Collective perception, the status quo, and the escalation of conflicts

Four years ago I wrote a brief reaction to a CNN news report of yet another deadly attack in Iraq. It had been just one of many similar attacks over the years since the 2003 invasion. When the article was published in 2012, ISIS as we know it today did not exist. The continued deterioration in Iraq (and later Syria) over the subsequent years provided the breeding ground for Al-Qaeda in Iraq to emerge as ISIS. And the rest is, sadly, familiar history.

In the original post I was making the point that exposure to repeated events tend to gradually shift our moral standards and our perception of what is considered to be the status quo. The human mind has a tendency to absorb and internalize repeated impressions from the outside world. As a result, we become less responsive to repeated stimuli. During times of real or perceived peace, a single isolated act of violence will affect our collective psychology, followed by efforts to restore the situation back to its original state, the status quo.

On the opposite end of the peace-violence scale, when wars and conflict define our moment, acts of violence may not trigger surprise or warrant corrective action in the minds of the general population. Violent events may be expected and directly or indirectly accepted. Looking at global conflicts in retrospect we ask ourselves: How did we go from peace to war in such short time? How could millions of seemingly normal, peaceful citizens support a dictator and take up arms? How could so much hate develop in the minds of so many? Why did we allow violent trends to escalate beyond our control?

Some of the answers to these questions point to our own nature and our pattern of perceiving, thinking and behaving in given situations. There are conscious and unconscious forces at work that can desensitize us, make us less empathetic or responsive to unnatural, unsustainable or undesirable outcomes. I believe we need to be mindful of a few fundamental facts of life so that we do not fall into the trap of complacency and expect peaceful trends to automatically continue into the future without our conscious participation or volition.

Everything changes, always. The future will never be a complete replica of the past, nor be determined solely by the implications of the moment. The universe will continue to evolve. The question is to what extend we can intentionally bend the evolutionary trajectory in our favor. And by our favor, I do not refer to humanity in isolation, but our entire ecosystem, upon which we naturally depend. We need to continue exploring the world and each other with an open and humble mind.

My hypothesis is that the more knowledge and wisdom we can extract through the tools of science (the outer world) and spirituality (the inner world), the better we will be equipped to manage ourselves and our fellow living beings on this planet. In simple words, we need to invest in education – knowledge. We need to create healthy, sustainable environments where people can receive the physical, emotional, and psychological “nutrition” necessary to function optimally and learn effectively. It is obvious that the continuation of fear, wars, and greed need to end for this goal to be fully realized. We need to build bridges and tear down walls that keep us apart. It is particularly those in positions of power and influence who need to heed this point.

What about the rest of us, what should we do? Talk. Engage. Be open, honest and direct with yourself and others about the observations and challenges you see. Know that truth and knowledge exist in layers, and that even seemingly contradicting observations are often true depending on the perspective of the observer. Each observation can be thought of as a piece of a complex puzzle. Find where the piece belongs in relation to every other piece instead of throwing it out the window outright. If we can create a culture of openness, transparency and cooperation, we will also make it easier for those few in the privileged position to represent us to succeed on our behalf. Know that our leaders generally reflect the collective consciousness of our society. Sometimes, a leader will deviate from the social average, where the people evolve, but the leader is stagnant. Social resentment or revolutions take place. Other times (arguably less frequently), society may have a leader who embodies a level of development and aspiration that it cannot match or accept.

We need to be worthy of our best leaders. We do that by realizing the best in ourselves. A culture bound by fear and mistrust is less receptive to calls for love and cooperation – even if it is “the right thing to do”. This ties back to the original point of this post: we need to be mindful of the forces that have the potential to lower our moral standards. This may require exceptional restraint in periods of increased tension.

A final point I would like to make is that we have enough challenges as it is: natural disasters, disease, poverty, environmental degradation, unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity, to name a few. It is absolutely ridiculous that we have to carry the everyday burdens of life while at the same time shooting ourselves in the foot, or worse. It just makes everything harder, and it is unnecessary.

Nation states and their leaders need to prioritize the well-being and integrity of all people, regardless of where they live on this planet. Every living being is inherently the same as every other; if we value one we need to value all. We need to align state objectives with this vision and we need to transcend the outdated, short-sighted view that the world is, or ought to be, a zero-sum game. We are stronger together as one human family.