Left right brain diagram

I was reading the latest issue of the New York Review of Books today, fixated on an article by Adam Tooze on four recent books, all about the precarious state of western democracy. I haven’t read any of them, but had seen references to them. I found Tooze’s critique very thoughtful and even-handed. But that’s not what I want to write about. The following quote jumped out at me.

Trump exposes starkly what the civility of Obama and his administration obscured—the subordination of American democracy to capitalism, patriarchy, and the iniquitous racial order descended from slavery.

Tooze was arguing that Trump was not just not anomaly, but was a sign that we had returned to the trend that had been in place for some time and was merely hidden, not changed, by Obama’s two terms. What I saw in this sentence was not that sense, but an intriguing illustration of the dichotomies created by the two brain hemispheres. Democracy, as I see it, relies primarily on the right brain and its focus on the here and now, and on relationships. Voters need to be informed about the real situation and vote, based that understanding, not on some ideological (left-brain) abstraction that might be far from reflecting the current state of the world.

I believe that kind of understanding was the focus of Jefferson’s beliefs about the nature of (democratic) citizenship. It certainly conforms to John Dewey’s pragmatic sense of what democracy requires of its citizens. The very idea of a commonwealth or common good needs to be present and explicit (again right-brain activities) to guide democratic actions.

Conversely, the three items in the quote that are threatening or “subordinating” democracy are all left-brain outcomes. Capitalism is an ideology that has bred other abstractions that dominate political rhetoric today. Terms like markets and GDP or growth have become objectives of policy on the right without regard to the real consequences of putting them into play. Keeping them as abstract, locked in the left-brain, hides the connected, but very real, unintended consequences of inequality, climate change, and, as more recently exposed, the potential extinction of millions of species.

Patriarchy is also a left-brain phenomenon. Leonard Shlain, in his book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, makes the case that the advent of writing and, consequently, literacy, for all of its wonders, fostered the rise of patriarchy.

There exists ample evidence that any society acquiring the written word experiences explosive changes. For the most part, these changes can be characterized as progress. But one pernicious effect of literacy has gone largely unnoticed: writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook. Writing of any kind, but especially its alphabetic form, diminishes feminine values and with them, women’s power in the culture. The reasons for this shift will be elaborated in the coming pages. For now, I propose that a holistic, simultaneous, synthetic, and concrete view of the world are the essential characteristics of a feminine outlook; linear. sequential, reductionist, and abstract thinking defines the masculine. Although these represent opposite perceptual modes, every individual is generously endowed with all the features of both. They coexist as two closely overlapping bell-shaped curves with no feature superior to its reciprocal. (emphasis in the original)

In a later book, Leonardo’s Brain, Shlain argues that what is here identified as feminine are features of the right-brain and those as masculine – the left-brain. So does Iain McGilchrist.

The last of the three features is the racism that can be traced back to the slavery of the blacks and its institutionalization by the strongly patriarchal society that existed during the early years of the US. Slavery can be connected to the left-brain way of attending to the world as a set of lifeless abstract entities. The humanness of slaves, along with dignity and other essential human qualities, is abstracted by the left-brain, leaving only a thing-like residual. It is virtually inconceivable to think about slavery in a matriarchal society.

In a couple of months, you will be able to read my take on the central role the dominant brain hemisphere has played in shaping both individual and collective or societal lives. I am still looking at the coming August as the publication date of my new book, The Right Way to Flourish: Reconnecting to the Real World. In the interim, I will continue to highlight the dichotomous character of society’s and smaller organization’s cultures. Historians, as the NYRB article discusses, generally need many interwoven theories to explain what they chronicle. I find that the divided-brain model can do much all by itself.