On the Importance of Human Dignity (wherein I attempt an explanation of why we’re in this mess)
Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Saturday, December 3, 2011
It’s 2011 – very nearly 2012 – and the world seems in an uproar.
The Greek/Euro banking/debt crisis looms. The American banking/debt crisis looms larger yet.
Unemployment is at an all-time high in the United States and abroad. The Arab Spring uprising has deposed dictators in Egypt, Libya and the Middle East. Terror and anti-terror wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan & Iraq have gone on for very nearly a decade.
And the stateside Occupy Wall Street movement has become an international phenomenon with sit-ins/camp-outs/protests/demonstrations in Canada, and other nations, while general labor strikes in London have been, or will be ongoing amidst riotous demonstrations and worldwide unrest which have the potential to destroy any nation’s status quo.
Climatological changes never before witnessed have the scientific community hotly debating whether such changes are cyclical, or whether they’re induced. All the while, the polar ice caps continue a highly-documented and steady erosion by melting directly underneath an ever-increasing hole in the ozone layer – which layer protects the Earth from harmful solar radiation.
Earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and Southeast Asia – brought about by deep sub-oceanic earthquakes – have destroyed nations’ shore lines and cities in the Far East and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the intensity and frequency of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and droughts have wreaked havoc at home in the U.S. and abroad.
And fracking – the geological practice of rupturing the Earth very deeply to force out petroleum – is rapidly becoming a commonplace practice in oil exploration efforts in the United States – which practice will doubtlessly spread worldwide.
The increasing democratization of the world enabled by the Internet and social networking tools – among them the almost ubiquitous smartphone – have brought power to the people in a way never before imagined. All the while, the seeming omnipresence of geosynchronous and GPS-enabled eye-and-ear-in-the-sky satellites have international governmental officials watching, waiting and eavesdropping on their citizens with bated breath.
Could there be any more utter and absolute evidence of birth pangs throughout the planet?
And yet, it’s not as if uproars have never happened before.
They happen with great regularity and frequency.
In fact, they’re quite predictable.
It’s called “history.”
The maxim goes something like this:
“Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them.”
And so, any reasonable or prudent person should ask, “What are the lessons of history?”
Some would imagine the rise and fall of the Greek or Roman empire would be a reasonable parallel, while others would point to the French or American Revolution, while others yet would point to the ascendency and fall of colonial Portugal, Spain and England as examples. And yet others might claim influences of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Charlemagne, Atilla the Hun, Napoleon Bonaparte or others. Some might event point to the Egyptian Pharoahs – with Ramesses II perhaps most notable among them – as a perennial influence upon global history. After all, the Fertile Crescent region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers is considered the “Cradle of Civilization.”
Without question, all have made their mark upon history, and added their own unique influence upon each era.
And yet, beside the fact that all came to ascendency and eventually fell, there are defining characteristics which may identify, and thereby characterize their success, duration and ruin.
When studying any issue, there is always a point of origin, a place of beginnings, where everything all began, where it all started. And because historians have widely regarded the Middle East’s Fertile Crescent as that area, it would be wise to also consider the activities and behaviors observed there at that time as a rule or guide from which other behaviors have emerged and developed.
The distinctive social, governmental and cultural practices of any era – particularly in the modern era – may be ascribed to either what may be termed as an ethos of “best practices” which builds up, strengthens and edifies, or one of “worst practices” which eventually leads to downfall and change.
Modern uprisings – indeed, all uprisings – have a common root: discontent.
Discontent is differentiated from malcontent because in the case of the latter, an overall or widespread social sense of well-being is implied, whereas discontent generally characterizes an overall sense of restlessness, frustration and irritation among many, if not most.
And specifically what are the causes of widespread discontent?
In a nutshell, people become discontent when they are not treated with dignity and respect.
Being discontent suggests that people can be, and are aware of themselves, and their and others’ needs, wants and desires.
And we know that acknowledgement of hunger, thirst, desire for friendship, love or any other condition is common to humanity. The famous late American psychologist Abraham Maslow (d.1970) codified a hierarchy of human needs, the pinnacle of which is called Self-Actualization.
When we seek to understand human behavior – the whys and wherefores of what we do – it’s critically important to realize the basis of our motivations, which are often incorrectly called instincts.
In 1943, Maslow wrote that the foundation of the pyramid is comprised of elements he called The ‘physiological’ needs – followed by The safety needs – followed by The love needs – followed by The esteem needs – with the pinnacle being The need for self-actualization.
While much continues to made of what comprises each level of the hierarchy and base, Maslow wrote that the base contains “homeostasis” – which he defined as “the body’s automatic efforts to maintain a constant, normal state of the blood stream” – and “appetites (preferential choices among foods) are a fairly efficient indication of actual needs or lacks in the body” – both which he called “physiological drives.”
He wrote specifically that “it seems impossible as well as useless to make any list of fundamental physiological needs for they can come to almost any number one might wish, depending on the degree of specificity of description. For the man who is extremely and dangerously hungry, no other interests exist but food. He dreams food, he remembers food, he thinks about food, he emotes only about food, he perceives only food and he wants only food. Life itself tends to be defined in terms of eating. Anything else will be defined as unimportant. Freedom, love, community feeling, respect, philosophy, may all be waved aside as fripperies which are useless since they fail to fill the stomach. Such a man may fairly be said to live by bread alone.“
He remarked further about the Physiological base that “Obviously a good way to obscure the ‘higher’ motivations, and to get a lopsided view of human capacities and human nature, is to make the organism extremely and chronically hungry or thirsty. Anyone who attempts to make an emergency picture into a typical one, and who will measure all of man’s goals and desires by his behavior during extreme physiological deprivation is certainly being blind to many things. It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled?“
About safety, Maslow wrote, “The healthy, normal, fortunate adult in our culture is largely satisfied in his safety needs. The peaceful, smoothly running, ‘good’ society ordinarily makes its members feel safe enough from wild animals, extremes of temperature, criminals, assault and murder, tyranny, etc. Therefore, in a very real sense, he no longer has any safety needs as active motivators. Just as a sated man no longer feels hungry, a safe man no longer feels endangered. If we wish to see these needs directly and clearly we must turn to neurotic or near-neurotic individuals, and to the economic and social underdogs. In between these extremes, we can perceive the expressions of safety needs only in such phenomena as, for instance, the common preference for a job with tenure and protection, the desire for a savings account, and for insurance of various kinds (medical, dental, unemployment, disability, old age). Otherwise the need for safety is seen as an active and dominant mobilizer of the organism’s resources only in emergencies, e. g., war, disease, natural catastrophes, crime waves, societal disorganization, neurosis, brain injury, chronically bad situation.”
About the love needs, Maslow wrote that the “love and affection and belongingness needs” are specifically differentiated from sex by writing that “One thing that must be stressed at this point is that love is not synonymous with sex. Also not to be overlooked is the fact that the love needs involve both giving and receiving love.“
Of our self-esteem needs, Maslow wrote “All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, (usually) high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. By firmly based self-esteem, we mean that which is soundly based upon real capacity, achievement and respect from others.” Further writing that self-esteem was “relatively neglected by Freud and the psychoanalysts,” he added that “Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability and adequacy of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends. An appreciation of the necessity of basic self-confidence and an understanding of how helpless people are without it, can be easily gained from a study of severe traumatic neurosis.“
Finally… we arrive at the pinnacle of the pyramid, about which much has been written. Again, Maslow had this to say about it: “Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately happy. What a man can be, he must be. This need we may call self-actualization.“
It’s amazing that so much could be made of such a simple and concise statement. And yet, behavioral theorists, psychologists, psychiatrists and others have opined – ad nauseam – about it.
Having now laid a groundwork for a basic understanding of human needs, it should be somewhat easier to understand why civilizations throughout history have either risen or fallen.
They have deprived people of basic needs.
By depriving people of basic needs, it is a gross disrespect to the human being. It is not only an affront to basic human dignity, it is an effort – however subtle – to extinguish life.
Considering perhaps one of the most ignoble and egregious examples in recent history, we can examine the actions of Nazi Germany under the dictatorship of Adolph Hitler in World War II.
Using political means, and preying upon the fear and needs of a nation in the midst of chaos and fiscal turmoil, Adolph Hitler rose to dictatorial power and began his psychotically systematic roundup and extinction of any non-Aryan human being in Germany.
Even in the Cradle of Civilization, Egypt’s pharaoh harshly treated the Jews by requiring them to work double overtime without giving them required materials to reasonably produce. Not only were they harshly treated, but they were also slaves of an oppressive government. They had little – if any – say in how they conducted their affairs. There were times of hardship, as well. In fact, it was global famine that precipitated the children of Israel being driven out of Egypt by a man whom was abandoned as a newborn, raised by pharaoh’s daughter, became a murderer when he observed injustice, left in haste to relative obscurity, and later became a community organizer. Most will recognize the abbreviated version of Moses’ life.
Again, we see a basic physiological need – hunger – was a motivator for an entire nation.
Upon American shores, we have experienced similar times of widespread hardship, not the least and most renown of which remains the Great Depression, which also had worldwide effects and international ramifications.
Without exception – in every case – a denial of any of those needs – each successive one resting upon the met need of the one below it – will cause people to revolt. And in every case of revolution, those needs have been violated.
The French Revolution was precipitated and characterized by hunger, malnutrition, lack of safety, financial crisis and a sense of isolation of the ruling class.
The American Revolution was precipitated and characterized by a lack of security as evidenced by colonial British indebtedness, further exemplified by heavy taxation in the colonies, a lack of security in households by forced quartering of troops and massacre, and a sense of isolation from governance.
The fall of the Roman Empire was characterized by food insecurity, loss of civic virtue by the citizenry accompanied by excess prosperity, insecurity (lack of safety) characterized by a weakened military filled with non-citizens, economic upheaval characterized by devaluation of the currency/specie, artificially low prices on food which led to decrease in agricultural output and scarcity, insecurity characterized by governmental confiscation of private farms, livestock and crops, forced military service and generational indentured servitude (slavery), and a decline in education.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire was characterized by the desire of the rulers to stay entrenched in office, thus creating a sense of governmental isolation and an inherent sense of insecurity among those in power, a forced increase in ignorance by the delay of the printing press, failure of the economic structure as evidenced by increased trade competition – particularly in change of international trade routes, decentralized government, lack of integrity and standards by the ruling class (sultans), isolation of the ruling class from their subjects, and rising unemployment.
The fall of the Mongol Empire was characterized by insecurity resulting from a lack of unity in culture, poor governance, importation of, and reliance upon foreigners to attend to their affairs, public interests and financial dealings, consequently bringing insecurity from the resulting corrupt governance, and a generalized weakened government brought about by poor administration.
In every case – without exception – every basic need that could be denied or unfulfilled, most fundamentally ranging from a lack of food, to fearing for one’s life, and the resulting denial of every other aspect of human endeavors, including the deterioration of human relationships, was the characterization of every failed system of government, and the resulting upheaval and revolt.
Knowing then, what we do about history, it would be wise to do everything to prevent and avoid the historical causes of governmental failure and resulting revolt.