Full Spectrum Dissent Part 2 – Enlightened Self-Interest

Introduction – Killing Hope

In Part 1 we proposed that much modern individual suffering is inherent neither to ourselves as individuals, nor to the human condition, but is often rooted in a dominant political-economic system which subordinates human and environmental well-being to profit.

The result is that we tend to be exposed to ideas about ourselves and society that satisfy the needs of mass consumer culture, but not our needs as human beings. Noam Chomsky brilliantly describes the targeting of fundamental aspects of our belief system:

“It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed, to replace these dangerous feelings by self-centred egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that all change is for the worse, so that one should simply accept the state capitalist order with its inherent inequities and oppression as the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is underway to convince people -particularly young people – that this not only is what they should feel but that it is what they do feel, and that if somehow they do not adopt this set of values then they are strange relics of a terrible era that has fortunately passed away.”
(Chomsky. Quoted in C.P. Otero, ed., Radical Priorities, Black Rose Books, 1981, pp.19-20)

The promotion of cynical selfishness, egotism and indifference to others is indeed so pervasive that they seem almost inevitable – we are trained to talk nicely of idealism and hope, but also to be ‘practical’, recognising the ‘harsh reality’ as seen in ‘the cold light of day’. Subjected to a flood of media images depicting the lives of ‘the beautiful people’ awash with self-indulgent pleasures, it never occurs to us that selfishness and egotism might +not+ in fact be credible paths to happiness, but might instead come at an appalling cost – to the environment and Third World, but also to us as individuals. To gain a true understanding of these costs, we believe, is to gain the motivation to rebel.

On Seeing A Wretched Man – The Curious Qualities of Kindness

Given everything that has been said so far, it seems clear that if we are to find more humanly productive answers, we will by definition need to investigate areas of human thought that are marginalised, ignored, or deemed ‘absurd’ by mainstream culture, just as brilliant dissident political thought is marginalised and dismissed as ‘angry’, ‘anti-American’ and ‘blinkered’.

There are by now good reasons for believing that traditional cultures have often achieved levels of psychological and social well-being that far exceed our own. When the linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge began living amongst the villagers of Ladakh in Northern India, for example, she was bewildered by the fact that everyone smiled so much:

“At first I couldn’t believe that the Ladakhis could be as happy as they appeared. It took me a long time to accept that the smiles I saw were real. Then, in my second year there, while at a wedding, I sat back and observed the guests enjoying themselves. Suddenly I heard myself saying, ‘Aha, they really are that happy’.”

According to Norberg-Hodge, the Ladakhis’ well-being is rooted in their belief system, which is characterised by extraordinary levels of kindness and compassion, and the marked absence of hatred, egotism and grasping possessiveness.

We need to be clear that Ladakhi presumptions about happiness are very different, in fact in some respects diametrically opposed, to Western views. A clue to the dramatic nature of the difference is indicated by the 5th century Indian sage Buddhaghosa, whose compassionate philosophy also lies at the heart of Ladakhi culture. Buddhaghosa described how human happiness actually consists, not in vigorously striving to satisfy our personal desires, but in strengthening our concern for others. This could be achieved, for example, he argued, by generating compassion repeatedly and intensively in response to real or imagined suffering:

“On seeing a wretched man, unlucky, unfortunate, in every way a fit object for compassion, unsightly, reduced to utter misery with hands and feet cut off, sitting in the shelter for the helpless with a pot placed before him, moaning… compassion should be felt for him in this way: ‘This being has indeed been reduced to misery; if only he could be freed from his suffering!'”

Alternatively, from the 19th century Patrul Rinpoche suggests:

“Think of someone in immense torment – a person cast into the deepest dungeon awaiting execution, or an animal standing before the butcher about to be slaughtered. Feel love towards that being as if it were your own mother or child.”

It is then recommended that we repeatedly imagine, not merely that this unfortunate person or animal has been released from suffering, but that we ourselves have released them.

These startling recommendations – light-years removed from the strategies for achieving happiness promoted nightly on TV – are based on the idea that repeated reflection on suffering, and on ourselves relieving that suffering, has the effect of strengthening our concern for others. And this, in turn, it is argued, has the effect of strengthening conditions of mind that are conducive to happiness – kindness, compassion, generosity, patience, equanimity and affection – while weakening conditions of mind that are conducive to depression and despair – greed, hatred, self-obsession, jealousy, boredom and dissatisfaction.

Ultimately, it is argued, personal happiness, and the happiness of those around us, is best achieved by reducing excessive concern for ourselves and by replacing it with sincere concern and action for the benefit of others. Notice that this concern is +not+ recommended as some kind of worthy, stoic self-sacrifice, but is claimed to involve a very real increase in everyone’s happiness, our own included.

If this sounds merely outlandish, consider the set of experiments recently conducted at the E.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behaviour at the University of Wisconsin. Richard Davidson, director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience, studied brain activity found in a European-born Buddhist monk, Oser, who has spent three decades in the Himalayas meditating on compassion in ways similar to those described above.

Davidson’s research had previously found that people who have high levels of brain activity in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain simultaneously report positive, happy states of mind, such as zeal, enthusiasm, joy, vigour and mental buoyancy. On the other hand, Davidson found that high levels of activity in a parallel site on the other side of the brain – in the right prefrontal areas – correlate with reports of distressing emotions such as sadness, anxiety and worry. People suffering from clinical depression and extreme anxiety, for example, have the highest levels of activation in these right prefrontal areas.

Oser was asked to meditate intensively on compassion and then to relax after sixty seconds while being monitored by an fMRI magnetic imaging machine. In his book Destructive Emotions, psychologist Daniel Goleman describes the results:

“While Oser was generating a state of compassion during meditation, he showed a remarkable leftward shift in this parameter of prefrontal function, one that was extraordinarily unlikely to occur by chance alone. In short, Oser’s brain shift during compassion seemed to reflect an +extremely+ pleasant mood. The very act of concern for others’ well-being, it seems, creates a greater sense of well-being within oneself.”
(Goleman, Disturbing Emotions – And How We Can Overcome Them, Bloomsbury, 2003, p.12)

In another experiment, Davidson monitored the base-line state of left prefrontal cortex activity indicating normal everyday mood in 175 American individuals. Subsequently, Davidson also monitored the base-line state of a ‘geshe’, an abbot, from one of the leading Buddhist monasteries in India. Although the geshe is a monk-practitioner who does meditate, he has not spent long periods of time alone meditating intensively in retreats in the way of Oser. Nevertheless, the results were remarkable. Davidson reports:

“Something very interesting and exciting emerged from this. We recorded the brain activity of the geshe and were able to compare his brain activity to the other individuals who participated in experiments in my laboratory over the last couple of years… The geshe had the most extreme positive value out of the entire hundred and seventy-five that we had ever tested at that point.”
(Ibid, p.339)

Davidson describes the geshe as “an outlier” on the graph – his reading was “three standard deviations to the left”, far beyond the rest of the bell curve for positive emotion.

Although the relationship between concern for others and well-being has long been all but ignored by Western science, recent studies do point to a connection.

Reviewing evidence of a link between altruism and health, Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, concludes:

“One of the healthiest things you can do for yourself is to volunteer to help your community, backing away from too much self-worry and fretting. Focusing our attention away from our own problems by helping others, we can experience physical benefits… Altruism may help you to live longer. Extending yourself to interact with others is associated with longevity.”

In a study of heart disease in 600 men, Dr. Larry Scherwitz found that people who were more self-obsessed had more severe coronary disease than their less self-involved counterparts. Scherwitz studied patients hospitalised for suspected heart disease or after a heart attack by monitoring how often they used ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘mine’, or ‘myself’ during a structured interview. He found evidence, which he considered incontrovertible, that patients with more severe disease were more self-focused, less concerned with others. This is Scherwitz’s prescription for health:

“Be more giving, listen with regard when others talk. Give your time and energy to others, let others have their way; do things for reasons other than furthering your own needs.”

In a 30-year study of 427 married women, researchers at Cornell University were able to conclude that regardless of number of children, marital status, occupation, education, or social class, women who engaged in volunteer work to help other people at least once a week lived longer. Likewise, in a survey of thousands of volunteers across the United States, Allan Luks discovered that people who helped other people consistently reported better health than peers in their age group. Many also said that their health markedly improved when they began volunteer work. Other studies have repeatedly shown that compassion and affection for others have a measurable impact on human immune system efficiency (see Goleman, Disturbing Emotions).

A study of 700 elderly adults by C.E. Depner and Ingersoll-Dayton found that presence or absence of concern for others had a decisive effect on the ageing process. They found that “the effects of ageing had more to do with what they contributed +to+ their social support network than what they received from it”.

The point of our mentioning these studies is not at all to promote Buddhism, or ‘religion’ of any kind (indeed these are not specifically religious issues at all). It is to raise the possibility that there may well be approaches to achieving individual and social well-being – long understood and practised in many traditional cultures – that have been filtered out of our culture along with so many other ideas that conflict with corporate goals. These approaches could prove vital in generating resistance to unrestrained greed and violence, and in working towards a more rational and compassionate society.

We raise this possibility, also, on the basis of a small degree of personal experience. In the past, we at Media Lens have held jobs in large multinational corporations. Like most people our goals were to do varied and interesting work, to achieve status and ‘success’ through promotion and, above all perhaps, to achieve a high standard of living. In short, our lives were centred around fundamentally selfish aims with little or no thought, and even less action, for the plight and suffering of others.

Our experience of self-centred work was one of almost unrelieved boredom and stress – the work turned out to be of no intrinsic interest at all, but was simply a means to the end of material acquisition. It seems to us that when life is oriented around money and status, it becomes a pointless, depressing dead end, a kind of emotional wasteland. The contrast to our experience of the unpaid human rights and environmental work we have done since – for example, this Media Lens project – could not be more dramatic. To even partially replace self-centred concerns with concern for others, we believe, is a decision of enormous human significance, which has beneficial consequences that far outweigh any trivial financial loss.

We need to be clear that the ultimate root of many of our problems is that very many people care a great deal about themselves and their immediate families, but very little about anyone else. This is the basis of much unthinking obedience, passive complicity, and enthusiastic participation in state-corporate destructiveness. This self-centred concern, in turn, is rooted in the deeply entrenched – but, we believe, false – conviction that personal happiness is best achieved by applying maximum effort to securing the needs of ourselves and our immediate families, such that we have little inclination to attend to the needs of others deemed irrelevant – people who often pay an appalling price for our actions. We often rightly focus on the logic and function of state-corporate systems, but we need to remember that states and corporations are in the end mere abstractions – they are made up of, and run by, real people.

Full Human Dissent

Compassion and concern for others are of course implicit in much dissident thought – relief of human suffering is quite obviously what motivates many writers and activists. But explicit focus on the importance of such concern as an antidote to individual human misery, and to the many problems rooted in the unrestrained greed of corporate capitalism, is almost nowhere to be found in contemporary radical thought, just as it is rarely found in mainstream scientific and other thought.

Is it possible that the dissident critique of the propaganda system is itself victim of one aspect of that propaganda – the aspect that dismisses non-Western systems of thought as ‘primitive’, ‘irrational’ ‘religion’? American writer Alan Wallace observes:

“For centuries we in the West have wondered whether intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe. If there are highly advanced, intelligent beings out there, what might they have to teach us? Along similar lines we can ask: is there intelligent life on our planet outside of our Euro-American civilisation? Of course that sounds like a dumb question, but it’s still worth asking, since there persists an attitude in our society that we know more about everything than any previous generation and more than any other ‘less developed’ society today.”

The propaganda system’s habit of dividing the world into specialised compartments to be studied in isolation also appears to afflict dissident thought – we forever discuss politics in isolation from psychological and philosophical truths. We discuss what we imagine to be ‘cold, hard facts’ in isolation from the impact of personal feelings, values and motivations. But why +do+ some people care passionately about human and animal suffering, while other people are totally indifferent? Is it possible to increase the depth and extent of concern for others in society?

The result of the failure to ask these questions is a disempowered, emotionally incomplete form of dissent; one which is less able to draw on what appears to be the strongest rationale of all for helping others – the fact that it is a form of “enlightened self-interest” from which we also benefit. The promise of compassionate dissent is that it provides an extremely powerful, and in fact ever-deepening, motivation for media activism, peace activism, human and animal rights activism, and environmental activism, in the understanding that compassionate thought and action are also profoundly conducive to our +own+ well-being. By contrast, we believe, dissent rooted in anger, hatred, and even violence, is self-defeating, self-destructive and futile.

This idea perhaps flies in the face of a certain tradition of stoic self-righteousness among leftists – attempting to help others does often involve costs, risks and painful self-sacrifice (often, in the Third World, to an appalling degree) – any personal advantages won as a result of helping others are perhaps seen as an indulgence in the face of so much misery. But if awareness of these benefits makes it easier for more people to be motivated to help others, then it is surely anything but an indulgence.

We need political dissent, but we also need personal, emotional, philosophical – that is, fully human – dissent. Erich Fromm noted how in our culture – dissident culture very much included – we are taught to repress many of our best qualities:

“We repress not only what is bad, but also what is good, because it does not fit the character of society… We live in a society that is directed toward success and profit and not one that is founded on love. Thus, the person who acts out of a sense of love excludes himself from social thinking; he becomes an outsider.”