A democratic, free nation can exist only when truth and civility abound. With neither in place, the bonds that hold the polity together shrivel and eventually disappear. The assault on the Capitol attests to that. Some level of shared truth is critical to enable the common good to emerge. Without a clear vision of that good, no collective action can be put forth and enacted by consent. The only alternative is action through force and fiat.
Biden’s election will return truth to the White House, but little else. And even that will not matter so long as the body politic has lost the basic civility on which democracy depends. Civility is at heart an acknowledgment that the burdens of governance are shared by all the people, and that requires an even more basic condition. All citizens must acknowledge the very existence and legitimacy of the Other. And therein lies the real threat to the future of the United States.
Before continuing, I have to expose a myth about human existence. We have come to believe that our bodies contain some sort of self that determines how we see and behave in the world. We think that that self has agency, the ability to act freely, based on grounds that we own and would say that they are ours and not something others are forcing us to accept. We have the ability to change our minds upon listening to a persuasive argument. We are rational animals. Well, much of this is not true.
We do not have minds to change. Our actions in the world are driven by our brains, not our mind. The neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio, writes that the mind “refers to a process, not a thing.” More to the point, the recent work of Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary argues that humans have two distinct ways of seeing and acting in the world, each the result of the dominance of one or the other brain hemisphere.
The gist of his masterly tome is encapsulated in this extract from his book:
I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship, the betweenness, that exists with this Other. By contrast, the left hemisphere pays attention to the virtual world that it has created, which is self-consistent, but self-contained, ultimately disconnected from the Other, making it powerful, but ultimately only able to operate on, and to know, itself. . . . However, as I also emphasised at the outset, both hemispheres take part in virtually all ‘functions’ to some extent, and in reality both are always engaged. . . . These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. But these contributions need to be made in the service of something else, that only the right hemisphere can bring. Alone they are destructive. And right now they may be bringing us close to forfeiting the civilisation they helped to create. (my emphasis)
The last line conveys my concerns because, according to McGilchrist, our modern Western societies have become strongly left-brained as a consequence of the dominance of institutions and norms that skew the hemisphere’s relationship strongly to the left side. Some degree of normalcy must be shared so that everyone’s brain has something in common allowing actions, including speech acts, to be coordinated. Whenever a group lives according to different norms from the majority, they will literally populate a distinct world of their own. Their left-brains will provide alien responses to the established “normal “world of the society. Their truths fit their internal worlds, which identifies anything that conflicts as fake news. Standard tests of truth, say science, that check their correspondence to the world fail. Lacking sufficient shared content, it is virtually impossible to “change their minds.”
Left-brainers are never satisfied with the world as it is because they are always driven to manipulate the outside (real) world to fit the world they have constructed from the abstracted, stored fragments. At the extreme, they are largely solipsistic, creating worlds, including conspiracy theories, entirely from within. They are driven to superpose their realities on the rest of us. At worst, with all the guns that abound in the US, they may try to force us to accept their words and worlds, or else. The takeover of the Capitol furnishes a stark example. The deliberation on which democracy depends cannot function.
Left-brainers are constantly being reinforced by social media and self-isolation. Twitter, Facebook, and other such media spew a constant stream of misinformation that feeds their insatiable left-brains. Reinforcement by authoritative or legitimate figures only makes matters worse. If brainwashing means replacing a reasonable hold on reality, then this is what has happened to a dangerously large number of Americans. And that’s where we are today.
The degree of extremism in the public arena matches the degree of the left-right imbalance. The right side has become relatively impotent, exacerbating the failure to see the Other, both the human and non-human world we inhabit. Caring has disappeared along with civility. The binding together created by the empathetic right hemisphere is missing from virtually every institution. We are perilously close to the sudden end of our country as being governable as a democracy.
We cannot expect to restore civility by means of “rational” arguments. Resistance to wearing masks makes that case. Wearing masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 is a fundamental act of civility—acknowledging others and your connections and obligations to them. The libertarian excuse of protecting one’s rights is merely a rationalization for this anti-social behavior driven by the left hemisphere. The left-brain is very clever at finding arguments to explain and justify its actions.
I am not at all sanguine that much can be done quickly. Argument will fail. The right-brain, missing in action not only in the extremists but also to a lesser degree in general, must be re-energized in order to recognize the Other as a unique human being. The necessary civility for democracy to work will come only when the right hemisphere again becomes the master.
At other times, both political parties were more cognitively balanced and could argue and compromise. Legislation did get passed. No longer. The dysfunction in the Congress is not only ideological, but cognitive, related to the emergence of know-nothing left-brainers, who have some internalized world they aim to create. The classic conservative or Republican labels have lost whatever meaning they may have had in the past. I fear for our future because the victors in this election, Biden and the moderates, are preparing to fight the wrong battles, based on principles. Maybe a few wins, but the cognitive war will still rage. Victory there will come only through caring in action, not reason.