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We keep doing humanity’s work badly because we are clinging to an obsolete paradigm.
Once upon a time, as a few inventive minds labored, most folks said humans cannot fly and are not meant to fly. Then came the airplane. Once upon a time, most folks said the Earth was flat. Then came better instrumentation and braver exploration and, lo and behold, the earth wasn’t flat anymore.
Many civilizations have sought to occupy, annex, preempt, and retain lands as their own, while a few cultures have whispered urgently: No. No, it’s the other way around. We belong to the land, not (what hubris!) the land to us; nature is a miraculous habitat we share in a dynamic harmony of homeostasis with everything living and non-living, rather than a realm to be conquered, abused, and pillaged. The jury is still out, but meantime a global environmental emergency has arrived to demonstrate the wisdom of wise stewardship and the folly of selfish, rapacious exclusivity.
Since Darwin if not before, folks have been sure that competition is the key to individual and collective advancement. Meantime along came biologist Lynn Margulis and others to argue that cooperation, not competition, has precipitated the continual and increasing elaboration and complexity of species. The decreasing dividends and outrageous costs of competition are no longer manifest mainly locally. We’ve reached the cusp of a new era: Cooperate, or perish.
What is the Internet, if not a working prototype of a global nervous system, a rapidly developing and proliferating grid of human information-sharing spanning the planet? Some corners have yet to be connected, but the trend seems clear enough. For humanity to evolve toward global coordination for the greater benefit of all, the old behaviors are already insufficiently cooperative.
The notion of “enemies,” in particular, is a now-obsolete form of social design that arguably has been useful in the past in instructing us on how to deal with adversaries, defined loosely as individuals or groups who covet the same resources we claim for ourselves. The zero-sum meme (them or us!) took over the human imagination so thoroughly, for so long, that its eradication has proven difficult. The countervailing notion of win-win has so far penetrated mainly the aisles of bookstores and some outposts of privilege, with most of humanity evidently remaining oblivious. But meantime the Brahmaguptas, the Leonardo da Vincis, the Marie Curies of human cooperation are laboring to illuminate for us a different set of patterns that will mold behavior toward a more perfect cooperative design: Nonviolent communication. Citizen diplomacy. Crowd-sourced solutions to knotty problems. Mindful compassion. Unprecedented data-sharing among traditionally competitive specialists. Lateral organizational hierarchies. Self-generating networks. Identification and inclusion of all relevant stakeholders, or their designees, in crafting solutions.
Almost certainly, adversaries will always be with us. Hence, assembling the relevant adversaries at the same table in functional partnership to address thorny shared problems is the foundation of robust social sustainability. Increasingly, in an increasingly turbulent world, it may be the foundation of human survival, too.
The enemies worldview just isn’t working for us anymore. In conflict zones, the problem is not the people (“them”); it’s the paradigm: the enemies paradigm. And the problem is most definitely not the other fellow’s religion. The major religions have always preached lovingkindness. Each produces its Ghandis, Kings, Francises, Mother Theresas, and also its fanatical fundamentalist destroyers. The fanatics are no more the religion itself, however, than the stinger is the honey bee. When conservatives look at their own religion, they tend to see the righteous while seeing in other faiths only the destructive fundamentalists; for dedicated dissidents, perhaps, that bias may often be reversed. Let us make the bias visible and adjust for it. If you bring moderation to religious practice, you get religious moderation. If you bring extremism to religious practice, you get religious extremism. So simple, once we stop pointing the finger elsewhere and take a good look at our own house. Moderates, unite.
Political conflict among nation-states embodies a whole tapestry of the worst patterns: On the warp of greed is woven an unsustainable quest for exclusive ownership and control of land and resources, driven by an inability to see the other stakeholders as legitimate, or even to see them as human, or even to see them at all. Yet we can learn to understand these others as bringing a wealth of added value to the shared canvas, via the diverse potential benefits embodied in their unique cultural, linguistic, social, and creative palette. This insight, still grasped by too few, can be cultivated.
Let us bid farewell to the obsolete enemies mindset. Let us participate in shaping the co-evolution of our human species to carry us forward beyond the lethal swamp of enemies-patterned behavior. The future is in our hands. Human ingenuity in many fields has already given us new instruments for this task, from the cyber toolkit that transcends geographic distances and political boundaries, to the intriguing scientific speculation about parallel universes in which no energy is ever lost and all possibilities exist side by side. Positive psychology is teaching us to leverage equanimity and refuel with joy. The emergent wave of solutions journalism has begun documenting determined grassroots efforts for creative, transformative partnership. The potential is vast.
Framed that way, the raucous demagogic babbling of self-serving politicians intent on victory at another group’s or nation’s expense is revealed for what it is: infantile, obsolete, dangerous and ultimately self-defeating.
Will we ordinary people, in large enough numbers, awaken in time? Enter, via the GPS of our imagination, the portal to the post-enemies era? Drag with us, kicking and screaming, our makers of policy and our shapers of opinion, our legislators and our law enforcement agencies, over the threshold into the grand new landscape unfolding before us? Stay tuned.
Deb Reich is a writer and translator living in Israel/Palestine, based in Jerusalem and Abu Ghosh, and the author of No More Enemies (2011).