Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Caleb Anderson: It's largely in the way we think about things.

In recent weeks, family considerations have precipitated multiple visits to one of the poorer suburbs of the town in which I live.  In short, I was struck by the confronting evidence of extreme (material) poverty.  Houses likely not re-painted since initial build, old cars and appliances strewn across sections, no curtains on windows, windows and doors boarded up, packs of dogs wandering freely, kids on the streets who should likely be at school, able-bodied men and women who should likely be at work.

I am not making these observations in a spirit of judgment, but out of deep concern at how this has happened in a land of relative plenty, at a time of comparative privilege, and in the face of decades of intervention ... and copious policies purportedly addressing the root causes of social dysfunction.  


I would like to suggest that perhaps we are misdiagnosing problems, resulting in solutions that not only do not help, but that make things worse.


I would like to suggest that the problem, and solution, at least in part, lie much deeper than we want to admit, and in places we would prefer not to go ... and that things will not change until we radically shift the way we think about things.


There is some sense in the argument that poverty, and social dysfunction generally, never have a single cause.  Life, and people, are way too complex for that.  Singular causality is a dangerous idea, that stands in stark denial of the tangle of complex factors that shape us and the societies around us. 


While not a popular argument in many quarters, it is evident in study after study, that what seems to be the problem often is not, and that multiple contributing factors act in concert.  


Poor educational achievement, for example, is often blamed on a lack of cultural engagement, on inherent curriculum bias, or on poor school attendance.  It is likely true that these factors do contribute to poor educational achievement, but no less, in a general sense, than mult-generational unemployment, benefit dependency, gang associations, drug and alcohol addiction, family violence, low IQ, an embedded sense of oppression, and absent fathers. 


In the United States, for example, study after study (and I mean multivariate studies) show family breakdown, generational welfare dependency, and (especially) absent fathers, as prime predictors of poverty.  There is no reason to believe that these are not disproportionately significant factors in New Zealand also, although to debate these issues is unpopular.


We are often not objective in the ways we attend or perceive things.  Our ideas (and world views) are often shaped by our propensities to seek out confirming data, and also reflect a reluctance (or inability) to think more deeply and widely.  We are fundamentally more comfortable in denial, than in attending to things that challenge us.  We are more comfortable with simplicity than with complexity.  And sometimes we are more comfortable with lies, because this is easier than facing unpalatable truths.


This problem is even more present in the social sciences ... the disciplines that often demand a place at the table when matters of disadvantage are discussed.


Another way of looking at things


There have been some stunning breakthroughs in recent years in the area of neuroscience which help us understand why recent generations think so differently about things than almost all earlier generations.  This is not to say that our thought orientations are unique to the last hundred years or so, but that they have become overwhelmingly dominant, and at not inconsiderable cost.


In short, we live in a world that has become increasingly left-brain-dominant.  The left brain deals with detail, it solves complex problems, dives deep (not necessarily wide), comes up with solutions, thinks in bullet points, is highly efficient, is ruthless in the determination of relevancy, and is dismissive of divergence ... and it is very sure of itself.  


While necessary when going deep is required, the left brain is largely useless when going wide is required.  Left-brain thinking is the currency of most bureaucratic thought and public and political discourse today, it makes things simple, provides quick solutions, provides useful sound bites, and promises not to bury us in complexities.  It tells us what and how, it does not tell us why.  


Traditionally, the left brain's propensity to ruthlessly eliminate divergent possibilities, and common sense, has been mitigated by the right brain’s propensity to see the bigger picture, to see connections between ideas, to scope possibilities, to manage (and marry) nuances and complexities, and to think intuitively and divergently.  


I think we have become deaf to the big picture stuff, and to the wisdom of earlier generations.  


We have become progressively addicted to formulaic, clever-sounding ways of thinking, that demand too little of us.  


Our orientation to left-brain thinking has enabled ideologues, media, activists, universities, and governments, to play too strong a hand in defining what ails us, and in shaping our responses to problems.   It has also given licence to be certain where certainty is not warranted, to control, to manipulate and to silence.


I truly think that this is the curse of our age  ... the disenfranchisement of fruitful (right-brained) thought, and the entrenchment of the convoluted and non-sensical double speak of those whose inclination is to control.


Neuroscientist Iain McGilchrist argues the following (my words) ...


1.  The real cause of social dysfunction (and mental illness) is not only isolation from wider society and the fruits of its collective labour, even more, it is about the isolation of self.  It is the product of disengagement with the right brain. 


2.  That the solution does not lie, ultimately, with the semi-delusional left brain and its emasculated solutions


3.  That we need to re-engage with intuition and common sense, which reside almost entirely in the right brain ... even if this challenges us.


Maybe (at least in part) emancipation from the sort of poverty alluded to in my opening paragraph resides not in critical theory or wealth redistribution, but in an expectation that an able-bodied person turns up to work, to connect with colleagues, to feel the satisfaction of a day's work, to enjoy the fruits of their own labour (not that of another), to be an example  ...  to go somewhere each day with a purpose in mind and a difference to make. 


Earlier societies, complex or tribal, demanded precisely this.  There was never an alternative and this message was given loud and clear  ...  if you want to eat, you will work.  


This is not cruel, as our parties of the left recently asserted, it is the beginning of possibility, it is an invitation toward the rediscovery of self.  


In summary, we need to turn the volume down on the simplistic left-brain dogmatism of those who know best and who seek to control discourse.  We need to re-engage with common sense.  We need to re-connect with the lessons of history, with philosophy, with our cultural narratives, with the examples of our forebears, with the wisdom of ages, with some concept of the transcendent, and with the idea that truth (and there is such a thing) is worth pursuing ...  rather than being so (left-brained) dogmatically dismissive of these.  


Detachment from common sense is the most profound form of isolation  ...  and that is the dilemma of the modern West ...  a cruelty of the highest order.

Caleb Anderson, a graduate in history, economics, psychotherapy and theology, has been an educator for over thirty years, twenty as a school principal


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately only the older generation, such as myself, understand what you are espousing. I agree entirely, but how do we go about reverting to logical, commonsense thinking, not to mention redeveloping discipline?

Anna Mouse said...

In short set aside the neo-marxist, leftist, CRT, critical consciousness, collectivist, I'm a victim government will help mentality.

Then bring in the I can do this for me and my family for their future and mine and nobody is here to help me except me mentality....

Sort of like it was when we were the No.8 wire society and not the eveyone is a victim of someone else oppressing them society.....

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 6:25am - oh but there are young who understand this and agree wholeheartedly too! But we are labelled as racist, right wing bigots and cast aside with the rest.

DeeM said...

As we've seen for the past 6 years, there is no connection between intelligence and commonsense.
Academics, judges, politicians, top bureaucrats, senior management - all would be classed as intelligent but they fail miserably in the commonsense department and the ability to think for themselves.

Far more serious than any pandemic, this scourge of the collective mind is the biggest threat to our society.

Anonymous said...

The hopelessness of poverty is well-described above. Somehow poverty always involves children and adults with hard luck stories.
The bigger a family is, the deeper they seem to get into poverty and/or trouble with a landlord, the police or other authority.
Every child deserves to have opportunity in society at the very least. If you were born because it would increase your mother's unearned income there is a good chance you may not be especially welcome as another mouth to feed and a whole lot of extra work. Poor you and poverty will be your lot.
The unmentionable solution seems to be to stop funding children who are unwanted, apart from their desirable financial weekly deposits.
Like Communism, nowhere in the world where this has happened has had better outcomes.
It would be easy to draw a dateline after which no more increases to family income should be made if a family relies exclusively on social welfare payments and then increases the family above 2 children.
We cannot continue like this and expect to improve but we seem to be devoid of the intelligence and motivation needed to solve this huge problem.

Erica said...

Your articles are so refreshing, Caleb, in their possessing wisdom.

For me it is very clear we have cancelled the transcendent out of our thinking.Sure, atheists can have morality since we are moral beings but the reason for morality vanishes without God. As Dostoevsky states in 'Brothers Karamazov' "Man can do anything without God."

Marx, Darwin and Fraud the most influential thinkers and substitute patron saints of materialist academia in Western Culture, from my perspective have clay feet.Their dogmas are crumbling at last .These Guys' ideas have failed, having caused absolute misery and or bloodshed for the last two centuries.