Resistance & Human Venture Progress
by Ken Low
Resistance is in the air of our continental next-door neighbour these days. The U.S. is navigating an unfolding adaptive shock – one with global significance – and resistance is a growing part of the story. As always there is much to be learned by observing how others get into and out of messes.
The ’16 presidential election was won by someone widely believed to be unfit for office. This negative assessment wasn’t just a privately held or whispered belief; it was explicitly stated by a wide range of authorities and media. Donald Trump’s blatant self-promotion, coupled with his arrogance, ignorance, misogyny, boorishness, thin skin, penchant for conspiracy theories, and open disdain for anything and anyone who didn’t agree with him, worked well enough for an attention seeking real estate mogul / reality TV star, but made his election to the highest and most revered office in the land seem unthinkable.
But the unthinkable happened. Trump won the election, though not by the popular vote. Behind Hillary Clinton by nearly 2.9 million votes, Trump won the presidency by the arcane rules of the American Electoral College system. People who thought Trump unfit to be president didn’t change their minds overnight because of his victory. Resistance movements sprang up the day after the election, urging people not to “normalize” Trump’s election. Bumper stickers reading “Not My President” started to appear.
Not everyone is resisting of course. Nearly 63 million people voted for Trump. Despite historically low approval ratings on his first hundred days, he has a hard-core base of support. People voted for Trump in large part because shifting economic tides were creating real hardship and insecurity. People felt abandoned by the existing political establishment that was remote, self-serving and deeply dysfunctional. As a supremely self-confident outsider with no regard for political or any other kind of correctness, Trump spoke to them directly about their fears and promised to fix things. As one young voter explained to journalist Matt Taibbi: “‘Even if it’s small, there’s a chance that he’s going to do something completely different, and that’s why I like him,’ said Trent Gower, a soft-spoken young man. ‘And when he talks I usually understand what he’s saying. But, like when fricken Hillary Clinton talks, it just sounds like a bunch of bullshit.’” from Insane Clown President (p.268)
Trump’s dystopian campaign speeches stoking fear and attacking the establishment, minorities, terrorists and illegal aliens coupled with the slogan “make America great again” resonated strongly with voters needing to hear something that made them feel good about themselves and their country. It is a well-worn technique used by tyrants and demagogues throughout history.
Leadership isn’t hard. Leaders lead by activating something in people. The problem is that the easiest things to activate are usually not the best things in human nature. This has always been a weakness of democracy. Gaining a committed following is not difficult if one is willing to use any means to promote in-group solidarity and out-group fears and resentment. History is littered with the wreckage of societies that were seduced by cheap and easy forms of leadership. Leadership that brings out the best of human nature is hard, but it is vital if we are to make it through the 21st century. This is not simply a matter of ideology or political preference. The quality and character of leaders is critically important, especially in difficult and uncertain times. This is why some people are reacting so strongly to Trump’s election, especially social scientists and mental health specialists. Calls for his impeachment are becoming more common. In a recent Psychology Today article, Dr. Suzanne Lachmann wrote “his distorted thinking, disorganized conduct, and erratic, impulsive behavior, combined with his fixation on his own importance directly imperils our safety as citizens of the United States and he must be removed from the line of duty.”
But mental health professionals who are best positioned to identify potentially dangerous mental states are constrained from speaking out by an ethical standard known as the Goldwater rule that prohibits comments on the mental health of public figures unless they have conducted a personal examination. This is creating an ethical dilemma, but given what they see as the dangers to the nation, some feel that they have a responsibility to speak out. On Feb. 9, 2017, 35 doctors wrote an open letter to the New York Times stating the following:
“Silence from the country’s mental health organizations has been due to a self-imposed dictum about evaluating public figures (the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 Goldwater Rule). But this silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.
“Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state, attacking facts and those who convey them (journalists, scientists).
“In a powerful leader, these attacks are likely to increase, as his personal myth of greatness appears to be confirmed. We believe that the grave emotional instability indicated by Mr. Trump’s speech and actions makes him incapable of serving safely as president.”
A number of petitions, including a Change.org petition started by psychologist John Gartner that has garnered more than 20,000 signatures, have called for the chief executive to be removed from office on the grounds he is mentally ill and unfit to perform the duties of president.
These surfaced concerns have created an on-going dialogue about whether Trump really does have a mental disorder, and if the situation is serious enough to justify mental health professionals speaking out about it.
In response to these efforts, Allen Frances, an emeritus psychiatrist at Duke University School of Medicine who helped write the standard manual on psychiatric disorders, wrote a separate letter to the Times denouncing attempts to diagnose the president as mentally ill. He explains that Trump lacks the “distress and impairment required to diagnose a mental illness,” adding that bad behavior and mental illness are not synonymous. “Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy,” Frances wrote. Nevertheless, “he can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.” In other words, whatever is behind Trump’s conduct there is good reason to be organizing and resisting.
Scott Barry Kaufman is an American psychologist, author, and popular science writer, known for his research and writing on intelligence and creativity. He arrives at the same point following a different path. Writing in Scientific American, July 2016, well before the election, he contends that Trump is caught in the grip of a delusional quest for glory that motivates everything he does. Kaufman draws heavily on the work of Karen Horney, a German psychoanalyst who worked in America, and finishes his article with these words of hers: “We have reason to wonder whether more human lives– literally and figuratively– are not sacrificed on the altar of glory than for any other reason.” Trump’s election is not business as usual under a new regime – there are good reasons to be mobilizing.
Effective resistance requires training and the organizational ability to support collective effort over the long haul. Students are often at the forefront of the effort. Universities were at the epicenter of the 60’s counter culture activism. Students are taking the lead in organizing and training for resistance once again. From a recent Time article:
“Resistance School organizers — a group of Harvard graduate students — said a couple hundred people participated in the first lesson in person at the Ivy League campus in Boston on Wednesday, while about 15,000 people of all ages tuned in via livestream from 50 states and 20 countries. They estimated the total participation was even larger because students were encouraged to host watch parties in groups. The school — which is offering lessons on mobilizing activists and sustaining long-term resistance — has inspired comparisons to Dumbledore’s Army, the student group that united against Voldemort in the Harry Potter series. Breen said he is embracing the comparison as long as it means the school’s message is resonating with people. The group also reached out to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, a vocal Trump critic, to invite her to participate, but they haven’t heard back yet.”
Resistance is a concept with applications in different fields – physics, medicine, politics, military – but all have the same core meaning: something that opposes or impedes movement or development. Resistance is inherently dynamic with at least two opposing sides and a context. We can learn much about the nature of resistance by looking at how the construct works in different fields. Resistance by itself is meaningless. It has to be linked with other constructs to provide enough understanding to support problem solving or diagnostics and design.
Electric currents are made up of flowing electrons. Electrical resistance is a property of materials that resists the flow of electrons. Resistance is one of three basic things one needs to know in order to understand how electric circuits work. Current is the volume of electron flow, measured in amps or amperes. Voltage is the electrical pressure that drives the flow. Resistance is what impedes or blocks the flow of electrons, measured in ohms. These three basic characteristics help to understand the dynamics of any flow such as water through pipes or hoses, fluids and gas through pipelines, blood in the circulatory system, logistical supply chains, attack and defense on a battlefield, and even resistance or social change movements.
Put in everyday terms, voltage is the equivalent of motivation. Current is roughly equivalent of the amount work being done. Resistance is anything that restrains the work or keeps it from being done. Each is necessary, none is sufficient, and without taking all three factors and what they in turn depend on into account it is easy to be misled. For instance, current, flow or the amount of work being done depends not just on motivation and resistance, but also on the reserves of work capability that can be fed into the system. Static shocks can be driven by 20 – 25 thousand volts, electrical motivation enough for a spark to leap from finger to any nearby metallic object. Considering that the voltage in standard North American wall outlets is just 110 volts, it can seem strange that so much voltage doesn’t do us any real damage. The reason is that while it is very high voltage it is very low current. The supply of available electrons is quickly depleted and it’s literally over in a flash. The amount of current available in household wiring is limited to 25 – 30 amps by fuses or circuit breakers, which is easily enough to cause serious burns, start fires or even kill people in the right circumstances. There are some important lessons here for resistance movements. It is not enough to be highly motivated. To sustain something beyond a flash there must also be a system in place for generating reserves of work capability and delivering them when needed.
Investigating how electrical resistance works also teaches us something else, the value of understanding opposites. In this case, the opposite of resistance is conductance. Resistance is the property of materials that restricts electron flow. Conductance is the property of materials that enables or supports the flow of electrons. While the constructs do indicate opposite effects, at the molecular level the stories are inextricably linked together. Electrical resistance dynamics can’t be understood without knowing how conductance works and vice versa. Investigating what appear to be opposites to find out if and how they are linked tends to drives understanding deep enough to support diagnostics and design. Over the past century, continuous investigation into the properties of resistance and conductance led to the discovery that materials could be created that behaved like resistors in some conditions and conductors in others. This led to the development of semiconductors, integrated circuits and the unfolding digital revolution that is profoundly influencing the human story.
The lesson here is don’t be too quick to think you have it all figured out. Keep digging deeper, and look for the links that can turn resistance into support or support into resistance.
Resistance is also a central concept in many aspects of health and medicine. Health depends on our immune system’s ability to identify and destroy the bacteria and viruses that cause disease. Because there are many different kinds of pathogens and they are all capable of adapting, our immune system has to be highly adaptive too. Our immune system learns by experience. We don’t have to direct its learning. It’s been programmed by millions of years of evolution to be able to learn, but we can show it what to learn by injecting weakened versions of the current crop of pathogens into the body – vaccination.
Our immune systems are wonderfully complex. We still have much to learn about how they work, and the relationships between environmental and lifestyle factors that strengthen our immune systems and those that weaken or misdirect it. There are many things that can go wrong, such as the sharp increases in autoimmune diseases where the immune system attacks healthy cells, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis & celiac disease.
In his pioneering book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World, Paul Hawken compared social, environmental and cultural activism to humanity’s immune system. He writes: “The ultimate purpose of a global immune system is to identify what is not life affirming, and to contain, neutralize or eliminate it. Where communities, cultures and ecosystems have been damaged, it seeks to prevent additional harm and then heal and restore the damage.” (p. 145). Movements to resist anything that causes waste, suffering and injustice arise spontaneously in every culture.
It is vitally important to understand that our immune systems are learning systems, and they can’t learn if they aren’t exposed to diseases and disease causing agents. Every fall our immune systems get updated as children return to school, pooling new crops of pathogens that are brought back home and shared with the family. Think of your yearly bouts of colds and flu as immune system upgrades. Health isn’t the absence of disease, it’s the ability of both individual and communities of bodies to continue learning how to deal with existing and emerging diseases. It is a never-ending process.
Unlike our immune systems that operate at the cellular level, social, cultural and conduct immune systems must be consciously initiated and directed. The programing to do this requires the same experiential learning process but the lessons have to be consciously sought, structured, communicated, remembered and applied. This is not easy and most resistance movements founder or peter out because the people involved don’t learn widely enough, deeply enough, or for long enough. In the same way that our immune systems are programmed by the genetic history of our species and our personal history of immunity building experiences, social / conduct immunity is built on the lessons we have learned through our life experiences and the record of human striving, experience and failure that we access through our own efforts. Reading well-crafted histories and accounts is not the same as living them, but it can be close. Think of well-directed reading and reflection as existential vaccinations. If you don’t recognize a problem or what causes it, you can’t do much to fix it.
Resistance efforts that only focus on Trump are missing the bigger problem: the state of American culture that made the election of Trump possible. This is why resistance has to be coupled with a clear understanding of what to construct and reconstruct in order to support continued adaptive development in frame that includes all life and humanity.