Sunday, 7 May 2017

How do we improve politics?

"Tolerance and trying to understand others, until recently a luxury, has today become a necessity. 
This is because: unless we can realise that we and others are generally behaving as we do because of inculcated biases over which we have no control while we imagine that they are our own opinions, we might do something which would bring about the destruction of all of us. 
Then we will not have any time at all to learn whether tolerance is a good or a bad thing..."
Reflections, Idries Shah

WE ARE ALL FAMILIAR these days with what are called ‘hidden camera shows’ where pranks played on unsuspecting people are recorded surreptitiously for entertainment purposes. One of the classic hidden camera situations is one in which an engineless car is pushed down a road towards a garage by accomplices. The driver uses the momentum achieved to swing the car into the garage and park up. He or she then gets out and seeks help, explaining that the car has “just broken down”. When it is discovered to have no engine bafflement, disbelief and hilarity ensue. Because it’s obvious that a car with no engine is an impossibility. It makes no sense. It can never work and can never have worked. It is absurd.

Imagine, for a moment, how much more absurd the situation would be if the mechanics in this prank failed to notice that the car had no engine, failed to even look under the hood/bonnet, and set about trying to mend the car, to make it ‘go’, by paying attention to various visible and superficial aspects: its colour, bodywork, windows, wheels, seats, dashboard etc. They wouldn’t stand a chance of fixing it.

The Conciliator's Guild

The Conciliator’s Guild was set up to introduce the idea that something just as fundamental is missing, at every level, from our global politics: a vital piece without which it cannot, and will never, properly work. This component must be recognised, and understood, and worked with in accordance with its own inherent laws of motion, if we are ever going to stand a chance of sorting out the increasingly chaotic, conflicted and bloody world situation that we see unfolding daily in the media reports that overwhelm our minds via a multitude of information channels.

The missing thing - the thing that, up until now, has mostly been overlooked, ignored, or insufficiently understood - is the nature of the complex human organism itself, and the innate needs that underlie, explain and drive all of the things we think and do, at every moment of every day. Beneath the thick surface layers of our immensely varied cultural differences we share a universal, common human ground. And we need to learn to work together, as a species, at this level, in order to make things run more smoothly, for all of us, on our precious little blue planet.

Why do we do what we do?

The human givens approach observes that all human activity is powered by a set of innate needs that are necessary for our well-being and survival. The difference between wants and needs is that if we don’t get what we truly need we suffer and may eventually die. Nobody ever died through not getting what they wanted unless this also happened to be, or to contain, something that they genuinely needed too. (Along with caffeine and alcohol, coffee and wine also contain water.)

We do the things we do because it seems to us, at the time, rightly or wrongly, that our needs will be met by so doing. If we could tune in to our survival brains we would be able to hear the simple logic of their decision making processes:

  • “If I walk up this steep hill I will get food, drink and company because there is thriving little restaurant at the top." 
  • "If I take my dog to the park at 8 a.m. we will both get some exercise, and there will be lots of people there doing the same thing so I can have lots of nice chats!"  
  • "If I leave the village and move to the city I will find a mate, and friends, and have fun, and get a job that is meaningful and fulfilling." 
  • "If I get out of bed again today, and do that job that I hate, I’ll be able to pay the mortgage and feed my family."  
  • "If we annihilate that city over there with bombs our enemies will all be killed and we will feel safe once more."  
  • "If I leave this cold, materialistic, selfish country and join Islamic State I will get everything I need in a warm climate: a sense control; a community of like-minded people; lots of attention; friendship and intimacy; status; a sense of achievement; a real feeling of meaning and purpose.” 

What do we need, and what's getting in our way?

The human givens approach explains that mental illness, from mild feelings of unease to full-blown psychosis, is driven by stress, and ‘stress’ is what happens when an organism’s innate needs are not met in a balanced way. Mental illness is therefore ‘cured’ by reducing or removing stress from a person’s life. Which needs are not being met right now? Why are they not being met? What can be done to remove the obstacles currently preventing these needs from being met? When innate needs are met people calm down. Mental illness evaporates. We feel good. We thrive. And one major obstacle that is preventing needs from being met in the world today, that is driving conflict and vitiating global politics, is an inability to see past cultural differences, and biases, and recognise our common humanity.

Water is a fundamental human need. It is hard to imagine any sane person disagreeing with this statement. Without water a human being can survive for a maximum of around one (increasingly uncomfortable and distressing) week. The need for water is one of the things we have in common with most of the other organisms on our planet.  Given the truth of the preceding statements,  it is hard to understand how the following situation, for example, could have happened. It is an instance, as they say, worth a thousand.

An illustrative example

For the past 40 years or so Turkey has been creating dams in order to irrigate crops in the southeast of the country. The industrious Turks have done a great job of looking after themselves. Agricultural production in that area of their country is booming. But, as a consequence, water flow into neighbouring Syria and Iraq has been significantly reduced. Turkey is consuming far more than its fair share of water in the area, and starving its neighbours, who are suffering greatly as a result. And it is water shortages that are, according to many sources, driving conflict in the area.

What is it that is allowing the Turks to behave like this? It can’t be the fact that they are unaware of the consequences of their actions for their neighbours. Nor can it be because there is something peculiarly wrong with them. Travellers to Turkey generally tell of stories of spontaneous hospitality and warmth. It can only be a failure to recognise their neighbours as beings of the same type. When we behave like this to other people we are secretly (or not so secretly) thinking:
“You are not like me therefore you are not really human. You don’t really count.”

The Conciliator’s Guild is collaborating with Human Givens College to present a new course entitled:
Fear and political chaos: How to bring clarity to societal upheaval through the lens of innate human needs.
The course explains how the ideas raised in this article can be put into practice. You can find out more about it here.