(…And Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before)
On Facebook today, March 20th, I received the news that Fred Phelps, founder and ex-leader of the notoriously homophobic Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, had died. With Reverend Phelps at its helm, the activist faction of the WBC has protested against the socialization and acceptance of gays and gay culture since at least the early nineties. Among other targets of the WBC were secular and reformed Jews, all of the other mainstream religions (including all branches of Protestant Christianity but their own) and pedophiles. You can get a pretty good overview of their philosophy, politics and M.O. at the Wikipedia page I linked to above.
A few days ago I had read that Phelps, who resembled some creepy cross between Clint Eastwood and the evil minister from Poltergeist II: The Other Side, was on his deathbed, so today’s news of his passing did not come as a surprise. No, the truly surprising tidbit that has come out of this coverage was that Phelps had been ousted from his own church last year. At first this fact seemed to me shockingly ironic, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it isn’t so ironic after all. If one examines the history of all the extremist us-versus-them ideological movements, regardless of their rallying points or the basis for their beliefs they tend to implode, and I think it is because the psychology of the leadership of such movements are often so paranoid that they eventually begin to turn on each other.
This is what happened with the Klu Klux Klan when they were at the height of their power in the 1920s. Even when such groups manage to take over a government like the Nazis did in Germany and the Communists did in Russia, there is inevitably some internal purge that rarely spares even the most powerful members within that group. With the Nazis it was Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the Sturm-Abteilung, without which Hitler never could have become Chancellor of Germany. (If you’re interested, I discuss Röhm in some detail in an earlier article, Bothersome Nazis: Ernst Röhm and Julius Streicher.) With the Communists the list was even longer and included many of the so-called Old Bolsheviks, again without whom the Russian Revolution would not have been successful.
Essentially, when one delves into their psychology and motivations, what becomes apparent is that trust issues and delusions of persecution are often innate to members of groups that are built around the persecution of other groups. Hmm, whodathunkit? It seems Alexander Pope had it right when he wrote:
All seems infected to th’ infected spy,
As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.
This is of course a generalization and we should be careful not to assign to it more weight than it genuinely possesses, but we cannot ignore the patterns which persist time and time again amongst such groups, or within the broader context of society as a whole.
We should also keep this paradigm in mind when considering how such all-encompassing hatred might take root to begin with. In that light we might better understand what Daily Kos contributor tmservo433 is driving at in this article when he points out, “Last year, right before his ex-communication, Phelps faced confrontation of former members who wondered if Phelps himself wasn’t a gay man who’s self hatred manifested itself as it did.” The article goes on to state that Phelps’s rage was at its most piquant whenever he was personally confronted with accusations of his own possible repressed homosexual feelings. We may be tempted to write off these accusations as simply a desire by those former members to get Phelps’s goat, and no doubt some of that was going on, but it is neither here nor there, for the evidence for homophobic projection is now pretty well established.
My hunch is that this sort of projection applies to much more than just unpopular sexual orientations; I suspect it can be said of a great many qualities innate to humans both individually and as a whole, such as a will to violence. We may all look down on murderers, but is there a person alive who has never had murderous feelings in his heart at some time? Or sexual desires that make him uncomfortable? Furthermore, I believe the overall moral health of a society is directly impacted by how openly and honestly its members are able to deal with such desires or drives in themselves, and perhaps more importantly, whether they are able to set aside their own personal guilt, shame, anger, etc. in order to deal fairly and ethically with others who violate that society’s laws and taboos. I’m sorry to say in comparison to most of the Western world, Americans get an F in this department. We are among the worst when it comes to our treatment of criminals. For example, we are the only Western industrial (First World) nation to still practice the death penalty, despite the overwhelming evidence that it doesn’t work as a detriment to violence, and we are number one in the entire world–including the worst of the Third World nations–when it comes to incarceration.
Why is this? Whenever you ask this question of anyone who supports this Kafkaesque status quo, the answers you receive are invariably either astoundingly false (the deterrence argument), prone to mystical mumbo-jumbo (it’s God’s will), rooted in feelings of revenge, or some evasive thought-terminating cliche which ultimately amounts to a big “fuck you.” Sometimes, in heated discussions, you get all of the above. These replies never hold up to logical or ethical scrutiny, which is why the vast majority of the civilized world has rejected them. We are the holdouts. This is not to say that there haven’t been improvements over the years. Those are pretty much inevitable, but they are usually slow in coming and almost always hard won. It seems that we Americans, regardless of our political stripe, are all too frequently a prudish and mistrustful lot.
Maybe this traces back to our Puritan heritage. I think that’s part of it, certainly. But I think there is something else going on here too, something even bigger and older than religious fundamentalism. We poor humans are doomed to operate our lives according to a great many internal prejudices called cognitive biases that trace back to the evolutionary development of our brains as organs of survival in a highly complex, ever-changing and seemingly infinite universe . . . what’s referred to by systems theorists as an open system.
What this means in the end is that the world we exist in provides so much information for our brains to take in, engaging us in feedback loops of such number and complexity that if our brains were unable to make speedy decisions based on this astounding amount of input, we would simply be unable to operate. Our brains would be subject to something like combinatorial explosion, wherein a process becomes so exponentially complex that it becomes trapped in data processing and effectively ceases to function at the macro level in any useful way. Ergo, without our built-in biases, we could never have evolved intelligence as the ability to do so would be an intractable problem for us.
As Jeremy Campbell has laid out in his excellent book The Improbable Machine, this has long been a thorn in the side of those attempting to develop a genuine AI; the original assumption of those working in this field–what makes humans intelligent is mostly/solely their capacity to be logical and that if a complex enough logic processor (Turing machine) could be developed, we would have an AI–has been all but demolished by a long history of abysmal failures sprinkled by a handful of modest successes. Campbell shows that what makes us smart isn’t just our facility for logic but also–and perhaps even more importantly–our brain’s ability to make snap judgments based on previous experiences, no matter how skimpy or seemingly inapplicable to the extant problem those experiences may be.
But there is a price to be paid for this superfast inductive reasoning, and that price is the frustrating degree of inexactness we are subject to in this grand and mysterious universe we live in; moreover, the fact that we have a wide array of genetics and life experiences means that we can likely never reach a true philosophical consensus. The advent of science has certainly pushed us forward by leaps and bounds on the logic front, but Campbell shows that logic has its limits. In short, we owe as much (or more) to our structural cognitive biases for our intelligence as we do to our capacity for deduction, even as those same cognitive biases doom us to being wrong about the big things almost as often as we are right.
Some may find this fact distressing. Personally, I embrace it, as it assures that humanity remains intellectually diverse enough to deal with almost any problem it faces. Let’s put this into context. Consider that there are types of algae that can reproduce both sexually and asexually (heterogamy); one magnificent example is the genus Volvox. What’s fascinating about Volvox is that its use of heterogamy is dependent on environmental conditions. When conditions are ideal, Volvox will often reproduce in asexual mode. Asexual reproduction is basically a form of self-cloning, which makes sense for a species that finds its optimum environment. It is operating by an instinctive version of that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ However, when Volvox is threatened it will switch to sexual reproduction, diversifying itself so that some part of it will be able to meet the new environmental challenge. When the Volvox finds a match for the new environmental conditions, it will then stabilize by once more switching to asexual reproduction mode. It’s a beautiful survival strategy for this little waterborn plant.
Now, humans can only reproduce sexually, so diversity is assured in our species. And that’s a good thing, as our diversity has been an essential contribution to our evolution as the dominant species on Earth, both in reaching that position and in maintaining it. Could we ever have gotten this intelligent if we reproduced asexually and were all clones of each other? I would argue that the chance of doing so approaches nil. Diversity is not merely valuable for a species to reach this level of intelligence; it is vital. And the more diversity, the better we are able to meet whatever challenges our infinitely complex universe has to throw at us. The Vulcans of Star Trek have a more succinct way of putting it, a motto which is sacred to them and even has its own symbol. This is IDIC, which stands for Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations. For my part, I think the Vulcans are onto something.
At any rate, our brains may be designed to be biased, but we shouldn’t assume that all forms of bias are then morally viable or insurmountable. It is one thing to accept that our perception of reality is skewed in a thousand ways by our need to make sense of it and exist comfortably within it; it’s something else altogether to actively seek to justify the maltreatment of whole swaths of humanity based on these distorted perceptions. Indeed, my point here is that we have a duty to try to understand our biases and overcome them when they negatively impact the moral status of society, because biases can be mimetic.
Yes, these cognitive biases can eventually manifest in some individuals as prejudice against whole groups of people, but that is not something that happens overnight. It is largely a matter of social conditioning, and as such, it is morally unacceptable, for I see the higher moral imperative of diversity as a matter of survival for the entire human species, not just individuals (or races, or sexes, or cultures, or nations). Why? Because the humble Volvox, and indeed the whole history of humanity, demonstrates that the key to the survival of a species is to live within as broad an ecological niche as possible.
But what is it that provides the possibility for broadening our niche? The answer is a broad environment with which to interact. I include here in my definition of ‘environment’ aspects of both nature and human artifice, and I believe for the most part that anything that does not directly threaten the human species and does not threaten this highest of moral imperatives, the need for diversity, we should labor to protect. Yet is there such a thing as too much diversity? Theoretically at least, yes–when a species diversifies to the point where individuals can no longer interact, that is a direct threat to its continuance for obvious reasons. But that is a difficult point for social animals like us to reach. Still, the overall goal and the key to everything (you will hear me say this many more times on this blog) is balance.
It has been said that nature seeks stasis. I think to a large degree this is true. Nature is extremely flexible, but that flexibility is not, as many climate change deniers claim, infinite. It does have limitations. We should take care to keep in mind that it is absolutely a fact that humanity has within its capacity the ability to destroy all life on planet Earth. A full-scale world war with nuclear weapons would probably do it. If that is so, then isn’t it also the case that slowly corrupting the planet’s entire ecocosm could also eventually kill the planet off? There is almost certainly a finite balance in the natural domain, but while we cannot know whether that balance can be permanently undermined, we can and do know that nature’s existing balance has served us well as a species thus far and is therefore worth conserving.
So, we now have a reason to embrace and defend diversity in both humanity and in nature as a whole: both are fundamental to our continued survival. People like Fred Phelps are moral dinosaurs doomed to extinction not because they offend our sensibilities but because they are at heart anti-life. They believe in rules for the sake of having rules rather than making life better and happier for us all. They embrace hatred, cruelty and violence, which are inherently things of extreme divisiveness that, when taken to their logical conclusion, push our species towards extinction by directly threatening our need for diversity.
But, shouldn’t the views of people like Phelps be tolerated too, for, don’t they add to our diversity? No, because their views and ideas are ultimately more destructive to this prime moral imperative than their existence is constructive to it. And that is really where diversity as a moral imperative should end: at the point where it becomes anti-humanity and runs counter to itself. That is only logical.