ACT II: The Veils that Hide the Truth

The other day Robert Jervis, the Adlai E. Stevenson Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University, sent me a copy of his article entitled “Understanding Beliefs”.  The political psychological problem discussed in this article will be the heartbeat heard in the background of the Women’s Leadership Challenge.  The affluent, successful and well educated women participating in the If Women Ruled the World (IWRTW) documentary all suffered from a common, unconscious and politically pernicious form of self deception.  Quoting Jervis, “In difficult political and psychological situations, reality appraisal, far from pointing a way out, can be a menace to the person if the reality it points to is too painful to contemplate.”  The complexity of the world requires us to create in our minds a theory, a belief, a model, if you will, of what the world is like.  The mind filters the information or buzzing confusion seen and heard by our eyes and ears and then interprets it in a way that will fit our mind’s beliefs.  Reality appraisal is the way the mind tests itself to see if its model of the world is accurate.

Reality appraisal is a form of feedback.  The classic example of methodical reality appraisal is scientific research.  Ideally research is done with the intention of seeking out data that does not conform to the researcher’s mental model of the world.  This skeptical starting point is called the null hypothesis. Science is supposed to be open-minded to feedback that conflicts with generally accepted “objective” theories.  But as Thomas Kuhn pointed out, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, there are times in history when scientific theory changes so radically that scientists from “the old school” cannot accept the new theory even in the face of strong evidence that supports the new theory. There is a paradigm shift currently underway in astrophysics. Let’s take a look at an example of feedback from reality painful for physicists to contemplate.

My favorite website for learning is The Great Courses.  There is a course by a brilliant professor entitled “Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works.”  Here is the first paragraph of the course description.

Physics is the fundamental science.  It explains how the universe behaves at every scale, from the subatomic to the extragalactic.  It describes the most basic objects and forces and how they interact.  Its laws tell us how the planets move, where light comes from, what keeps birds aloft, why a magnet attracts and also repels, and when a falling object will hit the ground, and it gives answers to countless other questions about how the world works.

Clearly he thinks physics is the “correct” way of looking at the world.  The professor describes in 59 lectures (almost 30 hours) all the evidence to support his claim.  During the final 30 minute lecture he mentions that everything physicists can see with their eyes and instruments is only 5 percent of what is believed to exist.  The rest of the universe is invisible to current methods of detection.  The invisible components are called dark matter and dark energy. The old theory, belief, mental model of physics is represented by the first paragraph of the course description.  But this model failed to predict dark matter and dark energy.  If a theory fails to predict 95% of reality there is certainly room for improvement.  Perhaps there is hope for the humanities after all, dare we say room for the existence of a divine “force”?

If you believe the discovery of dark matter wasn’t a painful and humiliating experience for quite a few physicists, think again.  It isn’t physical pain, but psychological, and the humiliation comes from having based your whole life, your whole career, your identity on a mental model of the world that you suddenly discover is fundamentally flawed.  It’s a form of cognitive dissonance and in severe cases cognitive dissonance creates an existential crisis, an internal conflict waged inside one’s brain, that tears apart one’s ego.  Those of you familiar with the elements of fiction will recognize this form of conflict. Kafka’s In the Penal Colony comes to mind. What is striking about this form of mental conflict, and our mind’s reaction to psychological pain, is its similarity with instinctual responses to physical threats.

For example, if your life is physically threatened your thought pattern reverts to a primitive, a limbic, some describe it as a reptilian mode of decision making.  Fight or flight (defend your ground or find a safer environment) is the usual phrase used to describe this primitive decision making response in men. In women their response is more along the lines of tend or befriend. Under threat women tend to their children’s safety (defend your kin) or seek out a social group that provides mutual defense (find a safer environment).  Another option that doesn’t get discussed as often is deserting your position or ground and joining forces with your opponent.  If none of these options are viable in your mind, i.e. when defending your ground, finding a safer environment, or joining the “enemy” are not viable options, then the individual actively or passively accepts their fate. In other words they commit suicide or shut down and await death. I put the word enemy in quotation marks because the person (or idea) that you believe threatens your life (or identity) may actually be your friend, may even be your best friend. We’ll talk about this more during our discussion of Darwinian drama (“The End Game”).

But it is not only individuals who revert to these primal modes of thinking when their lives (or identity) are threatened with survival.  In his book The Lexus and the Olive Tree Thomas Friedman uses the olive tree as a symbol for the desire to retain identity and traditions.  He has a telling comment of how people respond to perceived threats to identity and traditions.  “Few things are more enraging to people than to have their identity or their sense of home stripped away.  They will die for it, kill for it, write poetry for it and novelize about it.  Because without a sense of home and belonging, life becomes barren and rootless.  And life as a tumbleweed is no life at all.” This is not the time for in depth discussion, but I want you to put this thought in the back of your mind for later reference.

Politics is essentially formalized “civil” warfare between groups with conflicting mental models of the world.  Watch Jonathan Haidt on the moral roots of liberals and conservatives.  Some would argue that, in the United States, civility no longer plays a part in these conflicts.  For an example from the social sciences read the 1998 article in Foreign Affairs by Francis Fukuyama entitled “Women and the Evolution of World Politics.”  Then read the response to Fukuyama’s article written by Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, et al.  Ehrenreich and Pollitt are resisting a theory, mental model, or belief that threatens to destroy the foundation of meaning for their lives.  It is just one example of, not a religious, but a “Belief War” within the social sciences that began when Edward O. Wilson fired the first shot in 1975.  His weapon was called, Sociobiology.

There is one more tragic example of olive tree destruction I want to mention. It points out how deadly, and dangerous, radical cultural change can be when it happens over a relatively short period of time.  China has gone through three cultural revolutions in less than seventy years.  The first was after World War II, the second started during the 1960s and the third revolution started with China’s conversion to a market economy in the 1980s.  For an idea of what happened I recommend Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. The tragic result of these three revolutions is China’s female suicide rate.  China is the only nation in the world where women kill themselves more than men.  It is a sentinel event in world history.  It is not a good omen of things to come in our ever more rapidly changing global village.

The point of ACT II is that the IWRTW dinner guests who dominated the dinner conversation believed they had a clear, rational understanding of what defined female leadership.  Their lives, their devotion to breaking through the glass ceiling holding women down from leadership positions that men covet, these actions defined female leadership.  Any woman who wasn’t a Supreme Court justice, a General, a world famous author, a Prime Minister, etc probably wasn’t a significant leader in their mind’s eye or the eye of the producer for that matter.  As a result of their beliefs, based upon their personal experience, they defined the women’s issues of greatest importance for them and assumed they were of greatest importance for the rest of the world’s women. Hopefully you can see that they possibly were wrong on both counts.  Next time we’ll discuss an imaginative way to avoid parochial ways of thinking and stay focused on truly global issues.  And the one issue we will maintain a laser guided focus on is the greatest injustice of the 21st century affecting women.  We will soon begin to discuss soft power, the way for women to win at a man’s game.

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