Newtown, Connecticut, Obama and Kenneth Burke

Newtown, Connecticut December 14, 2012.

Not a parent in America got through that day with dry eyes.

Our poets and artists will find ways to express the grief and outrage, but most of us will grasp at some sort of political solution. This is natural. Tragedies are often political opportunities. And they tend to follow a certain pattern.

It is already unfolding before our eyes. President Obama has mobilized a crack political team to find a legal solution, though its more important purpose is to reassure the people that our best men are on the job and everything isn’t spinning out of control. They will likely come out shortly with a proposal to ban assault rifles, or regulate the number of bullets a person can buy or some such thing.

The people themselves begin to mobilize for or against some solution, throwing out catch-phrases like “Guns do Kill People!” or “Does the Next Bullet Have Your Child’s Name On It?” There will be significant opposition.

There will be marches, people with signs, opinion pieces, calls to “Bring God back into schools,” vilification of those with opposing viewpoints, and many will lament the loss of our society’s moral center. Debates will rage via Facebook memes and tweets.

Finally, our most eloquent will rise above the chaos to offer us inspiration, but no real solutions that don’t require some work on our part.

Or, perhaps as this is the fourth such incident in as many years, we’ll write it off as a normal part of our society and go about our lives as usual, blaming the whole thing on some lunatic whose insanity got the better of him.

Kenneth Burke, literary critic and philosopher, conceived an extensive philosophy using the world of drama as a metaphor, complete with stages, curtains, actors, and narrative.

 One of his metaphors that applies now is what he calls “terministic screens.” It begs the question: “How will social discussions be framed?”

A tragic screen finds a scapegoat—in our case the man with the gun—lays all the blame on him, achieves social redemption and moves on.

A comedic screen asks things like: How am I to blame? What’s going on in the culture, the larger social structure, that encourages this horrific behavior? Where are we failing? Where am I failing?

President Obama gave a moving speech. He’s quite good with words.

“Can we say that we’re truly doing enough to give all the children of this country the chance they deserve to live out their lives in happiness and with purpose? I’ve been reflecting on this the last few days, and if we’re honest with ourselves, the answer’s no. We’re not doing enough. And we will have to change.” 

Obama, in a show of wisdom, is encouraging us to adopt a comedic screen. And he’s being honest—not something I thought I’d ever write about a politician! (Though, if he had said 'I have to change,' it would have been so much more powerful.) Can the rest of us cast off our age-old habits, do something uncharacteristic of ourselves, and be honest too?

We find ourselves at a point in history in the West where forward progress is only possible if we start assuming personal responsibility for the actions of our entire society. This is understandably difficult, may seem impossible. But anything that has yet to exist seems incapable of ever existing.

“It was one man with a gun,” we rationalize. “It happened in a far-off state, I’ve never even been to Connecticut,” we continue. “I don’t even have kids,” say the younger generations.

Not good enough. Ask yourself why you bought a ticket to that gory movie, or gave your kid a shooting video game for Christmas, or voted for that politician over and over again even though nothing seemed to get fixed. Those are easy ones, but any real social change must happen with individuals. We’re going to have to get tough on ourselves.

 I’ll start.
  • I find myself, at times, proud to be in a nation with the largest and most powerful military in history. 
  •  
  • Every election, I outwardly eschew the political rhetoric and proclaim that all politicians are the same, while inwardly I dread the possibility of a Republican president and vote accordingly. 
  •  
  • For a time in my life, I played a lot of Grand Theft Auto. 
  •  
  • When my daughter came back from school, complaining about a boy that bullies her, I told her to hit him back. I’m particularly ashamed of that one. In fact, I’ll stop there for now. 
How about you?

The Economic Role of Government continued

“It’s the economy stupid.” –James Carville

The words of former U.S. President Clinton’s campaign strategist, now famous, were originally meant as a quick synopsis to Clinton campaign organizers of how Clinton’s campaign should be approached.

Why? That’s political policy that really affects people—and a smart politician knows it. Campaigns based on regulating morality in society have come and gone and social values dictated what was and wasn’t acceptable regardless of their pleas. Campaigns around nationalism or the mutual hatred of some other group can be successful, but usually leave a bad taste in the mouths of the electorate.

Campaigns around the economy—and more specifically—what politicians plan to do with/about the economy is perhaps the only time the rubber finally meets the road. I’ve addressed this issue in my most popular blog to date, “The Economic Role of Government” but I thought some clarification might be in order as I think the takeaway of that blog might seem to be: “Intervene in the economy? Bad idea.”

This might be a good default position for any government to take if they don’t know what to do, but let’s be honest: even in the most libertarian society in the world, power-centered politicians will likely never be able to keep their hands off their respective national economies. Furthermore, government intervention, though wildly complicated and highly volatile, is absolutely necessary at times. Let’s see if we can figure out how this can best be approached.

So, first off, the economy as a unified entity is an abstraction. Really, it is simply the result of many individuals and organizations being productive. So if a government is going to step in and intervene with an economy, they’re actually intervening with people’s enterprise or the results of their hard work.

Governments rely on a productive population for their very survival. So it is in any government’s best interest to, first, affirm that it values commerce, business, and enterprise. This can be done simply by politicians making speeches in which they say that they (and the government/people they represent) do indeed recognize the value of commerce. Easy enough, but do they mean it? That’s important.

I think we can all agree that there must be laws, and the laws must be enforced. We can’t have monopolies, we can’t have people not honoring contracts, we can’t have price gouging, we can’t have businesses cooking the books, we can’t have people exploiting other people, Ponzi schemes, false advertising, dishonest sales pitches, dangerous products, etc, etc, etc.

The problem governments run into at this level is making laws that favor their buddies—most of which are extremely wealthy campaign contributors. There should be laws against that sort of thing as well. But that’s a difficult law to get through as it directly and negatively affects those who make the laws. It’s a bit of the old snake eating its own tail sort of thing.

Beyond that, (and I mentioned this in “The Economic Role of Government”) certain members of society must actively promote the value of capitalism and its central role in prosperity, which, after all, is just another word for the accumulation of assets that can be converted into money (capital). But this might not be such a function of government as much as it a function of parents, teachers, opinion leaders and the like.

Furthermore, governments must look out for the interests of its people—both individually and the organizations that facilitate economic activity, otherwise known as domestic industry. They must listen to the concerns and grievances of their people and act on them. This is difficult in many ways and it brings us to a sort of important tangent:

Most often the issue of how a government can or should intervene in the economy arises in times of economic crisis. Otherwise, not many people care. They’re prosperous, things are working, people are happy and politicians are patting themselves on the back. Unfortunately, during times of crisis, people start looking to government for quick, decisive action. A great example of this might be the Occupy Wall Street protests in America:

Bad business practices, speculative bubbles and good old-fashioned greed had dealt a painful blow to the U.S. economy. People were angry, they protested, they broke windows and yelled a lot of rhyming slogans at tall buildings. Regular people didn’t know what was going on and politicians, who saw an election year on the horizon, got nervous. In an effort to appease the restless masses, politicians quickly proposed possible solutions, such as cranking up taxes for rich people, adding a tax to every Wall Street transaction, stiff regulation on banks and various other ill-conceived and poorly thought-out solutions—not to mention they called out their paramilitary police forces and started beating people.

This is most commonly where things go wrong in governments’ attempts at economic intervention. Crisis equals panic and everything is ignored except the attitude of: “Do whatever it takes to calm those people down.”

When this happens, it might be less helpful to listen to the angry masses and more helpful to enroll the services of outside, objective, nonpartisan, intelligent people who don’t have a stake in crony capitalism or the approval of the angry masses. This might include academics, intellectuals, economic analysts, think tanks, social critics, and researchers. There needs to be room for voices of dispassionate reason in all the madness.

This, however, is like finding an objective jury for a high-profile case and there is a tendency for even dispassionate people to become politicized.

Finally, governments must face up to the fact that they can’t control everything. Hurricanes barrel through metro areas, trading partners’ governments collapse, entire industries go on strike, whatever. However, with a strong connection to reality and an eye to the future, well-functioning governments can do their best to try and anticipate what their societies will want and need in the future and rather than react to crises, they might be able to cut a route into their ever-uncertain futures.

That about does it for the economic role of government—for now! Luckily, for those of you just itching for more, there’s an entire framework in THEE on the topic, or feel free to make comments or ask questions.

Social Currents

I hear it all the time in one form or another: “Society made me do it!”

My father, a judge, regularly regales me with tales from the courtroom. Some of this stuff would make your ears burn—and everybody’s got an excuse:

“I drove drunk because I got laid off and the economy is tough.”

“I kidnapped that little girl because my mother wasn’t nice to me.”

“I ran across the football field naked because my frat brothers said I had to for initiation.”

Dad doesn’t have much sympathy for that stuff. But society does indeed hold quite a bit of sway over us.

Don’t Mess With Science 

I’m finding out the hard way that going against the grain of prevailing ideas on truth and reality doesn’t make one very popular.

I’ve written a few blogs critiquing society’s stance on science. (Here’s one on neuroscience and on about the failures of the social sciences.) And they are not generally well-received, which comes as no great surprise.

Our culture is quite convinced that chemistry, physics and biology hold the keys to all truth: God can be found in a particle, humanity is chemico-electric signals in the brain, technology will save us all from poverty and injustice.

Imagine, for example, being a diligent climate scientist. Perhaps you discover some piece of evidence that suggests we’re not necessarily barreling toward a weather apocalypse—or, if we are, it’s got nothing to do with human activity.

I’m not saying one way or the other that this is the case, just putting a fun little “what-if” out there. What sort of response could you expect from trying to publish your findings? Complete and total marginalization, ostracism, loss of funding, etc. You might lose your job or be aligned without your consent with some right-wing political institution.

Let’s Talk Dollars and Sense

Ron Paul. Love him or hate him, Texas Senator Ron Paul offered the most consistent social philosophy of any politician in recent U.S. history. A staunch libertarian, Paul looked at common sense economics through the eyes of Ludwig von Mises, saw government as necessary but also a highly destructive force if unchecked, and he thought that people should generally be allowed to go about their lives however they chose as long as it didn’t infringe upon anyone else.

Despite a groundswell of grassroots support, Paul was consistently marginalized by the media and even by the elites in his own party. Why? Well, this is highly disputed, but my view is that the American public and was not prepared to accept responsibility for the mess it had gotten itself into and Americans—both Republican and Democrat—were still hanging on to the idea that some politician would swoop in and clean it all up for them.

Ron Paul wasn’t going to promise that. He saw government and politicians as a huge part of the problem.

Furthermore, the political establishment was not willing to concede any power—which would have been inevitable under Paul’s leadership.

He was a lone salmon swimming up a swift stream with bears lining its banks.

You and Society

You are a creative individual, there’s no doubt about that. But all of that energy, your identity and everything you want in life must happen within a social context. There’s no avoiding it. You are unbridled in what you can think and feel. But when you bring your thoughts, ideas, feelings and aspirations out into the world, there will be constraints. To offer a bit of prose straight from THEE’s Personal Endeavor framework:

“I and my endeavor are in a social setting, in certain close relationships, in a physical environment, part of a culture, at a moment in history.”

In a sense, you’ve got two options knowing that: 1) Swim with the current, go with what works and what’s accepted or 2) Throw caution to the wind and brave the inevitable storm of social resistance.

Either way, it certainly helps to be aware of yourself and your positioning within your particular social context. That brings us back to the opening lines of this blog. All of the people that have found themselves in my father’s courtroom were aware that their actions would not be well received in society. They knew and they will be held responsible.

This doesn’t mean you’ve got to be some sort of lemming. Just know what you’re getting yourself into.

Tom’s Cry to be Understood 

I don’t try to be controversial in these blogs—but society would be one scary place without a word of dissent here and there. And please, let’s not go thinking that I’m all anti-science. Accepting the validity of science was a major leap for civilization. Besides that, it’s done us all wonders with medicine and technology and, all in all, offered huge strides into understanding our universe. I am often in awe.

Nor am I some sort of political revolutionary. I’m just pointing out the natural consequences of our particular brand of plutocratic pluralism, brought on by our current handling of our values. In many ways, western society is a beautiful construct that we and our predecessors have bravely fought and died for. So indulge me, readers.

There’s always room for improvement.

George's Quest

You’ve heard of The Beatles, right? Maybe you don’t like them (not a perspective I am capable of understanding) but I’m sure you know of them.

I am often just blown away how these regular, working-class boys got together and changed the course of music forever—just by getting down to business and harnessing their creativity.

Most of their songs came from John and Paul, who seemed born to work together, crafting pop hooks at first, then evolving their ideas into a pop-oriented experimentalism that will no doubt stand the test of time.

But what about the other two? Ringo always seemed like he was along for the ride. He loved to drum, he loved pulling silly antics and horsing around with the media. If I had to venture a guess, I would say Ringo is on a pleasure quest. For a time in his life, it got the better of him and, more so than any other Beatle, he struggled with addiction.

But George is an interesting case. He never seemed to revel in the fame as much as his cohorts and once remarked that it was a good day if he opened up the newspaper and he wasn’t in it. George was quiet, contemplative, which might have been viewed as weakness because he was often marginalized by John and Paul, whose sheer creativity was often overbearing. Generally, George was allowed one, maybe two, songs per album, though recording studio outtakes overflow with Harrison’s ideas.

When The Beatles took their sabbatical in India under the Maharishi Mahesh, it was all in good fun for most of them, but after the novelty had worn off, all but George left India, who would return sporadically throughout the rest of his life. He was, until he died, a devotee of the Hare Krishna faith and was an avid meditator and chanter.

I’ve been searching for a way, for quite some time, to communicate an important and fascinating aspect of THEE—the primal quests. Herein lies some of the most mystical and mysterious parts of being human. I saw a unique opportunity listening to The Beatles the other day, particularly in Harrison—who is a unique human being.

The Primal Quests are deeply personal, individual-oriented entities. It’s certainly none of my business to concern myself with anyone’s quest but my own—and even then, understanding can be difficult.

But I would submit that Harrison was a rarity in that he was truly on a Spiritual Quest. These people’s primary concern is achieving a oneness with the divine, a burning confrontation with God, the universe and all as unity. That’s George in a nutshell. He once said:

“There's high, and there's high, and to get really high - I mean so high that you can walk on the water, that high-that's where I'm going.”

An interesting and unique feature of the Your Better Self framework is that higher-level quests can gratify key features of all the levels below them. So, in a sense, a quest that’s higher up in the hierarchy can look, at times, like quests below them. And Spirituality sits at the top of the Primal Quest hierarchy.

This phenomenon comes through in Harrison’s life and music. At least a couple of quests manifest themselves in his song, “Within You Without You,” (full lyrics) where he sings, not only about the oneness of humanity, but also about the redeeming power of love.

Harrison shows an affinity to the Enlightenment Quest as well, singing:

We were talking/About the space between us all/And the people who hide themselves/Behind a wall of illusion/Never glimpse the truth. 

Those seeking Enlightenment, as George suggested, are looking beyond the illusions of truth set up by society or even our own, inner blockages such as subscriptions to ideology or an orientation toward reductionism or simplification. They want the real Truth.

Displaying features of the Salvation Quest, Harrison was the first-ever major rock act to hold a “concert for cause,” (something that is now commonplace) when he organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 to help Bangladeshi refugees.

I could go on. Obviously, his music speaks to his Creation Quest and we could easily argue it was all a search for Meaning. But I think you get the idea.

Readers, if this seems foreign to you, I urge you to click the links. There’s something in it for you, beyond musing about a favorite rock star.

We are all on a quest. Understanding it could equate to understanding your “purpose in life.” And who doesn’t want to know their purpose?

Democracy and Interacting for Benefit

I’ve said it before in this blog, and I’ll say it again: It takes all kinds to make up this big, crazy world.

I’m sure many of you followed to some extent the recent U.S. elections. Interesting stuff, democracy. There were certainly some ugly moments, and I’m not talking about the regular old mudslinging between candidates. That’s always ugly. I’m talking mostly about the discourse between supporters of opposing candidates/parties.

Most of what I saw comes from online forums and discussions, where the level of reasoned discourse was really quite low, but given relative anonymity and high tensions, I’d submit that this is a pretty good representation of what people really thought and felt. I “liked” all the relevant candidates on Facebook. You know, so I could get all the propaganda.

Social media and communication technology is amazing—and will likely contribute to the evolution of society in a very real way—but some of this stuff was just embarrassing.

Perhaps this can be most illustrated in Mitt Romney’s now-infamous “47%” comment, in which he basically called 47% of the U.S. population a bunch of moochers in an attempt to draw attention to a deeper issue he saw, that being that the state coddles a vast number of Americans. Romney hoped to drastically reduce entitlements to many of these folks, expecting that they’d get to work, contribute to the economy and the U.S. could save some money.

Boy, did the constituency pick up on this one. Republicans ran with it and the running theme in online discussions was that anyone who supported Obama must be a lazy layabout that depends on welfare to survive. From the other side, the rhetoric suggested that anyone who supported Romney must either have no heart or be wealthy and out of touch with social realities. Also, they both called each other stupid about every chance they got.

As we know, Obama won, two new states legalized gay marriage and two states legalized marijuana. The first ever openly gay member of Congress was elected, as was the first Buddhist. The left has declared a major victory, many of them thinking the Republicans and their message has been soundly thumped—and for good.

Now, I don’t think that’s true, nor do I think all of these folks are either stupid, lazy or both.

Something interesting about democracy is that, every election, the values that evolve, change and grow in society manifest themselves. Values inform our institutions from government to private organizations to non-profits and even the conventions we rely on to guide our everyday interactions in society. One could argue that values having to do with tolerance for diversity in society have, in a way, prevailed. Even Republicans are acknowledging that their defeat probably has something to do with being perceived as intolerant. Fair enough. But to think that the 2012 federal elections are going to silence that sector of society that objects to the welfare state (or nanny state, if you will), is a mistake.

When it comes to business, markets and the economy, what’s going on is conflict on a grand scale between different Interacting for Benefit mentalities. Every mentality has certain preoccupations which, if they go unchecked, can be damaging to economic activity.

The domestic/economic policies espoused by Obama and the Democrats favor a community-centered approach. To quote THEE:

“Community-centered policy-makers seek to redistribute wealth via taxation. This may reach levels that inhibit the entrepreneurial spirit. Similarly, egalitarian policies for the workplace often interfere with the efficient running of a business and actually generate unemployment.” 

Not surprising considering Obama began his political career as a community organizer in Chicago.

It is certainly admirable to want to have equality and security in one’s community, but taken to the extreme, it can be rather damaging. And this is exactly the crux of Republican economic criticisms. Of course, the rhetoric of the right, all the doom and gloom and talk about “the American way” was a big turn-off to those who might otherwise be willing to lend a sympathetic ear. Romney, on the other hand, seems to be primarily power-centered, and his market-centeredness might inform his view that welfare is a waste of money. Again, to quote THEE regarding power-centered individuals:

“Their earnings, when laundered through lawful businesses, provide them with an unfair advantage.”

Sounds a lot like the guy who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, wouldn’t release his tax returns, and kept presumably quite a bit of money in the Cayman Islands to avoid taxes.

This sort of mentality fosters cronyism, corruption and even calculated criminality. But don’t think that power shouldn’t be wielded in society. Imagine the drawbacks of true anarchy.

However, any victor would be making a mistake to think that any mentality will ever be removed from society. These are enduring human traits and, no doubt, these debates will rage on. And all mentalities serve society in one way or another.

Political parties, being both ideological and reactive to social pressures, do cater their messages to one way of thinking or another—and they do capitalize on outlining divisions and differences. Understanding Interacting for Benefit mentalities might go a long way in understanding your society and your role in it. And THEE offers some very interesting and helpful insights into how these mentalities can work together to generate benefit for all.

Who would’ve thought the way you think is immeasurably important in how your society functions. I guess you really are an important piece of the puzzle.

If Neuroscience is Correct, Then It’s Already the Zombie Apocalypse

Breaking news in the realm of popular neuroscience. Apparently, we are unable to think both analytically and empathetically at the same time. It appears to be part of a resurgence of the dual-brain theory, where one half of our brain handles certain activities and the other half handles the rest. However, what’s implied is that one side must be suppressed when the other side is getting down to business.

Now I’m no neuroscientist. In fact, I’m not a scientist at all. I’m more of an amateur, armchair philosopher at best. And I must say, I’m bemused.

It’s refreshing, however, that one of the researchers in this study, Anthony Jack, seems to have considered some of the more difficult questions. He said: "The most persistent question in the philosophy of mind is the problem of consciousness. Why can we describe the workings of a brain, but that doesn't tell us what it's like to be that person?"

Thanks Anthony, great question.

This new discovery, according to the researchers, finally explains why, for example, a highly analytical “CEO [can] be so blind to the public relations fiasco his cost-cutting decision has made?” Or why, “even the most intelligent, complex brains can be taken by a swindler's story.” Or, maybe on the other hand, why a highly emotional person can be oftentimes, irrational?

Well, what do you think? Make sense? If the brain can function in only one “mode” at a time as this report suggests, how do we explain method actors? These people are professionals at analytically bringing emotions to the fore at an appropriate time. Or jazz musicians, whose “emotive” improvisation is a fluid series of 7 to 12-note mathematical patterns that must be played with absolute precision for them to make any sense.

These acts require a true combination of the emotional and the analytical.

Overall, way too many questions arise when humanity is reduced to a series of chemical processes and electric signals responding to external stimuli. I sort of imagine a world full of zombies, dead in the eyes and wandering around aimlessly as whatever happens around them causes some reflexive response. As the study suggests, “you don't want to favor one, but cycle efficiently between them, and employ the right network at the right time." But who goes around oppportunistically selecting brain networks?

The problem with neuroscience (not that it isn’t fascinating, useful and should be pursued) is that it is often passed off as an objective study of the subjective question of what it is to be human, which is exactly what THEE is! But the marked difference is that neuroscience uses objectivist methods, tools and terminology. And THEE uses methods, tools and terms that fit more with the subjectivity of human experience. Furthermore, neuroscientists suggest that we can operate our brain--choosing neural networks to activate, when what we operate is our mind—choosing what to say, what to do, when to commit or when to step back and review analytically.

It’s likely that this article doesn’t tell the whole story and that it’s not the scientists who are pushing the idea that neuroscience will someday be able to explain consciousness; it’s a problem that lies in the larger society.

When scientists publish papers and the results of their experiments, these reports usually come with probability calculations and confidence assessments based on statistical calculations that only relate to the particular conditions of the experiment. Any generalization to wider society or everyday life is pure speculation without any scientific justification.

So why are these speculations and generalizations presented to the media? Why are the probabilities of error not emphasized? Because society doesn’t accept uncertainty or ambiguity. Society wants absolutes. It wants answers. It has decided that the job of science is to provide these answers. And unfortunately, scientists have no choice but to work and move in society and, knowing full-well that if their theory comes up short after the necessary rigor, they might not get grant funding, or become an outcast in their community.

Recently, neuroscience has become the scientific field du jour. And while the aforementioned quote by Anthony Jacks brings light to the reality that neuroscience isn’t going to necessarily crack the mystery of consciousness or answer the question of what it is to be human, society and science journalists seem to have painted it as just one MRI away from all of the answers. Journalists and their readers have taken neuroscience and tried to reach too far into the realm of psychosocial reality.

The chemical processes in your brain, or which neurons fire during a certain emotion or activity isn’t you. Being human is far more complex than that.

This is why it’s so important that THEE becomes a recognized and respected scientific institution, as so much of our scientific inquiry—from economics to neuroscience diverges from its actual subject—the human experience.

Doing: Spiritual, Scientific or All That We Are?

Doing things is difficult. The bigger your thing, the more difficult. If your thing is too big, it’s just impossible.

Sometimes it’s difficult to see the difference.

I’ve been on a lifelong quest to write a good song. It’s quite difficult. I want to write a good song and be recognized for it—much more difficult. I want to write a song that changes the world for the better. Impossible. Changing values changes the world—but we’ll avoid that topic for now.

Writing songs for me is a challenge I give myself. To be honest, it’s very rare that it works out and sometimes I get pessimistic. I avoid the challenge by avoiding my piano. I wonder if even writing a good song is impossible. Clouds gather. The rivers of thought and feelings get muddy.

But life is long, and inevitably the sun breaks through, the water clears. Something beautiful strikes a chord inside of me. What happened there? Let’s try to work it out.

I remember a Charles Bukowski poem. He spoke of a woman who wanted a big, airy, well-lit room in the city. Then, she said, she could get down to writing that book she wanted to write. Bukowski replied (and I paraphrase): “I’d still write in hell with devils crawling up my back.”

Bukowski was on quite the creation quest, but he makes a good point.

Think back on your life and everything you’ve done. The more you think about it, the more overwhelming it may become. You might end up really impressing yourself.

How did you do it all? Even in THEE, this bastion of logic, reason and science, things get spiritual. From a totally new angle, we can understand the perspective of the prophets, poets and sages who speak so freely with words like freedom and bondage, love and hate, despair and salvation. These powerful words, are they metaphors? Or can they be taken literally?

At our core, we are biology, chemistry and physics. We are aggregated atoms, but we sense—or feel—that there’s much more going on in us. Expand beyond the physical into the psychosocial. In the endless dualities that pop up in our lives, this is perhaps one of the most significant. We are chemical elements on one end, human elements on another. Will meets in the middle. Make no mistake, things like optimism and pessimism, courage and cowardice, joy and despair are real and which ones we channel have real effects on us.

Channeling them, making a choice between one or the other, takes a sort of spiritual invocation within yourself. This is not biology or conventional science. It is the deepest humanity, an internal force that, at its highest, is something bordering on abstract—but not theoretical by any means—something akin to passion or a personal constitution.

Example:

Optimism is as real as (and probably quite a bit more useful than) uranium. You don’t need any uranium, do you? If you want to get creative, you’re going to need some optimism.

That’s step one for me when I’ve decided to take up the challenge of writing a good song. I’ve got to believe I can do it. Why bother otherwise, right?

The spiritual aspect of THEE is of particular interest to me as a person who considers himself somewhat of an artist, writer and philosopher. The scientific side of it, for me, is a bit difficult, but there are many no doubt who would jump on it with gusto.

What we find (and you can watch WK describe this in a short video) is that some spiritual force is at work anytime you’re committed to an action. It’s a mind-bending realization and it can allow you to see yourself and what you do from a divine sort of angle.

I sometimes imagine THEE embedded in myself somewhere and when I commit to an endeavor, when I take responsibility for my purpose, various parts of it light up like those images of a brain you see when someone is being scanned as they try to solve a math problem or play chess or listen to music.

As I write a song, (or you perform your duties at work or solve a problem at home, or anything else for that matter) Willingness, Purpose, Creativity, my particular Quest, Communication and probably thousands of other elements in Willingness, Purpose, Communication and more--all affected by my particular Quest for Meaning in my life--start grinding into action, come alive, light up and start working together in harmony and guiding me as I guide them to my goal.

That’s my interpretation.

It’s this fantastic combination of the many pieces and parts of being human that allow us to do—whatever we choose to do. I happen to view this from a philosophical perspective, you might see it as science or, as THEE develops as more and more people engage with it, in your own special way.

A Conversation with Myself On Being Human

Who are we? Who are you and I? What is it to be human?

Big questions indeed! And it’s not as if they haven’t been asked and answered time and time again, most often as metaphor:

Are we evolution’s endgame?

 Is life a stage and we are merely actors?

Are we pivot-points in history, part of a grand narrative and, as Kenneth Burke put it, entering the middle of a conversation and leaving in the middle of a conversation?

Are we just nodes in a vast social network, purely subject to the winds of larger forces as they swirl around us?

In short, yes.

These are certainly questions that force a wide perspective—and what more perfect venue then a blog entitled “The Big Picture” in which to tackle them? Answers would be interesting, no doubt, but how about useful? It’s unlikely. We could easily pitch back and forth between theories of reality, personhood, identity, etc. And in the whole mess, we might forget about the more important question: who are YOU?

I haven’t the foggiest. But I am in a unique position to know who I am. And in considering the previous list of questions for myself, I give myself perhaps a better vantage point when it comes to what to do. That’s really the endpoint of any philosophical question, isn’t it? What should I do –or- should I do anything at all?

I, like yourself no doubt, am an individual with my own thoughts, ideas, opinions and attitudes. I’m part of a family. I have to work. I endeavor to continue living. And whatever I do, I have to move through my particular society. Sometimes my society makes me proud, other times I’m a bit disgusted, but for the most part, I just get on with it. I have pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations and blissful moments.

It would seem that everyone is in the same boat, which is true to an extent, but we’re still looking at things from too wide an angle. Humanity is a nuanced organism, with an array of subtle but significant differences. Imagine taking everything from the previous paragraph and changing the context—different thoughts, ideas, opinions, attitudes, families, employment, society, pressures, stressors, challenges, frustrations, etc. Things aren’t looking too similar anymore!

If we’re all actors on the stage of life, everybody has a different stage. If we’re living out some narrative, each story is strikingly varied. From this perspective, what it is to be human starts looking impossibly complex.

This is why it can become difficult to moralize—or even give good-natured advice. Making sense of life becomes rather intimidating. We start making things easier on ourselves by categorizing and pigeonholing, accepting things at face value. We subscribe to ideologies, letting some dominant social value deduce the answers to countless questions for us. We start thinking in terms of magic bullets, where one problem’s solution must be the solution to everything else. We put things into one of two boxes: good or evil, right or wrong, constructive or destructive.

But, as we’ve established, being human isn’t black and white, it is the entire spectrum of colors. Strip away the shortcuts and identity and then social roles and relations to others look chaotic, circular, maybe even pointless. Suddenly, your personal stage is occupied by an impossibly enormous symphony orchestra as it warms up—things look familiar but they aren’t working together and the result is a loud, terrible, anxious dissonance.

Recently, I’ve been borderline obsessed with the question of “good” or “right” information. Refer to a previous blog about common sense. I’ve been nearly driven to the brink by the realization that nearly every assertion has an equally valid counter-argument. Even history, which we think of as a series of concrete events in the past, are subject to the perspectives of historians, or editors, or publishing houses or entire societies.

Which is why, maybe, perspective is the key word. Maybe the question isn’t, “What is it to be human?” We know that on a very basic, intuitive level. Maybe the question is: “What is it to be me?” What are my patterns? What do I think about “x” or “y”? How do I react to given, repetitive situations and why? Do my behaviors serve my purposes?

There are great advantages to self-awareness.

Mostly, who we are works quite well for us. We get by, survive, even have a bit of fun now and then. But there will inevitably be times when something doesn’t work the way you want it to. Maybe you’re not doing well in a relationship or a job. Why is that? Who better to examine then yourself?

Perhaps your path to self-awareness lies in meditation, or reflection or mathematical calculations of your past and present, involving lists and charts and whatnot. I don’t know.

But you might consider some things in THEE as a launch pad. Interacting for Benefit is widely relevant, as is Your Better Self. You might be able to see yourself more deeply, and as a bonus you will see pictures of others and what makes them tick. Just an idea.

The point is, philosophy is great at questions. The social sciences are good for broad categorization and identifying commonalities. When it comes to you, what works for you in your particular context, you’re different and unique. It might be useful to treat yourself as such.

Your Role in Truth

When I became a dad, my grandmother gave me some advice (which is quite rare, actually). She told me to stop listening to all the parenting advice, reading the parenting books and scanning the parenting blogs. I would only start doubting myself. She told me that when she was a mother, they had one book: Dr. Benjamin Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare. The book opens with: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”

I initially thought: ‘things are different now.’ We’re an information society, working in an information economy and inundated by a dizzying array of information. The funny thing is, with all this information, it actually seems easier to have no idea what’s really going on in the world—which might have been what my grandmother was talking about.

For example, against my better judgment, I’ve found myself engaged in a political debate on the Internet a few times. Mostly, it resorts to name-calling but occasionally; you get into it with someone who wants to really get to the bottom of an issue. Someone will make a case and provide a link with supporting information.

You’ll check it out, it seems reasonable, but within 20 seconds, someone is providing a link supporting the opposite view. You look into it, it seems totally reasonable.

What’s going on? You’d think with nearly all of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips, we could start making informed arguments and maybe, we’d actually solve a problem or two.

First off, we must acknowledge the trickiness of truth, which can be more of a value than some universal axiom. I’m partial to the idea that there are axiomatic truths out there—and I think it wouldn’t be too hard to point some out. But in many cases, truth is what the “experts” tell us it is. To ancient Mayans, it was “true” that human sacrifice made corn grow. And for most of human history, it’s been “true” that women were somehow naturally inferior to men.

Who’s telling us what to believe now?

Of course, experts are still trying to get you to listen to them. Check out this article, the first line of which reads: “If science doesn’t inform the decisions we make, the consequence is that people suffer.”

Oh no! Tell us what to do, science! The author is basically arguing for the primacy of but one of seven methods for making decisions. Sometimes use of science works and we can get a great optimum result. Fantastic! But very often science is just not applicable because the situation is too chaotic, or the emotions surrounding the choice are too intense, or the time and cost of getting facts is prohibitive, or supposed knowledge is debatable.

So, in many cases, science doesn’t even apply. It seems to me that most people’s everyday problems revolve around economic concerns. I don’t think biology or physics can help with that. But can economics?

I’m skeptical, especially considering the current state of affairs. Almost no one can understand what these economists are talking about—which is of great use to politicians, whose justifications for policies often go something like: “Well, you wouldn’t understand, because, you know, based on median incomes adjusted for inflation, compared to 1968 milk prices, the output of the technology sector is, well, with nominal wages and all, aggregated. Here, look at this graph with Greek symbols on it. Just trust me. Go shopping. Please? And encourage your congressman to vote yes on the JOBS bill.” (Which really stands for “Just Outsourced your Business to Singapore.”)

Here’s an article on modern economics if you’re interested. It’s quite enlightening regarding how totally unenlightening economics is.

So what’s the answer? Well, I see two possible options:

  • Become highly specialized in one specific field, stick to it and find comfort that there’s one thing you truly understand. 
  •  
  • Use common sense. 
Considering the ship has probably sailed (for me at least) regarding the first prescription, let’s unpack common sense.

This can be tricky as well. If you’re a politician, for example, it might be common sense to “bend the truth” a bit—while campaigning or presenting a policy proposal to your constituency.

It might be common sense for a CEO to lay off hundreds of employees if profits aren’t good enough.

But we don’t want to advocate lying or depriving others of their livelihood. The truth is, common sense isn’t really “common.” It’s not some moral axiom that applies to every individual or every level of society. It’s highly personal and using it only requires a bit of awareness.

I had a co-worker once when I was a young, fiery fellow. He had spent most of his life working a high-paying, but unfulfilling job and, at the age of 45, left it all to become a helicopter pilot. I was struggling with how to approach life and I went to him for advice. He said: “For me, when I’m wondering what to do, I just ask myself: ‘Does a particular course of action take me closer or further away from what I want?’”

Now that’s a common sense question! And the answer isn’t going to be the same for everyone. For a money-driven individual, quitting a high-paying job at 45 to learn a new skill might take them further away from what they want in life. For my co-worker, it took him closer.

The world can be unbelievably confusing. It might seem like we can’t trust facts, or experts or authority figures. In the end, that just leaves you. What makes the most sense to you?

So You Say You Want a Revolution: Looking Back at Occupy

It was early fall in 2011 when I first heard of the Occupy Wall Street Movement—those stalwart idealists dug-in to a concrete park in lower Manhattan. I immediately realized the significance. They had somehow managed to synthesize the anger, desperation and disappointment felt by disparate, sometimes hopeless groups across the U.S.—and as it would develop—the world.

I sprang into action, quickly joining the fledgling chapter in my hometown where I assumed the role of press officer and media spokesperson. Suddenly, I was expected to answer the barrage of questions, phone calls, radio and television appearances and newspaper interviews surrounding a movement that had grown so quickly that it quite literally frightened a significant portion of the American public.

The problem was, neither I nor the vast majority of participants had any idea as to how to articulate our concerns properly—or even what specifically those concerns might be. There were some awkward moments and I basically judged the success of an interview on how well I could deflect accusations that I was a knee-jerk leftist. After about a month or so, I gave up my role and returned to my busy life, somewhat disappointed and disenchanted.

What I realize now is that we had struck on something quite a bit deeper than just another social movement. Yes, of course there was widespread co-opting by labor unions, gay rights organizations, Democrats, anarchists, libertarians, veterans, immigrants, organic food advocates and a host of other groups. But in large part, these groups were attracted to Occupy because they realized that our aims might eventually lead to their aims.

Rather than just one of these groups, Occupy was, I think, a violent flailing-about, a difficult birth of a new consciousness. It was the first sprout of a seed of change that, rather then seethe underground or in “fringe” thinkers on the internet, it poked its little bud out of the dirt to encounter a hostile, difficult environment—an environment it was not prepared to survive.

These angry youth had (perhaps inadvertently) touched on a root of societal dysfunction so deep and entrenched, we didn’t even know what to call it, or how to properly articulate a description. We had touched on—and forced a confrontation of values.

Long have people realized in America that the explicit values of freedom, equality, democracy and justice are not implicit and what we truly value is, instead, the slow erosion of freedom, polite totalitarianism, rule by elites, a coddling of the aristocracy and above all, the idea that money buys power and power equals money. We saw that the values we had grown up hearing about, the values that made America so great—hard work, education, civic engagement—usually amounted only to underemployment, frustration with a paralyzed society and a pile of debt with no recourse to anyone or anything that cared. Essentially, our supposed values were not being valued.

Occupiers were not inherently virtuous. They weren’t necessarily heroic or more intelligent than anyone else. They came from across the political, economic, racial and social spectrum and you would be hard-pressed to categorize them in any way other than to say that they had been brought up to value things that weren’t being reflected in their society, things like respect and tolerance and a kind-hearted view toward their fellow man.

As a result, they advocated radical, earth-shaking, overly compensatory, sweeping and (some might say) ridiculous reforms, which didn’t help to dispel any of the fear that society was experiencing over them. They fractured and fragmented and bickered, regressing quickly back into disparate social movements.

But the conversation has changed and I see many more incarnations of Occupy (or whatever it might be called) in the future. These incarnations might not be so violent. They might come as this new generation slowly comes to power or they might come as our societies and economies crumble around our ears. But, if nothing more, we have been awakened to our values and the disparity between them and the values of those more powerful members of our societies.

My plea: don’t give up on democracy and don’t give up on those values. Great changes rarely come in a matter of months—or even years. It took American women over 70 years of campaigning to get the vote. Freedom and respect for black people in America is still an ongoing struggle—even 150 years after the Civil War. You will likely never see your perfect society, your utopia. But you can take comfort in the fact, yes fact, that people are good and would mostly rather make good choices than bad ones.

A Postmodern Science

I’m a big fan of architecture. I’m no good at it. In fact, I probably couldn’t design a chicken coop to save my life. But it’s a fun thing to look at and learn about. Architecture can be a window to history.

Art and architecture reflect society and society is a product of its people. Walking through an old city can give you clues about what people valued at a given time in history, and how they approached the social and physical world they occupied. An easy example would be the proliferation of cathedrals in medieval Europe.

Let’s take a look at modern architecture—not modern as in it’s happening right now, but architecture that was a product of the modernist movement in art, philosophy, architecture and a wide range of other social products.

Modernists saw themselves as separate and distinct from history and context. They ignored their historical precursors and opted for what they considered totally new and appropriate for a new, “modern” world transformed by industry, urbanization and booming capitalism. Buildings were made to be functional, not beautiful. You see it in skyscrapers—giant towering boxes, jutting out of the ground and cutting a jagged, unnatural line across the horizon. Or perhaps the Bauhaus “red box” house that is just is what it is—a red box, totally distinct from its surrounding environment with no regard for the people who would be living in it— could typify modernist architecture.

Bauhaus Red Box House


As one architectural critic, Charles Jencks, said: Modernist architecture is “dropped, unceremoniously, like an urban bomb” into its surroundings.

Then, as is natural in artistic movements, a new wave came along in total rejection of its predecessor—the post-modernists. These folks wanted their work to be integrative, to “fit” its surroundings, to “fit” the people who would use it, live in it, work in it. Post-modern architecture became collaborative. Historical movements were synthesized with it with a focus on new materials and creativity. Context became highly important. Post-modern architects acknowledged that what might work for Spaniards in Barcelona might not work for Americans in Denver. One example might be the Denver airport, designed to mimic the surrounding Rocky Mountains. Or recent trends of ergonomic workplaces and Feng Shui homes might exemplify post-modern thinking in architecture.

Denver Airport w/ Mountains


It occurred to me that the post-modern attitude is perhaps more useful to society with its acknowledgement of individuality, social identities and its understanding that people’s emotional and social needs are important. Simultaneously, it occurred to me that many of our social institutions haven’t caught up to what (as is so often the case) artists had already been doing for years.

Take the social sciences for example. Political scientists calculate how certain groups of people will vote. Psychologists designate us “type A’s” or “type B’s.” We are presented as tools, reacting only the stimuli the world provides for us, not necessarily engaged in it. These classifications are supposed to tell us how we’re supposed to act? Behave in a given situation? This might all equate to a deterministic worldview—you’re born a certain way in a certain situation and your future is spread out before you. What about context? What about individuality? What about history and culture and the fact that people create their own realities?

Inch by inch, forward-thinking scientists are coming to grips with these issues. Science can be integrative and contextual. Its job is to present reality, not prescribe a course of action. A new view of science, societies and people can help us create a world fit for people, not people fit for the world. That’s old, modernist stuff. Of course, it must be precise, but universal so that a person in Shanghai can benefit equally to a person in small town Kansas.

THEE is these things. Take what suits you, leave the rest. Apply its principles to your life. Others will apply the same principles differently to their life. Understanding it helps you be dynamic in a dynamic world. You can become the driving force in your immediate context, not the other way around.

The world is changing. You didn’t expect science would remain the same, did you?

Politics and Values

For centuries, there has been a debate over ethics—not just what is and what is not ethical, but where ethics come from, what justifies an ethical position and whether or not there is a universal ethical standard or if its all just relative to your culture or religion or time and place in history.

But let’s be honest, that’s all philosophy. It’s muddy water and has little to do with what happens out there in the real world. I’ll tell you right now that I have a penchant for philosophy and I’ve certainly got my opinions regarding the answers to those questions, but they are just that—opinions.

Sure, when it comes to the fates of plaintiffs and defendants in the courtroom, these debates over ethics become very real and do affect people’s lives in a tangible manner. But for the most part, people are just trying to get by in their given societies.

However here in the U.S., every four years or so, we’re bombarded with ethical debates from all sides. Politicians and their PR/propaganda campaigns try to convince us what is the best sort of society and how they are going to provide it for us. And people get fired up! Suddenly, ethicists and political philosophers start coming out of the woodwork—myself included.

What is ethics really? 

What we’re seeing, in THEE terms, is the relation and interaction of the four highest levels of the hierarchy of values. (This isn’t on the website yet, I’m privy to it through WK’s book: Working with Values: Software of the Mind. There is a simple illustration of it in the Communication framework under A Simple Check for Hierarchy if you click “See the example of Purpose.”) It’s fascinating stuff—and quite important. I’ll break it down:

  • Ultimate Values: These are what we experience or feel/sense within ourselves to be intrinsically good—things like freedom, justice, equality, truth, virtue, beauty, etc. 
  •  
  • Value Systems: These flow from ultimate values and are often called ideologies. You might hear an ideologue say something like: “freedom can only be attained through libertarianism where personal choice and responsibility are paramount” or “equality can only be attained through socialism where everyone has enough and no one has too much,” etc. 
  •  
  • Social Values: These flow from ultimate values and value systems and describe what needs any community/society should meet. You might hear a politician say something like: “We’re going to ensure security by providing free health care for all” or “We’re ensuring justice by revising the tax code,” etc. 
  •  
  • Principal Objects: These are projects, institutions or organizations that flow from the previous three levels of values. For example: “We will ensure security by providing free health care for all by allocating $25 billion to our social welfare programs” or “We will ensure justice by revising the tax code through a flat tax and the closing of business tax loopholes,” etc. 
Smart politicians shy away from principal objects. Too many specifics opens them up for criticism. The most effective orators really work ultimate values. In 2008, America elected their top dog on the platform of “Hope” and “Change,” for example. And Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech is littered with references to freedom and justice.

Of course, there’s always a large discrepancy between what is said and what happens after a politician is elected to office. It might get folks wondering if democracy really works or not.

Well, it does work—just not the way you think it should. One societal axiom we should acknowledge is this: A society’s ethical choices (the ultimate values it champions, the value systems that control the way people think about things (or understand) issues, the social values it actually upholds and affirms, and the principal objects it chooses and pursues) are a direct result of the values held by its participants. It’s up to us! (Not you necessarily—us. It’s too big and you personally don’t really have much control over it.)

Think of it this way. Do you wonder why America always seems to be at war? Look around, we’re a society of violence—from the fifth-highest murder rate in the world to our top-selling films and video games glorifying violence.

Do you wonder why our government is up to its eyeballs in debt? We are a society of debt—from student loans to mortgages to massive credit card balances.

Essentially, you can understand your society’s values by the choices it makes as a society and the way it interacts with other societies. Or, put another way—how does society walk the walk, rather than talk the talk?

Next Steps 

We so desperately want all of this to change. That’s why we elect the next guy who says what we want to hear. It’s “hope” for “change.” Problem is, it’s not going to change until our values change. And no new law or regulation can accomplish that.

It takes more than some protests in the street or ranting on the internet (guilty!) or lip-service to the direction society wants to go. It’s about a change in social consciousness. The good news is, it seems to be happening.

THEE has a lot to say about this. I’ve written quite a few blogs an various aspects of social change, but I’ll give you a little “further reading” section if you’re interested. Just click the links:

Enjoy! And if you have any questions/comments or would like direction in finding further information, just let us know.

What we have here is a failure to communicate!

I study communication in college. I am a part of the communication department. I’ve even been a teacher of sorts in the department. One day, I lectured on THEE. I don’t think it went too well. Maybe that’s a story for a blog on education or something.

The comm department (as we affectionately refer to it) is full of athletes. Why? Well, athletes are in college for other reasons than academics and the comm department has a reputation of being an easy ride. So, amidst the would-be journalists and film geeks are peppered very tall, muscly men who often have to leave class early to work out or run drills. They seem tired as well. You’ll often catch them having a nap during lectures on media law or Kenneth Burke.

Often, we’re faced with the question of what separates humans from the rest of life on this planet. And often, the answer is our ability to use sophisticated methods of communication. Between communication’s less-than-sterling reputation on college campuses and the fact that communication is literally everywhere in our societies, families, relationships, etc., I often get the sense that something big is being taken for granted here.

I think we simply don’t understand communication. Most of my classes revolve around someone’s theory of it or how it affects society or how to use it. But we’re rarely, if ever, confronted with real answers regarding what it is, how it came about, or its fundamental significance. I mean we talk about it, but we never come up with anything really. In fact, one class I’ve taken is simply piles of readings from dozens of communication philosophers attempting to grapple with these questions and none of them really get it figured out. In the end, you walk out of the class quite a bit more confused than you were going in.

Wiio’s laws point out how communication basically fails in practice most of the time. There are several laws, but the overarching point is: “Communication usually fails, except by accident.” Any of you out there who are married are probably intimately familiar with this concept.

Even THEE is currently a bit stumped when it comes to communication. Of all of the posted frameworks, communication is by far the most incomplete (however posting is ongoing). It cries out for someone, maybe you, to come along and work through it. What about you, Tom, you might ask? Yeah.. I wouldn’t even know where to start.

But if you take a step back into the Personal Endeavor framework, you can at least understand the significance of communication. We’ve talked about psychosocial reality (I discuss it in the blog, “Double Reality”). Well, communication is how you create this reality. It’s how humans have always created everything they’ve ever done. If you get to thinking about the sheer scope of that, it can be mind-boggling: everything from the seeds of civilization to our most sophisticated technologies. All of these things had to be communicated before they could come about.

We see that communication serves as a sort of bridge between our thoughts and ideas and the big world outside of our heads. We formulate an idea as a result of our willingness and purposes and when we turn it into words or images, it’s suddenly “out there,” outside of ourselves, waiting to be formed into something that becomes a part of the reality that we all share.

That being said, what does it mean for me? Now that we understand that communication is what created all of our most amazing achievements and our most heinous acts (ie. Goebbels propaganda campaign against Jews in WWII) then maybe it’s something we might take a little more seriously.

Ever heard the phrase: Choose your words carefully…

A Reflection on Persuasion

Persuasion infiltrates nearly every facet of our lives. We see it in the grand social arena in terms of public relations, advertising, or propaganda where large groups of people are viewed as publics, potential customers, or the source of political and social power. But it is as important, or even more so, in our day-to-day lives where a first date or job interview could be the equivalent of a PR campaign, a resume becomes our billboard, or petty employees undertake propaganda missions against rivals around the water cooler.

Persuasion is pervasive in communication—and communication is how we create our reality from our most insignificant interactions to the societies we shape with our shared values. As the writers of the Old Testament pointed out: God said let there be light. And there was.

When people or organizations attempt to persuade, it is because they want something. It could stop there. The distinctions between the persuasive tactics employed by the disciplines of public relations, advertising, and propaganda might be considered trivial—they are only a means to an end.

When we consider ethics (or academic definitions), these distinctions might become more important. Advertisers have an economic end. This is much easier to justify ethically then other forms of persuasion. People need things, they want things and advertisers might just be there to let us all know there’s something out there we can buy if we want or need it. Of course, when advertisers set out to manipulate humanity’s dark, deep-seated, animalistic, egoistic subconscious desires, well, that’s a different story isn’t it?

Public relations is tricky. These folks sit on the fence and it is difficult at times to tell if they are selling something or promoting an idea or just simply lying for some organization’s financial or social gain. A public relations campaign to promote a benefit event for child cancer patients is a beautiful thing. One that allows a dubious organization to continue socially or environmentally damaging practices without taking accountability or losing stock value might make a fellow wonder how humanity will survive the next couple of centuries.

Propaganda is a bit more clear-cut. There seem to be no rules (because the ones in power make the rules). Here is where we see the most gruesome violations of justice, decency, integrity and responsibility and the grossest displays of shortsightedness and narcissism. As the film, The Century of the Self, points out, propaganda has brought us everything from the stock market crash of 1929 to the Holocaust in World War II. We could even make the argument that American obesity and our culture of debt are the results of a “successful” propaganda campaign.

Propaganda, more so than PR or advertising (though they do as well), sees autonomous, valuable individuals as mindless tools with which money and power are created. As Edward Bernays said: “[The individual is] a cell organized into the social unit. Touch a nerve at a sensitive spot and you get an automatic response from certain specific members of the organism.” That’s probably not how most people like to be thought of.

Many persuasion tactics in the 20th century and in to the 21st have operated under the assumption that humanity is a swirling mass of frustration, dissatisfaction and guilt, feelings of inadequacy, selfish desires, and violent tendencies. And they’ve worked rather well so there must be something to it.

But humanity is a two-sided coin and the other side is spontaneous cooperation, organized progress, tolerance, reason, love, and a wide array of breathtaking achievements. Take the Enlightenment for example, or the civil rights movement, or the Indian revolution or the fact that societies throughout history have generally operated well and peacefully until someone came along who wanted more power, more influence, more sway, or more money—which are exactly the things these institutions of persuasion are after.

As we move into a new century and perhaps a new phase of our social development, it is crucial that we consider the ethical, long-term implications of our persuasive objectives. We must take responsibility for the powerful, creative force that communication offers us. We wouldn’t want to lie to our spouse? Our children? We wouldn’t steer them toward destruction for our own gain? Why would we do this to our societies, our countries, or the big family that is humanity as a whole?

(This blog is adapted from a paper the author wrote for a class at Boise State University)

Spirituality in the Modern World

I’ve been thinking about spirituality. You see it everywhere from religion to art and music to people’s general sense of wonder.

I feel a sort of resurgence in the search for spirituality. Some people I know express it with tattoos or the clothes they wear. Others go a step further and join movements or read books by gurus and the like. Still more seek out modern expressions of old ideas—like online ashrams or urban Buddhist sanctuaries. Many people find it in nature or feel it as a unity with the entire human race. Spirituality surely casts a wide net.

It’s all great, but where is it coming from? And why now? Aren’t we supposed to be ever-barreling toward a more secular society. Well, I think that’s a tired, over-played record. I recently read about an advertising executive from the 1920s who was convinced that society was becoming more secularized. He added that people will make up for the loss of spirituality by purchasing status symbols—which he would no doubt cleverly market to them. Michael Crichton said western society is replacing religion with environmentalism.

Maybe it was never going anywhere.

My view is that many people feel that they are connected to something greater than themselves. These folks might see the physical world as real, but only one side of the reality coin.

Of course, most people have a healthy respect for science, all it’s done for us, all the mysteries it has cleared up, and atheists/humanists/agnostics like to point to science as proof that spirituality (or religion) is irrational—or worse, just plain silly.

I’m not trying to start a theist/atheist debate here. But I don’t think spirituality is silly or irrational—just the opposite.

The world around us is real—the rocks, the trees, the land and water. But what about everything we created? Human creativity is responsible for relationships, societies, ideas, languages and a host of modifications to the physical world (for good or ill) from the houses we live in to the factories and office buildings we work in that combine to create that difficult concept we call “the economy,” which is also a human creation.

(I’ve not quite worked out the economy—I suspect I never will, but I think there’s some spiritual aspect to it. Think about it: the ebb and flow of all human activity, the sum total of all human creativity, the result of billions of synthesized purposes, desires, needs—all amounting to a sort of spontaneous cooperation. Heavy stuff. But I digress.)

We can do things, we can affect change! We can create a new or different reality for ourselves. These aren’t New Age platitudes, there’s hard evidence in everything you’ve ever done.

There’s something “spiritual” about that, isn’t there? The power that resides in you and all that jazz. Some self-help gurus make quite a living selling nothing more than that idea in a “spiritual” package and I know that, as a result, it’s not a new idea to you. That doesn’t make it any less true and if it’s helpful to consider it spirituality, fantastic!

THEE has been simmering in my mind for almost a year now. And in that time, I’ve struggled with technicalities, operational vocabulary, my previous philosophical and scientific background, and quite frankly, its seemingly infinite scope and the subsequent implications. But it’s starting to become simpler somehow—simple like spirituality should be, not easier to grasp by any means, but more a part of the world I move through.

That’s not to say I consider it spirituality, I just acknowledge its potential to be seen as such. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of things in there for the budding scientists.

See you there.