"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Social Mapping - The Demand For Personal Territory And Identity And How It Weakens Democracy

Much has been made recently of identity politics – the movement to classify individuals by race, gender, and ethnicity in order to more precisely mobilize them to political action.   One voice counts for little, but a chorus is resounding.  If this enforced categorization ignores traditional valuation of worth – beauty, intelligence, insight, creativity, intellect, or athletic ability – so be it.  The suppression of individuality is a necessary and only temporary price to be paid for the confluence of a social minority into the mainstream.

Many gays, women, and Hispanics have refused to be so categorized.  Race, gender, and ethnicity are only currently popular, highly political, degrading, and very temporal classifications of human nature.  They point to the vision of Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton who, while promoting the very secular nature of the new Republic, understood that the integrity of the individual was paramount.  Individuals, guided by God and pursuing a spiritual salvation, would tend to be moral and ethical citizens.  A respect for the Judeo-Christian principles which govern both personal behavior and collective community action should always precede any more superficial and passing self-image.

Jefferson when penning ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ was not writing about selfish acquisition and satisfaction, but the expression of individual enterprise within the bounds of community.  No individual action, he believed, should be undertaken without regard for those who will be affected by it.

Such a moral culture of mutual respect should be the foundation of even complex societies where competing interests are common.  Government and the marketplace would mediate disputes and promote equality when necessary, but without an absolute belief in righteousness and moral behavior, the new Republic would fall into disarray.

Jefferson would be surprised at how far 21st century America has fallen from those ideals.  He would be delighted to see a nation of enterprise, energy, and optimism; but would be dismayed at its factionalism and separatism. His notion of individuality – enterprise within a mutually respectful community – has been distorted beyond recognition.  The country if mapped according to new post-modern socio-economic groupings would look very different than he intended, displaying swaths of women, blacks, gays, Hispanics, rural whites, and coastal elites.   The One Percent and the Ninety-Nine Percent; the fundamentalist and the humanist; the progressive and the conservative.


In Jefferson’s vision, the country would always be divided, but complementarily.  Cities could not do without rural agriculture; industry could not thrive without labor.  The country would be fluid, accessible, and always dynamically changing.  His geo-political map would focus more on flows of labor and capital, dynamic interrelationships, and the ebb and flow of productivity based on competing but necessarily cooperative interests.

Of course this was an ideal vision; and Jefferson and his colleagues had no idea how rapidly the country would grow and how such rapid increases in population would eventually disrupt the supposedly harmonious workings of representative government and the free market.   From our perspective, Jefferson should have known that human nature is not essentially cooperative but competitive; and that demands for resources, power, wealth, and influence would become more and more insistent the larger and more complex the country became.

As such demands grow, the tendency to form interest groups is logical and predictable.  Farmers have always joined cooperatives.  Factory workers have joined unions.  Individual voices in a highly competitive society need augmentation.

Yet why is it that individual valuation has become so subsumed within issue valuation?  Why is it that we first think of ourselves as black, women, or gay?

Regardless of the apparent validity of the cause – greater integration of minorities into the economic and social mainstream; removal of the glass ceiling; increased tolerance for alternate sexuality – the wholesale transformation of the country into battling factions seems destructive to both individual integrity and to social harmony.

Traditional Hinduism provides a model for social harmony and spiritual growth.  The only goal in life is spiritual evolution; and while it may take many lifetimes and reincarnations before it is realized, it should never be ignored.  Hindu society from its beginning was organized according to the philosophical principles and social norms of the Upanishads and the Vedas.  The caste system was not a punitive organization designed by the ruling classes to keep the lower orders in line, but a sophisticated vernacular expression of Hinduism. 

If the only goal of life is spiritual evolution, and if the world is only maya or illusion, then conflict, strife, and competition would be counter-productive if not meaningless.  Better to live on the lowest rung of the social order and have the same opportunities for spiritual enlightenment as those on the top than to disregard spiritual becoming altogether.

Of course just like Jefferson’s idealistic Enlightenment model, traditional Hindu visionary principles would always be ignored or corrupted.  Competition in India has been as aggressive and brutal as any.   Yet in both America and India, the tragedy is that the underlying, universally valid and valuable principles, have been set aside.  Indians and Americans have both given in to high-stakes social, economic, and political competition with nary a thought to the purpose of life or its nature.

The social map of India would be no different from that of America.  Swaths of Hindu and Muslim psycho-social territories, populations of castes, megacity urbanites and rural traditionalists.  A country of over one billion people cannot be expected to let God guide and the spirit rule.

The need to belong is a logical outcome of our aggressive, demanding, and territorial human nature.  As soon as children become aware of others, they are in competition with them.  Adolescence is a  jungle of social competition – as nasty, bitter, hurtful, and brutal than any.  The lessons learned from childhood and the teenage years carry on to adulthood.  Joining the right groups to validate individual identity, for protection against social invaders, and for the rewards of common thought is the result.

Yet the uber-identity of today takes both human nature and demographically-influenced competition to the extreme.  Who are you? means to what groups do you belong? what causes do you support? what is your political, religious, or social persuasion? what color are you? do you like girls or boys?
Not too long ago a kindergarten teacher asked her class to describe themselves in three ways.  One boy said, “I’m tall.  I’m smart; and I’m fast”.   He was indeed all three, was a summa cum laude graduate of Harvard, was considered for the American Olympic team, and grew to well over six feet.
Would that such honest, accurate, and perfectly individual assessments were common as adults.  If there is any final accounting, it will be made on the basis of one’s meanness, generosity, good faith, curiosity, and spiritual eagerness.  Not on belonging.

Not only does group-belonging and group identity inhibit the best of human character and soul, but it inevitably results in anger, hostility, resentment, and conflict.  Belonging to groups tends to harden opinion, distrust and/or deny the convictions of others, and promote intolerance and hatred.  
From a final accounting perspective, none of this should matter.  Regardless of what looms next, one thing is for sure.  The aggressive, self-serving, and punishingly competitive world is over.

Nietzsche said that the only validation of humanity is the expression of individual will – a very different take on the same philosophy that inspires Hinduism.  Life, death, and personal resurrection, Hindus say, are matters between an individual and God.  Destiny is in the hands of the individual and never to be trusted to outsiders.  A Superman can at least say that he has lived.

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