Friday, July 24, 2015

People Like Us

*A real-world counterpoint to the fictional "People Like Me."

Many years ago, I felt that the fabric of society was under attack, by people who were ignorant of human nature and the need for moral authority to govern their actions, and by a conspiracy of "do-gooders" who actively conspired to impose their vision of a perfect world on the rest of us.

Over time, I came to question that feeling and the assumptions behind it, in part because I got to know the people I feared, and in part because experience showed that those most sure of their positions were likely to miss important flaws in those positions.

I studied, and became disgusted by, the dominant culture that considered people like me to be automatically moral just because we believed in God, were born in this country, and shared a common appearance and ethnic heritage. By asking and seeking satisfactory answers to the most basic of questions, especially those that no one seemed interested in asking, it became clear that the moral distinctions of "good" and "bad" were arbitrary, and that the stories that justified them were artifices for teaching and enforcing their adoption by using common knowledge and history to create internalized group identity.

Apparently history had overwhelmed the usefulness of the common knowledge, resulting in the need for addenda in the form of laws. They took advantage of a loophole built into the common knowledge, that the members of the group might still deviate from the group morality, and just needed some corrective mechanisms to help keep them within the group. Group integrity was also maintained by insisting that people who weren't part of the group would always be inclined to do more damage, and therefore the laws were needed even more (along with more rigorous enforcement) to keep them in check.

Recognizing and then stepping outside of my group identity, the world looked a lot different. Instead of seeing pain and suffering in other nations as a consequence of being outside of the right group (people like me), or as punishment by an omnipotent parent-figure/scapegoat, I saw it as a natural consequence of competition with fellow biological creatures subject to the physics of life and perceptions shaped by personal history that considered "others" as objects rather than people who are part of a universal "us."

Cooperation with people who are fundamentally valued equally looks like a logical way to approach alleviating much of that pain and suffering, and indeed the United States was founded on an approximation to that approach. So it seems particularly hypocritical for people claiming moral high-ground based on their citizenship to advocate dismantling the parts of the government dedicated to cooperation and enabling all people to survive and thrive, regardless of affiliation with any particular group or groups. Obviously, their own group affiliation is most important, motivated by the stories they refused to question that posit their special role as instruments of the creator of the Universe.

I have struggled to keep some optimism about the future of humanity, especially in light of the destruction of life precipitated by our lack of respect for the other species who maintain the habitability of the planet we share (the ultimate "others"). For more than thirty years I held out hope that education and enlightened self-interest could make the world a better place, even though my definition of "better" has evolved since then. That isn't enough, though, especially for people who believe they can escape the consequences of their actions with the aid of an omnipotent brother. For people to accept a new understanding of natural order, it must be supported by common values, common knowledge, and social identity, along with a psychologically healthy way to live with a radical switch in the "rightness" of past actions.

Obviously, I'm still in the process of figuring out what to do next. Given the nature of the disaster facing our world, I don't expect to ever have the kind of life that looked good from the perspective of my early years and still looks good to many of my former group-mates: acquiring enough wealth to be very comfortable and hang out with people like me for many years to come. If I'm lucky, I'll have some positive impact on the lives of people like us, all of us, now and in the future.

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