David Brooks wrote a very interesting oped piece the other day (Jan 28), commenting on the “sad, lonely, angry, and mean” state of the US society. It’s basically a plea for more humanities, especially art, in our lives. I don’t always agree with Brooks, but this piece is spot on. Additionally, he is following, very closely, the work of McGilchrist, although I doubt if he knows that. The article, in very different words and from a different platform, is pointing to the left-brain domination of our society, just as McGilchrist does.
The problems he points to are the result of left-brain dominance, and the solution he offers would restore a proper balance between the left and the right. One paragraph, in particular, could have come right out of either of McGilchrist’s book. Brooks writes:
Attention is a moral act. The key to becoming a better person, Iris Murdoch wrote, is to be able to cast a “just and loving attention” on others. It’s to shed the self-serving way of looking at the world and to see things as they really are. We can, Murdoch argued, grow by looking. Culture gives us an education in how to attend.
Here is the passage from The Master and his Emissary, where the same sentence as Brooks’s opening is found.
Our attention is responsive to the world. There are certain modes of attention which are naturally called forth by certain kinds of object. We pay a different sort of attention to a dying man from the sort of attention we’d pay to a sunset, or a carburettor. However, the process is reciprocal. It is not just that what we find determines the nature of the attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find. In special circumstances, the dying man may become for a pathologist a textbook of disease, or for a photojournalist a ‘shot’, both in the sense of a perceived frozen visual moment and a round of ammunition in a campaign. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. The fact that a place is special to some because of its great peace and beauty may, by that very fact, make it for another a resource to exploit, in such a way that its peace and beauty are destroyed. Attention has consequences. (My emphasis)
Engaging in cultural acts, as Brooks calls the arts and humanities, engages the right hemisphere and connects us to the world out there. But does that engagement create what Brooks calls a “better person.” I think he misses the most important consequence of engaging in “culture” as he calls it. He has some latent understanding of the role the right-hemisphere plays, but not the constant interchange between the two sides. People become lonely, angry and mean when the world as perceived by the right hemisphere fails to correspond to the world head by the left. And that happens when it is the dominant side of the brain.
Iris Murdoch, whom he refers to, is speaking about care, acting to satisfy the needs of others, animate and not. Care is central to the flourishing. Perhaps that is what Brooks means by a “better person.” I do not like the words he chooses although the intent is very close to my own concept of flourishing. Simply engaging in cultural acts is insufficient. It will make one a more capable person, in the sense of better being able to care, but to flourish one must actively act out of caring. Merely associating attending to the arts with becoming a better person is a bit elitist.
Brooks conflates “sad, lonely, angry and mean.” I would agree that the last three in the series are all the result of the dominance of the left-hemisphere. Loneliness results from a failure to connect, something only the right hemispherical do. Anger is the province of the left side and shows up when the world fails to conform to whatever it wants to be. The left always wants to be in control, and becomes frustrated when it fails to get its way. It may confabulate, making up stories in attempts to convince others that their understanding of reality is mistaken. Meanness arises when those in control by virtue of their place in the institutional hierarchy begin to punish those who fail to follow their demands. Again a feature of the left hemisphere.
The exception is sadness. I do not think that sad is a correct description of the US society. Nostalgic for the past, perhaps, but not sad. I think that sadness is an emotion more correctly associated with the right hemisphere, not the left. It arises when the right captures the reality out there as a whole and assesses that it fails to fit what positive remnants of the past have been retained in memory.
In any case, Brooks has made a connection between what he calls cultural engagement and the ability to empathize and care. His argument would be much, much stronger if it were buttressed by reference to the divided-brain-model. The references he makes to historical figures is illustrative, but lacks the tie to human behavior that McGilchrist’s model does.
ps. Titling this post “A Plea for Humanity” might have been more accurate.