Humanity: Evolving in spite of itself
by Robert C. Koehler
As wars rage, as cruelty shatters lives across the planet — as nuclear Armageddon remains a viable option for all of us — I think it’s time to claim some stunning awareness in this regard.
The human race is evolving in spite of itself — evolving beyond war, beyond empire, beyond dominance and conquest, and toward an uncertain but collective future. Indeed, I think most of us already know this, but only at a level so deep, so vague it feels like nothing more than “hope.”
There’s also another problem. Much of our world remains organized in a totally opposite way: committed, as Richard Falk puts it in his 2013 book, (Re)Imagining Humane Global Governance, to national policies “shaped by unimaginative thinking trapped within a militarist box.” Another way to put this would be: a de facto commitment to human suicide.
As long as there’s no serious, organized alternative to war, this is what we’re going to get, which, in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, seems suddenly clearer than it’s been since, oh, 1962 (remember the Cuban missile crisis?). As long as global order, global security, is allegedly maintained with bombs and bullets and bully-swagger — and various nuclear-armed enemies occasionally challenge one another for the right to control particular swaths of the planet — we’re hostage to an insanity we seem to have bequeathed ourselves.
What is power? This strikes me as the key question, and untangling ourselves from the wrong answer is the beginning of the creation of real peace.
When we think of power, the word itself commands that we carve the concept into something isolated and wieldable: a sword, a gun, a scepter. Power means power over. There is no basic concept of power — no word for power in the English language — that also means collaboration, collective participation: people working together, individually empowered at the same time that they are part of a larger whole.
Even when we examine the dark side of power — as in, power corrupts — the examination seems to hover as a warning rather than open up to larger awareness. Consider, for instance, this 2017 article in The Atlantic by Jerry Useem, titled (fasten your seatbelts!) “Power Causes Brain Damage,” which discusses a concept called “hubris syndrome.”
The article’s essential point is that people who gain a significant amount of power over others lose the ability to empathize with — or mime, as the article puts it — people in general, the lesser mortals who must follow the boss’s orders. This inability, it turns out, is serious. It isolates the powerful into their own stereotypes and egotistical certainties, which lessens their ability to make good, or even rational, decisions.
The idea is that we’re naturally connected and subconsciously “mimic” others: We laugh when others laugh, tense up when others grow tense. It’s not faking an emotion to fit in; it’s participating in — feeling — the collective emotion that fills the room. “It helps trigger the same feelings those others are experiencing and provides a window into where they are coming from,” Useem writes. But: Powerful people “stop simulating the experience of others,” leading to what is called an “empathy deficit,” which saps the powerful of most, or maybe all, of their social skill, leaving them, even as they generate endless obeisance, socially isolated souls.
The conclusion to be drawn here is that what is commonly thought of as power — power over others, a.k.a., dominance — isn’t power at all. It’s an illusion of power that weakens, and perhaps destroys, those who hold it.
So does this hold true beyond the personal level — at the geopolitical level? Among countries? Well, a “country” is a created, collective entity, and may well be bound to the concept of us vs. them: intoxicated by the need for armed self-defense and, occasionally, armed conquest. Richard Falk calls this “hard power”: dominance maintained by force and, when necessary, massacre.
Is something else possible — e.g., “a world order premised on nonviolent geopolitics”? Falk calls this “soft power” — the power of working together, respecting and valuing rather than fearing one another. The way I have put it over the years is power with others rather than power over them.
And Falk makes a startling observation about how the world has changed since, in essence, the end of World War II. “Throughout the colonial era, and until the mid-twentieth century, hard power was generally e?ective and e?cient,” he notes. Heavily armed European nations tramped across the rest of the planet, claiming ownership where they felt they could.
But then something changed, beginning with India’s struggle for independence from Great Britain: “Every anticolonial war in the latter half of the twentieth century,” Falk writes, “was eventually won by the militarily weaker side, which prevailed in the end despite su?ering disproportionate losses along its way to victory.”
Their resistance was often nonviolent which “included gaining complete international control of the high moral ground.”
This is not a pretty story. The hard power didn’t let up; it simply lost, e.g.: “The United States completely controlled land, air, and sea throughout the Vietnam war, winning every battle, and yet eventually losing the war,” Falk writes, “killing as many as 4 million Vietnamese on the road to the failure of its military intervention.”
And despite its military dominance, despite the harm it inflicted, the U.S. has done nothing but lose wars for the last three quarters of a century. It created hell on earth for millions of people; it just didn’t get its way.
It has also failed to learn any lessons from its losses. The United States has refused to abandon its commitment to pointless militarism, as reflected every year in its grotesquely expanding military budgets.
But change is happening nonetheless. Soft power — power with one another — is our future . . . if we have any future at all.