Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Skills, punishment and reward in the context of American politics

Years ago, shortly after the Iraq War began to settle down somewhat, someone had shared video of a adolescent Iraqi boy. He was caught stealing and the punishment was to slowly roll a truck tire over his arm. Back then I could watch such a video and not flinch, but I knew he was going to lose his forearm as I watched that video. I look back now and ask myself a simple question: did that punishment teach that boy any skills beyond learning how to adapt to life with one hand?

While it is easy for some to claim that Muslims are barbarians, it is a fair stretch to say that Americans are any less barbaric. One look at the way our police state has mercilessly killed kids in our streets should give one pause.

In the context of political discourse in social media, I see debates in which some parties seem unable to restrain their urge to mete out punishment upon those they disagree with. Their punishment is laced with profanity, invective and aspersions. I've seen responses completely bereft of facts in what would otherwise be a straightforward discussion and debate of the facts. I've even felt it within myself, the urge to "punish" someone else in social media, but I've held back, let the feelings pass, and cobbled together a reasoned response instead.

In all my interactions with other people, I strive to avoid the urge to punish, for I have gained awareness of what happened to me and how I was punished myself by my parents. I was punished for not having the skills to meet the standards set by my parents. I am learning, in no uncertain terms, that punishment does not teach skills, and just to be clear to those who are fans of Pavlov, reward doesn't teach any skills either.

Every animal has a primary instinct to preserve oneself. Every animal has a primary cause and that is to stay alive. Animals, humans included, stay alive by meeting their needs. therefore, every animal action can be traced to a primary cause: meeting needs required to stay alive. Readers familiar with my work here on this blog already know that that I'm a fan of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, here's a sample below:

A basic guaranteed income in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Prison reform in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

The conflict between good and evil in the context of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

In the intervening months and weeks since I wrote those articles, I've been slowly refining this concept to reduce it to the simplest explanation for all human suffering when it is caused by human beings, and sometimes when its just mother nature. In every case, it boils down to the same statement: Humans suffer when they lack the capacity to respond adaptively to their environment. 

No longer do I make the assumption that evil exists for the sake of evil. No longer do I assume that the 7 deadly sins exist just because. The root cause in all actions by human beings is to satisfy an existential need. Whether or not we can satisfy that need without hurting others depends on the skills we possess.

For example, I'm watching House of Cards, quite possibly some of the best political drama I've ever seen on any screen. While it would be easy to say that Francis and Claire Underwood are evil and without conscience, we still don't know why they are evil. Yes, Mr. Underwood is consumed with a thirst for power, leverage and control, but after 5 seasons, we still don't know why he's like that. The writing in this show is so good that I forget what I'm thinking about with human needs most of the time. I don't know what is going to happen next and that's why I continue to watch. Even now, there is a part of me that wants to see how the Underwoods will slip away, unscathed, if they do.

When I started writing about this business of good and evil, I had come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as good and evil. Good and evil are supernatural explanations for cooperative and challenging behavior in human beings. There is a continuum of people. On one end there are the confused - those we might call "evil" and the less confused - those we might call "good". All of us are seeking to meet existential needs.

Since the election of Donald Trump, I've watched social media and I can tell you, the catharsis is so thick, you can cut it with a knife. On and on, the memes (pictures with captions) just get more and more insulting to Donald Trump and others within his power circle. I get the catharsis, I really do, but I fail to see how those memes will influence the policy debate in a positive fashion, particularly for progressives seeking a meaningful discussion with those in power now. I can assure you that criticism doesn't teach any skills. I know. I've tried it from both ends and it doesn't work.

When I see Donald Trump announce that "we're going to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate" for "a better deal", I see a man who has not articulated the need for a better deal. Who will get a better deal? America? Against 194 countries who have already signed and will go forward without us? I see a man who told us that with Obamacare we must come up with a better plan before replacing Obamacare, but has no compunction to pull us out of an agreement on climate without offering a better plan, first.

When I saw the news reports of Donald Trump bragging about groping women, I see a man who has everything he wants and still wants more. At the time that he bragged about groping those women, he was already fabulously wealthy, yet he is still not satisfied with who he is as a person, so he must degrade someone else. And somehow he still managed to get elected.

When I see how Donald Trump fired James Comey and expressed dissatisfaction with Jeff Sessions, I see him bringing his Apprentice character to the White House. I see him bringing all the drama that he loves to the White House. And I wonder, what need is he trying to serve?

I offer these examples not as criticism of Donald Trump. I offer these examples to show that even with fabulous wealth and power, it requires a certain amount of skill to appreciate that wealth and be satisfied with it, to know when enough is enough. In America, we are being trained to idolize the wealthy, as if somehow they need it. I suspect that some of the wealthy need fans, for our media would not idolize wealth unless the wealthy media owners wanted that to happen.

What I see is that money, power, beauty, or whatever, are very poor substitutes for interpersonal skills. If you lose that power, you're going to need to find a way to get along with others who watched you abuse it. If you lose that money, you're going to need to negotiate for your next meal. If you lose that beauty, then you will need to hone up on your conversation skills.

The primary human skill, the one that made humans one of the most successful mammals on the planet is cooperation. Set aside for a moment the enormous ecological damage we have done to the planet, for it's a safe bet that natural selection does not favor animals that degrade the environment they live in, and walk with me down this path. A path to world peace and survival of those who know how to cooperate.

Cooperation is baked into our genes. We know this because we have language. Language provides the most efficient means of communication between animals of the same species. Language allows humans to cooperate for their mutual safety, and allowed culture to follow, to blossom.

When we cooperate, we use language to collaborate, to share ideas, to help each other. A basic human instinct is to help others, even if there is no apparent and immediate reward. Somewhere at the base of our brains, we know that the person we help now might save our skins later, but we don't know for sure, so we work together. This is one reason I make a point never to burn bridges, to always leave the door of communication open. I can't help it if the other person does it, but I will always remain open to talking again.

I have had the time to think through revenge and punishment and have learned that revenge is never sweet, so I avoid situations where that might even come into play. I err on the side of peace every day. I have thought through punishment and have figured out that punishment, like reward, doesn't teach any skills. The only skill that punishment and reward teach is obedience. And as Don Henley famously said in his song, The Heart Of The Matter, "pride and competition cannot fill these empty arms". No amount of achievement can replace interpersonal skills, or to put it differently, love.

Donald Trump represents to me, the ultimate American schism, that we can reward ourselves out of misery, that we can punish others with impunity for our own personal relief and gratification. I say this without disrespect to Mr. Trump, for he is only doing what he has learned to do. I am forever an optimist. I believe that if Mr. Trump, and every other human could, they would do better. Everyone wants to do well, to do better than before. 

All of what you see here has been extrapolated after reading many books on suffering, recovery and relationships. I have looked long and hard to make sense of human suffering, for I too, have suffered and wanted relief. I believe that we can put humanity on the path to world peace by teaching our kids the skills they need to live in peace. These skills are learned, not bought. They are taught through innumerable acts of collaboration with our kids, and everyone we come into contact with everyday.

We can have peace by raising human beings.

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