We humans are good at lying to ourselves. Especially, we are good at dressing everything up from our own defensive perspective, as though the world is letting us down, and we have nothing to do with it.
Why should this be? Why should an animal get so good at pointing the finger elsewhere, and failing to see the connection between action and consequence?
OUR EVOLUTIONARY HERITAGE
Part of the reason for our apparent ‘moral stupidity’, is that we didn’t really need, during our evolution, to be aware of action and consequence. True, those animals which can move away from the cliff edge get preserved, but that’s not really a conscious thing – it’s more instinctive. If a species is to survive, it’s not enough that a single individual thinks its way to avoiding danger. It’s more important that several individuals are born with a genetic quirk which makes moving away from cliff edges natural to them.
In this way, a species survives, not because individuals can consciously see the connection between action and consequence, but because groups are born with a tendency to avoid cliff edges.
POINTING THE BLAME
In the same way, within a species, it may be more likely that those survive and reproduce, who can easily deflect blame from themselves. Mating, for instance, is less a matter of conscious thought, and more a matter of unconscious positioning. In many group-forming species, the idea of a scapegoat emerges, an individual who becomes the focus of others’ somewhat irrational anger and purposeful derogation.
The scapegoat doesn’t get to reproduce, because they are excluded. The blame-deflectors get to reproduce, because they have successfully created the perception of themselves as blame-free.
THE DEFENSIVE PERSPECTIVE
The defensive perspective thus has much reinforcement in our evolutionary history. We are built to avoid danger, and we are built to get angry with and derogate non-members of our chosen in-group. This behaviour is easily seen in gangs, for instance, which club together for mutual safety, and signal against others outside the gang, in a reflection of their evolutionary past.
The defensive perspective can be seen on a national level during such times as the virus pandemic, where the main group seems programmed to flock to positions of safety, and then to be scathing against chosen enemies (those who don’t wear masks, take the vaccine, etc). Safety first, closely followed by non-acceptance of those who behave differently.
LYING TO OURSELVES
This is all very well, but perpetuated over the years, this behaviour causes a particular problem. While it is ‘true’ on some levels, it is lying on other levels. If we ignore that lying, then we are ignoring the possibility of self-development consciously. The cycle of group self-defensiveness can cause racism, bigotry, prejudice, and even self-harm if the group is too narrow for the problem. An example of this is pollution, where groups defend themselves financially by doing business, and ostracise non-workers as non-participators, but destroy the entire planetary environment in the process.
Groups pretend rationality. In a civilised society, it is easy to commission ‘rational’ research confirming a particular approach. For instance, an economic report can easily justify polluting behaviour, if its assumptions prioritise reducing poverty in the short term. This kind of ‘rational’ has hidden bias, in that the ‘rational’ playing field’s boundaries are too narrow to catch the pollution elephant in the room.
DETACHING FROM THE LIE
How can we avoid this dysfunctional, instinctive promotion of narrow group interests? It’s very hard, especially when those in the group can call us disloyal for failing to co-promote the groupthink. How can we behave, when all around us are losing their heads and blaming it on anyone who doesn’t join in the group norming?
We could reject the group, but who is to say we won’t find ourself joining another one, subject once again to the same in-group, out-group biases? Those who have moved from one ideology to another will recognise this occupational hazard. Seen up close, after a while, your favourite new church or gang seems to have exactly the same dysfunctions as the one you rejected.
Perhaps a better answer lies in detaching ourself, internally, from the narrow, selfish modes of thought. Externally, we can seem to be the same person. But, internally, we have managed to achieve sufficient mindfulness to escape the trap of the in-group. We can be with gang members, without being slaves to the gang. We can be with other people in a pandemic, without being slaves to behaviour that is angry and demeaning towards those who don’t share the mainstream defensive view.
Mindfulness is really about ‘being with’. We spend time with ourselves, and learn to be with our own emotions. We spend time with others, and learn to be with their behaviours. We spend time on the planet, and learn to be with its madnesses and idiosyncrasies. We spend time in the universe, and learn to be with its relative vastness. We spend time with our thoughts, until we learn that they are empty.
What am I lying to myself about? What am I blaming others for unnecessarily?
Can I understand consciously that I am part of a cycle of action and consequence that I cannot escape, or blame others for?
Who am I treating as a scapegoat? Who am I getting angry with, and criticising, because it is easier than taking responsibility for my own emotions?
Am I aligning myself with an in-group, just because it makes me feel safer? Whose reputation am I hurting, just to make myself or my friends feel better?
Can I remain mindful, learning to be with others, with my planet, with my universe, with equanimity?