Friday, January 19, 2018

Readings on tribes and tribalism — #24: Robert Wright, “How Mindfulness Meditation Can Save America” (2017)

Most readings in this series are diagnostic but not clearly prescriptive — they don’t say what we should do to overcome our reversions to tribalism, what the solutions might be. Here come three prescriptive posts in a row — this one by Robert Wright, then by Jonathan Haidt, and a third by Jonathan Rosen.

The last posts that were as prescriptive were by Jonathan Haidt & Ravi Iyer (#8), Deepak Chopra (#9), and Jalaja Bonheim (#10). Haidt & Iyer proposed that we focus on improving interpersonal relations (but not society's structures and processes). Likewise Chopra, but by way of Buddhist concepts. Bonheim said we should overcome “tribal conditioning” through the creation of a new collective global consciousness that will unite humanity in positive ways.

What they all have in common is that they seek solutions that, in my view, seem quite soft and slow, very hard to accomplish in a timely manner. They’re about changing how people think and how they treat each other — interpersonal perceptions and interpersonal relations. All very civic — about committing ourselves to civilized manners and mutual communication and understanding.

Yes, that may indeed be helpful, well worth advocating. But from a TIMN perspective, it barely addresses the systemic fundamentals. People are reverting to the tribal form because they’ve lost trust in and ties to the institutional and market forms and their leaders, which are now in dire need of deep reform and partial replacement. How do we do that? What exactly should we do? Not to mention the challenge of trying to do so while we have a proto-tribalist as president, and the worst batches of politicians I’ve ever seen in Congress. The challenge is far bigger and broader than changing minds and manners from the bottom up, though that would help.

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First up in this set of three is one of my long-time favorite theorists, Robert Wright, and his unusual article on “How Mindfulness Meditation Can Save America” (2017). I have my doubts, but he makes a marvelously articulate insightful case for for countering tribalism by turning to Buddhist-style meditative thinking (which is always personally worthwhile anyway). Here is an excerpt:
“There’s a reason some people laugh when I say that mindfulness meditation can save the United States — that it can dampen the political polarization now dividing the country; that it can defuse the hatreds that have propelled the word “tribal” into our political vocabulary …
“Actually, there are two reasons people laugh. One is that they can’t imagine a huge number of Americans — especially those in the Trump tribe — actually sitting down and meditating. …
“The other reason people laugh at this salvation scenario is that they think the point of meditation is to cultivate love or compassion or some other warm and fuzzy feeling that might heal the nation. But in fact, mindfulness meditation isn’t fundamentally about love or compassion. Other kinds of Buddhist meditation — such as “metta” meditation — take on that challenge more directly.
“More broadly, mindfulness meditation isn’t warm and fuzzy. In a certain sense it’s cool and clinical. It involves, among other things, examining your feelings and deciding whether to buy into them, whether to let them carry you away.
“Obviously, America could stand for people to be a little less susceptible to getting carried away by their feelings. But the contribution mindfulness can make to bridging the great tribal divide is more powerful than that simple formulation suggests. To appreciate this potential, you have to understand how subtle the psychology of tribalism is.
“Tribal psychology involves, at one level, some obvious ingredients: rage, vengeance, loathing—the kinds of raw emotions you might imagine when you imagine tribes literally at war. But the psychology of tribalism also involves — in fact, I’d say, it mainly involves — cognitive biases that warp our perception of the world.”
Wright then provides a long discussion about cognitive biases, notably confirmation bias and attribution error, before reiterating that if more people can turn to Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation, then our impulses for “ever-intensifying tribal warfare could start to recede.”
“So with attribution error, as with confirmation bias, anything that helps you reflect on your feelings before letting them take root, before giving them your obedience, could help. And mindfulness meditation does that. It can make you less reactive, more reflective, less buffeted by unexamined emotion, more equanimous. It can make you at least a bit less inclined to embrace and hang on to that “enemy” vibe when it surfaces.
“I hope all of this explains why I think that, if most Americans meditated, the prospect of ever-intensifying tribal warfare could start to recede.”

To see what I skipped over and read in full, go here:

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