In the concluding chapter of his book, Seligman poses a fascinating question. Is it possible that negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and sadness evolved in us in order to help us identify win-loss, or power-over games? These feeling reactions set us up to fight, flee, freeze, or grovel. If so, he speculates, might it be that positive emotions such as happiness evolved to help us identify win-win, or power-with situations?
If this is so, and I know of no data that either confirms or denies it at this point, the stakes for understanding and pursuing happiness are even higher than I first realized. If we as a species can cooperate in such a way that everyone has an equal share of peace, joy, contentment, and happiness as we form communities and families, raise children, create and invent, work and learn together, we are actively creating a culture based on win-win, or power-with.
As I watched a violent mob storm the United States Capitol this week, and have absorbed what people are writing and saying about democracy and our Constitution, I recognize an epic struggle for power.
It occurs to me to wonder if democracy is not a destination, but a practice. The United States self-identifies as a democratic republic, but we are far from perfect in upholding democratic ideals, as the Black Lives Matter movement reminds us. The ideal foundation of a healthy democracy is equal power, which is to say equal voice. Some of us in this country may aspire to that, but we’re not there yet.
However, we’re closer to democratic ideals than many other areas of the world where people are engaged in bitter ongoing struggles for individual power and rights, as in Hong Kong.
The thing about a democracy is that it depends on the consent to share power. This means individuals won’t get everything they want, all views will not be validated, all beliefs may not be supported, and each individual is subject to the power of the majority. It doesn’t mean we have no voice. It means our voice is not more important than anyone else’s.
Many millions of Americans were heartsick and fearful after the 2016 election. Many millions are clearly devastated by the 2020 results. This is democracy in action. We are each given a vote, but there’s no guarantee our hopes and desires will be supported by the majority.
I am struck, over and over, by the clarity of using power as a lens to view current events. Any individual who seeks power-over or win-lose dynamics is not fighting for freedom, justice, or democracy. They’re fighting for power for themselves and disempowerment for others. They may call their actions strength, courage, or patriotism, but that gaslighting doesn’t hide the bottom line.
A peaceful protest demanding equal rights is not the same as a violent mob intent on having what they want at any price, including human lives, regardless of the democratic rights of others.
If it’s true that we humans are at our best and happiest in win-win and power-with dynamics, our imperfect and battered practice of democracy is worth fighting for and strengthening. However, it’s a grave mistake to assume that’s the goal of everyone in this country. Individuals currently in power, as well as some others, do not want to see equal rights. They do not want a true democracy, in which everyone has an equal measure of freedom and personal preferences are subject to the will of the majority. They want absolute freedom and power, no matter the cost to others.
I have yet to see anyone who believes they have absolute power look happy. Arrogant, maybe. Boastful and triumphant, yes. But not happy. On the contrary, people I have personally known who force power-over dynamics have been weak, fearful, miserable, and emotionally isolated. I have not seen a happy face in all the footage from the day of the riot. Rage, contempt, stupidity and weakness, gloating, attention-seeking theater, mindless violence and a desire for destruction were all present, but I saw no peace, no contentment, and no happiness in that mob.
Is a largely unhappy and unhealthy culture sustainable over the long term? Do we value control of others through fear, disinformation, and violence more than strength, courage, respect, cooperation, and happiness?
Democracy isn’t a free ride or an entitlement. A healthy democracy requires that individuals take responsibility for participation in sustaining it. If we want our constitutional rights to be protected, it’s up to us to protect the rights of others. Our personal freedom is not more important than the freedom of others.
Democracy is like tolerance; it’s a peace treaty that acknowledges and even honors differences within a framework of checks and balances so that one group cannot take absolute power. This protects all of us from authoritarianism.
Our constitutional rights do not include the right to incite or commit violence, the right to disempower or injure those we disagree with or don’t like, the right to destroy property, or the right to deliberately put others at risk during a public health crisis. They do not include the right to spread disinformation. Free speech excludes the incitement of violence.
Happiness builds social capital and resilience. It encourages broad-mindedness and cooperation. It’s self-sustaining, constructive, and creative. Supporting happiness in ourselves and others takes patience, courage, self-discipline, and strength.
Manipulating others through fear, rhetoric and disinformation is easy, and weak personalities employ those methods because they possess no other tools. Destruction and blood lust are brutishly simple and direct, giving an entirely false sense of power and control.
If we stood shoulder to shoulder and stripped away all our labels and identities until we were just people of skin, flesh, and bone, all living on the same exhausted planet, all with the same basic needs for connection, food, clean water, and shelter, what would we want for ourselves and our children? Would we choose to live in an atmosphere of violence, hate, and power-over, ruled by a mindless mob, or would we choose to create a more equal system in which everyone has certain freedoms but no one has absolute freedom or power, and in which everyone has a chance to participate, both through voting and service?
Do we want to concentrate on losing or winning?
Do we aspire to lasting happiness, peace and contentment, or chronic fear, anxiety, and despair?
Resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” (Oxford Dictionaries.) One of the most prevalent difficulties in modern life seems to be the ever-growing cacophony of Those Who Are Offended. I’ve been thinking about this for some time, but last week I read an interview with author Lionel Shriver that brought my own sense of offense to a head. Here’s a quote from that article:
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“Shriver … is not the first to argue that the right to give offense is one of the very foundations of freedom of speech. ‘We’re moving in the direction of enshrining the right not to be offended, which is the end of liberty and certainly the end of good books.'”
Oxford Dictionaries defines offense in four ways:
A breach of law or rule; an illegal act.
A thing that constitutes a violation of what is judged to be right or natural.
Annoyance or resentment brought about by a perceived insult to or disregard for oneself or one’s standards or principles.
The action of attacking someone or something.
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The principle of free speech is taking a real battering in the United States. It’s a one-size-fits-all justification for whatever beliefs and ideologies we espouse. Freedom of speech, however, is not absolute. There are limitations around it intended to protect community and individual rights, including the “offense principle,” a restriction based on perceived offense to society. Freedom of speech is a principle that relies on social guidance, which is to say the intelligence and compassion of us, we the people.
This is a problem in a nation where compassion is daily more distorted and taken advantage of and critical thinking and civil discourse are increasingly difficult to come by. Who gets to define “perceived offense to society?”
Everywhere I look, listen and read, I observe people who appear to believe they have a right not to be offended. Freedom of speech grants such people the right to be offensive, as they’re quick to point out, but it’s only a one-way street. Offensive ideas and beliefs are becoming a broad category. Disagreement is offensive (and hateful and bigoted). Certain words, like ‘uterus’ are becoming offensive. Certain pronouns are offensive. Real or perceived exclusion is offensive. A perception of cultural appropriation is offensive. Identity politics of any sort are offensive. Science and evidence-based thinking are offensive. Name any religion or spiritual framework you like — it’s offensive.
When did we become so precious, infantile and entitled that we stopped dealing effectively with being offended?
When did the cancer of selfishness destroy our willingness to consider the needs of those around us?
When were individual distorted perceptions given power over a larger, more common good?
When did disagreement, questions and citing scientific data begin to earn death threats?
Our social, cultural and political landscape is enormously complex, at least at first glance. We’ve become fantastically and gleefully skilled at silencing, deplatforming, invalidating, gaslighting, projection and the fine art of withering contempt. We suffer from an epidemic of what I call Snow White Syndrome. Remember the wretched queen stepmother and her mirror? “Me, me, ME, not you! I’m the fairest, I’m the best, I’m the most victimized, I’m the most downtrodden, I’m the richest, I’m the most offended!”
At first glance, as I said, it’s all so complex. At second glance, it’s all distraction and bullshit. The bottom line is always a power dynamic. Is an individual or group requesting or demanding power-with or power-over?
It really is that simple.
I’m offended every single day. School shooters offend me. Tantruming and pouting politicians offend me. Silencing tactics offend me. Being forced to deal with the sexual fetishes of others offends me. The list goes on and on. You know who’s responsible for dealing with all this offense?
It’s not your responsibility to refrain from offending me, and it’s not my business to tippy-toe around your delicate sensibilities, either. Many of us try to approach others with kindness and courtesy, but that doesn’t mean we’ll receive either in return. I don’t expect the world to accommodate me. Life is not fair. Equality is an ideal rather than a reality. Inclusivity is not a right.
My rights and needs are as important, but not more important than anyone else’s.
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Individuals and groups who lobby to take away the rights of others work from a power-over position. They’re weak and fearful and use violence and intimidation to distract others from their impotence. Individuals and groups who lobby to create more equal power dynamics work from a power-with position. They’re confident and seek authentic connection through information sharing and constructive contribution toward the well-being of all.
Resilience, not priggish rigidity or sheep-like agreement with the prevailing social fashion, always wins the evolutionary jackpot. Resilient life flexes and bends, masters new environments, learns and successfully reproduces, continues. Life that doesn’t dies. Evolution is not personal. It makes no distinctions between a human being and a cockroach. Evolution has a lot of time, millions upon millions of years. The ebb and flow of species on earth is nothing but ripples. Patiently, intelligently, life begins again, over and over, building its complex web.
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If we can’t figure out how to live in harmony with our bodies, our communities and the earth, we will be deselected. Walking around with a mouth like a pig’s bottom because we’re offended, mutilating and poisoning our bodies, creating sexual pathology that interferes with our ability to reproduce our DNA, wasting our time and energy engaging in idiotic arguments and eradicating education and critical thinking will all lead to deselection, and it should. Such a species is more destructive than constructive to all the other forms of life on this planet.
Difficulties of all kinds are a given. They always have been. Difficulties are the pressures that shape us and make us stronger — or deselect us. If we want to survive, we need to put aside our offended sensibilities and concentrate on the things that contribute to the stuff of life: food, water, shelter, connection, raising healthy children, our physical and mental health and the well-being of Planet Earth. It seems to me that’s enough to be going on with. If we can’t begin to achieve resilience, the debate over who gets to use which bathroom becomes as moot as it is ridiculous.
Resilience can be learned. We foster it by letting go, learning to be wrong, exercising our intelligence, and forming healthy connections so we can learn from one another, figure out how to share power and support one another. Life was never advertised as a free ride. The privilege of life comes with responsibility, demands and competition. Taking offense is not a life skill. Malignant destruction of life, either our own or somebody else’s, is not a life skill. Taking our proper place in the food web and the natural cycles of life and death, on the other hand, is essential if we expect to continue as a species.
Life, in the end, is for those sensible enough to live it, and part of surviving and thriving is resilience. Maybe, if we can get a grip and refocus on what matters, we can learn from the cockroaches, viruses, bacteria, mice, flies, ants, crows, soil organisms and many others that have figured out how to adapt and evolve through every difficulty they encounter.