad emotions and the forced imposition of good emotions. (Although in America a lot of people demand just that.) Look at anger. What is the role of anger? Too much anger is bad, and we see those results all the time. But anger plays an important role. It causes us to act in the face of great injustice or incompetence, and to defend what is good. Think of a man that never gets angry, even if his wife or children are at risk of harm. We would never say his lack of anger was a virtue. Everyone would despise such a man and call him a coward of the lowest order. Likewise, a tribe that didn't express anger would be quickly destroyed by a tribe that did. We know that there is a healthy expression of anger, and extremes in either direction are dangerous and immoral.

The same must be true for cruelty. The great accomplishments of humanity require an intelligent and stable society. If building such a society was easy, then it would be easy. But it's not easy. It requires sacrifice, work, a general sense of morality, and leadership willing to make difficult decisions and to engage in cruelty when necessary. A tribe that decides to forbid cruelty will degrade and be replaced by a tribe that embraces it. It's no surprise the western countries are being invaded by Muslims. It's the natural way of things, given the current co of the two civilizations.

The question isn't is cruelty permissible? but, rather, in this instance do the benefits of cruelty outweight the costs? Let's look at America as an example. No one can deny that whites were cruel to the Amerindians. We do debate on extent; for instance, the mainstream narrative tends to overstate the genocidal nature of Europeans while understating the primitive and barbaric nature of most of the Indian tribes; but ultimately the Amerindians were cruelly displaced by an invading tribe. The costs are immense. But what of the benefits? Would America, or the world, be a better place if Europeans had landed and said "Oh my, looks like some people are here already, better turn those boats around," instead of building a nation that has exported democratic ideals to the world, exported technology that has dramatically risen the standard of living of virtually every person on the planet, and created an era of Pax Americana, an unusual period of time where the primary causes of death are not violence and starvation? In most of the world these days you're more likely to die from too much food! That is truly incredible.

You could hardly say this in our society without being demonized, but I believe the wholesale displacement of the natives was worth the cruelty cost, just as the near eradication of Neolithic farmers by Indo-Europeans was, overall, beneficial to humanity, and just as we benefited by the Neolithic farmers displacing their predecessors, and so on. What if America had compromised, and instead blended with the natives? Well that was the outcome for all countries in the Americas besides the US & Canada. (After that Argentina is closest.) None of those countries has profoundly benefited the world. (Unless maybe we count bossa nova. 😃)

Like all emotions, the human propensity for cruelty plays a vital role. It fits into the Ying & Yang of human morality, just like everything else. The fact that people find so much cruelty to complain about in our society means that either (a) our society is indeed excessively cruel, or (b) those people have an unhealthy dismissal of cruelty as a natural aspect of building and maintaining an advanced society. I suggest our civilizational malady is of the second variety. The typical westerner recoils at the thought of any sort of cruelty. We are as unbalanced as the man who never rises to anger, not even in the face of grave injustices or harm to his family. If we don't learn to responsibly apply cruelty from an intellectual perspective, then we will be eventually forced to do so out of pragmatism. And if still we find ourselves unable to do so, we will simply be replaced. This is all perfectly natural.

No comments:

Post a Comment