By win, I mean win it all, not win a little. Win a new world. Win new defining social institutions. Win an end to injustice, inequality, subordination, and domination. Win an end to class, gender, sex, race, and all hierarchies that position some people above and other people below. Win equity. Win solidarity. Win diversity. Win self management. Win today’s kids, or at worst their kids, becoming wholly and totally free—at last.
Familiar skepticism about such progress often reflects a fear that status quo relations have grown too strong to overcome. I think such fear is false. We can fight and defeat city hall. The powers that be are far from unconquerable. Their might is greatly exaggerated. Their vulnerability to serious, informed, highly organized, mass opposition is greatly underestimated. Amassing serious, informed, highly organized opposition is the real hurdle we have yet to jump.
A second basis for doubt is both more widespread and more entrenched, and in these horrible times, it is on the rise, rampant, spreading, almost viral.
I refer to the idea, complaint, nagging concern, or deep belief that there is something about how humans are wired, about our deepest natures—and derivatively about who we can and cannot be—that stands between us and liberation.
One form this fear takes is the notion that humans are intrinsically greedy, selfish, individualistic, anti-social creatures, so that we cannot collectively be socially civilized. This fear believes that in a much better world inborn human depravity would reimpose depraved social relations. But if human nature was that self denying, all life would be self denying. There would be no sympathetic, socially caring dimension. No goodness. What is intrinsically in our natures in the way that this fear intimates that greedy anti-sociality is in our natures—not just as potential but as who we are—would be ever present like having a liver, needing oxygen, seeing as we see, hearing as we hear, and having communicative capacities that we automatically implement are ever present. Wired-in greed, selfish individualism, and anti sociality would be always actual. Like we have two eyes, we would have greed. Like we have no third eye, we would never exhibit social solidarity.
It seems obvious to me, in other words, that it is far more reasonable and even demonstrable that the ill that afflicts human societies is imposed by fixtures and forces deriving from our institutions rather than that the ill is imposed by our intrinsic underlying natures. We can be greedy, clearly. But is greed commonplace because it automatically bubbles up from our internal wiring like our needing oxygen bubbles up from our genetics, or is it commonplace because it is imposed by the economic and social structures we have so long lived within that push and pull us and that we have to abide if we are to survive our contextual situations at all? In surroundings conducive of and even requiring empathy and equity, would our natures rebel because they intrinsically seek anti sociality and inequity?
No, but how do we combat the stultifying belief that just relations are beyond our reach due to who we are? I would suggest we describe just relations and show, including by planting and nurturing their seeds in the present, that in their presence we would freely be the best we can be, and that we make evident just how socially desirable that would wind up. The opposite pessimistic and debilitating view exists. It perpetually bolsters the status quo and is nurtured and echoed by those who stand atop that status quo. Worse it is even nurtured and bolstered by many who suffer beneath the status quo. It deserves constant challenge—but it is not what I have in mind to focus on here.
No, what troubles me here is a somewhat different albeit related fear that humans are forever doomed to suffer rather than to celebrate each other, a fear that I suspect is now rising among folks who are otherwise largely immune to such doubts, folks who are otherwise oriented to win change and certainly not to accept much less to trumpet its impossibility.
I think that fear goes like this.
People aren’t bad to the bone. No, people living amidst institutions fostering collective fulfillment and mutual aid would not perversely seek collective insecurity, mutual hostility, and even barbarity. A vastly better world is technically possible. Rather, the problem is that people have an almost infinite capacity, inclination, and even drive to protect their own self conceptions. And that defensive trait, though it would make people fine with maintaining good relations if we could ever attain good relations, sadly, given our pasts and present, often orients people to suicidally maintain our own subjugation, a condition further aggravated by the intense individualism our social contexts produce in us.
We go down rabbit holes to rationalize our past choices and to protect our derivative current self conceptions. We double down on our own pasts, even on our incredibly pained pasts, and in doing so we disconnect ourselves from openness and change that is essential to attain good relations. We have an almost infinite inclination to protect our own self conceptions and when we abide that inclination we impose on ourselves huge volumes of defensive baggage that we not only carry, but even cling tightly too as if it was a life jacket protecting us rather than a chain dragging us down.
We see this in others far more easily than we see it in ourselves unless, of course, their rabbit hole is held together with the same rationalizations as ours. In that case, we all dwell together, maybe ten of us, maybe ten million, like a tribe of burrowed rabbits. As one source, families breed lots of friction that breeds lots of self deception to preserve self perception. The self deception causes us to slip slide into holes we long inhabit. But it isn’t just families. Our actions at work, our political choices, our ways of surviving systemic assaults all across our lives can engender the same process. Any of these can propel us into the neither world of self deceptions that protect our immediate identities at the expense of our near and long term potentials. We embrace an initially tiny little lie to rationalize some choice. He lie grows. The lie becomes monstrous. We cling tighter.
Politically we self absorb into a self protecting or self elevating story. Soon we sectarianly celebrate demonstratively false premises and patterns. We do so even to the point of self destruction to not acknowledge some past error, to not undercut some past choice we think defines us.
The most graphic example I had earlier heard of was Stalin’s admirers assembling to hear of their own execution and then pledging their loyalty to their judge, jury, and executioner, Stalin himself.
The most graphic example I have recently heard of is Covid 19 patients in the Dakotas pledging from their death beds their allegiance to Trump and asking how they could be so sick since the virus is a hoax.
To the person in the throes of this sort of identity protecting self delusion everything they formulate seems totally believable fact, not fiction. They succeed. Their self image persists. Hooray for their side. They fail. There prospects for rational progress and for solidarity with others declines. I would bet most readers are astutely and comfortably thinking I am writing, however carefully, about Trump voters. But what about Biden voters? What about sect members of whatever persuasion? What about, not just sexists, racists, authoritarians, and capitalists, but sometimes even feminists, anti racists, anti authoritarians, and anti capitalists? What about me and mine?
Put differently, how does one judge: am I in a rabbit hole? Am I clinging to a past-protecting fairy tale? Are my absolutely certain feelings about this or that daily life conflict, or about this or that political or social conflict, or about this or that idea inhabiting my mind, sober and susceptible to evaluation and change? Or are my absolutely certain feelings or ideas fabrications designed to protect myself from seeing that I have been wrong somewhere in the past and have doubled down on my mistakes ever since—continually digging myself in ever deeper?
I doubt there is a definitive answer. Two straightforward ways to try to assess if we are rabbiting are, first, we can openly consult people who can’t possibly be in the same hole with us and who would have no reason to deceive us. And second, we can ask ourselves, are we open to the possibility of being wrong, to the possibility that our sureness rests on subjective defensiveness and not on objective evidence? Have we tried to see ourselves as others who are critical say they see us? Being open to the possibility that what appears to us to be definitive evidence that our wisdom may itself be our misreading reality and spinning events to justify past choices is a good indicator of our being rabbity or not.
But an even bigger question is, what can be done by a relative, friend, workmate, or especially an organizer to prod, poke, push, or pull someone or some group from their own psychically created, inflexible, deluded rabbity posture back to realism and flexible evaluations that aren’t predetermined by defense of past choices?
Having methods to accomplish that matters profoundly because the tendency to explain our circumstances and choices in ways that avoid any doubt about their efficacy and accuracy leads us to rationalize what is our current condition rather than to surpass our current condition. It leads us to reject and negate whatever seems to suggest, propose, or pursue change. It is, in short, a profound obstacle to solidarity, mutual aid, and victories. Methods to address the rabbity tendency are therefore essential not only to helping someone we may care about, but to successfully organize people we don’t yet know.
So the upshot is that we who would improve ourselves, our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, or especially the world, need to learn how to deal with this human inclination, not only in its most obvious political forms like sectarianism, but also in its more personal dimensions that are cumulatively no less deadly to our political and social openness to critical change.