💖 Happy Valentine’s Day Interactors 💖
Welcome to week two of weekly posts. These posts are intended to be topical and relevant to current events, but also tied to the larger theme of the season and the month. It’s February and I’m looking at “The Geography of Whiteness”. It’s winter so the focus is human behavior. It’s also Black History Month, and I’m White. So, I’m looking at what it means to be ‘White’ and what is unique about ‘White’ behavior in ‘America’. What is it about the interaction between people and place that has led us here and where do we go from here?
Valentine’s Day is two days away, so this post centers on ‘love’. Or lack thereof.
As interactors, you’re not only special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey, you’re also members of an attentive community. I welcome your participation. Interplace is a place for people to interact so please leave your comments below.
Now let’s go…
Ok, be honest. When you hear the song, “What the World Need Now is Love”, do you think of Jackie Deshannon, Burt Bacharach, or Dionne Warwick? (put your answer in the comments below) If you ask me, it’s Dionne Warwick — even though she turned it down at first. “Too country”, she said, but changed her mind a year later. The rest is history, sweet history. But let’s give props to Jackie. She hit number seven on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1965, just a few months before I was born. The world needed love and out I came. You can thank my parents.
That song was written in response to the Vietnam War by Burt and Hal David. But it became more of a protest song in 1971 when LA DJ Tom Clay mixed it with spoken word and Dion’s Abraham, Martin and John. It hit number eight on the Hot 100. It’s both a war protest song and a tribute to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Kennedy’s – a poignant and depressing reflection of just how messed up our country was at the time. The most jarring part of the song comes at the beginning when a man asks a young girl what bigotry is – a term she had trouble defining and pronouncing. But when he asks what the word ‘prejudice’ means, she’s unequivocal: “I think it’s when somebody is sick.”
Our country was sick back then. We were pretty sick last summer too – police brutality and racial protests had echoes of the late sixties. But at least we didn’t have a massive war, draft, and assignations every few months. Instead, we had a pandemic. And we still do. Our country’s temperature, like the planet, is rising. The truth is we’ve always had a low grade fever. When it has spiked it’s been abated with fever reducers to keep us from overheating: placate the natives with treaties negated, abolish enslavement – then toss ‘em on the pavement, Civil War reconstruction with redlined obstruction, a woman’s right to vote but don’t dare promote, the New Deal pact, Civil Rights Act, and our first Black president, Barack. I’m sure I skipped some meds in there somewhere. The fever has never left us. It’s like mainstream medical practice. We’d rather treat symptoms with drugs, than root causes with care.
“There is no painkiller as effective as love, no anti-depressant as soothing as cheer, no defibrillator as powerful as wisdom.” — Abhijit Naskar, Time to Save Medicine
But what’s love got to do with it? And who needs a heart when a heart can be broken? Tina Turner hit number one with “What’s Love Got to Do with It” as I was handed my high school diploma in 1984. The perfect theme song to launch a 40 year melodrama of merciless neoliberal policies and politics. Since the 80’s, our healthcare costs have risen while our life expectancy has lagged behind.
Forty years of ‘Trickle Down Economics’ has resulted in the largest inequality gap in the world – hitting BIPOC homes the hardest. Nearly one quarter (21%) of children in the United States live in poverty – the worst among developed countries. The mantra of the 80s was, “Greed is Good”. Gordon Gekko inspired greed worked for some, but at the expense of many. And greed is one of Buddhism’s three evils:
That makes Trump not only a product of the 80s, but the personification of evil.
As the world was protesting in the street last summer, Tina Turner was teaming up with Norwegian DJ, Kygo, in a trip hop, tropical house remix of her big hit. It became number one in Poland and Hungary – two countries experiencing their own nationalist despotism. Perhaps it’s a neoconservative yearning for the good ol’ days of 1980’s totalitarian rule. Tina’s song barely made a dent in the US, but if it did I can imagine Trump spurring his crowds and insurrectionists in chanting, “Who needs a heart?! Who needs a heart?!”
What does love have to do with it, anyway? Everything, according to Finnish writer, Anu Partanen. Her book, “The Nordic Theory of Everything”, centers on a Nordic tradition she calls the Nordic Theory of Love – the more love you give someone the more self-sufficient and independent they become. Go read or re-read Pippy Longstocking and you’ll get the idea – warm hearted, compassionate, witty, and self-confident. Independent confidence sounds like Gordon Gekko, right? Partanen thinks so too:
“If you’re a fan of American individualism and personal freedom, this might strike you downright all-American thinking.”
But true independence, she reveals, requires fellow citizens help those struggling so they can become self-sufficient – again. Compassion. Not Gordon Gekko. Not Trump. Not America. Partanen is married to an American and they lived in New York for some time. Upon moving back to Finland the disparity of how each country treats their people became so pronounced she wrote a book about it. Her conclusion is America believes love is just a second-hand emotion. Who needs a heart?
It got me wondering. How do Nordic countries remain the happiest places to live in the world while we’re one of the saddest. I feel you Czech Republic. Yes Nordic countries have social programs that insure a just, fair, and caring society, but they’re also capitalist machines who celebrate personal freedoms and generate wealth. It’s not that they’re perfect. They have some immigration issues, their governments aren’t perfect, and not all of their people are in uniform agreement. But compared to the wealth disparities and political polarities of America, there is much to be admired.
How did we get here? How did we get so tribal and divisive. Surely as Americans, as a people, as humans we can’t be all that different from one another. Turns out we’re not the only species that acts this way. We’re not that different, in our Darwinian dance, than massive colonies of warring ants. These little buggers are also notoriously tribal, building armies to defend against attacks. Scientists have even observed army reserves – lazy ants who just sit around doing nothing – waiting to be called upon should the colony lose too many soldiers in battle. But even within amazingly cooperative and efficient ant colonies, they see cliques form along behavioral lines. Angry aggressors self-congregate as do chilled-out peace keepers. So it seems even egalitarian insect colonies have polarized war mongering hawks and peace keeping doves.
We’re a more evolved species with a bigger, but shrinking, brain. As a result, we’ve devised elaborate social norms and societal patterns. We’ve also invented wheels, wagons, autos, and airplanes that move us about and scatter us throughout. Placemaking today is inspired by immigration, emigration, migration, and media. And explosive exponential population growth. In 2007 the world crossed the rural-urban line: 55% of the world’s population now live in cities. When I was born, 66% of the world’s population was rural. No wonder Dionne thought Burt’s song was too country. (Actually, US rural populations have remained flat at around 50 million since 1960.)
This growth means we’ll be running into each other a lot more – once these masks come off. Those encounters will increasingly be with people that don’t act, look, pray, or preach alike. And yet we’re all human beings with ambitions to live the best life we can. Deep down we know we should minimize hate, distrust, and violence. Especially if we’re going to coexist on top of each other. Together, as human beings, we have to find common ground. A moral safe space. Duke philosophy professor, Owen Flanagan, suggests in “The Geography of Morals” that we start by asking what we ought to be:
“…there are multiple ways to live good human lives; that morality is fragile, subject to vagaries of temperament, personality, gender, class, culture, economics, and politics; and that moral ideals are typically pictures of what kind of person from among the possibilities one ought to be, where “be” is intended in a deep, existentialist sense. Moral ideals call on one to be a person of a certain kind, not just to act in certain ways.”
Expanding cultural and ethnic orientations in cosmopolitan conglomerations will test our ability to “be”. It will also test our ability to make places for interactions between people of different races. There are various ways this worldwide experiment may play out – housing projects rife with prejudice and hate, a slow boiling cauldron of assimilated fate, or as Flanagan suggests,
“collages of the best values, norms, and practices, the sociomoral equivalent of fine fusion cuisine or excellent world music that creates flavors or sounds from multiple fine sources…”
I know which one sounds good to me.
To equip us all on this journey, he recommends we consider this:
They ain’t from ‘round these parts. An admission that not everyone is from, or have had the same lived experience, as those from the ‘North Atlantic’ or its many colonized settlements.
“It matters how members of original displaced communities, or people who were brought here or came here as chattel slaves or indentured workers or political refugees or for economic opportunity, have thought about virtues, values, moral psychology, normative ethics, and good human lives.”
I am so WEIRD. The majority of research into moral psychology comes from studying WEIRD people. (Weird, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic)
“There is every reason to think WEIRD people are unrepresentative, possibly the most unrepresentative group imaginable, less representative than our ancestors when the ice melted at the end of the Pleistocene.”
Don’t forget Buddha. As great as modern science is, it’s a mistake to claim these forms of knowledge are ‘better’ than the “sensitive observers of humans in their own times.” For example Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Buddha, Seneca, and Śāntideva. (I’ll add the many great indigenous thinkers and practitioners whose knowledge and experience has been passed down for millennia.)
He goes on to remind us WEIRD people are unique in the world. And not always in a good way. Flanagan assembled a dozen revelatory examples of how the fields of psychology, philosophy, and anthropology agree on the notion of “self” as derived from decades of collective research:
“The Philosopher’s Self”. There is disagreement among social scientists, neuroscientists, and theologians about how we define “the subject of experience, what I am, where I am, how I came to be, what my fate is, and how I keep track of all I am, do, as well as all that happens to me.” We all have different interpretations of ‘me’ or ‘I’ in our heads and our brain is too feeble to fully make sense of a common ‘self’.
Independent versus Interdependent. All around the world different cultures tend to be more or less ‘individualists’ or ‘collectivists’. “Typically North Americans and northern Europeans, on one side, and East Asians, South Asians, Amerindians, and Africans, on the other side.”
Wherever I go, there I am. This is what Americans consider their character. Think Meyers-Briggs. As a counter example, East Asians believe character is “more dependent on particular situations and relationships, as co-constituted relationally.”
What’s your narrative? Some experts believe we act according to our own narrative – how we see ourselves in the world. Others believe it’s impossible to form our own narrative and that it’s imposed upon us by our culture. Anthropological evidence suggests it could be a bit of both.
Virtue. There is broad agreement that the idea of ‘quality of character’ is something shared globally. But different parts of the world rank individual traits differently. Buddhists put Compassion first, whereas North Americans put “justice as fairness” on top.
Ideal happy face. Assignment of an ideal happy state in facial gestures varies around the world. The ideal happy state in children’s books in North America would communicate high arousal; exuberance, “happy-happy-joy-joy”. The ideal in a Buddhist book would reflect “calm, and endorse internal serenity and equanimity.”
Authentic and inauthentic selves. Authenticity matters more to North Americans. We tend to strive to be our ‘authentic selves’ no matter what. Just be yourself. Just do it. East Asians tend to believe that people of high character will forego their ‘authentic self’ when the situation demands a more collective approach. Egotistical versus communal.
Me, myself, and I. “When four- to six-year-old children in America and China are asked to report on daily events, the proportion of self-reference is three times greater among the Americans. American kids focus on what I did and what happened to me.”
Self-recognition. “North Americans believe that individuals can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps more than individuals in other cultures believe this, and are less likely to think that good or bad luck is a major factor in accomplishment.”
Self-comprehension. “Indians, Chinese, and Koreans are less susceptible than Americans to the fundamental attribution error…” When North Americans hand a homeless person money, we’re more likely to pat ourselves on the back for the good deed.
Self-serving bias. “North Americans are more prone than Amerindians, Mexicans, Fijians, Southern Italians, and East Asians to the self-serving bias…” Think of Garrison Keillor’s ‘Lake Wobegon’ effect – where everyone thinks they have above average intelligence, looks, etc.
Positive self-illusions. “North Americans are more prone than people of other cultures to believe that they are in control of outcomes…” We like to think we can win the lottery, avert cancer, or get in a car accident. “In North American populations only moderately depressed people are realists and do not suffer positive illusions.”
Flanagan punctuates this list by suggesting we all wake up:
“Insofar as there are some clear mistakes about the self on the list of self-variations, they are made disproportionately by WEIRD people rather than by the groups they are compared with. This ought to get our attention since tendencies to error, false beliefs, and the like, are generally thought, across the globe, to be a bad thing.”
Our country’s cultural history is rooted in an unusual religiosity – puritanical capitalists who were largely racist, misogynistic, and mean. But we have to cut them some slack, because they “emerged in particular relations among particular people at a particular place and time.” However, elements of that legacy are evident today. Every day. America is a domineering, resource hungry, capitalist behemoth with a global ethnocentric agenda backed by a military bigger than the next 10 nations combined. We are bullies. Greed is good. What’s love got to with it?
And yet, the majority of Americans, especially kids, look around every day and see people of different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds in their schools, workplaces, and streets. Despite our different origins, we see each other pursuing life, liberty, and happiness – even as we struggle to reconcile our ugly past – and present. We see protest, teamwork, allyship, and companionship. Civic discourse and introspective soul-search. We can honor our own lived experiences and beliefs while still being attentive to others.
“Human individuals are gregarious social animals, in and of the world. All persons, WEIRD people as well as South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian, Eurasian, the original peoples of Africa, the Americas, and Oceana, are psychobiological individuals. Individuals have their own experiences. This is compatible with individuals in different communities being differentially open to other people, to being attentive or inattentive to suffering whenever and wherever it exists, to taking the well-being of others as seriously as their own.” – Owen Flanagan
We live in a world of plurality, but we know there’s common ground. Is it too much to ask that we all strive to be kind, compassionate, fair, and just? There is no place for meanness and nobody likes a bully. A human theory of love is needed, though we won’t understand it fully. We are malleable creatures who can adapt to change, so let change begin.
“We humans in virtue of being social, cultured, and very smart and because of the plasticity of human nature have numerous options for the kinds of persons we can be. It is an enormous responsibility to co-create ourselves, to choose the better paths, and nothing less that the quality of one’s being and the contribution one makes to the well-being of others depends on how well one succeeds in this daunting project.”
In Tina Turner’s hit single, she spends the first half of the song questioning the love of her lover. She asking him, “What’s love got to do with it?” Many of us are questioning the love of our country, our political, legal, economic structures, and each other. It’s amplified on extreme left and right. Who needs Black Lives, when Black Lives are so broken. Who needs your laws, when your laws can be broken. Who needs a mask, when my freedom is chosen. So much anger, bitterness, and resentment. Delusion, greed, and anger.
But then her song turns inward. She stops yelling at the world, stops questioning love, and considers self-love — who she ought to “be”: “I’ve got cause to be.” Even if it’s daunting:
“I’ve been taking on a new direction –
And I have to say
I've been thinking 'bout my own protection
It scares me to feel this way”
Tina challenges us to be who we ought to be – to give love to one. While Dionne reminds us that when we do, we give love not to just some, but to everyone:
“What the world needs now
Is love, sweet love
No not just for some
But for everyone”