Friday, July 8, 2016

Pain and the body politic

I’m re-reading Antonio Damasio The feeling of what happens, a book about how consciousness works. This morning I happened to read the following passage:
Pain and pleasure are thus part of two different genealogies of life regulation. Pain is aligned with punishment and is associated with behaviors such as withdrawal or freezing. Pleasure, on the other hand, is aligned with reward and is associated with behaviors such as seeking and approaching.
Punishment causes organisms to close themselves in, freezing and withdrawing from their surroundings. Reward causes organisms to open themselves up and out toward their environment, approaching it, searching it, and by so doing increasing both their opportunity of survival and their vulnerability. (p. 78)
If we take seriously the idea of human society as a superorganism, this observation has some interesting implications.

Within a single human body, we send cascades of different hormones to change the states of various cells in different parts of the body. The hormones change the states of the cells, then the states of the cells create the overall condition and behavior of the organism.

When we send waves of fear through society, we change the states of individuals within society, and so we change the condition and behavior of society as a whole.

The power of the superorganism comes from the communication among us individuals who constitute the society.

If pleasure causes us to open ourselves up, to search our environment, then it seems it would also make society in some sense function better, be more creative, more able to deal with the problems it faces.

If we are in pain, our understandable instinct is to close ourselves off, withdraw. Not only are we hobbled as individuals, but society as an organism becomes less able to function, less likely to find useful ways of responding to its environment.

We certainly have no lack of stimulants to fear. The renewed prominence of police shootings of civilians, then today’s murder of police officers in Dallas, all in the context of a political campaign where someone acting a lot like a fascist is running for president by stoking fears (and of course, some might see me as stoking fears right there, by describing Trump as a fascist).

From this perspective, Martin Luther King, Jr. looks sort of like part of the regulatory system of the body politic. He certainly didn’t ignore society’s ills, but he tried to make us fear less, hurt less, connect more. His teachings were an antidote against the instinct to wall off and shut down.

By my lights, President Obama has been striving mightily to play the same role. It’s inherently more difficult when you occupy a political office, and there will be those like ex-Congressman Joe Walsh who blame Obama for the killings in Dallas, willfully ignoring his repeated statements of support for the difficult work police do, or unable to comprehend that you can think police do difficult, important, dangerous work, and also think that sometimes they do bad things.

(But then again, nearly everyone now treats MLK as something like a saint, but during his life there were plenty of people who thought he was part of the problem.)

A lot of people, from Obama to the Dallas police chief, down to individual officers and activists, are trying to limit the spread of fear. From what I’ve read, last night there was something approaching a good vibe between police and protestors, and people kept their heads remarkably well even after the shooting started.

There’s a real danger that this frightening week could be the start of something worse—not just more killing, but a deeper breakdown in how society simply works. But perhaps we’ll be able to keep our collective heads and prevent pain from crippling us.

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