Tag Archives: human universals

Occupy Wall Street: It’s About Playing Fair


NO, we are not all greedy.

As soon as a toddler can talk, he will start protesting against injustice: “That’s not FAIR!” This sense of fairness is so pervasive I think we are born with it.

According to anthropologist Donald Brown, humans across all times and cultures share certain universal characteristics. For example, human beings resist domination, share food and admire generosity-from Borneo to Beijing to Boston. They also have methods, both individual and collective, for resolving conflicts. Conflicts are inevitable in social groups, social groups are universal and so some method for resolving conflicts, and resolving conflicts fairly, is necessary for survival.

From these obvious truths evolved different sorts of rules and laws, usually with some sort of designated mediators. Justice, or fairness, is so important and so ingrained in us that people are willing to die for it. No justice, no peace. It is the foundation of social relations. The Declaration of Independence is mostly a list of injustices perpetrated against the colonists by the King of England. It is the expression, in eloquent language, of the toddler’s cry, “That’s not fair.” When an earthly authority is not fair, Jefferson argues, there is a higher authority that demands restoration of fairness.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has been ridiculed, tear-gassed, and shot with non-lethal, but physically punishing “bean bags” and “rubber bullets.” The injuries from these cute-sounding projectiles are much worse than you would imagine. If a parent inflicted injuries like this on a child, they would go to jail for abuse. Why were they physically punished? Because they said, “That’s not fair.” It is not fair that a few bullies steal our lunches. It is not fair that cheaters scoop up all the marbles and it is not fair that the authorities let them get away with it. It is not fair and it cannot continue. Furthermore, it is not fair to physically punish us for saying it’s not fair.  No justice, no peace.

Banksters who are too big to jail is not acceptable; neither is a Justice Department that fails to pursue equal justice. CEO Peter Schiff recently debated Occupy protesters, taking the position that capitalism is good. The protester said, “Greed is not good.” Schiff stated, as if the protester was a fool, “We’re ALL greedy.” No, we are not all greedy. Humans universally admire generosity. We may all be tempted from time to time to be greedy, but we don’t admire it, even after years of propaganda trying to convince us that “Greed is good.” No, greed is not good and injustice is not acceptable.

Fairness, or justice, is vital to the functioning of a society. How can we understand justice? We could study what the great thinkers had to say, we could spend years in a university and become lawyers, even lawmakers. But that doesn’t seem to guarantee that we will understand justice, in fact, it merely limits those who are supposedly the “experts” on justice. A more accessible way to understand justice is to hang out with toddlers.

A toddler’s zeal for justice is evidenced by the cookie-sharing scenario. If two toddlers both want one large cookie, most moms know that the way to avoid conflict is to let one cut the cookie in half and let the other take the first choice of the halves. The first will make the cut with all the precision they can muster while the second will watch keenly and then make their choice. Both toddlers are satisfied with the justice of this procedure. But they are greedy, you might say, they are self-interested. They are self-interested–three year-olds still think they are the center of the universe, but they are not greedy. I have never seen a toddler demand the whole cookie on the basis of the fact that he is the only one who matters. If three year-olds get this intuitively, why are fifty year-old CEOs having so much trouble getting it? Have they believed their own lies: that greed is good?

In my neighborhood tribe of kids we socialized each other. If someone had a bag of chips, we knew we should share, even if we only got five chips each. “Don’t hide it, divide it,” was our rule. No authority made us do this, sharing food is a human universal. In more primitive societies, if a hunter brought a deer back to the tribe and proceeded to eat it all himself, he would not last long in the tribe. Why bring it back at all, why not live as a rugged individual and keep all the meat for himself? He could do that, and he might even survive, but most people don’t think a solitary life, even one overflowing with deer meat, is worth living.

In my kid tribe was a boy named Blaine, who cheated. He would play baseball if his team was at bat and then quit when it was time to go into the outfield. We all protested loudly that he didn’t play fair. We gave him a few more chances to play fair and then we simply never let Blaine play baseball with us again. When he got a bag of chips, he slinked off and ate them all himself. Eventually he stayed inside and read all the time (probably Atlas Shrugged.) He went on to become an investment banker in Boston and can now buy all the chips he wants-and eat them by himself.

For at least thirty years, trickle-down Reaganomics and deregulation have caused increasing income inequality in America. In 2008 the economy crashed, and the crashees-the 99% tribe lost their jobs, their homes, and their credit ratings. The crashers were rewarded. Millions have suffered because a few greedy cheaters stole all the marbles and hoarded all the chips. Regulations are laws. De-regulation means throwing out laws. Throwing out laws means the lawmakers favor Blaine over the rest of the kids. Blaine gets to be up at bat all the time and the rest of the tribe gets to chase the balls he hits but never gets to hit any themselves. The other pet project of the cheaters, Privatization means the authorities give the greedy little Ahole the bat, the ball and even the field we play on. It is not fair. It is not acceptable.

No justice, no peace.

Donald Brown’s Human Universals:



Right-wing Deal with the Devil


Perfect Rightwing candidate: He's white, carries a weapon, loves wars, executions and hates health care

The trouble with making a deal with the devil is that you can never trust him not to turn on you in the end.

Faust is the star of a classic German legend in which a successful, but dissatisfied man makes a deal with the devil, exchanging his soul in order to get everything he wants on earth. A faustian bargain describes a deal in which an ambitious person trades their integrity to achieve power. This resonating theme keeps recurring in art, music, and literature-and maybe in real life. Al Pacino, in the movie The Devil’s Advocate, delivers such a powerful speech as the devil, that ever since I watched it I have to remind myself when I see him that, no, he’s not really the devil, just a very gifted actor.

Racism is Devilish

Human beings cherish devilish ideas at times and one of the most potent and persistent is racism. According to anthropologist Donald Brown in his book Human Universals, preference for our own kinship group, or tribe, is completely natural. It serves a good purpose, in that it motivates us to care for each other in manageable groups. We can’t care for all of mankind the way we care for those in our tribe. In fact, some who claim to care for all mankind fail to care for their own children, thus they avoid caring for anyone at all on a nitty-gritty level.

Prejudice is Common

Prejudice is also natural, defined as a tendency to judge quickly, to take a few cues and promptly put people or events into little pre-labeled boxes in our brain. We label people “thug” hick” “snob” and such things based on a glance. We are often wrong, so why do we do this? I call it part of the Principle of Cognitive Conservation, the tendency to avoid thinking too much. It can also be called stupidity. But it’s ubiquitous, saves us lots of energy, and can be corrected when we become aware of it.

Core Racist Beliefs

Racism is more sinister. It is a complete, organized belief system that maintains that the race to which you belong is superior (racists never think any other race is superior.) The superior race does not have to operate by normal laws of human decency toward members of lesser races. Lesser races are meant to either be eliminated or to serve the superior race. They can be abused in any manner the superior race deems fit-in their superior opinion.

Racism, Religion, and the Pit

Racism is a devilish idea, yet some religious racists justify racism from their scriptures, which generally take a dim view of the devil. Then again, anyone can justify anything from any collection of books. Racism is also a powerful idea, drawing strength from the natural and universal human preference for kinship groups and revving it up until it plummets right over the cliff of morality and into the pit.

Right Wing and Racism

Right wing groups, which rely heavily on fear and a consequent need for order, like to employ racism as a propellant to power. The Jew, the Mexican, the immigrant, the “other” is to blame for our difficulties. We can’t be to blame, we are superior-it’s the “other” we need to kill, export, or incarcerate and the right wing politician promises to take care of this for us. They will keep us safe; return us to the purity we once enjoyed. Obviously, we detect echoes of Hitler, but do we detect this in our current political discourse?

The “Other”

The Republican Party which once ran such honorable men as Dwight Eisenhower, has been playing footsie with the devil. The “other” is those lazy welfare queens Ronald Reagan mentioned, those brown people coming across our borders, those other brown people wearing funny scarves on their heads, well, really, brown people in general. Perhaps worse than the brown people are the white pointy-headed liberals who are traitors to their race and to the mythical pure beginnings of the Republic.

Death Debates

In two recent debates for Republican presidential candidates, the big applause-getters came when Rick Perry’s Texas was noted as having executed 234 more people than any other state. Applause. Kill them, kill them all. The next big applause-getter was when Ron Paul was asked a hypothetical question about a 30 year-old uninsured man who gets sick. Should he be allowed to die? Cheers from the audience-hell, yeah, let him die!

Now that they’ve let the demon out into the general population, has it taken control? Can a Republican get elected who isn’t in favor of death to ‘others?’ A Republican who tries to take a moderate position on war, or brown people, or sick people? Can you make a deal with the devil and expect him to dance to your tune? Or will he turn and consume you?



John Locke Was Wrong

Babies are not Blank

John Locke, (1632-1704) is said to have been a very influential philosopher, respected in his own time and in ours, since he had a large influence on Thomas Jefferson and we like what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence.

Babies as Blank Slates

One of the things John Locke said that was influential was that human beings are born tabula rasa, or blank slates, and society writes on these slates. This idea had profound influence on educational theory in our country. But it’s wrong. Human babies may be born Continue reading