By Hank Edson
Most Americans are united in their condemnation of the white supremacist beliefs that have been carefully courted by President Trump and that have recently so shocked and terrorized the citizens of our nation. These alarming, often traumatizing events make it not just important, but essential for all of us like-minded people to take time individually to condemn hatred, to take a stand against racism, and to reflect upon our own commitment to the general welfare of all people.
But in addition to all this, it is critical that we do more. There is a way we can immunize our culture against white supremacy, racism, and hatred and it involves more than just speaking our condemnation. If we are truly alarmed by the existence of American Nazis, the resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, and the normalizing of violent racism by our president, it is imperative that we understand the solution to this state of affairs requires we proactively employ an ecological sophistication in cultivating a strong and vigorous egalitarian culture within our society.
The Authoritarian Pathology versus the Egalitarian Hypothesis.
The white supremacists have psychologically committed themselves not just to hatred, but to authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is an ignorant, psychologically damaged, and completely dysfunctional strategy for coping with fears, needs, and pain that seeks refuge in illusions of power, control, and purpose sustained through the scapegoating of disadvantaged and demonized groups targeted as the source of everything the authoritarians feel is wrong. And because this strategy is based on an illusion and because it does not actually confront the disorder within, authoritarians are compelled to continuously expand the circle of people they target. Their internal disorder is insatiable and cannot be satisfied from the outside, which is what makes authoritarians so dangerous. And unfortunately challenging such mental instability does not cure it, but only drives it into a deeper commitment to its own illusions. Even the most wealthy and powerful authoritarians depend upon this illusion of power, control, and purpose to stave off what is really an internal psychological crisis. Authoritarianism is thus not an ideology; it is a pathology.
Authoritarianism exists in direct conflict with egalitarianism. Egalitarianism does not pretend to power and control, but instead acknowledges a source nature from which our equality is derived and asserts that a democratic process is required to enable decisions to be made in a society where everyone is equal. Furthermore, the consequence of egalitarianism's recognition of a common source nature is that we must also acknowledge that human society, like everything else, is subject to the laws of ecology that govern the way everything develops and that set the conditions for the flourishing of every being and collective in nature.
Not one of us belonging to the tiny race of human beings has authority over the developmental and healing life forces that drive nature. Even authoritarian violence that injures this growth and development still achieves no control over these internal forces, which continue to exert themselves in independent and unpredictable ways even when horribly crippled. Meanwhile, science repeatedly demonstrates that the wisest course is to cooperate with the laws of ecology and not take actions that obstruct the full function of natural development. And such cooperation requires embracing humility and maintaining this awareness that the larger universe is in control, not us. We can study the ecological laws of this larger universe, but must remain alert to the fact that we are students of these laws who are prone to error; we are not authorities who have any claim to absolute certainty or power over our governing nature. Ecological egalitarianism is thus not an ideology, but a commitment to subjecting its hypothesis to a scientific process.
The Necessity of Balance in Contrast to the Chaotic Instability of President Trump
I believe the most basic law of ecology is balance. Authoritarianism is inherently and severely unbalanced. My hypothesis is that the healthy, flourishing development of every individual depends, among other things, upon our ability to respect each other as all equally belonging to the same creation, all equally coming from the same source, all equally composed of the same nature, all equally immersed in the same process of growth and development that is life. This respect is a form of balance that is a scientifically observable law of nature, not a utopian fantasy.
In our different needs, beings may come into conflict at times, but the laws of ecology require that these conflicts be resolved within the confines of balance, respect, and even gratitude for all life without resulting in excess, waste, or unjustifiable oppression and infringement of the rights of other beings. We may compete at times to meet our basic needs, but we do not presume to be entitled to excess out of a deluded sense of superiority over others. We do not make the foolish mistake of believing we can advance our well-being and sense of connection to a larger meaning in life with behavior that is disrespectful to the interests of the other beings who come from the same source as do we and with whom we are intimately interconnected through the laws of ecology.
When we lose this commitment to balance and allow ourselves to disrespect life of any kind (or worse, when we give ourselves permission to hate it), then our own development toward mature, flourishing, resilient well-being is incapacitated, injured and ultimately deformed. The white supremacists’ hate is chaotically self-destructive, driving his or her initial psychological weakness into an even more untenable and painful divorce from his or her own nature, which would otherwise have such potential to heal and develop itself, but now is trapped in the twisted confines of a commitment to a fantasy claim of authority. This is our president in a nutshell.
Thus, we need to understand that the symptoms we are experiencing in the rabid racism of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville constitute a societal mental health crisis, and are not simply the acts of bad human beings who need to be condemned. The challenging aspect of this understanding is that there is no plan for addressing the mental illnesses of the white supremacists that gives us any confidence. Fortunately, the fact that we are experiencing a societal mental health crisis does not mean that what we most need is to cure the mental illnesses of the white supremacists. We can achieve vigorous mental health in our society even without a means of reversing the authoritarian pathology of the white supremacists that constitute a key part of President Trump’s base.
The Remedy for Our Society’s Mental Health Crisis Offered by Positive Psychology
One of the pioneers who identified the path forward to addressing societal mental health crises such as the one we now are facing is Martin Seligman, who, as president of the American Psychological Association, dedicated his term in office to the creation and advancement of the movement known today as positive psychology. In his 1998 presidential address for the APA, Seligman wrote:
“I look not toward the lessons of remedial psychology with its emphasis on repairing damage. Instead, I look to a new social and behavioral science that seeks to understand and nurture those human strengths that can prevent the tragedy of mental illness. For it is my belief that no medication or technique of therapy holds as much promise for serving as a buffer against mental illness as does human strength.”
That is, Seligman’s positive psychology advanced the idea that our focus should be on promoting a societal culture that proactively nurtures healthy development, not on developing interventions aimed at correcting psychological disorders after the damage is done. When we apply a more overt ecological awareness to positive psychology’s approach, it becomes clear that the solution to our current societal mental health crisis lies in cultivating an ecologically sophisticated egalitarian culture, not in trying to remediate the authoritarian mental instabilities of white supremacy with facile condemnations. Yes, such condemnations are appropriate, but they are not nearly adequate to our real needs. It is important to emphasize again that this application of positive psychology to our societal mental health crisis must involve more than just fostering egalitarianism; it also requires that we deeply understand that egalitarianism is an expression of the laws of ecology, which all evidence suggests are the real authority governing the well-being and development of society and its individuals. Therefore, we must employ, respect, and celebrate these ecological laws consciously in the societal culture we create if it is to be truly egalitarian.
There is so much we can do to proactively cultivate a culture of ecological egalitarianism within our society that will radically transform our world and, in the process, immunize ourselves against white supremacy and authoritarianism. We should not underestimate, however, the extent of the revolution required in this proposed advancement of a sophisticated ecological egalitarianism. We are as a society, with respect to ecology, still convinced that the Earth is flat, even though our sailors have circled the globe time and time again. The conduct of society that is in conflict with the laws of ecology on the macro level is so far-reaching and profound that it continues to significantly inhibit even the most ecologically aware individuals from integrating and internalizing ecological egalitarianism. As a result, nearly all of us will feel the impulse to demand a short-cut, an easier way to get rid of white supremacy without requiring us to have to go through the hard work of undertaking a more consistent commitment to the laws of ecology, not just with respect to our relationship to the natural environment, but also with respect to our relationship with our social and political constructs. This desire for a short-cut is the impulse that ends in condemnations that yet fail to effectively eradicate the problem of white supremacy or to meet our most important needs.
Positive Psychology’s Critique of Lesser Evil Voting
There is indeed hard work ahead in proactively addressing the societal mental health crisis reflected in the emboldened white supremacy of Donald Trump, Steve Bannon and the Alt-Right. Consider for example that positive psychology's abandonment of remediation of mental illness for a more proactive approach offers an important critique of the dominant voting strategy employed in 2016 (other than the strategy of simply not voting). I refer, of course, to the “lesser evil” voting strategy employed by people focused on the problems associated with each of the two major-party presidential nominees. While the “lesser evil” strategy does not seek to remediate the flaws of the candidate perceived to be the greater evil; it completely abandons any positively defined, proactive demand that the lesser evil candidate embody the strength and virtue of ecological egalitarianism that is the basis of democracy. Instead, it justifies support for the lesser evil candidate’s injurious politics as not as poisonous as those of the greater evil candidate. Nothing that is asserted on behalf of the lesser evil candidate by the lesser evil voter is consistent with egalitarianism or the laws of ecology. Such voting completely abandons the project of cultivating an ecological egalitarian culture through the exercise of political power by the people. Positive psychology suggests that such passive abandonment is an invitation to a societal mental health crisis, which is what we now are experiencing.
Much could be said in more detail of the way the funding of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the corruption of the political process on her behalf by the DNC, her own behavior while campaigning, and the policies she advocated were contrary to basic ecological and egalitarian principles, but this discussion must be reserved for a later time as it takes us too far afield from our focus on finding a way to immunize our society from authoritarianism in any form and, most particularly in this moment, white supremacy. The vital thing from the perspective of positive psychology is understanding that it is more important that we take a stand for ecological and egalitarian principles than it is that we take a stand against racism and white supremacy. Condemning white supremacy will not cure it, not by a long shot. Proactively cultivating a flourishing ecological egalitarian culture, however, will eventually eradicate it in the same way that good diet, exercise, healthy living and a vigorous immune system may eradicate disease.
It is so much easier for us, however, to take the short cut of denouncing Trump and his white supremacist base than it is to admit our own neglect to demand ecological egalitarianism from the candidates and politics we support. On one hand, we don't want to hear ourselves voice disbelief in the possibility of an egalitarian society and, on the other hand, we are overwhelmed by the commitment required to create one, especially when that commitment requires us to stop focusing on what is wrong and start insisting on what is right. But there is no short cut. The source of our societal mental health crisis is not Donald Trump or the Alt-Right; it is the absence of a strong, vigorous ecological egalitarian societal culture. I myself have written in favor of Donald Trump’s impeachment1, but his impeachment is not enough; it is not even a beginning really.
We’ve all heard the estimate that it takes one thousand years to replace an old-growth forest once it has been cut down. Indeed, cultivating a diverse, resilient, abundantly thriving ecosystem of any kind takes time. It does not happen overnight. But this fact does not make short-cuts suddenly work when they just don’t. Rather, this fact leads to the conclusion that we should get to work and stop putting off what cannot be avoided. Getting rid of the loggers does not replace the forest; what does is planting trees and remaining dedicated to the ecological health of the region over many years. There is no short cut.
Advancing Our Worldview Beyond Short-Cut Condemnations and Fear-Based Voting
We may fear what four years of Donald Trump may do to our nation and so vote for a lesser evil candidate like Hillary Clinton, whose politics demonstrate on every level a disdain for egalitarianism and the laws of ecology, but this will not enable us to escape our societal mental health crisis. Instead, it will only displace needed energies that might have valuably contributed to the development of a stronger, healthier culture. The most appropriate concern, from the perspective of positive psychology, is what four years of neglect to advance a movement committed to cultivating an ecological egalitarian societal culture will cost our society in missed opportunities, deeper spreading of authoritarianism's disease, and atrophy of our egalitarian political consciousness.
From this perspective, what matters most is not whether we win the presidency for the next four years, but whether we begin at once building the movement and culture of ecological egalitarianism. In 2016, the conduct of the Democratic Party in nominating Hillary Clinton, despite her unprecedented use of Super PAC funding in contradiction of the opinion of nearly 80% of voters that Citizens United should be overturned, and despite the evidence that came to light that the primaries had been rigged in her favor by the DNC, the leader of which had to step down and was immediately hired by Clinton herself, and despite the fact that now it appears the DNC may have manufactured false evidence of a Russian hack to distract the public from the fact that it had rigged the primaries, was clearly not just behavior that neglected to begin advancing a desperately needed ecological egalitarian culture; it was in fact a campaign that was toxic to and destructive of such a culture. This behavior was, in short, conduct indicating a mental disorder, perhaps not as virulent as the one driving Trump’s election, but a problem all the same.
We want so badly for problems like white supremacy to just go away. That is, we want to distance ourselves from such problems. We say, “I’m not the problem. They are. I condemn them.” But this strategy does not make the problem go away; it just helps us avoid taking responsibility for our part in the crisis. If voters on the political left are really, deeply disturbed by the white supremacy on view during this last week or so, my hypothesis is that the single most important thing we all can all do to eradicate it is, first, commit ourselves to never again engaging in “lesser evil” voting and, second, begin insisting that the politicians and parties we support actually advance a positive vision of ecological egalitarianism, as any good positive psychologist would, as any good ecologist would.
We need to stop acting as if the Earth is flat. We can’t push Donald Trump and his ilk off its edge by advancing a lesser evil candidate; the greater evil candidates just circle back around to us, more virulent than the last time, as Trump did following Bush because we lacked a vigorous positive commitment to ecological egalitarianism by President Obama in the intervening part of this greater evil/lesser evil cycle that has become a downward spiral. And our condemnations of others completely lose their persuasive power when our own politics excuse and support the blatant corruption on display in the Democratic Party that nominated Hillary Clinton. The bottom line is that overcoming our current societal mental health crisis requires more than condemnations of Trump and his base from the establishment of the Democratic Party. Instead, we need a major political party that represents the political left, the interests of the people, and the principles of democracy to assert real leadership. We need this leadership to bring energy, sophistication, focus, and high standards sufficient to advance the ecological egalitarianism of our societal culture to such a degree that the absurdity of white supremacy (like the notion that the Earth is flat) can no longer take root in any of the people’s worldviews.
Joining the Movement Advancing a Healthy Ecological Egalitarian Culture
And of course, we have in the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders a perfect example of the leadership we need and of the power of such leadership to rapidly transform our culture. The consistency of Sanders' refusal to accept Super PAC funding with his focus on taking money out of politics, his advancement of policies that would reduce the economic imbalances in our society through single payer health care, a $15 per hour minimum wage, free college tuition, and regulation of Wall Street, as well as his support for Black Lives Matter, a path to citizenship for immigrants, and Native American sovereignty, and his call for reform of the criminal justice system, defense of whistle blowers, plan for responding to the climate crisis, and opposition to domestic spying, the TTP trade agreement, the Keystone XL pipeline, fracking, and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, all delivered without obfuscation or spin, by a man with a decades-long record of independence and integrity, created an unprecedented energy and movement among the people that has only grown since the dysfunctions of the 2016 election, notwithstanding the corporate media’s continuing efforts to bury this story.
During the campaign, tens of thousands of people filled arena after arena for Bernie Sanders in a way they never did for Clinton. People spontaneously wrote songs, printed t-shirts, and painted murals in Sanders' honor in a way they never did for Clinton. Young people who could not even vote yet put long hours in volunteering for his campaign and those who could vote overwhelmingly supported Sanders. Cities and states passed the $15 per hour minimum wage under the pressure and sway of the popularity of Sander's campaign. When Sanders spoke at the conservative Christian Evangelical college, Liberty University, he filled the arena and was warmly welcomed at the outset and warmly applauded at the end of his speech, notwithstanding his progressive platform. Today, more than a year after Clinton proclaimed that universal health care "is never going to happen," Obamacare is in peril, the Republicans have no viable replacement, and more and more people are calling for single payer health care as the best and only practical option. Today, Sanders is the most popular politician in America. He has been the most popular senator in America for the last three years running. Had he received the nomination in a fair process, Sanders would have won the presidency easily, and polls indicate that if he runs again in 2020, he will easily defeat Trump then. But the power of Sanders' movement derives not just from his ability to beat Trump; more importantly, it derives from his ability to communicate a broadly appealing, common sense, positively defined vision of egalitarianism that is respectful of each individual's experiences and needs.
The corporate media refuses to connect the dots, but the people need to understand that had Sanders been nominated by the Democratic Party, the strength of his ecological egalitarianism would have so energized the mental and physical health of both our culture and our people that the only audience Donald Trump and his white supremacist supporters would have been able to draw would be within the psych wards widely regarded as the most fit place for them to spend their time.
The Positive Psychology of the People’s Exercise of Their Political Power
Darkness does not exist when there is light. The light is the underlying, enduring reality; darkness proves nothing but an illusion. The shadows of ignorance, psychological disorder and social dysfunction that take the twisted shape of authoritarianism completely vanish when the society is enlightened by a culture of ecological egalitarianism. This is the lesson of positive psychology and this is the law of nature evidenced by the transformative power of the movement led by Bernie Sanders.
Fighting with the shadows of authoritarianism only multiplies the darkness because fighting is itself a form of darkness. Only when we commit ourselves to illuminating our society with the brilliant light of egalitarianism does it become plain as day that our individual and societal well-being absolutely depend upon our respect for life and maintenance of a balanced social and natural ecology. This is the only way to address many of the serious dysfunctions currently plaguing or society; it is the only way to achieve sustainable democracy; and it is the only way to eradicate authoritarianism in any and all of its forms.
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