I was sitting at my computer the morning after the election, not unexpectedly, awaiting the vote counting to end. It looked like Biden would be the next President. Now we know he will be, but it will be short of a victory. It will return truth to the White House, but little else. And even that will not matter much 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. Further 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, thus, rational animals. Well, most 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,
The term mind…encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous ﬂow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The ﬂow moves forward in time, speedily or slowly, orderly or jumpily, and on occasion it moves along not just one sequence but several. Sometimes the sequences are concurrent, sometimes convergent and divergent. Sometimes they are superposed.
More to my point, the recent work of Iain McGilchrist argues that humans are, in fact, schizoid (my word). We 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 (The Master and His Emissary) is encapsulated in these few paragraphs.
Before embarking on this chapter, I suggested that there were two ways of being in the world, both of which were essential. One was to allow things to present to us in all their embodied particularity, with all their changeability and impermanence, and their interconnectedness as part of a whole which is forever in flux. In this world we, too, feel connected to what we experience, part of that whole, not confined in subjective isolation from a world that is viewed as objective. The other was to step outside the flow of experience and ‘experience’ our experience in a special way: to re-present the world in a form that is less truthful, but apparently clearer, and therefore cast in a form which is more useful for manipulation of the world and one another. This world is explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented, static (though its ’bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine), essentially lifeless. From this world we feel detached, but in relation to it we are powerful.
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. I do not wish to leave the impression that it might be a good thing if the entire population had a left-hemisphere stroke. I take it for granted that the contributions made by the left hemisphere, to language and systematic thought in particular, are invaluable. Our talent for division, for seeing the parts, is of staggering importance — second only to our capacity to transcend it, in order to see the whole. These gifts of the left hemisphere have helped us achieve nothing less than civilisation itself, with all that that means. Even if we could abandon them, which of course we can’t, we would be fools to do so, and would come off infinitely the poorer. There are siren voices that call us to do exactly that, certainly to abandon clarity and precision (which, in any case, importantly depend on both hemispheres), and I want to emphasise that I am passionately opposed to them. We need the ability to make fine discriminations, to use reason appropriately. 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 civilization they helped to create. (my emphasis)
The last line conveys my concerns. I do think we are close to the sudden end of our country as being governable in the sense of being able to confront and address any serious problem that threatens the polity from within or without. With a tip of the hat to McGilchrist, the left-brainers either outnumber or outweigh the right siders. This means that fake news and alternative facts will hinder or block democratic processes. And that means that our political decisions, as well as those of other key institutions, will be made in ignorance of reality, which I mean to be the world out there, the one that exists outside the human brain and behaves according to its, not our, rules.
At both an individual and societal level, the left-brain works to control and manipulate institutions ranging from governance to business, from family to community, and so on. Not surprisingly, the human being that results from left-brain dominance goes by the name of Homo economicus, a being that is primarily, maybe only, interested in maximizing its own selfish interests, that is, whatever the left-brain is calling out.
McGilchrist’s warning should be self-evident. First, humans are not merely self-satisfiers. We are also super-social beings, resulting from the right-brain’s connectedness to the world. E.O. Wilson, the famous sociobiologist, has given us and a few other species a special name: eusocial (truly social). We have managed to survive for millennia by using both sides of our brain. We cannot survive without continuing to do so. We certainly cannot flourish as individuals without caring for one another. Donne had it right when he wrote,
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
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 fragments of past realities that they have abstracted and stored. At the extreme, they are largely solipsistic, creating worlds entirely from within. They are driven to superpose their realities on the rest of us. At minimum, that interferes with any kind of cooperative or consensual actions. 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. In the words of Humberto Maturana, “. . . in this (left-brain) explanatory path . . . a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.”
Left-brainers—a long time ago, they were called flat-landers—can’t accept truths about reality, so trying to reason with them will not do anything to open their eyes to the current state of the world. Hence we now use new labels, like fake news, alternative realities, anti-vaxxers, or climate change deniers, to point to this situation. Given that we humans have always had two working hemispheres, there have always been left-brainers around, trying to force their ideas on the rest. Cults survive by this means to the extreme of driving members to kill themselves when the truth suddenly confronts them. In 1978, 900 people committed suicide in Jim Jones’s cult in Guyana. It takes specially trained therapists, who attempt to get both sides of the brain working again, to wean cultists back to the real world.
And that’s where we are today. 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 the insatiable left-brain. The reinforcement process will be a very big obstacle in any effort to restore civility.
We cannot expect to restore civility by means of “rational” arguments. Wearing masks to prevent the spreads of Covid-19 is a fundamental act of civility—acknowledging others and your connections and obligations to them. Making such an argument based on scientific evidence has not been successful, however. The libertarian excuse of protecting one’s liberty is merely a rationalization for this anti-social behavior driven by the left hemisphere. The left is very clever at finding arguments to explain and justify its actions. Science always poses a threat to left-brainers.
I am not at all sanguine that much can be done with this large cohort of left-brained adults. Argument will fail. The only effective solution is to re-engage the right-brain so as to recognize the Other as unique human beings. Only when that hemisphere begins to make the connection and participate more decisively in the cognitive processes leading to action will it be possible to begin to restore the necessary civility on which our democracy rests. Religious leaders can play a part by stressing the centrality of care for others in the Judeo-Christian core of American religious institutions.
We may have to wait until some generational shifts take place. The idea of public education, which is in disarray today, was, in large part, conceived to nurture the right-brain and instill the capability for civility. Restoring that function is critical to any progress in healing today’s rifts, but will take many years to have a significant effect. Meanwhile, if the social media continue to reinforce the false realities of the left-brain, little change is likely to show up.
Politically, the difference between the right and left is no longer fundamentally ideological, although each does express different views. It is cognitive with the right end of the political spectrum having become pathologically left-brained. This might help explain why so many politicians have followed and enabled the President, while ignoring the 20,000 lies (a basic left-brain output) he has uttered. Norms mean nothing to the left-brain because they exist out there and show up only when one is connected to the world. The Republican’s choice of using the old 2016 platform highlights their disconnect from the current world.
The political far left is also left-brain dominated, but more balanced cognitively and accepts facts about the world of now, including climate change, systemic racism, structural poverty, and similar persistent threats. Not surprisingly, the moderate centers of the two parties are more cognitively balanced. Facts do matter. Realpolitik, another name for pragmatic governance, allows deliberation, argumentation, and compromise. Ideologies remain, but are not determinative.
Not so many years ago, both parties were more cognitively balanced and could argue and compromise. Legislation did get passed. No longer. The dysfunction in the Congress particularly the Senate, is not only ideological, but cognitive, related to the emergence of know-nothings, who have some internalized world they aim to create. The ideologically based, classic labels, conservative or Republican, have lost whatever meaning they had in the past.
I fear for our future because the victors in this election, Biden and moderates, are going to fight the wrong battles, still trying to win on principled grounds. McConnell has a world in his head he is creating. The refusal to consider Garland should have been a clue. The Supreme Court is no different. Originalism and textualism are only euphemisms for left-brain dominance. There is no meaning in the text, itself. Whatever the Justices discover is solely the product of their solipsistic, disconnected left-hemispheres.
Justice, itself, is a fleeting idea. It is exceedingly hard to define, and it can be found only out in the world. The bi-hemispheric brain model places justice and other moral sensibilities in the right-brain. McGilchrist writes:
Moral values are not something that we work out rationally on the principle of utility, or any other principle, for that matter, but are irreducible aspects of the phenomenal world, like colour. . .
Such values are linked to the capacity for empathy, not reasoning; and moral judgments are not deliberate but unconscious and intuitive, deeply bound up with our emotional sensitivity to others. Empathy is intrinsic to morality. . . Our sense of justice is underwritten by the right hemisphere, particularly by the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Without justice, the United States lacks the glue to hold it together. Justice enables democracy. Without it, only some form of chains can hold the polity together. Its absence has split us apart before, and, I fear, is threatening us again.
Why does any of this matter? Life occurs only in the present and in the real world. All species, including ours, got here by finding ways to cohere to reality. Those species that did not became extinct. Reality does always win, as I sometimes write. If we, here in the United States or elsewhere, are serious about continuing to survive and, hopefully, flourish, we must put our heads in order and restore the balance between the inward-looking left and the connected right. Truth matters, whether it has been provided by science or some pragmatic coming to understand, and that can happen only when the two sides work together.
ps. From E. J. Dionne WaPo 11/18. ‘Trump’s bitterest harvest could thus be a Republican Party with absolutely no interest in a more moderate course and every reason to keep its supporters angry and on edge. Ignoring reality and denying Trump’s defeat are part of that effort.’
pps. From Slate 11/18. ‘The nurse, Jodi Doering, said that patients were denying the existence of COVID until their final breaths. “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real,’” she said. “And when they should be… Facetiming their families, they’re filled with anger and hatred.”’
ppps, From TNR, https://newrepublic.com/article/160285/obama-promised-land-trump-biden. ‘The former president seems unable to reckon with the failures of his presidency and diagnose the Republican Party’s incurable nihilism.’
pppps. From The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/11/why-obama-fears-for-our-democracy/617087/?campaign_id=93&emc=edit_fb_20201118&instance_id=24222&nl=frank-bruni®i_id=86189163&segment_id=44819&te=1&user_id=49a3f96346244c5ebb7027398d3391fc
‘He [Obama] went on to say, “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”’
If you have gotten this far and think this is an important insight, please pass along the link. This post only begins to uncover the depths of our existential threat.