Democratic dispositions- 3                                             Dispositions vital for a culture of democracy

Human kind has, at various times in its evolution, sought to extend, overcome or breach frontiers to escape restrictive or oppressive conditions. Once physically limited by mountains, oceans, deserts and outer space, we sought to overcome these first, through brute strength, grit and crude ingenuity and thereafter through expanding the ways in which we understand and define the world itself through scientific discovery, technological innovation and cultural re-definition.

In the process, first, our puny bodies were extended by technologies such as the wheel, internal combustion engines and rocket technology and thereafter our complex, if limited, nervous systems themselves were extended by the electric light, telephone, television and the internet in ways that would astound even those who lived merely a generation or two before these inventions. Some now believe that more than settlements on Mars, Robotics or AI the newest and most challenging frontier that human beings face is in taming and liberating the brains that lie trapped in our skulls. While this is by no means the final frontier, it is a very critical one- if we are to ensure our survival as a species. Technologists at Silicon Valley, MIT or Caltech will seek to extend or even bulldoze through the limitations of our brains and minds by bypassing them through brute computational power (AI, robotics and other ways of making the human mind redundant). I would ask that, no matter how clever, ingenious or convenient these attempts might seem, we consider the possibility that these might also be intellectually lazy, philosophically questionable, morally dubious, commercially expedient. These extrinsic and mechanical ways of extending our minds might even, possibly, hasten our own specicide (mass extinction of a species caused deliberately or by human neglect and indifference).

From Stephen Hawking to Sam Harris, scientists and thinkers who have out grown the adolescent craving for stimulation, novelty and excitement warn us about tinkering without understanding. They, and others of much more modest intelligence like me, are starting to fear that we may be on the cusp of creating what might be the 21st century equivalent of the unleashing of the nuclear bomb. Many of you may remember Oppenheimer’s response upon realizing, alas too late, Vishnu’s words from the Bhagavat Gita-“Now I have become Death, the destroyer of worlds”.

If we are not to similarly destroy what we have barely started understanding, we should recognize the centrality of our biology to our existence and with it that of our human brain (and mind) to our development as a species. It is as irresponsible and dangerous to prattle on about Post-Truth (without really cracking the mysteries of truth, human consciousness, perception and development of critical thinking in our citizenry) as it is to talk of a Post-Human future (without completely understanding what it is to be an optimal human, capable of sensitivity, collaboration, creativity and generosity).

Imagine if the whiz kids, their angel investors and benefactors decided to use their redoubtable intellects and munificent resources to stretch their own impressive and largely untapped sentient capabilities and helped us evolve our quintessentially human qualities through transcending the limitations of our reactive and self-centered mind. What a world they might help us create!

It is my case that in order to address and resolve the momentous challenges we face as a species and planet today we have to develop our, as yet untapped, extraordinary potential as humans. This requires us to recognize that merely investing in furthering human scientific and technological knowledge or developing computational skills and technological tools in our citizenry (or as some would have it- workforce) is not enough if we do not simultaneously find ways to develop key dispositions that will enable us to think critically, engage with each other with generosity, collaborate constructively and make wise decisions.

As I said in the last post, the core disposition that we as a species require to be fully conscious and responsive human beings is that of Selflessness. Here are a host of other positive dispositions that develop when Selflessness is present.

Attentiveness                                                                                                                                   The disposition that inspires us to listen to what’s outside as well as inside us.

Everybody knows that listening is important. And yet, even sensitive, ‘good’ and skilled people struggle to listen when distracted or confronted with unpleasantness or discomfort. Listening requires focus. Most of us are able to focus only when we are interested, when the benefits of doing so are easily evident and when we don’t feel threatened. The best argument for being attentive is because we really know very little and what we know can itself be very erroneous. This makes the disposition of humility a strategically necessary stance if we are to learn anything really new.     

Learning is an act of paying attention. To learn anything, we need to focus on what is before us. To do so we need to get past our distractions, fears, insecurities and yes, our self-absorption (there is a common theme here). We pay attention because some people, tasks and activities are deemed to be of value and hence worthy of consideration. It can be as simple as washing dishes, writing an email, crossing the road or as complex as studying about quantum mechanics, the mating practices of the spotted hyena or trying to comprehend your lover’s mood swings. In all these cases we pay attention because we recognize that there is complexity (quantum mechanics), curiosity (hyena mating) or we are conscious that, even if it feels familiar, what is before us might be both complex and unpredictable (sulking lover).

Paying attention comes from an appreciation that nothing we know to be true is fixed or unchanging and that we can always learn something new or finesse what we already know. We pay attention because we respect the activity and believe that it can teach us something.

Listening is an act of paying attention. Everybody knows that empathy is a good thing. It is so popular today that in some professions like mediation, psychotherapy, counseling and social work you cannot go to a conference or have a drink with a practitioner without having it thrown at your face as either a cure all or being accused of being deficient in it. It is one thing to feel empathetic to someone we care about or who means well and yet most of us struggle to feel empathetic towards people who we deem to be irrelevant, unimportant, different, obnoxious, terrible or just ‘evil’. An abstract empathy towards all and sundry is a waste of emotional energy and even a travesty. True empathy towards another person, requires that we pay attention (uniquely) to them and the context and moment that they inhabit. To do so we need to recognize a connection between our (no longer) atomized self and this person, a kinship that allows us to see them as human and makes them worthy of our time and energy. Empathy itself comes from paying extraordinary attention.

Courage                                                                                                                                             The disposition that manifests ‘grace under pressure’ and exercises power even when we feel vulnerable.

Our own personal histories are rife with instances when, even with the best of intentions and despite our holding the most mature and humane values, we have failed to do what we have known to be the right thing. Needless to say most of us may have been able to, in many of those occasions, excuse and explain away our actions.

“I would have upset my parents”. “She would not have liked it”. “I had to think of my family and their well being”. “My kids were in college”. “I will do this after I get my promotion or pay off my house”. In many cases we have sought to rationalize the abdication of our own personal moral and ethical values in the name of ‘pragmatism’, ‘choosing the battles we fight’ or just plain expediency. Behind this is often an unwillingness to pay the price of courage.

This is what makes courage a disposition that is key to action. Even with all the other dispositions in place and firing on all cylinders, without Courage it may not be possible to manifest them. The absence of Courage makes redundant pretty much any other disposition. Courage to engage with what we are unfamiliar with, listen to experiences, views and opinions that might challenge our beliefs and values. Courage to do what one is disposed to even when the costs are high and people and circumstances are against you. Citizens in a democracy require the disposition of courage more than subjects of despotic or autocratic systems because every time they make excuses for not speaking out and constructively engaging with those that they disagree with, whether it be within their group or outside of it, they weaken the culture and fabric of democracy.

Every time we develop one core disposition, there are other associated dispositions that are also triggered and hence can be developed. When we develop our ability to pay attention and be courageous, it simultaneously helps us develop Openness, Respect, Courage, Clarity, Trust, Inquiry and Curiosity. It is a gift that keeps giving! Below are a few dispositions that come from developing the dispositions of Attention and Courage.

Curiosity                                                                                                                                           The disposition that wants to know, learn and understand rather than presume clarity and judge instinctively

Curiosity is a disposition that allows us to engage with the world as a child would. It is the disposition that is most central to learning. Before even trying to be curious, we have to have the courage to accept that our knowledge and experiences are limited. Curiosity can only exist in a person who knows that he does not know everything. This is why many of those in power, Presidents, Popes, Priests and even Parents are crippled from learning anything new because they choose to be comfortable with their own existing knowledge and its infallibility.

Not just people in power, but most adolescents and adults struggle to remain curious given that what we know and how we understand the world contributes to our sense of self and our identity. The idea that we might be ignorant about certain things and may not have complete information, knowledge or understanding can be very destabilizing. Without the disposition of Humility we will be unable to accept our own limitations in knowledge or understanding. To be curious we have to see our own, carefully and painfully crafted identities as tentative, incomplete and a work in progress. In other words we have to become Selfless (again).

Democracies that do not instill curiosity as one of the core dispositions within its educational system run the risk of breeding generations that are incapable of creativity and learning.

Openness                                                                                                                                           The disposition that greets the world with enthusiasm for what we may find upon inquiry and exploration.

Openness as a disposition is the tendency to be receptive to what is new or unfamiliar. What is unfamiliar is disconcerting because it can turn out to be uncomfortable, threatening or even destructive, hence resistance is not necessarily futile and is wholly understandable. The down side to being ‘safe’, though, is that one can be stuck in what, while familiar, may also be less than optimal, inefficient and perhaps even destructive in the long run.

This disposition is dependent upon an essential fearlessness that allows one to move out of the comfortably familiar into the uncomfortable unfamiliar. Usually Openness is, both, preceded and accompanied by a sense of self that is flexible and confident; has minimal prejudice and bias; and has ample capacity to take risks. Openness requires other dispositions to support it, such as Humility, which itself comes from the recognition that what we know can be, and is often, erroneous. 

Democracy is unique in that it is the most equitable and humane system for managing diversity. It is when competing ideas, values and practices jostle against one another and compete in the public arena that democracy can be said to be most vibrant and alive. This cannot happen in a despotic system where values, ideas and language itself that is abhorrent to the prevailing dispensation or the mainstream are proscribed and effectively silenced. Without genuine openness to ideas that may be deemed inappropriate, offensive and even blasphemous, democracies will become deeply polarized and eventually regress into a despotic state.

Clarity                                                                                                                                               The disposition that inclines us to be impatient with obfuscation while motivating us to seek greater definition and truth!

When we develop attention as a disposition, we also simultaneously develop a predisposition to clarity. This is not to be confused with the type of premature and unearned clarity, that is borne out of socialization, conditioning, acquisition of specialized knowledge, confirmation bias, intellectual lethargy and a lack of curiosity. This disposition helps us approach the world and ourselves with a propensity for wanting to know how things work, why they are the way they are and where we stand.

Genuine clarity is hard earned and dynamic, open to being questioned, challenged,and changed based on new evidence, deeper understanding and new realizations. There are many obstacles that come in the way of our developing genuine clarity. It can be as basic as not having enough information; an inability to understand the problem at hand; the fear of discomfiting information or realization; our inability to handle the consequences of achieving clarity; lack of courage; an inability to frame the issue well; mental paralysis arising out of fatigue or, as is very often the case, our own intellectual lethargy.

Paying attention (again) is critical to developing this disposition. This requires some systematic and disciplined effort.

  1. We collect information agnostically and being wary of confirmation bias, in order that we have as much information about the situation as possible.
  2. We find the courage needed to overcome any kind of insecurity and fear that we may encounter.
  3. We rigorously question and inquire into the issue to learn more and clarify any doubts and uncertainties.
  4. Finally, we distance ourselves from the information and take time to reflect before drawing inferences and conclusions.

Unlike theocracies or autocracies, where truth is said to reside within the covers of a sacred book or between the ears of the despot, democracies are premised on the idea that the truth can be found through exploration, reason and debate or dialogue. This requires us to constantly strive for clarity and definition, even as we know that it is a constantly shifting goal post. Like science itself, today’s clarity may be found to be erroneous tomorrow, but unlike most religions, democracies are not condemned to live on with erroneous or faulty assumptions, hypothesis or ‘facts’ merely because they are deemed to be ‘sacred’, ‘sacrosanct’ and hence inviolable.

Respect                                                                                                                                             The disposition that believes that others are worthy of our time and energy.

Respect is a sign that that we believe that the other person or experience is worthy of our engagement, time and energy. This may seem, like many other dispositions, self-evident, but it is extremely difficult to actualize or manifest. Genuine respect for the ‘other’ requires us to see value in them even as:

  1. their qualities are not self-evident to us
  2. their accomplishments are, by our standards, scant
  3. their values, beliefs and behaviors are offensive to us
  4. their words or actions cause us hurt
  5. their words or actions actively disadvantage us or harm us

Under these conditions it is easy enough to hold back our respect even if we do not actively and explicitly ‘disrespect’ them.

Every citizen and each group deserves respect, no matter how offensive or unworthy they might seem to us. Our ability to accord this respect, even as we disagree and advocate against their views will affect the robustness of the democratic system. Finding genuine, if scarce or hidden, reasons to accord respect to those we disagree with or even deem wrong requires that we be profoundly Selfless, Open and Attentive. Democracy is strongest when we accord respect to those we are engaged in competition with.

Collaboration                                                                                                                               The disposition that sees the world as a partner and all problems as worthy of cooperation.

Collaboration requires us to include others in our engagement, project and vision. Unlike oligarchies which pit individual against individuals or tribal and collectivist societies that enforce cooperation based on traditionally defined roles, duties and strictures, democracies require their citizens to freely participate in the affairs of their communities. This puts a premium on autonomous individuals being able to come together and collaborate for the common good.

Collaboration is neither instinctive nor easy. To collaborate one needs to recognize the limitations of trying to do everything oneself and trusting one’s own instincts to the exclusion of other’s instincts or knowledge. It requires that we be able to value another’s contribution and have the ability to engage with another in a complex cooperative exercise that requires relational and conflict skills. These skills are unlikely to help when the collaboration runs aground unless one has developed the dispositions of Selflessness, Openness, Respect and Attentiveness.

Trust                                                                                                                                                 The disposition that engages with the world as though it were a safe place.

Trust is a disposition that allows us to engage with the world without suspicion and defensiveness. Trust in the other is important in order to engage effectively or collaborate. However, trusting oneself is just as important- trust in the knowledge, skills and abilities that we bring to the situation allows us to be more confident in our vision, particularly when we feel threatened.

A democracy becomes most vulnerable when citizens lose trust in each other or in groups whose values or behaviors are seen as inimical to their own group. Trust takes time to develop and can easily be broken and lost. Trust requires the dispositions of Courage, Openness and Collaboration to grow and sustain, especially when circumstances become contentious and conflict arises.

We live in an age where rampant and unthinking technological development has disengaged us from our own quieter selves and prevented us from appreciating deep relational intimacy. Globalization and free market capitalism have commoditized skills and knowledge and destroyed communities. Mass consumerism has perverted our sense of what is valuable and what is ephemeral. Democracy is not something that can flourish or sustain online or on the Net, no matter what the purveyors of gadgets and gizmos will have us believe. A click is as much of an act of courageous protest as a tweet is a reasoned thesis. In a world where technical education and the ability to be mobile, fast and shallow are prized, we have little of substance to hold on to and are hence even more vulnerable to the next economic crash, political debacle or personal tragedy. This is where our dispositions, difficult to ‘monetize’ or ‘quantify’ as they are, hold the key. If we cared about our children and our future as a species we would rethink our education system and find creative ways of helping our young develop powerful and humane dispositions.


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