Saturday, October 26, 2013

Go Jump in a River

I suppose that I was in one of those ‘been-in-the-air-too-long hazes’ flying over Ur or Sumer en route to the Kingdom of Bahrain when I finished reading the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and the Gulf News.  The monotony of the media’s coverage of troubled banks, EU protestations over U.S. spying, and, pompous morality policing (and scandals) overwhelmingly drowned out all other voices.  Loss of trust, inhumane treatment between citizens of the globe, and deceit are epidemic and, unlike the avian influenza, there’s no quarantine underway.

For the reason I cited above, I decided to break out my favorite cuneiform reference – the Code of Hammurabi – to see whether a journey over the same globe 4,000 years ago would have been much different.  For those of you who don’t have it handy, a quick refresher.  In the slightly over 280 laws, the “wise king Hammurabi” (that’s what he called himself) set forth laws that were to remain unaltered for all time.  The general themes of the law cover topics like Justice (5%), Human Trafficking (3%), Property Rights (8%), Agroeconomics (8%), Money (21%), Marriage and Prostitution (24%), and Civil Penalties (28%).  But one of the more curious elements of the Code of Hammurabi is introduced right at the beginning: Law 2 to be exact.

“If anyone bring an accusation against a man, and the accused go to the river and leap into the river, if he sink in the river his accuser shall take possession of his house. But if the river prove that the accused is not guilty, and he escape unhurt, then he who had brought the accusation shall be put to death, while he who leaped into the river shall take possession of the house that had belonged to his accuser.

It turns out that the Jump-In-A-River test was actually pretty common in Ur and Sumer and is, by no means, the comedic basis for the Monty Python Holy Grail witchcraft mob logic.  Which begs the question of whether or not the first club fitness program for ne’er do wells would have been advisably swimming lessons.  To prove one’s innocence, cast yourself into the river and, if you don’t drown, whatever allegation has been made against you is proven to be false with grave harm befalling the accuser.

Now what on earth does this have to do with the headlines that graced my interminable night of flying 1/3 of the way around the world?  Well really, it’s quite simple.  In the past 4,000 years we’ve not seemed to learn much about human behavior, integrity, or accountability.  And it may be because, like Hammurabi, we’ve been focused on a rather profane and diminished view of humanity.  Personal injury, gender-biased faux morality defined for the benefit of domineering males, and money – the preponderance of Hammurabi’s obsessions – are still prevailing themes today.  And, as was the case 4,000 years ago, life (or the indenture and extermination thereof) and monetary penalties (fines for indiscretion and abuse) are the only two tools we can concoct to mete out a wretched form of justice.  In a world in which we label those who disclose egregious violations of international law “traitors” (despite the justifiable global condemnation for the acts they are unveiling) while in the same moment extract less than 25% of JP Morgan’s 2012 net income in a settlement for massive fraud, can we really continue to suggest that the 4,000 year old system of justice is working?  I think not.

Edward Lee Thorndike is credited with the modern conception of “behavior modification”.  In his dissertation, Animal Intelligence: An Experimental Study of the Associative Processes in Animals (which happened to credential him just in time to become a psychological testing expert to qualify soldiers about to be sent to their deaths in World War I based on their measured proclivity to accept orders), Thorndike reinforced the illusion of stimulus-dependent enculturation and responsivity.  Thorndike and Hammurabi both assumed a linear view of humanity that sought to distinguish ‘man’ from savage or beast.  Thus aspiring to something just above savagery as the laudable trajectory for humanity, is it any wonder that we still find ourselves deceiving, philandering, injuring, and pillaging?

Why does a mercenary NSA spy for its paymasters?  If you seriously buy the “war on terrorism” malarkey, you’ve been watching too much Fox News.  There’s never been a war on terror; rather a war on liberty.  There has been an assault on humanity for the preservation of an unsustainable dichotomy of power dominating the masses.  The U.S. is not sorry that it spies any more than it’s sorry that it maintains power and wealth imbalance across the globe.  It has abused its technology, reputation and power and has acted without consideration of consequence.  Wrapping lies and subterfuge in the American flag does not ameliorate the abrogation of the humanist ideals of liberty and morality once celebrated as the grand experiment of the United States.    It has, in fact, proved one of Thorndike’s assertions – action precedes interaction and association.  Thorndike was credible enough to supplant his own argument about ‘connectionism’ in recognizing that behavior first happens and then is judged with pleasure or aversion. 

“I wish to also say that whoever thinks that, going along with the current which parallels the association, there is an accompanying minor current, which parallels the pleasure and which stamps the first current when present with it, flies directly in the face of the facts.  There is no pleasure along with association.  The pleasure does not come until after the association is done and gone.”

The U.S. is sorry that it got caught.  It’s ‘investigating’ how it found itself, um, … with its hand in the cookie jar (or in Angela’s cell phone as the case may be).  Which begs the fundamental question.  If 100 years ago Thorndike was able to successfully conclude that behaviorism failed a prima facie neurological and logical argument, why are his observations ignored when it comes to our current memes?  Why are we still focused on attributing blame, seeking justice, and penalizing those who violate social order and laws?  We know that this has been ineffective for 4,000 years yet we still persist in the illusion that it preserves order.  We spy to gain an unfair advantage to the detriment of all others.  We perpetually prop up and vilify the global banking system with oversight and then accommodation with such frenetic convulsions so as to insure that no one can have faith and confidence in money or its purveyors.  We abuse one another in ecstatic intimacy and benign neglect.  We are who we’ve been.

How about a different path?  How about living a life in voyeuristic transparency?  By this I mean living in such a way as to celebrate the essential best of humanity so that you see and can be seen not for the façade you deem suitable but for the essence of yourself.  What if you welcomed surveillance to demonstrate the potential of a life unencumbered?  What if you conducted your affairs in such a manner as to proudly take attribution for your successes and failures?  What if you actually lived within your means and strove to insure that others could equivalently do so?  Rather than falling into the ancient social reflex of causality, could you actually see yourself living accountably?  And by this I don’t mean seeking attribution for egoic benefit.  Rather I mean taking full responsibility for the fact that you are, in fact, the perpetrator of your life – not a helpless victim of carnality or causality.  In such a world, NSAs, banks, social conventions, and the like become impotent in the face of a human with nothing to hide. 

So here’s a swimming lesson.  Survey the river to find out where the stones are.  This is important for two reasons.  First, if you choose to dive in, you may want to avoid hitting your head on the way in.  But equally important, once in the water, you may need to display your innocence and, if your arms fail you, you may need to know where to stand.  Strip off your tired clothes and come on in.  The water’s cool and refreshing.


1 comment:

  1. Personal transparency is good, reasonable, and to be pursued. But I don't think the history you've traced quite makes the case that consequence-for-violation has failed, so much as the case that the application of consequence varies with the power and influence of the perpetrator. Shining a light into a dark corner will reveal the dirt and the cockroaches, but it takes a broom for the dirt and pesticide for the cockroaches to actually address the problems revealed in the light.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave