Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Shame in the sight of the all-seeing eye

I grew up with the idea of God seeing everything we did. It got even worse thinking about dead ancestors and future children in the spirit world viewing our successes and failures--hoping we would marry the right person or seeing if we would keep the commandments and end up in heaven with them. That's what you get with my Mormon belief that the spirit world is right here, around us. It was a particularly shaming thought when I would be masturbating as a young man. It was bad enough thinking about some relatively abstract, but generally benevolent, God knowing I was "sinning", but to think about my sometimes judgmental Grandpa (I'm pointing out a flaw, but he was on the whole an amazing friend and mentor for me) watching my mistakes was really disturbing, and it appears that I couldn't even imagine a female relation seeing what I was up to. I guess I figured my guardian angels would all be men. A few different scenarios went through my head. One was that the good spirits left when they saw where I was headed so that they wouldn't have to see me sin. I would leave if I came across someone watching porn or about to masturbate. But later I decided that they would just have to be more charitable than many people in the world around me. If they are going to be exposed to my mistakes all the time, and still care about me, they will have to love me for some reason besides my perfection. This is what I think is real, now. The good spirits that haunt my life--if they are really haunting me--view me with a completeness that is much more than my mistakes, my weaknesses, or even my sins. They see my weakness without shame, without harsh judgment, and without trying to take advantage of it. Maybe they can't take advantage of it, but this is what I want to talk about.

More and more in our world, everything we do is being recorded. Every click of a mouse leads to targeted advertising guaranteed to make money for somebody playing on our desires. It's not about providing us with needed services, or even services that substantially enrich our lives, for the most part. There are the exceptions, and I'm completely in favor of those, but they are exceptional. We are also aware of the abuses of governmental security agencies collecting data on everyone. Our employers' IT departments, and our internet service providers can know all the websites we visit, and could probably learn more if they cared to. The effectiveness of search algorithms is going to make learning our online life histories (and eventually offline for any activities that get caught on camera and linked to the web) more and more trivial. The amount of truly private information is going to continue to shrink. Research into how the mind works will give advertisers even more power to control our lives. We will only be safe from government scrutiny by being uninteresting to governments, but even that safety will shrink as the ability to respond to various people and situations becomes automated and can be delegated to computers. It really isn't much of a stretch to imagine a future where we real human beings are a lot like the spirit relatives of my youthful imaginings. We will be able to see and know the sins of our neighbors, if we really want to. We will have evidence on which to judge one another just a spoken search query away, and only innocent children will be free of reproach.

I think there are two types of choices we can make to be happy and safe in a world where nothing we do outside our heads is private. Reality is we probably have to make both, but I think only the second will lead to the ultimate flourishing of humanity. The first is regulating the information that can and may be accessed by people or organizations in positions of power. But let's face it, most of us like it that Google and Facebook tailor our searches and feeds to our particular interests, and we don't mind losing some hypothetical privacy, as long as there isn't obvious abuse of our trust. Regulation isn't going to get us to our perfect world--at least not regulations designed to limit and control. I think Pandora has opened the box, and we might as well let Hope out, too.

I believe Hope is a fundamental change in ourselves and our societies, but not simply a utopian ideal. The ultimate goal is a Zion society, where there are no rich or poor, and everyone is of one heart and one mind. In the past this has happened after great upheaval, and it's very likely that no rich or poor meant everyone was poor by modern standards. It meant the cities and states were isolated, and without large, central governments, which meant in turn that life was essentially subsistence living, with limited trade, commerce, and specialization, and that farming practices only had the ability to support relatively small populations. The happiness and peace experienced were good, but life spans were short, all the perils of nature still remained, and knowledge of the world extended at most a few hundred miles. For good or ill, medicine, modern transport, modern agriculture, and Wikipedia came out of that same Pandora's box that has given us NSA wiretaps and surveillance drones. We don't really want to go back, even if we might be sent there the next time Yellowstone decides to explode. So the question is, can we mimic the key aspects of Zion in our wealthy, modern world? Or do we have to return to the ages of early death and living at the immediate mercy of nature? I hope that we can become Zion, and I believe science can help bring out our better natures. It won't save us, but there is no reason not to use it to speed God's work of salvation.

To begin, we have to focus on the key aspects of Zion that we might measure. I can see three pretty clearly:
  • Wealth and power are not centralized. Concentrate one and you concentrate the other, and there is no way to have the economic equality that can be described as no rich and no poor. Thus the ultimate fall of Communism--lots of power to a few to force equality among the rest. This will be the downfall of any economic system which promotes and maintains unhealthy differentiation among God's children--haves and have nots, contributors and dead weight, rulers and governed, instead of fellow citizens (Eph. 2:19), brothers and sisters (Rom. 8:14-17), and friends (D&C 84:63).
  • Knowledge and learning are provided to all, as much as each is able to claim. Otherwise, we again have the creation of unnecessary class distinctions.
  • Abuses of vulnerability are eliminated. Without a deep sense of safety one with another, can we imagine becoming of one heart and one mind? Nature may rage against us, but it is our hearts and minds that prevent Zion, not the natural ills of this world.
I'll admit Capitalism and Democracy are huge leaps forward over Tribalism, Feudalism, Monarchy, and other governmental and economic systems the world has seen thus far. And I'm sure other people could write lists of ways that technology is diffusing wealth and power--micro-loans, more effectively targeted charitable donations, crowd-sourced capital, and empowered and globalized grassroots activism. The free resources for democratizing knowledge and learning are astounding, to the point of threatening my livelihood as a teacher if I'm unwilling or unable to change with the times. It is the third area where many of us are surprised to learn that science can help us advance, yet these are the advances that must be the foundation of sustained success in the realms of wealth, power, and knowledge.

You may ask, what science is going to help us feel safe with all the strangers that can shape our lives in this global, technologically empowered world? My partial answer is: science that will help us restructure our organizations, our communities, our friendships, our families, and ourselves--our very ways of thinking and reacting. This brings us back to where I began. Am I afraid of others knowing everything I do? Is an all-seeing God an object of fear? How about when we find that the all-seeing god is a whole bunch of people like ourselves? Will I be ashamed? Will I be afraid of how others will abuse their knowledge of me? I now believe any spirits watching over me either don't care, or view me with more love than I even view myself, and it doesn't matter if they are watching or not. I'm not that confident as regards the judgments of other mortals. One of the best known researchers in the field of shame and vulnerability is Brene' Brown. I started out thinking I would review some sections of her book, Daring Greatly, but one long blog post later, I'm going to give you just a taste. Here is her Leadership Manifesto, since it relates most closely to this post:

The Daring Greatly Leadership Manifesto

To the CEOs and teachers.  To the principals and the managers.  To the politicians, community leaders, and decision-makers:
We want to show up, we want to learn, and we want to inspire.
We are hardwired for connection, curiosity, and engagement.
We crave purpose, and we have a deep desire to create and contribute.
We want to take risks, embrace our vulnerabilities, and be courageous.
When learning and working are dehumanized–when you no longer see us and no longer encourage our daring, or when you only see what we produce or how we perform–we disengage and turn away from the very things that the world needs from us: our talent, our ideas, and our passion.
What we ask is that you engage with us, show up beside us, and learn from us.
Feedback is a function of respect, when you don’t have honest conversations with us about our strengths and our opportunitites for growth, we question our contributions and your commitment.
Above all else, we ask that you show up, be yourself, be seen, and be courageous.  Dare Greatly with us.
You can download some other summary quotes here. One message I take away from Dr. Brown's shame and vulnerability research is that we can become people, and create organizations, where vulnerability flourishes and shame doesn't last. There are actionable choices we can make and policies we can develop or support that favor interconnection and take away the power of shame and abuse. At this link you can find her rightly famous TED talks, and some other interviews. I hope you find time to enjoy them.

Some people might say that conflict is hardwired into us as humans, and we will never overcome it, since it is part of our biology. That may be true, but the work of Brene' Brown and others suggests that we might yet become less violent and competitive and more wholehearted through our "social technologies" (not her phrase). By restructuring our relationships--within government, community, church, and the workplace, as well as our personal relationships--we can change how the world works. Our biology actually thrives in safely vulnerable environments. That doesn't mean vulnerability is easy or comfortable, just that it is healthy and productive. As we overcome the culture of scarcity (and perhaps even move into a future of plenty, but we don't have to wait until then), we can become more fulfilled, more creative, more loving, more innovative, and more resilient in the face of hardship. We don't have to become superhuman first, we just need to help each other become more fully and richly human. Then, as our powers increase, they will not threaten the well being, or even existence, of humanity, but will aid us in building Zion. And we will know it because we will be of one heart and one mind.