Written in early 2017 as a reaction to the results of the U.S. presidential elections, this essay was also an exercise in developing my writing style and some of the ideas I want to include in a new book.
Since the recent U.S. election, I’ve had nothing to say about politics, unless you count the Charles Mingus video that I posted on Facebook when the results came in (“…a day when burning sticks and crosses is not mere child’s play, but a madman in his most incandescent bloom, whose loveless soul is imperfection in its most lustrous groom…”). My silence was partly caution, wanting to wait to see which direction things would actually take before I committed to a viewpoint, but also everything that needed to be said was already being said, in abundance and with varying degrees of intensity. Eventually though, I realised that there was something I wanted to add which, to my knowledge, hadn’t been voiced yet.
Given the volume of discussion going on in this area, to make a point that hasn’t already been made necessitates considerable explanation, so I ask for your patience. Volume of discussion also tempers my expectations about what difference, if any, anything I have to say can make. But in the name of freedom of expression, here we go.
As liberally-minded people that want the world to move in the direction of greater personal freedom and tolerance, we can console ourselves with the thoughts that this latest U.S president didn’t actually win the popular vote and preyed on the ignorance of less educated people to get as far as he did. I think there’s something much deeper at work here though. The rise and exploitation of nationalistic sentiment in the UK, the election of the Philippine’s current president and the ongoing support Russia’s leader continues to enjoy, even the fundamentalism currently rearing its head in many of the world’s religions, are all signs of something more insidious at work.
Such institutional barriers to greater personal freedom of expression couldn’t come into existence without support. This is the crux of the matter. Who are the people that support limiting the freedoms of others, and why?
It is very easy for us, as those considering themselves well educated and on the right side of history’s longterm development, to dismiss those who disagree with us. Surely, being able to do what you want - marry who you want, do what you want to your body, hold whatever system of belief you want - is something we should all be in accordance with in a pluralistic society. Yes, self-examination and tolerance are required, but these are skills that can be developed. However, if we’re willing to take our own exhortations to learn compassion and self-reflection to heart, and truly try to see things from our opponents’ perspective, can we see a flaw in our own comportment? Is there something about us that they feel the need to stand up against with an increasingly zealous fervour? That would certainly appear to be the case.
Taking such an approach, I have found liberalism to be at the heart of something very wrong with our society, something rotting its core - and I say this as someone who identifies as liberal. Thanks to pop psychology, we’re all aware that it’s easier to see flaws in others than oneself. However, I want to question some fundamental and dearly-held assertions we hold about ourselves and our culture that may prove challenging to accept. I’m open to critique, but ask you to please keep as open a mind as possible, particularly if anything I say provokes an emotional reaction.
Let’s start with a few basic assertions. The cornerstone of equality is rationality, which comes from a scientific outlook. One can’t say Africans or Asians are less cultured than Europeans, women are less intelligent than men, or people with big foreheads are more likely to commit crimes, when there is no evidence to support it. If we were to decipher the language of dolphins and find them to be holding intelligible conversations, we would be honour-bound to fight for their right to be treated how they want to be in the global society, because of this new information. Inversely, one of the reasons many people support vegetarianism as more compassionate is because the evident lack of a nervous system would suggest that vegetables don’t feel the pain and consequent anguish that animals do. There is greater interest in animal rights than plant rights because of this. It’s all about the knowledge available to us through our enquiries.
The tool we use in the scientific method is our intellect. As a tool, the intellect parses. It shaves off untrue statements, through logic or experimentation, to arrive at the highest possible truth, then tests it out in still further situations to make sure it remains true even after that. The finished product has a level of objectivity unlike anything previous in human history.
Thanks to this rigorous process and the understandings it has granted us, many of our lives today are luxurious in comparison to those of earlier generations. We owe a lot to our intellects, but clearly they’re not a perfect tool. They use a lot of energy, for example, as any philosopher or person who’s been caught in a thought loop knows. Their focus tends to cut out our other intelligences - the socially awkward computer expert or emotionally detached scientist are modern archetypes that demonstrate this. Everything is black or white to our intellects too, yes or no. They can be notoriously unwilling to reexamine previously drawn conclusions and excessively overconfident in their objectivity, unable to recognise outside influence easily.
Hopefully the connection between increased focus on our intellects and the desire for social equality is clear here, their concurrent rise with science in modern history no coincidence. Our assignation of rights and freedoms should be based in objectively established fact rather than opinion.
Now here’s the problem. Our culture has become over-invested in intellect. What do I mean by that? I mean that the qualities and capacities that the intellect represents have become too highly valued and heavily emphasised in our society, at the expense of others.
Let me give you a perfect example: the modern education system. We stress the intellectual skills (even going as far as to call them “core” skills) at the expense of all others, regardless of the individual child’s capacity within and outside them, which leading experts all agree is the death of motivation and creativity. Schools are structured logically like factories, in year group batches, again regardless of ability, and tests are about how many and accurately facts are remembered. Children who can’t conform to this mental discipline-oriented system, rather than being treated with consideration, are given drugs to alter their behaviour. The whole system is about producing intellectual intelligence, regardless of the consequences.
The lack of emotional, social or moral education we receive as a result is clearly visible throughout society. Look at the way that many politicians and bankers have behaved in recent years, positions that only a couple of generations ago were considered the most reputable in our communities. Yet these groups of people can rationally justify their most hypocritical and self-serving actions to themselves and others completely straight-faced (along the lines of “Subprime mortgages weren’t illegal”). Doctors and their relationship with the pharmaceutical industry present a similar quandary, not to mention the relationship between our industries and the environment. There is something maladjusted about our behaviour in all of these realms of activity that reveals a serious imbalance in our intelligence - an excessive, unnatural disconnectedness.
The intellect’s desire for certainty in its truths has also gotten out of hand. Far be it from me to promote the view that wishing for something hard enough will make it manifest for you, but there has been a concerted effort on the part of science in general and particle physics in particular to ignore the mind-boggling conclusions of quantum mechanics and face up to the fact that consciousness could be playing an important role in the structure of the universe. The reason for this is that it would mean reconsidering one of the most fundamental principles of science, that everything is a product of matter (and how do you even begin to measure consciousness?). Qualified scientists who have expressed ideas exploring this possibility are ignored or openly mocked.
This rigidness against new paradigms is prevalent in all areas of academia. There is currently overwhelming evidence that an advanced civilisation existed before current recorded history began, and was wiped out by the onset of the last ice age. Excavations that could prove this are being ignored and sometimes actively blocked by established archaeological authorities unwilling to recognise the possibility and potentially having to revise their views.
There is a body of research, collected by a scientist who set out to disprove it, that reincarnation can occur. Russian scientists have done rigorous experiments into subtle energy, known traditionally as prana in India and chi in China, producing equations and devices that Western scientists refuse to look at. They’ve also found a treatment for asthma and sleep apnea with a very high success rate, and had proof of the benefits of fasting long before Western health experts were even investigating it. An Israeli man has spent eight days under video and medical surveillance without food or water, and left as healthy as he arrived - an Indian sadhu in similar conditions for 15 days. An Egyptian architect cured a Swiss town suffering from electromagnetic radiation poisoning simply by attaching geometric shapes to the radio tower that precipitated the problem. He can explain in rational terms how he did it. There is evidence to suggest that the human heart, rather than being solely for pumping blood, is a neglected electromagnetic sense organ.
I’m not saying that any one of these examples would hold up under extended scrutiny, though I wouldn’t mention them if I didn’t think they would at least provide a challenge. But the point is that it’s not even considered worthwhile to take up such a challenge. As a society, we won’t consider that there could still be some truth hidden from us. We think we have already discovered the fundaments of how the universe works, and anything that suggests otherwise is necessarily false. This is the intellect in overdrive, scientific confirmation hardening into dogma. If the world won’t give it black and white, then the hyped-up intellect seems to have decided to make its own!
Finally, think about the drugs most prevalent in our lives. They’re not around because they’re the healthiest. Coffee, tobacco and refined sugar are all stimulants of the intellect. To relax, we drink alcohol, which provides a respite by shutting overexerted inhibitions down, sometimes with dire consequences. The legalisation of cannabis has been a huge step forward in this regard, it being a substance with low longterm health risks and an activator of a variety of different intelligences. Psychedelics, which are also harmless and broad-spectrum intelligence activators but require a more responsible approach, are almost completely at odds with intellectual activity. This is why our society unwarrantedly places them in the same category as deadly, addictive substances such as heroin, intentionally miseducating us about their nature.
It seems fair to conclude that, on many levels, the qualities and values of the intellect have taken over. Please don’t take this to mean that I think intellect doesn’t have any place in our society though. I’m trying to communicate about an overreach, not a need for eradication. As I said earlier, our system of social justice must be built on established fact. But in the diverse social realm as a whole, that’s about the limit of its applicability.
Let me give you an example. I’m not an atheist, but I fully support anybody’s choice to adopt that worldview if it benefits them. I recognise the history of atheism in religions such as Christianity, Zen Buddhism and Hindu Advaita, before it could exist independently on the cosmological framework of science. However, there is a militant branch of atheism which has developed along with the overreaching of the intellect which holds that anyone choosing to believe in a god or gods is automatically perpetrating a wrong against humanity, that belief held without proof is essentially immoral. But morality needs to be judged by actions, not beliefs. Someone whose belief system makes them uncomfortable around gay people, for example, but who still behaves respectfully and even compassionately towards them, is a moral person. Someone whose beliefs are total neutral but who takes advantage of others at every opportunity is clearly immoral. I can believe anything I want, even something entirely illogical, as long as my behaviour reflects considerate norms. Some belief systems will make such behaviour easier for me, others harder, but which is which differs from person to person. For militant atheists to suggest that only their belief system (I choose that term because god hasn’t been scientifically defined or disproven yet) can lead to morality is a huge overstep on the part of intellectual activity. There are even some who suggest that we should start attaching social stigma to non-rational opinions, put rational elitism at the centre of our culture. Hopefully it can be seen that in the realm of morality, beyond “do unto others”, the values of rationalism have little meaning. (If you require any further proof of this, try coming up with a single, definitive moral statement that doesn’t require any qualification)
There is only minimal room for rational values in aesthetics too. Yes, there are theories of art, but these are derived from practice, and can only be used as a rough guide in the creative process itself. Our sense of beauty or intuition is what leads us in that world. To use music as an example, Bach had an intense interest in the formal theories surrounding the composition of fugues, submitting compositions to a society dedicated to demonstrating the value of such rules in art to the burgeoning sciences. But it’s his ingenious sense of lyricism that allows us to still appreciate his works of this type today, above those of other submissions with the same intent. More recently, Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique attempted to iron out any preference for any particular note with very stringent rules about order and repetition (notice the parallel with the desire for social equality). While his experiments were adopted as a powerful effect by other 20th Century composers, pieces composed solely with this method are rarely performed.
As an aside, to briefly give another example of the overreach of intellect, the effect it has on creativity in our society can be seen in our removal from it. We categorise ourselves into a binary of creative and uncreative people, as though creativity were not multifaceted and quantitative. The “most talented” are put on pedestals, lauded, compared and then mocked when they disappoint by revealing their flaws. In a word, objectified. It is easier, with the intellectual bias we have inherited, to have this seemingly objective, outsider relationship with creativity than to learn to trust our often irrational intuition.
Returning to look at the inappropriateness of applying intellect in certain areas, emotion is probably the most stark example, as these two behave so differently. A poor white person in a predominantly white country feels betrayed by their government. Perhaps there are also social factors at play, such as parental abandonment issues, but let’s assume that the feeling is justified. In comparison to a person of colour in the same circumstances, the caucasian objectively has an easier situation. But this is an intellectual interjection, and in no way invalidates the emotion that the caucasian is feeling. To expect them to change that emotion because of a fact is an imposition that doesn’t recognise how feelings actually work. Based on how this caucasian reacts to the information about the person of colour, we could speculate on their moral capacity - ideally it would lead through compassion to fraternity - but any attempt to invalidate the emotion only makes its expression more volatile.
I’d like to take a few sentences now to appreciate the irony involved here. I am communicating to you about the nature, overreach and limitations of the intellect, through the intellect! It’s the medium we use to formulate language and exchange ideas. Based on what I’ve written, you’re creating thought or imagination structures, accessing memories - however your individual mind processes information - thanks to the marvel that is the rational mind. What incredible power, that it can even reflect on its own workings!
The extent to which the intellect has power comes from our identification with it. Identification is a process of putting barriers in place that define who we are (in other words, what our awareness is attached to) and, by implication, who we are not. To define is also to exclude, which is useful and perfectly natural until the exclusion begins to impinge on the variety that any system needs to function. This is what we’re experiencing as a society at the moment. Our identification with the intellect at the expense of other intelligences, collectively and as individuals, is creating disharmony between us, and in our relationship with our environment.
To briefly explain identification further, when someone says “I’d die without my morning coffee”, we understand that this is somewhat hyperbolic. But the truth being expressed here is that without the stimulation that the caffeine provides, then the mindset that the individual has come to identify with isn’t available to them. They don’t feel like themselves. Increasing the stakes now, people willing to die for a cause are experiencing an amplified version of this. A state of being means so much to them that they would rather be dead than live without it. Identification has that level of importance to and power over us.
(A rough history of our identification with different aspects of ourselves can be seen in Carl Jung’s theory of the four stages of mankind - Primitive Man identifying purely with the currently largely subconscious intelligences for body processes, for example. His conclusion was that the next stage of our development is to evolve out of Modern Man’s intense “left brain” rational focus and into a consciously-maintained, holistic balance and flexibility. He saw that the intellect had become overused.)
So, here’s the point that all of this exploration of the intellect has been building up to. We are those in society that identify with the desire for equality (though of course morality and other areas are relevant and interest us too). Equality being based on a rationality informed by intellectual enquiry, it is vital for us to realise that to people not identified in the same way that we are that, in the social realm, to them, we are the representatives of the intellect!