Having poured zillions of electronic digits into some one hundred attempts to paint a picture of a moderated, liberated, enlightened and expansive masculinity, especially among those men in positions of leadership, borrowing from others like James Hillman, I want to stretch my own thinking into another entangled root system.
Believing that hard power, dominating power, punitive power and repressive power, both of the administrator and the target is an entrenched root in the history of western civilization, and that definitions of such aspects of human behaviour as “abnormal psychology” are far too restrictive and even distortive of the imagination and the creativity and the compassion and empathy that flows through the veins of each human being, along with others, I believe it is past time to call a halt to the homage many offer in worship to a theology based on the preservation, and the elimination of what the church calls sin and evil. From the Christian church’s perspective, Paul’s dictum, “We have all sinned and come short of the glory of God,” while expressing a grain of truth and reality, has come to play an inordinate role in the way people are indoctrinated, taught, guided and ‘shepherded’ back into conformity with some set of expectations defined by and administered by and sanctioned by the church’s exclusive monopoly on morality, ethics, and eventually western culture.
Premised on the notion of the primary fundamental and essential need for redemption, as the defining quality of human beings, and that need for redemption being founded on the premise of a core of guilt, shame, wrong-doing and nefarious, toxic and satanic motivations, the church has fallen into a trap that sabotages not only its own legitimacy and survival, but also cripples any legitimate notion of a God. At the heart of this convergence of belief, dogma, liturgical practice, and pedagogy lies the infrequently uttered neurotic need for control, power, leadership, responsibility and the need for the interminable flow of cash to keep the institution functioning. At the nexus of where humanity (individual human beings and their identity) meets the institution lies the colonial, subordinating and even dominating need of the institution over the individual.
Look at this premise through a wider lens. The family needs a ‘head’ in order to keep it in control. So too, the school, and the bank and the army (and all of its military children). And as God is envisioned as creator, progenitor, and judge (along with teacher, healer, and prophet among other archetypes), history has invested a super-power halo around this anthropocentric figure. Some have gone so far as to believe that their wars and their executions and their excommunications and their assassinations, along with their physical and emotional and psychological imprisonments of “heretics” or “apostates” or “deviants” or “666’s” (anti-Christ) or even eugenically impure ethnicities (see Jews, Tutu’s Uyghurs, Armenians, Bosnian Croats, Georgians, Hindus, Rohingya, Muslims, Palestinians, Black Africans, First Nations) has been justified often on religious, ethical, moral and political bases. Underlying these cleansings, epitomized by the Crusades, so-called spiritually pure and highly motivated people and their leaders undertook atrocities the legacies of which have stained the blotter of human history from the beginning. “Holy Wars” have dominated much of western history, including deep and profound conflicts inside the ecclesial ‘empire’ itself, culminating in the office of Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly know as the Holy Office and as the Roman Inquisition.
The pursuit of purity, and its Siamese cousin, perfectionism, is perhaps appropriate in the science laboratory where miniscule measurements, formula and high demands of something today we know as quality control. The automaker Lexus found it a useful “sell-line” in its pursuit of aristocratic purchasers and drivers in a previous life. Standards, as measurements of quality, prevail in academic accomplishments, athletic competitions, medical operating room and emergency room protocols, scientific management and industrial production processes and methods, not to mention criminal investigative techniques. And following in the footsteps of ‘standards’ has come the marching boots of credentials, certifications, as essential proof of one’s intrinsic value.
Our legal system is one of the extensive and expanding vestiges of an epistemology, not to mention a theology, that seeks to “weed” out all forms of human behaviour with which the current culture disapproves. And whether we think or talk about the roots of such “weeding,” it is nevertheless also implicitly integrated into a gestalt of fear, insecurity and resistance to the unknown. In fact the unknown, often captured in horror films, as well as in gruesome acts of inhumanity in our own communities, has so traumatized many communities in the west (perhaps elsewhere also), that ‘insane asylums’ have traditionally been built outside those communities, as a way of preserving the safety of the residents. (Not incidentally, such structures and their residents were also more likely and more easily rendered “out-of-sight-out-of-mind”….another way for normal people to escape having to face their own demons.
While archetypal psychology is a valiant and worthy path to recovering many of the “aberrant” behaviours from the ‘dump’ of evil and sickness, the dominant dumpsters into which behaviour we did not understand, or did not approve, or did not wish to investigate further, was eliminated, there remains a precipitate in the beeker of our culture that shackles the hearts, minds and spirits of many. That precipitate is embodied in such novels as Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, and the front pages of every daily as well as the screens of our tv’s and laptops pointing to the essential sine qua non of the human species: that we are violent, evil and sinful. This is the premise of many of our law enforcement theories, protocols, sanctions and systems ‘to keep us safe’. A new book, by a Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman, entitled, Humankind: A Hopeful History.
Digging successfully for historic anecdotes, like the Tonga group of boys isolated on an island, developing a functioning harmonious and life-long friendship, Bregman attempts to counter the premise of Golding’s dystopic novel, in which the choir boys, after having ravaged the island in violence, are ironically rescued by a second war naval vessel. Pointing to the inception of agriculture, as the beginning of ‘conflict’ over needed resources, Bregman also digs deeply into significant, sinister headlines of murders, for example, whose headlines and follow-up contextual pieces avoided the compassion of others than the perpetrators in caring for the victims.
Wide-ranging anecdotal evidence pointing to the capacity for care, compassion, empathy and an uplifting perspective on the nature of the human ‘beast’, compared often by reviewers to Malcolm Gladwell, for his penchant for collecting evidence that debunks cultural mythology, Bregman, following in the footsteps of Rousseau, while countering the Hobbesian view of man as dark and evil, does have a significant insight: that it is mostly those in leadership who have perpetrated sinister, evil, destructive and inhumane acts on others.
Given that the literature, the history, the psychology, and sociology, and the research emanating from those academic wells digs into the numbers of trends and levers of leadership, management, governance, and responsibility, most of which evidence regards the way men have comported themselves, it seems worthwhile to parse some of the exigencies and the expectations of those in positions of power and influence, as well as accountability. Would some or all of those defining parameters have anything to say about how and why sinister, evil, inhumane acts would have been perpetrated by such leaders?
Structure, form, rules, regulations, training, discipline, subordination, and extrinsic rewards are just some of the extrinsic fences that define both the purpose and the modus operandi of any organization, starting from a street gang, up to and including the Pentagon, the Vatican, and the United Nations. Even loosely defined and structured organizations like the World Health Organization, without a budget except from voluntary contributions by participating members, can accumulate, collate, and disseminate information, without attaching directives, in the middle of a global pandemic. Diagnosing, interpreting, dissemination and persuading, while honourable and necessary, do not provide muscle to their leadership toward healing and flattening the curve of the virus of COVID-19.
Similarly, the United Nations itself, has no army, no military, except for the voluntary contributions of members to such a ‘blue-berret’ coalition of forces, “for peace-keeping.” On the other hand, executives, leaders, presidents, principals, bishops and archbishops are encased in a pyramid of heavy stones, among them, the need for adequate fiscal resources, the need for accountability from all hires, the need for quality control from all departments, the need for a clean public image without the stain of embarrassment, crisis, poor judgement, criminal behaviour, fraud or illicit relationships.
Managing the energies of such competing forces, (each of those needs) renders many leaders mere tactical “managers” whose professional lives are defined by the avoidance of turbulence, conflict, change, and certainly protesting revolutions. Survival, (and the anticipated promotions) depend on manipulating the flow of public information, with a determined and disciplined view to protecting both the organization and the leader, given that the identities of each are intimately dependent on each other.
Underlying all of these pressing exigencies and expectations, however, is that earlier articulated notion of “wrong” and “right” now applied to the personal lives and the organizational reputational documented narrative of personal biography and organizational trustworthiness. The maintenance of trust, in both individuals and in our institutions/organizations has become the litmus test of acceptability, in a world where every hand and every eye and every ear has a camera and a recording microphone. And while we all pay lip-service to the notion that we are all imperfect, repeatedly uttered in passing epithets of mourning, or disappointment at the fall of another, or sadness and disbelief that ‘he could do something like that’…and for the moment we might even believe in our own imperfection. In popular music, “perfect imperfections” in a loved one are applauded by the singer lover. Imperfections, then, of a noted, yet not defining, dimension are tolerated, even assumed. We can be imperfect to the extent “that s/he had no social graces” when everyone uttering such a descriptive phrase of an individual knows that s/he is really a controlling dominator/rix. We are especially careful and restrained in our expressions of a deceased person of our acquaintance, given the mortuary aphorism, “nil nisi bonum”: “say nothing but good about the dead.” It is not a stretch to imagine that such a phrase has come to us from a cultural history that champions the victors in wars, the principals in governance, and the elites in commerce.
On the other end of the social continuum, stretching from the people in power to the people without any power. In a 2010 piece on NPR’s All Things Considered, entitled: Study: “Poor are More Charitable than the Wealthy,” Paul Piff, a Psychology researcher at the University of California, tells host Guy Raz, “we found that people who were actually ranking themselves as relative high in the socio-economic status were less inclined to give (points away) than were people who ranked themselves as relatively lower in social class….It was a statistically significant difference, and what we found was that the lower-class people…were inclined to give away 44 percent more (of their points or their credits, in the experiment)…the main variable that explains this differential pattern of giving and helping and generosity among the upper and lower class is feelings of sensitivity and care for the welfare of other people, and essentially the emotion that we call compassion.”
So while Rutger Bregman’s book inspires a new look at history, while debunking that barnacle of human identity and definition of sin/evil/narcissism/insouciance and the over-riding need for and compulsion toward salvation and remediation both of which provide cornerstones for the Christian church’s ubiquitous and heavy-handed footprint on western culture, it may well be long past time for men and women of good will and of hope and imagination and creativity to re-consider our collective, unconscious, deeply embedded and seriously compromising perspective. Humans cannot and must not be defined by the blood, lust, deviousness and deceit, not to mention the outright defiance of human goodness, by headlines, by talking heads, by clergy, and certainly not by aspiring, empty and hollow presidential candidates.
Human goodness, also, is not and never was a defining concept of only American exceptionalism, and none of the rest of the world can permit the American exclusive ownership of that truth. In fact, the American devotion to the word exceptionalism may be part of the insidious infiltration of the puritan pursuit of the sanctity of godliness and perfection, in order to meet their God, that infects the world’s denial and avoidance of our shared heritage of compassion and empathy and, by extension, forgiveness. Imagine what such a transformation of attitudes would do to our military dominance and our imprisonment addiction and its racial over-and-under-tones!