|12 Apr 2003 @ 16:17, by Andy Lehman|
Gandhi Was a Cultural Oncologist
This is the continuation of a conversation that started at Ashanti’s (Kim’s) log, Re-evaluating Iraq. It has made me think a great deal about the situation in Iraq, and perhaps more importantly, about what it means for the way we humans have of trying to solve some of our most serious problems. In her last response to me, Kim said that the problem of brutal dictators is analogous to that of an infection in the body of Gaia. They should be dealt with accordingly, just as our bodies would deal with an infection, she says. She included a very interesting passage from Ming’s log entry, The Evolution of Governance. Here I will be dealing mainly with Kim’s response, though I may touch on a few points made on Ming’s log as well. I may also go off in my own direction a little, on the topic of peace in general. I’ve been thinking about analogies such as the one Kim and Ming have mentioned for a long time; probably since Agent Smith compared all of humanity to a virus in “The Matrix”. A while ago, it occurred to me that the problems we have here are much more like a tumor than any viral or bacterial infection. Cancer is a better analogy, both in describing the situation and in giving us hints as to how we might “treat” it and lessen the chances of our extinction.
First, the nature of the problem is not like that of an infection. In an infection, foreign entities invade from outside the body. Brutal dictators and the like, however evil we believe them to be, all came from the same stock as the rest of us. They are cells in the body of humanity, or of life as a whole on this planet, if you wish. They have mutated and malfunctioned horribly. The question of exactly HOW and why this happens over and over again is a rather large and terrifying topic. Maybe they are struck by a cosmic ray of the wrong wavelength. Maybe they are struck by an abusive parent one too many times. The point is that they start out as human beings, just like the rest of us. When babies are born, it is very unlikely that anyone can tell future dictators from all the rest. To try to categorize or deal with these people as if they are a foreign infection is a mistake, because it misrepresents the nature of the problem. As they say, there but for the grace of god go we. These threats will not disappear; they cannot be destroyed and banished in the way our bodies would destroy and banish germs. The potential for such mutation lies in each one of us, and goes hand in hand with the wonderful things about us. We cannot eradicate it without eradicating ourselves. I think I can speak for everyone when I say we should take all possible measures to prevent such an outcome. What we can do is alter our cultural environment so as to make such mutations less likely.
Cancer is also a better analogy for our species’ current predicament because of how it hurts the surrounding environment. The “mutations” in the minds (or souls, depending on what you believe) cause them to start monopolizing the resources which the other people around them also need. They come not from without, but from our own ranks; the ranks of humanity. They rise, they grow in power, and they learn how to suck up the resources the people around them need to survive so that they can grow uncontrollably. As a result, some people die, many live in misery, and the “body” as a whole suffers. The same is true of cancer cells.
The whole purpose in developing this analogy is to make a strong statement about how it is to be treated. I myself am not an oncologist, but I do know some things about cancer. The cells of the tumor are surrounded by their victims. As far as the body is concerned, it is often almost impossible to tell the cancer cells from the healthy, normal ones. That is why it is such a terrible disease. Treating it is so very difficult because, in destroying the problem, you often end up killing the patient. Radiation, chemotherapy, etc. do not distinguish between bad cells and good ones. Bombs dropped on the country of a dictator don’t make such distinctions either. None of this is to say that we should not treat the problem for fear of killing the patient. It DOES mean that we must be very careful in prescribing the treatment. The chances of hurting (or even mutating) the very things we are trying to protect must be taken into account.
Obviously, human beings are much more complicated than cells of any kind. Some of the same basic rules may apply, but we have to be very careful. The difference between the two analogies highlights a very important difference in our real-world predicament. Even so, the cancer analogy and the bacteria analogy fall short in many ways. Quite simply, we are aware of much more than the average body cell. We have passions. We are capable of much greater cruelty towards each other. We are also much more capable of harming our world and being generally destructive. To me, these complexities mean that we must be even more careful when looking at how to treat our illness. I’m afraid that it’s just not as simple as eliminating the germs. If it were, we would probably have managed to kick the infection by now. Specifically, Kim mentions that in a body or bacterial community, all of the anti-bodies group together and obliterate the offending germs. That is very true. However, the complexities of human beings make that strategy a little less effective. If you look at our history, we have been more or less trying to get all of the so-and-so’s to unite against all the “bad” people for a very long time now. Various groups of people (empires, nations, tribes, religions, etc.) have tried to find a way to unite the rest of humanity against the problems that face us.
Ming’s article mentioned the term “centralized service government” as a form from bacterial “culture” that we might try to mimic. I suspect that the reality of such a thing could be described with darker words. Our big, complicated brains give rise to some serious differences between us and bacteria. There is much to learn from the structures of nature, but we have to keep in mind that we may have to do some serious adaptation of those structures if we want to enable ourselves to exercise the things that are uniquely human in us. “Centralized service governments” may form, but there are always those who will not be governed. So the large entity goes to destroy them; to wipe the offending organisms off the face of the Earth. And there will always be those who will not submit to centralized government (in a way, I am glad of that). We may think that it would be nice if everyone would just be good and follow the lovely government like an obedient bunch of microorganisms, and proceed to obliterate the infectious dictators, but that just does not seem to happen. I am not trying to say that humanity cannot be united against the problems that face it. I am saying two things.
First, I honestly do not trust any kind of government to develop that will allow for sufficient diversity, given the great complexity of the human condition. It may work for bacteria, but I do not believe it will work for us. I may be wrong, but the history of government is full of well intentioned ideas that went terribly off course. I think that this is so because of a fundamental flaw in the idea of “government” as we now understand it. That flaw is the idea that people can be scared or regulated into being good. In the long run, they cannot. I do not believe that any government, in the traditional sense of the word, will solve our problems. They may be useful, and even necessary at the current time, but I would not entrust our future to them any more than is absolutely necessary. The other point I am trying to make is that humanity may unite against its problems, but not so long as we try to solve those problems by turning large sections of humanity against each other. For that reason, government, in the traditional, nation-state sense of the word is terribly ineffective. Too many healthy body cells die. Worse, some of the previous “victims” of the cancerous cells are themselves mutated in the horror that arises from humanity turning against itself. Like a physician trying to treat cancer, we must search for much more selective ways of dealing with the monstrous dictators among us.
I want to make one thing very clear now, and I will start by giving a quote from the movie “Gandhi”:
Margaret Bourke-White: “But do you really believe you could use non-violence against someone like Hitler?”
Gandhi: “Not without defeats, and great pain. But are there no defeats in this war? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice from Hitler, or anyone. You must make the injustice visible, and be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.”
-“Gandhi”, during an interview scene with the reporter Margaret Bourke-White
That quote says so very much of what I want to say. What shall I say about Gandhi? I love the man. I do not necessarily think that his way is the complete solution to all of our problems. Nor do I believe that the movie made about him is an absolute authority. However, I believe that we can learn many extremely valuable lessons from his life and philosophy. The first point I want to draw from that quote (there will be a couple) is that I DO absolutely believe that the disease, however we characterize it, MUST be treated. I would not be writing this, nor would I even be a member of NCN, if I though otherwise. I do not believe, if we do nothing and sit around appealing to the better nature of humanity without acting, that any of our problems are going to be solved. We cannot accept injustice; we must make it visible, as Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley) said. And we must make it go away with all of our will and devotion. To do anything less would be suicide; the tumors would grow and end up making this place uninhabitable for all of us. The disease must be gone after aggressively, just as one would treat cancer. What I do not believe is that we should allow our urgency to blind us to the recklessness and negative consequences of certain courses of treatment.
War in any form, no matter how “just” or necessary we believe it to be, is reckless. It is destructive to the entire body of humanity, more so than almost any other tragedy we have managed to create for ourselves. It is, in an oft used word, hell. It would be ludicrous to see the destruction, hatred, and misery that war has brought into our history and conclude otherwise. Even so, war is sometimes better than doing nothing. I will not argue against the assertion that good things have come from some wars; freedom, in one form or another, has often been won in war. Sometimes war has removed terrible tumors and tyrants from our midst, and left us with more opportunities. So, in some cases, war is preferable to doing nothing. However, war is the crudest, most uncreative form of doing SOMETHING one can possibly imagine. Short of doing absolutely nothing, it is the worst way we could possibly have of solving the problems that face us. It is also the one we should be most ashamed to pass on to our children, generation after generation. If humanity is so unimaginative that we can come up with nothing better, then I think that we may be doomed already. If the best we can do is to present ourselves with a choice between doing nothing and killing, dehumanizing, and dominating people with the old war machine in a jungle-style contest for survival, I think we are failing ourselves miserably. There is no justification for such a limited view of our options.
So, centralized government is unlikely to solve our problems. War, in itself and when waged in the name of centralized government, is also unlikely to help us more than it hurts us. What DO we do? I will turn once again to the quote from “Gandhi”. “We must be prepared to die like soldiers…”. I think that it is the choice of each individual to give their life for something they believe in, be it freedom from a dictator or freedom to practice religion. I think it is incredibly noble if someone is willing to give their life so that others may have those freedoms. I also believe that it is monstrous to be willing to take someone else’s life in the name of those freedoms, or in the name of anything else. One of the most significant freedoms we have is the freedom to die for what we believe in. The freedom to choose NOT to fight or die follows from that. Either choice carries with it serious consequences, and I think that it must be left to each person to decide. If we fight for freedom in a way that deprives people of that choice, we are working backwards. If we praise an enterprise as destructive as war, we are praising dehumanization. If we kill in the name of human dignity, life, and peace, we are committing blasphemy of the strongest kind I can imagine. I am not a religious person. We can choose to die for freedom, but we CANNOT make that choice for anyone else, no matter how much we think they may want it or how justified we think we are. If a people chooses to be free, then some of them may choose to give their lives for the freedom of those their fellow human beings. I think that such a choice is one of the best, most beautiful sacrifices anyone can make. When they kill for that freedom, they are perpetuating the hatred and fear they are fighting against. We must indeed be prepared to die like soldiers, even when faced with a threat like terrorism. If we are as willing as many seem to be to kill, I think we are leading ourselves down the wrong path; that path to extinction, in fact. Such readiness to kill certainly does not lead us down the path of freedom and respect for life.
I’ll leave it at that for now. The train of thought I’ve been through while writing this has been a very wild one indeed, and it will be some time before I’m ready to put it all out in written form. I chose to cut this entry off at this point, since it's best not to bite off too much at once : ). It should suffice for now, as a continuation of the discussion. Kim, I agree that all of the pretty New Age theories in the world don’t seem to have manifested themselves in any really concrete way. Consideration of alternatives is exactly what we need. Nothing new has really stuck yet, on the scale of the whole world. That doesn’t mean that we should be turning back to the notions of government and war that got us here in the first place. I might add that, on a smaller scale, some of the “new” is working. I know some people on NCN who have a good deal of experience with that. For my part, I think there are plenty of people working with the notions of centralized government and obliteration of the “germs” that plague our world. If those often destructive and seldom successful methods really are the ONLY way, they’ve got plenty of attention flowing into them as it is. I don’t believe in them. I believe that what we need more than anything is people who pour their hearts and souls (and perhaps, eventually, lives) into alternatives. The fact that the “answer” has not been found yet should not stop us from looking and continuing to create the “new”, whatever that means for us. Whatever that means, I would say, with the provision that the methods and structures we use in working towards the new must respect the aspects of humanity we are working to advance, rather than contradicting and insulting them. I feel that both violence and centralized “control” forms of government contradict and insult the freedoms we claim to value. Furthermore, war devalues something even more basic than freedom: life. I cannot embrace those things as solutions, however difficult it may be to find alternatives. We really do have to keep looking. Hey, I can't think of anything I would rather do with my life than aid in furthering that search, even in the smallest way.