Preserving the wild human | An interview with Dr. Louis Herman

For example, the first, the process of personal growth, is what Jungians call “individuation,” or “becoming all that you can be.” This is the notion that one learns about life through one’s full-bodied emotional participation. The more one lives through the basic archetypal life-defining experiences,  the deeper one’s understanding of life and thus the possibilities of the good life. In the San, the compact nature of the society allows everyone to participate to some degree in hunting and gathering, making clothes, shelter and tools. To some degree everyone is a singer, a dancer and a healer. Everyone is also priest and politician. All are exposed to the full dramas of the lives of others in the public theater of the camp—the loves, the quarrels, the births, initiations, aging and death. Band life has an emotional depth and richness which we often lack in our more individualized, specialized urban existence.

The compact nature of San society also facilitates face-to-face discussion. All have plenty of time to share experiences, reflect on them, argue about them, and then weave the collective wisdom into an ever-enlarging shared big picture, a big story of meaning. This is the fourth component of the quest—co-creating a worldview that helps bind the individuals into  a community. The ethos of participatory democracy and egalitarianism is preserved by the mechanism of what anthropologists call “reverse dominance.” For example arrows are traded and given as gifts among all members of the group. When a hunter takes an arrow from his quiver at random and shoots and kills an antelope, the meat belongs not to him but the owner of the arrow, who may be a young woman or a man too old to hunt. The owner of the arrow does the first distribution of the meat. This prevents the hunter from becoming arrogant and lording it over those he feeds. This sort of egalitarianism helps keep face-to-face communication free from intimidation and distortion. It also expands the realm of individual participation in all aspects of the life of the group.

Again the compact nature of the band—its small scale and lack of division of labor—makes it easier for everyone to practice the fourth element of the truth quest—to keep constructing a big picture of the good of the whole. Everyone knows the state of the veldt and the animals; everyone knows the members of the group as individuals, and everyone can grasp the group as a whole. Everyone has some access to the inner spirit world through shamanic states of consciousness.  In short, as Mathais Guenther puts it, “everyone is author and agent of his or her own worldview in a far more robust sense than the average citizen of the nation state.” The enlarged vision—the big picture—fed by face-to-face discussion in turn feeds back, inspiring the individuation by offering a vision of life-yet-to-be-lived. So the four values, the four processes, are really tied up with one another and with the political economy of the small self-sufficient, wilderness based society.

The MOON: Please say more about the importance of face-to-face communication—which, as you point out, was also a key component of the Greek polis model—the Socratic method. Face-to-face communication has become somewhat scary in our culture because we are so polarized. We’re afraid to talk about anything meaningful. Religion and politics, for example, are not considered polite topics of conversation.

Herman: Right. And so much communication isn’t face-to-face anymore. We’ve got the safe distance of texts and movies, of Facebook and Twitter. But there’s a special power in face-to-face communication. The face-to-face situation confronts you with two opposite facts—both of which are absolutely necessary for coming to some consensus about our shared good. First is the fact that your experience is different from mine and can never be fully shared because we sit opposite one another.  We can never occupy the same body, the same history. The other is that we do in fact share a single reality—at the very least that of sitting face-to-face talking. But we inevitably experience that slightly differently. Through back and forth sharing, comparing, arguing and discussing, the realm of agreement can be infinitely expanded.

A simple example comes from the Cheyenne medicine man Hyemeyohsts Storm. He describes a group of people sitting in a circle on the prairie with a painted drum in the middle of the circle. It’s the same drum for everybody but everybody will perceive it slightly differently depending on their position in the circle. Suppose the drum has painted images. Those sitting on one side will see the images on that side of the drum and those on the opposite side will see images on the opposite side. To get a more complete understanding of the drum we need to go around the circle and incorporate everybody’s perspective. We also need to take into account what each brings to the circle. Some might be colorblind, others might have language problems. Some might be familiar with drums and recognize the images; others not. Not only do we need the contribution of each to get a full picture, but we need everyone’s backstory to understand and get the benefit of their contribution. The situation gets really interesting and complicated when the object is an idea or an institution, such as “capitalism” or “socialism.”

Face-to-face communication confronts you with the fact that you understand any reality to the degree that you included other and opposite perspectives. That’s the root of the African concept of Ubuntu: I am a person through my relationships with other people.

The MOON: I loved the example you gave about the San marital couple who split up because the wife went off with the husband’s best friend. After a year of listening to the husband’s complaints about losing the two people closest to him, the group proposed that the new couple come back and form a threesome. [Laughs] And that solution worked.

Herman: Right. What was so great about the group’s solution to the husband’s problem was that it was totally original. There had never been a case of a threesome before. Here we see how the back and forth face-to-face situation can help think  “out of the box.”

Let me give you a better example from South Africa’s recent history. When Nelson Mandela was in prison on Robben Island for violently opposing apartheid, he was forced into face-to-face relationships with racist Afrikaner guards and prison administrators. He had the courage to open himself to the Afrikaner experience and soon discovered many of the warders had never really had a relationship with a black man and were simple country boys. The Afrikaner felt quite simply that a democracy of one-man-one-vote would mean the annihilation of the culture and people they loved. So Mandela set about to study Afrikaans—the much-hated language of oppression and Dutch racism. He read the history and the poetry and studied their politics. Eventually he got an interview with the hardliner and arch-racist Jimmy Kruger, the minister of justice—Mandela’s official jailer. Mandela began by speaking politely and respectfully in Afrikaans. This immediately threw the Minister of Justice off guard. He was expecting a confrontation with a black communist who hated Afrikaners and Afrikaans. Mandela then made his arguments for the release of black political prisoners by using examples of Afrikaner heroes. The Boer War, as you probably know, was a guerrilla war of resistance by Afrikaners against the colonial oppression of the British. He talked of Christiaan De Wet and Robey Libbrandt, both of whom had been imprisoned by the British, De Wet for leading a violent resistance to South African participation in the allied effort in WWI, and Libbrandt for his resistance in WWII. Both men were eventually released by the British. So here’s Kruger listening to Mandela embodying a deep understanding of the Afrikaner culture. Kruger was moved, but the prisoners were not released.

Mandela refined this strategy in negotiating for an end to apartheid with Kruger’s successor, Kobie Coetsee. In Mandela, Coetsee felt that he had someone he could talk to, while Mandela lost some of his hatred for the Afrikaner because he could start empathizing with their fear of cultural obliteration. In the process, both men changed. What is often missed in this story is how much this strategy changed Mandela himself. By internalizing the worldview of the Afrikaner, Mandela’s own soul was enlarged and his individuation advanced. This visible change in Mandela expanded Coetsee’s worldview. Both men grew by encompassing in their self-understanding something of the soul of the other and creating a larger shared picture of the human condition. Again, we have an example of the African concept of Ubuntu—the notion that I become more of an individual through my relationship with others.

When Mandela was eventually released and interviewed about who his political hero was, he avoided the obvious  answers—Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King. Instead he shocked political correctness by proclaiming that Kobie Coetsee, the apartheid minister of justice, was his hero. The reason was that Coetsee had to show great courage, imagination and a deep commitment to truth to open himself to his warring opposite.

Here in this African story we have all the elements of the truth quest: growth in wholeness and face-to-face discussion establishing a trusting community guided by an ever-enlarging big picture. That new bigger picture helped create and support a larger community in which both black and white were connected by a deeper truer understanding of what it means to be South African.

The MOON: That’s a great example.

Herman: Yes, I find it really moving.  You can see why Mandela inspires such love among both whites and blacks. You see another example of this expansiveness of soul in the way Mandela orchestrated  South Africa’s participation in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Rugby was a white man’s game, dominated by Afrikaners and hated by blacks as a symbol of apartheid. After a decade-long boycott South Africa was being allowed to participate and given the privilege of hosting the World Cup. In a great drama of cultural transformation Mandela mobilized the black population to support the Springbok rugby team. Although the Springboks had never played an international game, Mandela’s embrace of the team  inspired an extraordinary and unexpected victory. What followed was an orgy of reconciliation, with blacks and whites hugging and dancing in the streets. Clint Eastwood’s movie Invictus depicts the story  quite accurately.

The MOON: I personally have great difficulty engaging with people whose ideas I find hateful—like apartheid. I’ve done silent solo peace vigils on a street corner in Santa Barbara, but they were silent because I didn’t trust myself to have a conversation with people who might be hostile in their disagreement with me.

Herman: I want to emphasize this aspect of face-to-face communication: you can’t speak persuasively or have a proper discussion without deep listening and empathy. That is a precondition of a discussion. Otherwise it’s a lecture or a tirade. If one thinks one knows it all, one cannot really hear anything that contradicts one’s certainties. For example in dealing with Israeli and Palestinian in the Middle East, you need to say at the outset, “Look, this is just going to be a continuation of warfare by other means unless we both agree to certain overarching agreements. One is to acknowledge that everything we know is limited by our journey through life. However certain you are that you have all the truth and rightness on your side, you must accept the reality that you cannot have absolute certainty. And neither can I. Once we accept the fact that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves to the truth quest and will unquestionably learn from one another, grow as individuals, and emerge with a larger shared big picture. Agreement and creative change then become easier. .

The second prerequisite would be to talk from the truth of one’s personal experience.  All sides need to tell their stories. So when a Palestinian presents a case for an independent Palestinian state, he or she does so in terms of his or her own personal history. “I grew up in a refugee camp. I was beaten by Israeli soldiers. My family lost their home.” It’s got to be personalized, so that there is no illusion of describing some objective reality equally binding on all. Whether it’s someone making a case for meat-eating, or for vegetarianism, the issue doesn’t matter. What matters is talking about it from your own experience.

The third ground rule for quality discussion is a shared commitment to collectively constructing a vision of the greatest good of all—the good of the whole. That’s why I think it’s so important to make the primal truth quest explicit. Because once it is explicit, once everybody can say, “I can actually get a better handle on reality and live a happier, healthier life, and contribute more to the good of the whole if I open myself to  listening to you,” then our conversations can flow readily, and progressively generate goodwill, and ever larger shared understanding. Problem-solving follows relatively easily.

The MOON: What is the role of transcendent states in the life of the San? You mention a shamanic relationship to the natural world as being a fifth element of primal politics.

Herman: Yes. We can understand the fifth element of primal politics as represented by a concentric circle of wilderness surrounding the four quadrants of the truth quest. The circle represents our relationship to the surrounding natural world as a sacred mystery. It is accessible both within the psyche, as the mystery of the spirit world, and outside in our politics and economics, cradled in the great mystery of the evolving universe. The psycho-technologies of shamanism allow us to explore these realities and to use the insight gathered to balance our political and economic decision-making.

I should say at the outset that I don’t make a hard distinction between the spirit world and psychic life, or the world of “psychology.” I regard the psyche as an inner universe as immense, mysterious and awesome as the outer universe. As C.G. Jung expressed it, The psyche is the greatest of all cosmic wonders and the sine qua non of the world as an object. It is in the highest degree odd that Western man . . .  pays so little regard to this fact.” The psyche thus encompasses the full range of spiritual experiences. And we know the inner and outer are intimately and organically connected by a single profoundly mysterious evolutionary process.

(Continued)

 

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