Every seven seconds, an American is diagnosed with cancer. The response to this preventable reality is war–the war on cancer. Blast it with radiation. Engage in a full frontal chemotherapy assault. Eradicate the tumor through a surgical strike. Rather than examining the terrain that facilitates immune dysfunction, Western medicine usually chooses to focus on the destruction of the disease (or, worse, just the symptoms). It’s small picture vs. big picture.
Is it the terrain or the germ? In the social sciences, this question morphs into: is it the person or the situation? When investigating behavior, too often the emphasis is placed upon who the subject is and what they did. But what about where they are?
“Don’t assume that people who commit atrocities are atrocious people, or people who do heroic things are heroic,” declares Professor Lee Ross of Stanford. “Don’t get overly carried away; don’t think, because you observed someone under one set of discrete situational factors, that you know what they’re like, and therefore can predict what they would do in a very different set of circumstances.”
Ask yourself this: Where was that person when I observed him or her? What was the landscape that spawned the result?
Sometimes, even, it’s not enough to just ask what the terrain was. Instead, consider the possibility of artificial topography. For example, the concept of animal experimentation is not just morally unjustifiable; it is scientifically fraudulent. Since testing done on any species can vary widely from individual to individual, it is unsound to seek useful conclusions from tests performed on another species entirely. We’re talking about distinctly unique terrains here. In addition, you must take into account the circumstances under which animals are tested. Placed in cages and laboratories with little effort made to replicate a natural environment will inevitably lead to abnormal animal behavior. The same holds true for humans. Think of the conduct displayed in prisons. The uniqueness and artificiality of the setting provokes new responses and new behaviors-many of which immediately cease upon release from the prison or cage.
How about war? Edgar L. Jones, a former World War II war correspondent in the Pacific, asked in the February 1946 Atlantic Monthly, “What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the enemy wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers.”
Did these returning “heroes” continue such behavior when they got home? The vast majority did not, and anyone who did would have been viewed with horror and outrage because of the soldier’s new backdrop. Boiling the flesh off a human skull somehow became “acceptable” during war yet would garner sensationalized media coverage if it took place under “normal” circumstances.
The dramatic media response to such events is not only an excellent barometer of terrain, it is also a fine illustration of mistaking what Ross called “discrete situational factors” for the norm. Newspapers reserve headlines for the parents who, for example, tie their starving child to a radiator. These headlines often imply that this occurrence may hint of a larger trend. Humans are aggressive and selfish and lack “family values,” just might be the tacit message. However, a larger sampling would quickly demonstrate how humans rarely choose aggression. Parents regularly share their resources with their familiesSeven with family members who do not contribute to the household. In other words, it is one’s climate or terrain that can help nurture the anomalies that sell newspapers.
Ignoring the role of terrain leaves us with a medical paradigm that focuses on symptoms and alleged cures; a justice system designed for punishment; and foreign policy aimed at military and corporate intervention.
Marcel Proust wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” We need new eyes to change this paradigm; we need a new focus to find solutions. Under the right circumstances, says Ross, people could be led to do “terrifically altruistic and self-sacrificing things that we would never have agreed to before we started.”
The right circumstances = terrain.
“If it is correct, as I believe it is,” says Noam Chomsky, “that a fundamental element of human nature is the need for creative work, for creative inquiry, and for free creation without the arbitrary, limiting effects of coercive institutions, then of course, it will follow that a decent society should maximize the possibilities for this fundamental instinct to be realized.”
If it’s truly “where we are” that counts, a decent society is one that fosters situations and environments that bring out the best in humans, not the worst.
MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and an editor at Wide Angle. He can be reached at: email@example.com.