This is a re-print of a post in my old blog, originally published May 2009. It’s becoming more relevant as the Right Wing is becoming more violent.
No, I’m not talking about actual snakes and lizards, and I’m not saying our opponents on the Right are snakes or lizards anymore than all of us are. I’m talking about the development of the human brain. I’m about to over-simplify some complex concepts, so bear with me, because I think understanding this model is vital to creating a more functional society. Most complex animals have a central nervous system that handles all the automatic functions of the body – the beating of the heart, breathing, anything your body does without having to think about it. Above this system developed a brain called the Reptilian Complex (R-Complex,) so named because it’s the part of our brain we have in common with snakes and lizards. This part of the brain holds our survival instincts. It governs the “fight or flight” or “approach-avoidance” reactions. Its only emotion is rage. Its only function is survival. When threatened, it tends to bite.
In humans, we have two more brain structures on top of the R.-Complex – the Limbic system and the Neo-Cortex. The Limbic Brain is the first thing to differentiate us from lower life forms like reptiles. It contains instinct (feeding, fighting, fleeing, fu*king) and emotion. It is social – mammals with this structure raise their young, unlike reptiles, who lay eggs and abandon their young, and will tend to live in groups to increase their chances of survival. If this area of the brain is stimulated by an electrical charge, it produces emotion. The man who first described the Triune Brain model, Paul D. MacLean, said that everything in the limbic system is either “agreeable” or “disagreeable.” It isn’t capable of higher functions like logical reasoning, it simply feels and reacts. This part of the brain forms part of the individual identity and has some capacity for memory.
The newest part of the human brain is the Neo-Cortex. This is the part of the brain that has nuance – logic, creativity, language and speech, spatial reasoning, sensory perception, conscious thought. These are the functions that allow us to create art, culture, literature and it’s the part we try to train with formal education. Unfortunately, we only occasionally have professional direction in learning to work with the Reptilian and Limbic brain, the training of which usually falls to parents with no knowledge of this level of operation. Our society pays dearly for this mistake, and we all deal with the logical results of frustration, anger, and lack of empathy produced in children by parents with perfectly good intentions. Brain development should be taught to kids in Junior High before they have a chance to reproduce, but that’s not the subject of this article. At this point we need to keep in mind that when active, the R-Complex can override all higher brain functions. In other words, a normal human will revert to Reptilian response when threatened or enraged.
Now, let’s look at the psychology involved in the development of ethical reasoning. Different cultures have different standards of what is good and what is bad, but humans tend to go through a certain process in learning to apply their ethics and cultural mores to their own behavior. Lawrence Kohlberg defined 6 stages of Moral and Ethical development, which I’m going to divide into 3 levels for the purpose of this discussion. Let’s look at a little chart:
Now, if you look at that chart, there are three basic levels of Moral and Ethical Development. The Level 1 (Stage I) corresponds to the Approach/Avoidance, Fight-or-Flight instinctual response of the R-Complex. We see this level in small children and occasionally, college students.
Level 2 (Stage II) functions according to an external source of rules – the bible, the law, cultural or social expectations of family, friends, or neighbors, without question. This corresponds to the Limbic System’s ability to be social in order to survive. Everything at this level is either agreeable or disagreeable. In other words, everything at this level is good or bad, black or white, familiar or foreign. This level is best described as Fundamentalism when taken to an extreme, and groups that function here can demand conformity to the ascribed code to the extent that they will enforce the code with violence – prison, hate crimes, war.
Level 3 (Stage III) is the level where you start to apply logic to problems, to ask questions and make comparisons. You don’t necessarily agree with the people around you and you reach your own conclusions. This level corresponds, albeit imperfectly, to the Neo-Cortex.
The problem is, in our culture at least, most people get to Level 2 around the age of 8 years old and stay there. The majority of people never seriously explore a religion or belief system beyond the one they are born into. Most people follow their local customs and laws, or conform to their primary peer group. The higher functions, like abstract thought and critical thinking, are usually possible at around age 16, but development of those skills is often dependent upon one’s environment or educational opportunities.
What you believe doesn’t determine where you fall in the continuum. It’s how and why you believe what you believe that matters. You can be a Fundamentalist atheist as well as Christian or Muslim. You can be a very religious person with an open mind who loves new ideas and other cultures. The important difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is the level of certainty. Level 2 tends to think that their way is the only way or the best way, without question, and they can be threatened to the point of violence by anything that differs from the familiar for them. It takes absolute certainty that you are right to discriminate against, let alone attack, someone for an arbitrary reason or accident of birth.
Level 3 understands that logically, no one can really know who is right or wrong in matters or religion, society or culture. It’s all relative and at Level 3 there is room for doubt. Notice that the Religious Right in America, a fundamentalist movement, despises the “moral relativity” of the Liberal Left, calls the Left “elitist” and associates Liberal tolerance with higher education. It’s not just a difference in belief or ideology – it’s a differing level of moral and ethical development. No amount of reason will persuade a person functioning at Level 2, which is all emotion. When Level 2′s sense of absolute certainty is challenged, it is perceived as a threat to their survival, and they regress to the point where the Reptilian Brain overrides the higher brain functions and the only emotion at that level is rage. No amount of logic can cut through that.
America at its inception was a Level 3 society specifically designed to be the most liberal and equal country on earth, created by the advanced reasoning skills of the minds of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams and Ben Franklin, among others. The structure of the new government had to be compromised to get the cooperation from reactionary economic forces that relied on the legal practice of slavery, and the original design was altered to allow them to begin. Ultimately, Jefferson and the others had faith in future generations that we would move our government toward their reason-based ideal, and we’ve managed to move somewhat in that direction, though we experience conservative backlash at regular intervals. We’re fighting a conservative backlash now that began with Ronald Reagan and went to it’s most outrageous extreme during the Bush Administration. Now we’re faced with the aftermath of a government that funneled billions of dollars to private interests at the expense of the taxpayers, and all but destroyed the civil liberties guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. As much as our new President Obama is an improvement, he may still be too conservative to prosecute war crimes committed by his predecessors.
We need to move Left in this country. We need single payer health insurance, but its proponents are not even allowed a seat at the table. We have evidence of war crimes but it looks as if this administration won’t pursue legal redress even though failing to do so violates national and international law. Billions of dollars are still being funneled to private interests with no benefit to the taxpayer. People are still denying the right to marry to an entire segment of the population based on the incorrect assumption that marriage has anything to do with monotheist religion. Women’s bodies are still subject to control by the state. It’s time for us to live up to the Jeffersonian ideal.
Now, the problem we face is this: How do you pull a majority of the population into a higher level of moral and ethical development? Reason won’t work with someone stuck at Level 2. They don’t have critical thinking skills and they aren’t open concepts or cultures in conflict with the one they’re born into. Now that the Republican party is facing its own loss of power and prestige, a threat to its survival, they have completely regressed to Level 1 functioning. Reptiles lack empathy, logic, and are based in rage and fear. It’s no coincidence that I just described Dick Cheney’s recent media blitz, telling us all we’re going to die if we don’t torture people in violation of international law even though torture doesn’t work.
There is also the additional problem that the leaders of the Right have financial interests in keeping the status quo, and they understand these levels of functioning. They are extremely adept at manipulating people with good intentions but poor educations. The only solution I see to moving us Leftward is education, but we know our schools aren’t up to the task right now and we can’t wait several generations for change. The only way to reach most people is through the popular media. Short of strapping everyone down and making them watch Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, I don’t know how we reach them. I only know that it has to be done.
Any ideas? I’d love to hear them.