The Effects of Highly Habitual People

by Ran Prieur

June 24, 2003

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[This is an old version. The newer version is here.]

Evil seems easy to explain: It feels good to get what you want, and it's easier to get what you want if you don't care about anyone who stands in the way. This selfishness becomes a habit, and this habit can possess single people or groups or even whole societies -- addicted to wanting and getting, dependent on not caring, dominating more and more until they run out of room and crash.

But when you look at evil in action, it gets trickier. For example, why do the American dominant media support Bush and the gang behind him? Why do they accept all the lies, when exposing the lies would be in their short-term, medium-term, and long-term interests? They are corporations, and attacking Bush would get them more attention, higher ratings, and more profits. Then they would get him out of office and get pro-business Democrats in, under whom the corporate economy has always done better than under Republicans. Also, Bush is obviously piloting this country to suicidal destruction, and as long as the dominant media support him, there is no internal peaceful way to stop him -- he or his successor will keep going until half the country is on fire and Fox news headquarters is a smoking ruin. It seems to make no sense.

Evil is often called "irrational," but this is not precise. It's true that no news executive could counter the above arguments in a reasonable dialogue. It's true that all the arguments for the US conquest of Iraq could be reduced to nonsense, lies, hypocrisy, or pointless attacks on the imperfections of the anti-war crowd. It's true that evil people will never engage in an honest open-ended discussion of their positions, but will only mouth their talking points and avoid your questions by any means, including, if necessary, murder. But this is not irrationality. It's deception, and self-deception. The lies are a cover for a value system that could explain itself with perfect rationality, but for some reason does not. It would sound something like this:

I support the Bush gang because I feel good about them, because I resonate with their personalities. They are totally bad-ass! They are ruthless and merciless and don't fight fairly. They will use any means to obliterate anyone who stands in their way, and I feel great about being a part of that. The conquest of Iraq is justified merely by the fact that it feels good to crush an opponent with overwhelming force. If this adventure ends with the USA being destroyed in a war, I will simply change sides and sympathize with the new dominators -- even if they are dominating "me."

I learned this way of thinking as a child, when I was initiated into this tough world by people just like Bush or Rumsfeld, and I'm grateful. They taught me that it feels bad to empathize with the weak and the losers -- even (or especially) when "I" am losing. It's best to not dwell on it, and instead focus my full sympathies behind whoever is kicking ass at the moment. That’s the "I" that can't lose!

Liberals think my goal is money or power, and my lack of empathy is a means to that end. They've got it backwards. This wonderful hard cold world has taught me to derive direct intense pleasure from anti-empathy, and money and power are just excuses, or ways to keep score. I admit that I'm an addict, but as long as there's domination and indifference to suffering anywhere, I can resonate with it and always get a fix, and live in bliss. Why don't you join me?

This is an airtight value system. It's at least as logical as any justification for doing good. So why don't they just come out and say it? Why don't they even admit it to themselves? If you're laughing maybe you can tell me why, because I've never been more serious. Wouldn't it be much easier for people who dominate and abuse to simply hold up domination and abuse as self-justifying absolute goods? Why do they have to think of themselves as upstanding and righteous? Why must evil lie?

This has puzzled me for many years, and I can still think of only one answer: The larger context, human nature or the universe itself, must be fundamentally good. If the larger context was amoral or immoral, evil could be totally honest. The fact that evil has to lie proves that it's incompatible with reality: that receptive exploring attention and clear thinking will lead inevitably to extended empathy and more cooperation.

What is "evil" anyway? And what's "good"? I define them in terms of contraction and expansion. Have you ever touched a slug? Notice how its body tightens and contracts against danger. It's a basic biological response -- humans do the same thing. Of course we're vertebrates and we can't contract our bones, but we contract our muscles all the time -- literally all the time: If we spent our first years enduring overwhelming conflict and trauma, as all civilized humans did, then we learned to carry a permanent stiffness in our bodies. Wilhelm Reich called it "character armor" and saw it as a key component -- not just a symptom -- of emotional sickness.

We also contract our emotions. That's what we're doing when we withhold our empathy, when we pull back our consciousness to avoid taking a perspective that is weak or suffering. Of course in this particular world there is so much weakness and suffering that we have to withhold our empathy all the time, or we'll be overcome with sadness or anger, and unable to survive. On top of that, first world humans have to withhold our empathy because the weakness and suffering of others gives us benefits. If we could fully experience the perspectives of the factory-farmed nonhumans we eat, or the human laborers who manufacture our products, we would need to make life changes so radical that in practice they take years, so even if we make them we can extend our empathy only gradually.

That -- not staying pure -- is the definition of doing good in an evil system. Good-doers are dedicated to emotional and intellectual expansion, and to making the difficult adjustments that go with that expansion. Evil people are addicted to the feeling they get from contracting, or resisting expansion. And then there are many people, probably most, who are neither evil nor doing good. Unlike evil people, they aren't secretly happy that forests are being cut down, that animals are in cages, that humans are obeying bosses. If they really looked they would feel terrible, and feel the need to do something about it, to make uncomfortable changes, so they don't look, and they don't feel anything. Conventional people in an evil system are like evil people in that they are addicted to resistance to expansion, but their addiction is indirect: They are addicted to a way of being that can be maintained only through resistance to expansion. They are the ideal servants of an evil system, more ideal than evil people, who tend to destabilize it.

What is an "evil system?" I define it as a sustained violation of a surrounding good system. This definition is tricky because it's recursive: To know if the larger system is good you have to look at the next larger system, and so on. I think this reflects real uncertainty which we can deal with only by continually looking beyond. And a test of whether a system is good or evil is whether it permits looking beyond -- whether it is strengthened or weakened by the active practice of honesty.

So I've made a definition of "doing good" by which I've done more good than most people. But I don't think I'm more virtuous than other people, or more loving, or more sensitive, or more courageous. I'm only less habitual, and that's just because I got lucky. Specifically, I feel like people are born with something like an antenna by which they pick up the conventional behavior, and through some quirk of biology, or possibly environment, my antenna is missing.

At the beginning this was a disadvantage. For example, it took me hours to learn to roller skate. Everyone else was gliding around and I was just flailing in one place. I asked them how they did it and they said stuff like "You just move... you just go!" Finally I figured it out: You move forward by angling a toe outward and pushing outward with that leg. But nobody knew this was what they were doing! They were using their antennae to channel the correct behavior straight to their bodies without mental awareness.

For me it's like that with everything. What comes naturally to other people, especially cultural behaviors, I learn clumsily and years late, but I do it starting from scratch, and I am forced to pay attention. This has become a huge advantage, because it turns out that a lot of the things people's antennae tell them to do are not in their best interests. Sometimes I feel like "normal" people are all walking around with anvils on their heads. At first I awkwardly try it, and then I stop, and people ask me "Why don't you carry an anvil on your head?" I say "It's very heavy, it doesn't do any good, and it's much easier to walk without it," and they say "Ha ha, you're so weird!"

You think I'm exaggerating, but consider lawns. Why not just do nothing to the land around your house? No watering, no mowing, no pulling "weeds," no poisoning, nothing. Let it go wild! It will save you enormous labor and expense, give you more time to watch baseball, conserve resources, and on top of all that it will make the land look better -- because people will travel hundreds of miles to look at wild land, but nobody travels to look at lawns; there are no lawn photographers or lawn landscape painters.

I'm serious. You can't argue with me. Or if you did, it would sound like this: "I put hundreds of dollars and tedious hours into my lawn because I enjoy controlling physical space, having 'my' space and omnipotently deciding what to put there. It makes me feel powerful and valuable. And I choose to put there exactly what everyone else puts there because I enjoy fitting in, being part of a group, following strict rituals beside other people."

Again, why don't they just say this? Why do they choose to remain unaware of their real motivations? It must be because such awareness would threaten their beloved habits, by giving them the perspective to choose otherwise, to abandon the rituals or change them. Soon we might stop ironing our clothes, washing our cars, caring at all about social status, or doing any labor beyond what's necessary for basic subsistence. The reality to which we are accustomed would break apart. It would be like dying!

I'm going to call a habitual whole way of being a groove, a smooth, easy, comfortable channel that tells you where to move. I could also call our present system a rut, a dull, entrapping, suffocating channel. For most of us it feels like both. But for any such pattern to last, the overall positive feelings must exceed the negative.

Civilized humans are in a groove that has brutally destroyed almost all other cultures, that has captured us into numb, shallow lives of stressful toil and perpetual dissatisfaction, and that, if it could be sustained, would exterminate all life on earth. And we like it!

I'm not just talking about loving our cars, which eat friendly downtowns and shit strip malls, and demand the massacres of people living on top of the oil, or loving television, which treats us all like we're the stupidest person watching, and replaces the last shreds of our cultural diversity with a global monoculture where the meaning of life is to be richer and thinner and buy standardized products and services. These are just the latest manifestations of an out-of-balance groove we've been in for thousands of years. When ancient civilizations made bronze weapons to go kill and enslave their neighbors, what were they getting out of it?

It's complicated. On one level you've got your evil individuals who love killing and dominating because it gives them an opportunity to contract their empathy. Then you've got the "economic" motivation, but that doesn't seem to make any sense, since stone age people already had everything they needed -- but hold that thought... Also you've got group narcissism, the same thing we have today with flags and sports teams, where people have had their sense of their innate value so hammered out of them that they can feel valuable only by identifying with some dominating abstraction to which they fictitiously belong. But why must these symbols dominate, or even compete? Why can't soldiers and athletes all play cooperative games with no winning or losing? Why does your group have to be "better"?

Because "better" is what we're addicted to. It's what attracts so many people to Bush, who represents more weapons, more concentration of wealth, more control. It's what drives so much labor beyond what's necessary for survival, billions of poorer people sacrificing the trillions of hours of their lives so their kids or grandkids can move up the pyramid, can fail to enjoy the trappings of higher social status while stepping on the next person down.

It's a narrow, quantitative "better," a tight, competitive, judging "better." It has nothing to do with the feel of warm sand on bare feet, or the pleasure of hanging out with your friends. It's about things that can be numbered and ranked, things that are scarce and demand striving. It's because of this addiction that people who go into the wilderness don't just relax by a stream all day, but push themselves all day up a trail. What "better" really means is "requiring more labor."

If the ground were littered with diamonds and gold, and we could get mud only by digging deep mines, mud would be "better," and people in shameful golden houses would work their whole lives for the privilege of living in classy mud huts. It sounds absurd, but the world we live in is even more satanic, because what's actually all over the ground -- soil and clay and grass and wood -- is good for growing food and making houses, while what's deep in the earth -- iron and gold and oil and uranium -- is good for building weapons and social inequality and alienating machines.

So we've got several habitual behaviors going at once. There's the tension between the unsatisfying experience of the moment and the ideal image in our heads. Then there's the stressed-out activity driven by this tension, and the satisfaction of "succeeding,” contracting our reality toward the ideal. And also there's the terror of having nothing to do -- we call it "boredom" but it's really free time, truly open time in which all the painful truths we've been hiding threaten to flood our awareness.

But at the same time that we must be busy "improving" things, we also love sameness, recognition, being where we've been before. We resolve this paradox by striving for more and more unattainable versions of the same thing: the lawn we're used to with fewer and fewer "weeds," the TV programming we're used to on better TV sets, the driving we're used to in newer classier cars, a higher position in the labor career we're used to. Whatever it is, it's never truly different, and it's never enough.

So civilization as we know it is a bad groove, or a giant intertwined nest of bad habits, and how it got started we can only guess. But deeper than this, why are we habitual in the first place? Why do we tend to get in grooves and stay there? Grooves themselves are not civilized -- they are natural. People are habitual because biological life is habitual.

Are animals evil? They obviously take great pleasure in resonating with the conventional behavior of their kind, going through the same patterns over and over, patterns which include killing. But an eagle who kills a mouse is unlike a neoconservative killing Iraqi children, because the eagle's behavior is in balance with the whole, and also because the eagle takes no pleasure in withholding its empathy from the mouse -- because it lacks the option to extend its empathy that far.

But, from wherever its empathy normally extends, it might have the option to contract it. I think I once saw evil pigeons. They were in a park in London but right now anyone would recognize them as American pigeons -- someone had been systematically feeding them massive amounts of junk food, and they were all grossly fat, and when a piece of food fell, and one pigeon got to it first, the next pigeon would not politely turn away, like normal pigeons do, but would viciously bite the first pigeon and squawk angrily.

I think nonhuman animals are capable of all the same simple negative emotions as humans, and that they can become directly addicted to emotional contractiveness and be personally evil. But they will do so only in exceptional circumstances, and these circumstances cannot perpetuate themselves as evil societies because the animals' range of behavior is so limited, or their grooves are so deep, and what they're deep in is nature, which as far as I can tell is the surface of a symbiotic loving greater universe.

Human animals can form evil societies not because we're smarter or "higher," but because for some reason our behavior is unusually flexible. I've called humans "adaptable," but now I notice that this word blurs together at least two meanings. One of them I'll call impressionable. The "blank slate" theory is a simplification of this quality: that very young humans, far more than any other animal, will develop to fit their environment. So a human raised by wolves will act like a wolf, but a wolf raised by humans will act like a wolf.

The other meaning of "adaptable," I will call the ability to readjust, the ability of an adult to adapt to a changing environment. Most humans don't readjust any better than nonhumans -- thus the cliche "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." This failure to readjust is identical with cultural conservatism, the act of holding tightly to the ways we're used to, whether they're helping or not. And to form an evil society, we must be both impressionable, to learn behaviors far out of balance, and not readjustable, to stay there.

Are humans unable to readjust, or unwilling? Could we do it if we really wanted to? Are some humans biologically more able to readjust? Can the skill be learned? Is readjustability subject to impressionability, so that we could potentially all develop to be masters of readjustment?

If we can, we haven't yet. Resistance to readjustment has been strong in all human societies that we know of. "Primitive" humans are just as habitual and narrow-minded as conventional civilized people, and even more resistant to social change. They have strict rituals and taboos; they pretend you're joking when you try to stretch the walls of their reality; they have tribal loyalty that's psychologically the same as our loyalty to sports teams or nations.

But their groove is good: their habits keep them symbiotic with the wider universe and with each other. They are stewards of their ecosystems, not destroyers. The group they're loyal to gives them full participation in power. Even warlike tribes conduct warfare in a ritualized way that's fully consensual and minimizes serious injury. Even in tribes with internal rituals of abuse and domination, the people have rich, deep social relations, and abundant leisure time, and none of them ever agonize about the meaning of existence.

I'd love to live a million lifetimes chasing bison over the plains, or swimming in the warm ocean and eating mangoes, but I wonder if we have other options -- or even if we need other options, so the whole earth doesn't get conquered and enslaved again if this bad habit reappears.

Now we're at an impasse. Nature-based people will say that their groove is the place where humans belong. Civilized belief systems say that the primitive groove is something like a trap for our consciousness, that it's our destiny to transcend it. Both sides can convincingly show their opponents' position to be an illusion of the particular way their opponents are narrow-minded. I don't trust anyone who says they're sure of the answer.

I'm sure that the groove of known nature-based peoples is wide open to our descendants, and they would love it. I'm sure that the groove of civilization as we know it is hellish and limited. And I think, but I'm not sure, that other grooves are possible. Certainly it's possible to imagine hundreds, though at first it's difficult to imagine any.

So a third vision is to slide into a new groove different from any we have known. From this perspective, and the ones that follow, the nightmare of civilization was necessary to replace the dream of the earth and make us want to wake up.

A fourth vision is to transcend habit completely, and never be in any groove -- no sense of home, no comfortable familiarity, just headlong newness forever. Even to me that sounds like too much.

The vision I favor is that we will learn to master our habitual behavior, but will not use our mastery to stay out of grooves, but to make more grooves, to slide in and out of them at will and jump from one to another to another, so we can have as much newness and as much familiarity as we want.

For example, we could all live like Indians again, except this time it will be normal for individuals to move around from tribe to tribe. Or we could diversify more and add some agrarian peoples, or some technological peoples, if their technologies (and this is the real challenge) somehow keep them in symbiosis with nature and other societies. Or we might add something totally new, or even shift into grooves that our present understanding would call "alternate realities” or "parallel universes."

Is any of this possible? And even if it is, how many people would choose it? Only a few of us talk about "transcendence" and we're the ones who never got into our home reality in the first place. And why didn't we? If it's because our world is so far removed from nature, then why are we not much into nature either? Why do some people resonate more strongly with certain kinds of imagined worlds than with any apparently real world? Where are we going? What are we doing here? Who are we?