The Strength Paradox


Cover image made using Photo by Izzie Renee on Unsplash

The Primal Force

When challenged, our instincts propel us to either retreat or retaliate, commonly known as the fight or flight instinct. In case of predator attacks requiring a quick response, there isn’t much else one can do, and so evolution has guided us to develop this robust instinct to help us survive. The instinct appeals to our most powerful emotions of fear and shame. But nowhere in this approach is rational thought considered, because in the wild the time lost in weighing your options and making a rational decision could prove to be fatal, a big evolutionary no-no.

It’s mindbogglingly fascinating how natural selection coupled with evolution has given us complex and robust tools we cannot even begin to duplicate in spite of all our technological advances. While evolution has created marvelous organs like eyes, brains and whatnot, it is necessarily a tediously slow process.

Social evolution too is a slow process weighed down by social inertia. But the time scales are still orders of magnitude greater than that of biological evolution. When human beings started living in large complex societies, a lot of the survival methods and responses programmed into us by evolution became suboptimal. Societies have changed dramatically since the earliest nomadic clusters. But even now, when our species is capable of foresight and rationality, equipped with tools to analyze the advantages of long term strategies over cashing in on short term gains, we find that our survival instincts are difficult to override.

Few among us have the courage, patience, persistence and interest to internalize the merits of restraint. Action feels good, invigorating and rewarding, while inaction is frustrating. Our emotions are pushing us to do what was right and optimum a long time ago under very different circumstances. Emotional responses are simple, but quick. Today, in many situations we have the time to think things through and respond optimally, if only we can curb our knee-jerk reactions.

In the modern world, not only do we need to cope with challenges, but often doing so efficiently and effectively involves fighting our own deep rooted instincts, which really complicates matters. It can be exhausting and unfulfilling and in the end the big win may simply be, hey it could have been a lot worse. But that’s the point! It could have been a lot worse.

Fire Hazard

Today, we have a lot of populist leaders sounding the gong to rile up people to fight. Fight against what? Who knows or cares? It’s the fighting, the action, the charged up emotions that we have begun to crave.

Who remembers the misery of war and violent approaches to large scale conflict resolution affecting entire nations? Holocausts, mushroom clouds, concentration camps, carnage, they all happened, and for a while humanity learned from them. But most of us, haven’t seen it. The people who have, are either too old to care or dead. As long as their wisdom prevailed, so did peace and stability, albeit held together by duct tape and always on the brink. But hard work and steady incremental progress of peacetime just doesn’t get the blood gushing. Where’s the drama in that?

Revenge, fighting some vague possibly imaginary oppressor, even if it is a helpless insecure minority sometimes lashing out, now those are worth getting excited about. It sure does sound like fun for a while, until everyone gets hurt. The thing about fires, is once they are ignited they refuse to be controlled. Indiscriminate and insatiable, they devour even the hand that feeds them.

Our evolutionary responses are perfected for situations where we are under attack, and have nothing to lose. However, politicians triggering those emotions for personal gain in times of peace is reprehensible, and if we’re unable to see through the smoke screen and reign in our primal instincts, we are all headed off a cliff.

The fire of human emotions that is so recklessly being ignited and stoked, is sooner or later, going to indiscriminately consume us all. Should any of us delude ourselves into believing that this primal force of nature once unleashed can be controlled and reigned in to do our bidding?

We Have a Lot to Lose

We are no longer small tribes fighting off other small tribes or wild predators. We have formed complex societies where a myriad of cultures and races have come together to combine their ingenuity and skills to achieve what was unthinkable just a few centuries ago. The world has become a smaller and more connected place and we need to use our intelligence to adapt to it. Emotions alone wont suffice. We have come far, and gained much, and we have a lot to lose.

We are all aware that what takes centuries to build, can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. In a crazed emotional state of anger, or consumed by the insatiable fire of vengeance, we are likely to succumb to an overwhelming urge to indulge in aggressive irreversible measures that we may spend the rest of our lives regretting.

Then why do we trust leaders who manipulate our emotions? Why don’t we automatically tune them out? Biological evolution may not have quite caught up but it has given us some tools to cope. If only we would use them. If only we would stop to think. Why do we let greedy selfish politicians drag us into their battles and hurt us over and over and over again? Whatever our differences, it should be clear to us, that there is nothing worse than leaders who pit us against each other for selfish political gain.

So Let’s Be Smart and Selfish

Minority appeasement and compromise are words used to inflame masses to convince us that we have been cheated.

If we have a section of our population that feels vulnerable and insecure, because they are a minority, it makes sense to make them feel safe and loved. It’s not a chest thumping victory that is emotionally rewarding, but simply prudent as long as it is cost effective. And there are rewards too, that need to be factored into the cost calculation. Earning the loyalty of minorities is far more productive in the long run than controlling them through fear. War, riots, carnage not only have a human cost, but also material cost along with hindering development and interrupting trade and commerce. So let’s not be accommodating of minorities out of altruism, but for purely selfish reasons.

What troublemakers declare to be cowardice, is simply prudence, but by giving it an emotional twist they try to goad us into doing something stupid. Let’s be selfish and not indulge their self-serving whims.

Populist leaders call on us to make sacrifices for the nation. But our nation does not need sacrifices. It simply needs us to focus on making our everyday lives productive and treat fellow citizens with compassion and respect.

Narcissistic leaders cannot bear to let us be. They need us to focus our attention on them. But all we need to do is ignore their manufactured crises and focus on ourselves, our work, our families, our friends and respect all our fellow citizens. This is not easy. It takes immense strength of character to calm down when goaded and not rise to the bait. And that’s how we know, our quiet productivity and refusal to be goaded into violence is not cowardice.

What Should We Work Towards?

How best can long term peace and prosperity be achieved? An eye for an eye will eventually leave us all blind, won’t it? But if we swallow or pride, get our anger under control, compromise and find a middle ground, then most of us will retain our precious sight.

How do we define victory? If we define it as making our rivals suffer, then our strategy will focus on just that, no matter the cost to ourselves.

But is there a different definition of victory?

Of course, there is. It is getting what we want, or at least most of what we want. Does it matter what our rivals get or how much they suffer, so long as we get what we want?

If participating in a compromise means we and our rival both gain something, while fighting it out means we get nothing, incur some losses, but our rival loses more, is the transient emotional satisfaction of the the latter strategy worth sacrificing our own, and losing a resource we could have built upon and severing any chances of reaping the benefits of future co-operation?

Going back to the eye for an eye theory, do we define victory as getting most of what we want, or thoroughly humiliating our rivals? After all, if compromise fails, going blind is still an option, isn’t it? So isn’t it better to explore all other options before rushing off to this unpalatable one?

We would also do well to remember that shame is a great motivator for revenge whose flame will burn bright in the hearts of our rivals should we choose to humiliate them. A battle thus won, leaves us facing a war. Not a sound strategy for long term prosperity in my opinion.

Good Governance and Strong Leaders

When the gods wish to punish us they grant our wishes.

We all hope for good governance, but do we ever stop to think about what that means? Stop now. Ask yourself what it means to you.

Does it mean effectively imposing an agenda on unwilling people, or even an unwilling minority? Are people to be treated as naive children to be admonished by leaders who know better or responsible citizens encouraged to participate in the decision making process?

The problem with the former variety of governance is we never know when we’re going to be on the wrong side of it. Governments have to make loads of decisions and there are bound to be some, a few of us don’t agree with. Some of these decisions may benefit some majority but be severely detrimental to a minority. And who knows when we ourselves are part of that minority? Then a strong leader or an efficient government may prove to be our worst nightmare.

What kind of people are the strong leaders of today?

Strong leaders are often not good leaders. There is an inherent contradiction here making strong and good incompatible.

Good leaders should ideally be those capable of swallowing their pride, if that is what is in the best interest of their country. They need to find compromises that serve everyone, but also leaves everyone feeling a little disappointed. They need to let us be free and meet our needs for infrastructure. They need to serve us, not rule us. Such selfless service makes them neither loved nor strong in the public eye? In fact they may appear wishy-washy when they are working for a balance.

We have not yet learned to treat our servants with respect. In fact, many of us look down on them. Then will we be able to respect a selfless leader who serves us?

Posturing, pompous, uncompromising orators on the other hand, are great at projecting an appearance of strength, an illusion designed to deceive. Good leaders are not necessarily strong leaders, because strong leaders are often inflexible. Their rigidity is mistaken for strength. Good leaders have foresight and make compromises that aren’t glamorous and satisfies no one, but serve as an optimum bargain in the long run for everyone. Good leaders are often forgotten, because their reign is marked by prosperity and peace, not very exciting to read about, but perfect to live in.

Making strategic compromises are important for long term health of the country. But leaders who need to maintain the appearance of strength cannot bend, show humility or admit mistakes. Such leaders drive a country onto the road to perdition. When you jump off a 50 story building, the first 49 stories are an awesome ride, especially if we are charging down with conviction and faith. It’s only the going splat part that sucks. But if we realize that only when we’re coming down the last story, it’s too late to do anything about it. Something to think about, when we contemplate where we are headed …

We Can Get There If We Try

We are not going to change our instincts overnight. But if we push ourselves to think and assess situations calmly and rationally, especially when someone is goading us to do otherwise, we make progress. Slow, but steady progress. Let’s not be disappointed by a failure to do so but keep trying. Every time we become aware that we are being goaded, we’re a step closer to fighting it off.

Tags: contemporary, philosophy, social, values, parenting