Deconstructing Power (Part 1)
Deconstruct (verb): Analyze an aspect of human experience, activity or concept so as to strip away superficial and/or misleading verbiage; and thereby bring to light reality exactly as it is, rather than an erroneous or self-serving version of it.
2 Apr 2018 – Regular use of violence – for “external” or “internal” security – has become a salient characteristic of the modern age. The enormous capability of modern technology has been aiding the process, multiplying manifold the potential of suffering which is caused by the use of violence.
It is an oddity worth noting that almost all such uses of violence are made with deceptive – or even delusional – claims of aiming at a reduction in suffering. Of course the trumpeted reduction in suffering never happens and, instead, we see “experts” speaking with great “expertise” of “unintended consequences”.
As every person learns at school, it is the strong who bully the weak – never the other way around. Similarly, in the deadly politics of violence, the delusion of being “powerful” plays a central role in any decision to initiate violence. The psychology of violence is therefore also the psychology of power.
Do “the powerful” learn any lessons from the tragic consequences of violence? What a naïve and indeed a silly question! Of course they do not! Power insulates them from normal human emotions, suffering and the desire for a peaceful life.
Therefore – tragically and inevitably – the deadly game continues from one round to the next. Indeed, the next bunches of power-mongers delude themselves to be incomparably wiser than their elders – who had only a short time earlier goofed horrendously. In each round, the inevitable result of the shenanigans of deluded power is – what else? – a further increase in human suffering.
But there is also a heroic side to this tragic human story.
No ordinary human being chooses to suffer. To work towards reduced suffering is in fact a ‘wired-in’ and perfectly healthy human instinct. Indeed, efforts to reduce suffering – or, conversely, to add to happiness – have driven virtually the entire human endeavor, starting from the common human origin in Africa.
[The words “pursuit of happiness” figure prominently in the US Declaration of Independence – although one may not guess that from observed outcomes.]
The earliest forms of human suffering involved the simplest requisites of life – water, food, protection from wild animals … and so on. Today we live more complex lives, and accordingly our causes of suffering have also become more subtle, intricate and sometimes even remote.
Activities in the areas of health, civic facilities, charity, community support, vocational training et cetera aim at a reduction of suffering amongst people.
Therefore, when we look to both these aspects of human behavior, we see an obdurate and extreme “bipolarity”. On the one hand, there is untiring and indeed valiant effort by the vast majority to reduce human suffering. And, on the other hand, there is always a small and powerful minority which is quite persistent in adding to human suffering – often while claiming to want to reduce it.
An example: Actions of a “powerful” country cause the bombing of a remote farmer’s house, with several of his family members killed or injured. The “powers that be” will either deny or rationalize the suffering caused, but people on the ground will get on with the urgent task of mitigating the suffering.
This seemingly mysterious “bipolarity” has been observed throughout history. Attempts to explain or rationalize this baffling mystery in human behavior have contributed to beliefs such as those in “god”, “satan”, “demons”, “evil spirits”, “propitiation”, “heaven”, “hell” … and so on.
There is no implication here that people are divided into two distinct categories – such as “the compassionate” and the “the cruel”. We shall assume here that every person has the potential of getting into either of these two broad categories – and even of experiencing a “life changing” event.
Against this backdrop, surely it makes good sense to examine, as dispassionately and objectively as possible, the deep-seated human psychology underlying this “bipolarity” – or what we may also call “the problem of human suffering”?
Surely it then also makes good sense to turn to the first and the most diligent human being who applied all his efforts – over a period of over forty five years – to the problem of suffering? We can certainly hope that some of his valuable insights may help in our chosen task of “deconstructing power”.
Siddharth Gautam, long before he became Gautam Buddha, resolved to discover the root cause of suffering in human life – and to discover a way to gain freedom from suffering. The first part of his two-fold task involved total deconstruction, while the second involved an enormous amount of compassion, creativity and synthesis in finding a path towards a better life.
By the standards of any human society – whose members may be tall or short, white or black, rich or poor, modern or ancient – this is an incredibly ambitious and noble goal.
Finding a way to end human suffering is no small thing. Otherwise why this goal would be proclaimed loudly – time and time again – by all manners of rulers and politicians around the world? Their charades have been going on for millennia – but almost all of these rulers and politicians have failed. Brutal policies – such as colonization, slavery and genocide – have brought only short-lived well-being even to their chief perpetrators.
So what did Gautam Buddha discover which might help us today?
All we need at present is just the core element of his discoveries:
What obscures one’s clear view of any situation is craving, aversion and/or illusion; and, in the absence of a clear view, one cannot find a way to deal with suffering.
Before we proceed, the following points may be noted:
- The terms used by Gautam Buddha provide an objective and empirical view into the human experience of suffering. No reference whatsoever is made by him to any phenomena or beings which are “beyond the ken of human experience”. The approach taken by him is therefore perfectly rational and down-to-earth; there is nothing “other-worldly” or mysterious about it.
- For our present purpose, we shall understand “delusion” to be a more deep-seated and pernicious form of “illusion”. Whereas an “illusion” may bring harm to the person concerned, a “delusion” may result in much more widespread harm – as when a deluded person initiates a deadly war.
Before we proceed, an important exclusion needs to be made from the subject matter of our deconstruction.
In the family, at school, on the sports ground or during an apprenticeship, it is necessary to lay down rules about what can or cannot be done by a youngster. The rules are central to the process of nurture, training, education and character-building – and they are laid down on the basis of an underlying set of shared values and goals. Such rules are accepted by all stakeholders, as a healthy community prepares its next generation to assume responsibility
Naturally some coercion may be involved in such cases. However, in a healthy community, that would be far outweighed by goodwill and concern. Such well-meaning instances of coercion will not be questioned here, nor the immense value of nurture, training, education and character-building.
Our subject of interest is the misuse of power – that is, ill-intentioned coercion – which is all too common today. Such coercion is nothing but disguised violence – which does not take long to degenerate into overt violence.
This means that our interest is in state or corporate coercion – which is totally impersonal, uncaring and exploitative. The goal behind the use of such coercion is exploitation of one kind or another – personal, economic or political. Even “duly enacted laws” of a society often end up assisting such processes.
The globalized scale of such exploitation today is truly mind-boggling. The rule seems to be followed that every evident weakness must be exploited fully – and that to forego any such “opportunity” is folly. It is no wonder that community spirit takes a big hit. It was not long ago that Mrs. Thatcher announced to the world her discovery that “There is no such thing as society”.
Admittedly, society is a collective noun which is somewhat abstract. However, compassion is something real that every human being is capable of experiencing. In the matter of dealing with suffering, one can get the right answers on the basis of compassion – even while avoiding use of the word society.
People need to smarten up in dealing with all such vital issues – or else they are more likely to fall prey to exploitation. It is easier to exploit a person without any compassion than to exploit a compassionate person – since the latter is likely to feel doubt or hesitation in the process. The most effective henchmen or toadies of power are the ones lacking in compassion as well as understanding.
We need to understand clearly the human psychology at work, so that thinking individuals can find a way to deal with the apparent insanity of the unchecked use of malevolent coercion, power and violence.
We must also see that almost invariably one or another “ideology” or “doctrine” is used as “cover” or “obfuscation” for brutality and rapacity. In such a situation, even a thinking and sincere person may think erroneously that somehow an “ideology” or a “doctrine” overrides the truth he or she feels deep within.
No! An “ideology” or a “doctrine” does not – and it cannot ever – override the truth you have within!
All the proponents and megaphones of “ideologies” and “doctrines” are either well-paid sycophants or useful idiots of power. It is absolutely critical for right-thinking persons to see through the disguises of “ideologies” and “doctrines” – and into the unbridled human greed and rapacity lying underneath.
The rapacious now have with them a new and extremely powerful weapon – namely, the deliberately deceptive use of mass media. The majority of people in any society are engaged fully in dealing with day-to-day matters; they do not have the surplus capital needed to indulge in – or sponsor – the shenanigans of power. But those who do have surplus capital want desperately to protect it and to make it grow. They play a ruthless “no holds barred” game against their victims.
The propaganda genius Edward Bernays persuaded fashionable New York women to start smoking – by telling them that the act symbolized “freedom”. Long before him, the newspaper publisher Hearst had sent this cable to his photographer in Cuba: “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.”
Today mass deception has been let loose on a global scale. Of course deception is not, by any means, new in human society – but today the technology of deception has become much more powerful, whereas its victims appear more defenseless. What is dubbed “information war” is really no more than “deception war”.
Sadly, today an average person barely knows anyone he or she can fully trust. He or she can no longer trust “god”, the “leaders of society”, the boss, or the banker. Such a condition – if it becomes chronic – is not conducive to human well-being.
Is it not then at least worth sparing a thought for what Gautam Buddha taught? To paraphrase once again:
Truth lies within. Once you discover it with your own effort – you can place your implicit trust in that truth.
Gautam Buddha’s insights provide the “X-ray vision” needed to see through the deceptions of the “high and mighty”. The observer thereby becomes aware of the elemental forces of craving, aversion and delusion which underlie and drive such deception. Naturally therefore – and especially in the present “Age of the Great Deception” – Buddha’s insights can prove to be immensely valuable.
When, in effect, even the idea of the “self” is deconstructed, what can remain of mere categories such as “royal”, “majestic”, “special” or “exceptional” people? All such categories are clearly seen as obfuscations designed to exploit. The “X-ray vision” applies to one and all – and bestows freedom from ignorance.
Equality at the most fundamental level is a ‘wired-in’ feature of human existence. This fact can be denied – and it may continue to be denied – but no amount of cunning propaganda can alter this fact of human existence.
Of course many people are caught up in an economic stranglehold, and are not in a position to do much about their condition – at least in the short run. However, we do hope that a truer appreciation of reality will prove helpful to all.
[To be continued …]
Dr. Naresh Jotwani is a semi-retired academic living in India and a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. Apart from part-time engagements in engineering education and consulting, he engages in an in-depth, personal exploration of how Gautam Buddha’s profound discoveries and teachings can be applied to the acute problems of modern life.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 Apr 2018.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Deconstructing Power (Part 1), is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.
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