Seeking the Root Causes
EDITORIAL, 9 Jul 2018
Any voluntary action that an individual performs originates as an inner urge. The urge may be “towards” something, or “away from” something; it may also be based on a wrong understanding of reality. These three states of mind can be termed as “craving”, “aversion” and “illusion”, respectively.
The thought process which ensues from an urge is shaped by both the urge and the environment. The thought process results in action which is consonant with the urge – or the mix of urges – which inhabit the mind. For example, in an average person, the urge towards material well-being is checked by an urge to avoid the hardships and ignominy of jail.
The urge for survival and well-being is in the DNA of every being. But when an urge becomes an obsession, it loses its essential and causal connection to well-being. When an urge or an action loses its connection to well-being, we should dub it as “irrational”. An obsession is nothing but an irrational, feverish urge which has gripped an individual’s mind. Unlike a healthy mind experiencing an urge, an obsessed mind is in the grip of a feverish urge.
If the above are generally applicable observations, then they apply even in a conflict situation – to persons engaged in a conflict, to persons who provoke a conflict, and to persons who escape from conflict or hardship.
Let us first take the example of a sniper who shoots dead, from a thousand yards away, a young paramedic girl. What may be the sniper’s inner urge or urges? One can only speculate, but the likely suspects are:
To avoid court-martial or opprobrium; to provide for the family; to defend the tribe; to win acclaim; to feel “mastery” over a threatening environment.
Most likely, the sniper experiences a combination of some such urges, with the awe of a “powerful authority figure” helping to maintain outward balance.
The following conversation took place between a British and a US diplomat, before the start of the First World War:
BD: “We are probably fools not to find a reason for declaring war on Germany before she builds too many ships and takes away our trade.”
USD: “If you wish to compete with German trade, work harder.”
BD: “That would mean lowering our standard of living. Perhaps it would be simpler for us to have a war … Is it a question of right or wrong? Maybe it is just a question of keeping our supremacy.”
In this conversation, the British diplomat’s stated urge is to hold on to power and wealth through warfare; clearly, however, winning acclaim within the powerful “imperial aristocracy” would also be an unstated ambition.
A poor and homeless family is escaping from a conflict zone to safety – or migrating from an impoverished village to an urban environment.
The situation in this case is clear and stark. The urge driving the family is the search for survival and at least a modicum of well-being. Any other urges which the parents might have had before their forced migration – say, sending a daughter to school – must be placed on hold.
Based on the above discussion, the following becomes an interesting question to ponder: If a person’s behaviour is determined by his or her inner urges, then what determines the inner urges than the person experiences?
We know that survival, hunger, thirst and the sex drive are biologically determined urges – that is, basic needs which are wired into the DNA. The family in the third example is seeking the fulfilment of its basic needs.
However, since human beings live out most of their lives in society, the outward expression of biological urges is socially conditioned. Conversely, life in society also generates secondary needs and urges which are shaped largely by the society. Acclaim, infamy, rivalry, greed, animosity, compassion … et cetera … such urges are created and shaped by a person’s social or tribal environment, including the “tribal religion”.
And finally of course how an individual chooses to live his or her life plays a major role in his or her interactions with the society. Our individual actions shape our inner life for better or for worse. Actions which add to the overall well-being can be judged to be “right” or “rational” – and vice versa.
In a healthy society, individuals are able to fulfill their basic and social needs without facing or creating disharmony, animosity and violence. Therefore the natural individual goal of wellbeing is satisfied in a healthy society.
An unhealthy society loses its connection to individual well-being. In such a society, neither the basic needs nor the social needs can be satisfied without some reliance on dishonesty or force. To that extent, relationships between members of the society also become dishonest and untrustworthy.
Whether or not wars or local conflicts break out depends on the nature of the societies involved. Healthy societies would – presumably! – resolve any issues between them peacefully, through rational dialogue. However, we know that power-mongers are ever-ready to aggravate and exploit any issues.
The fact is that vitriol or violence in a society or between societies can never beget well-being. The after-effects of violence vitiate relationships even after centuries, and true reconciliation becomes difficult to achieve.
No individual has ever found durable happiness through violence. This is an aspect of the unalterable and inexorable law of karma. To ignore this fact in the “realpolitik” of power is erroneous and short-term thinking. However, such “realpolitik” appeals strongly to power-mongers – the probable reason being that power-mongering hides a person’s deeper insecurity and the need to win tribal acclaim (which is also rooted in a person’s insecurity).
Lyndon Johnson (LBJ) reportedly said about the Vietnamese: “When you’ve got them by the b***s, their hearts and minds will follow”.
While that is a piece of bravado fit for a Texan with a mythical ten-gallon cowboy hat, we know that LBJ’s Vietnam strategy failed. He never “got them by the b***s” − although he might have imagined he did − and he consistently misjudged “their hearts and minds”. If LBJ had learned his “b***s” strategy through dirty Texas politics, then certainly the Vietnamese did not oblige him by behaving like Texans.
While the Vietnamese “hearts and minds did not follow”, LBJ did lose his mind. Post-presidency years of his life were spent under medical and psychiatric care, tucked away in a Texas ranch. No lucrative lecture circuit for him!
The law of karma works only at the individual level. No “empire” ever concedes publicly a defeat or an error – since “awe of the ruling elites” must be maintained at all times amongst the common people. Defeats must be spun to look like victories − or expunged from history altogether.
Historians can only follow the material trajectories of “empires” − not the inner progress or regress of individuals. Thus not many can connect the dots and see the law of karma at work. Meanwhile, bloody power games continue within the tribal power hierarchy − and the blood-thirsty “empire” lives on. An individual power-monger may suffer the agonies of hell “in the cause of the empire”, but to the next power-monger he is no more than a used paper napkin.
An empire consists of a complex web of practical relationships which are based on wealth, military power, technology … and so on. The strength of the empire depends on the practical relationships it builds – and not merely on a show of raw power. Naturally, any durable relationship must be one of mutual benefit; such is human nature. While pretence may be needed at times, only the reality of mutual benefit can sustain a practical relationship over a period of time.
If, over a period of time, pretence mounts while mutual benefit erodes, a relationship deteriorates; it struggles to cope with the demands of changing times. Disharmony and friction ensues; newer relationships form.
In the decades after World War II, “the West” benefitted from having better technology, educated work-force, control over international finance and fiat money, coerced control over cheap sources of raw materials, and recourse to bribery, sabotage, covert violence and overt warfare.
Gradually, over the recent decades, these “competitive advantages” of “the West” are being equalized or eroded. People all around the world are getting smarter by the day – and becoming aware of their rights. Old international relationships are being questioned – and many of them are rightly seen to be no more than devious covers for the underlying rapacity.
More people now understand that words and phrases such as God, freedom, transparency, democracy, ideology, human rights, higher civilization … and so on … serve more to hide than to articulate the truth, to provide a fig leaf of “goodness” over the underlying rapacity.
So-called “new right” movements seem to have no taste for the hitherto dominant pretences and practices of the post-war “imperial elite”. Naturally, these movements are supported by those who have in any case been losing out materially under the regime of “the grand pretences”.
It is not surprising therefore that we see two types of responses to the rise of the “new right” movements.
One response is: “Oh my God! They are removing the fig leaf!”
The second response is: “Thank God! They are removing the fig leaf!”
At its core, the question is one of how a society deals with its blemish. Since “truth” and “honesty” are usually not seen as “practical” options for power-mongers, there remain two “practical” strategies for them:
One strategy is: Invent a “grand civilizational” fig leaf story to spin – through highly paid scholars and writers – and claim that the blemish is a virtue.
The other strategy is: Why bother? Be brazen. Show the world “in its face” the true nature of the blemish. No mouse will dare to bell the cat anyway!
This is in fact a fundamental and difficult dilemma. If the species Homo Sapiens has the potential for rapacity wired into its DNA, does it follow that any “grand civilization” must find a “mumbo-jumbo” way to rationalize the underlying rapacity? Can a “grand civilization” ever be free of false pretence?
Today, it is not possible to foresee whether the “brazen” types are more likely to rely on conflict as a policy tool than the “pretentious” types. However, in both cases there is no real consideration for “humanity”. Peace is acceptable only to the extent that it does not come in the way of rapacity.
Meanwhile – from centuries of hubris, false glory and short memory – every fool within “the imperial elite” sits arrogantly in judgement on all that happens around the world, forgetting altogether the simple and noble call:
“For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
Or, as Gautam Buddha taught: True assessment of reality is not possible in a mind afflicted by craving, aversion, and illusion.
Having examined some of the root drivers of human behaviour, we see how it comes to pass that the simple ideals of “peace” and “well-being for all” do not appeal to the rapacious “leaders of the international community”.
In what sense does the word “leader” even apply to these people? Where are they “leading” us? Do they even seem to know?
Surely, it is time to say: Wake up, you fools! People are trying to make a living around here!
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 9 Jul 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: Seeking the Root Causes, is included. Thank you.
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.