I’m going to talk to you about identity. Whenever I talk to my son about what I should talk about, whenever I’m nervous about giving a presentation – and I was definitely nervous about this one, I can tell you – he always says: “Just make sure you talk about what you know.” And that’s great advice, everyone should follow that. So I’m going to try to talk about what I know, and I know something about identity anyways, and I’m very interested in helping people understand what identity means and also maybe how to strengthen their identity. And I can’t think of anything better that you can possibly do than that and I think in some sense it’s the answer to all the problems that plague us.
I’m going to tell you a story about how I came to understand the things that I’ve come to understand. Back in the late-mid 1970s, when the Cold War was raging and when the nuclear arsenal of the Soviet Union was in full force against the equally dangerous nuclear arsenal of the West, I had a series of very apocalyptic nightmares. I don’t really know why I was so obsessed with the Cold War. I mean, it’s not like I was alone. Everybody was as obsessed with it to some degree, it was a Cold War after all.
I couldn’t understand that we would arm ourselves to the teeth and risk the destruction of everything just to buttress what we believed in. It didn’t seem that the potential sacrifice was worth the gain. So I started to study belief systems from a psychological perspective. I was curious about what function they played, what role they served, and I was also interested in something else, which I didn’t realize at the time, which was at the core of what I later understood as the postmodern conundrum.
The postmodern conundrum is roughly the fact that the world is a very complicated place and there are a very large number of ways to interpret it, and the postmodern conclusion is: because there are an indefinitely large number of ways to interpret the world, that no one solution is in any real sense preferable to any other, and that solutions are imposed by power.
When I was thinking about the Cold War, I was wondering about why it was occurring, and then I was wondering at the same time about the fact that these two opposed belief systems had emerged, and I thought: Well, is this war, this thing we’re willing to put everything to the torch for, is it merely a matter of opinion? Is it the fact that human nature is infinitely malleable, and you can generate any number of axiomatic systems or any number of games that people are all capable of playing equally and that it is merely a matter of arbitrary decision ‘which one gets played’?
Or is there something deeper going on? Is there a war of wrong against right? And the corollary I suppose of that is; there is such a thing as wrong and right, and if there is such a thing as wrong or right, and if the war is about that, then who’s wrong and why and who’s right and why?
So I started to dig into what I would regard as the metaphysical substrate of belief and I came to understand at least in part that the belief systems that we inhabit are like stories. Story is a description of how a person went from one place to another place. If it’s a comedy, it’s a better place. If it’s a tragedy, it’s a worse place.
But in any case, it’s a story about how to go from one place to another place. One of the things that you begin to understand if you study stories is that there are worse stories and better stories.
There are certainly worse stories and better stories to live out, so for example, I would say, most people, if they made a conscious choice, would rather live in a comedy than a tragedy. They might not feel the same way about other people, they might condemn them to a tragedy, but they would pick comedy, perhaps.
So then I started to try to tease apart the story that the West lived by. I came at it from two very different perspectives. One was, essentially literary. It was literary in the same way the psychoanalysts were literary theorists. The psychoanalysts Freud and Jung in particular were very interested in the large-scale structures of the narratives of human life.
Freud was particularly interested in the narrative of the family. He thought that the primary narrative was the narrative of the family. And that was in some sense the emergence of the autonomous individual from his or her initial dependent state. Freudian psychoanalytic theory is full of observations about how that can go terribly wrong. Particularly in those situations where families are let’s say overprotective, or rife with unresolved conflict.
Jung for his part broadened his analysis of the stories that people lived by. Outside the realm of the family into the realm of the literary and metaphysical. Jung was a student of religion and mythology. And from Jung I learned that stories contained a certain kind of truth and that great stories contain great truths.
And they’re not truths like scientific theories are true, they’re truths like great literature is true, they’re truths like Dostoevsky is true or they’re truths like Tolstoy is true or they’re truths like the fundamental mythological stories that oriented culture are true. They’re true in ways that we know, but don’t understand.
At the same time that I was studying this, I was also reading Nietzsche, and Nietzsche of course, famously proclaimed in the late 1800s that God was dead. And people who regard themselves as acolytes of Nietzsche or maybe as admirers of Nietzsche, who never read him, claim or assume that he said that in some triumphalist tone, because Nietzsche in some sense did style himself, at least, a severe critic of Christianity. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Nietzsche said that God was dead, that we’d killed him, and that we’ll never find enough water to wash away the blood. And that’s not a triumphalist proclamation, and he said that approximately at the same time that the consequence of the death of God would be that European civilisation would vacillate between nihilism and totalitarianism. And that 100 million people would die as a consequence in the 20th century. That’s a hell of a prediction for someone back in basically the mid-1860s.
Nietzsche, who didn’t live very long, was looking for a way out of that conundrum – being neither a fan of nihilism nor a fan of totalitarianism, and he thought that human beings would have to metamorphose into creatures that could determine their own values. That’s where Carl Jung encountered Nietzsche essentially.
Because Jung was also a student of Nietzsche, and a deep student of Nietzsche, but because Jung had been influenced by Freud, who is the great discoverer of unconscious mechanisms in the human mind, he understood that it wasn’t possible for human beings to create their own values. And the reason for that was that we are neither our own masters nor our own slaves.
Our nature was not infinitely malleable. We could not simply tell ourselves what to do. And even if we did, we would not simply listen. That you have a nature, that everyone has a nature, every human being has a nature with which they must contend.
That’s what took the Freudians into the study of the [unintelligible], and that’s what took the Jungians into the study of the collective unconscious and then into the study of literature and mythology.
I found that very compelling and very interesting. Jung believed that because the Gods had disappeared from the outside world that they would have to reappear in the inside world. That’s not an easy statement to understand. But it’s a statement that’s true. Even though it’s not easy to understand.
At the same time, I was reading a lot of straight psychology. Especially the animal behavioral literature, the neuroscience literature. Neuroscience of cognition, neuroscience of emotion, neuroscience of motivation, and then I saw this alliance between the psychoanalytic Jungian worldview and the more strict scientific worldview, because it turns out that if you carefully attend to biology and animal behavior, you also find that human beings have a nature.
And that animals have a nature, and that there’s a nature that human beings share with animals as well. There is a researcher in the Netherlands, Frans de Waal, who has done great work with primates, laying out the biological emergence of the idea of morality among chimpanzees. Brilliant work, and this was very exciting to me, because remember I was trying to determine whether or not the war between the West and the collectivists, let’s say, was merely a matter of opinion or whether there was something right somewhere that someone had.
Well, I started to learn from Jung and animal behaviorists and the neuroscientists, and also from one other source, Jean Piaget, who was a developmental psychologist who studied the origin of morality in children, and who in his way was attempting to sow up the gap between science and religion. That was Piaget, the most famous developmental psychologist to ever live, the most famous child psychologist.
That was his self-description of what he was doing. He was trying to understand how to rectify the gap between science and religion and so there were these three sources that I could draw from: there was the developmental literature, there was the psychoanalytic/literary literature and there was the straight biological literature, and they’re all pointing to the same direction, actually. They’re saying that living creatures have a nature, and human beings have a nature.
That nature finds its expression in stories, and why is that? Well, it’s because we watch ourselves express our nature. And then we map that expression in drama. So, we capture ourselves in drama. We capture ourselves in drama before we understand who we are. That means that in drama, there is wisdom that we don’t understand.
And then, over centuries, over thousands of years, we start to articulate that wisdom, and it becomes explicit, and then we start to philosophize with what’s become explicit. And if we’re fortunate, then what we philosophized, and what we’ve made articulate and what we’ve dramatized, and what we’ve acted out, and what’s at the base of our social and biological nature are all the same thing – and then we’ve got it right. And that’s what we’ve done in the West.
You know, one of the things I was thinking about, was this idea that… there are two ideas that people talk about, which I have a certain amount of sympathy for. One is that you should have pride in your culture, I understand the impetus for that. I told you how I feel when I come to Europe. I can hardly stand it. I really mean that, the ecstatic experience of being in the great cities of Europe is overwhelming. And I think it is because I do have a gift for perceiving the miraculous.
I think it’s a miracle when the lights are on, and the reason for that is that it is a miracle when the lights are on. Because it is not the natural state for the lights to be on. The natural state of things is to fall apart and not to work. And yet, they work, and they work all the time, and our great societies work, and they work magnificently, and that doesn’t mean they’re perfect. But nothing is perfect. And you don’t throw away the wheat with the chaff.
I’m going to tell you another story. There is this psychologist named Jaak Panksepp, he just died about a year ago. He wrote a book called Affective Neuroscience, it’s a great book. It’s a book about emotion, about the neurological basis of emotion. And Panksepp was kind of a romantic.
The scientists who involve themselves with the scientific study of emotion tend to be romantic types, interestingly enough. And he was a whimsical scientist in many ways. He discovered the play circuit, the mammalian play circuit. It turns out that we have a biological system that’s independent, neurologically predicated, that does nothing but mediate play – which I thought was very interesting because of my interest in Jean Piaget, who believed that the morality of children, and the morality of adults, emerged out of the games that we learned to play as children, and Panksepp also discovered that if you take rat pups away from their mother, and you feed them and you give them water and shelter, they die.
Human infants are the same, by the way, they have to be massaged, touched, they have to be cuddled, they have to be interacted with or their gastrointestinal system shuts down and they die. And you can stop that from happening with rats if you just tickle them with the end of a pencil eraser, a little massage, and then he found out that they giggled if you did that.
No one knew that, because they do it ultrasonically, like bats, so you have to record it and slow it down. Panksepp discovered that rat pups laugh. And you might think: “Who the hell cares about that?” But that’s not the right way of looking at things. Because he was looking at a continuity in our nature that was tremendously deep, that went way back down into the animal kingdom.
He also discovered this: if you take two juvenile rats and you put them in a pen, they will spontaneously wrestle, they will engage in rough-and-tumble play, and if one of the rats is 10% bigger than the other, then the 10% bigger rat will pin the little rat. And, then you think: “Well, that’s a dominance challenge and the big rat wins, end of story.” But it’s not the end of the story, and here’s why.
It’s because most games don’t only occur once. Most games are played many, many, many times. So, Panksepp decided that he would pair the rats, the same two rats, multiple times in play context, and so the first thing he found out is once the big rat had pinned the little rat, the little rat had to ask the big rat to play. That was his role in the next encounter.
The little rat would look playful, like a dog, and then the big rat would pounce on him and they would tussle around. Then he found that if the big rat didn’t let the little rat win, 30% of the time, across repeated encounters, then the little rat would stop asking the big rat to play.
When I read that, it just knocked me off my chair, because what I realised was that Panksepp had put his finger on the emergence of morality. The same kind of morality that Jean Piaget had observed emerging in children. Piaget observed that sophisticated children like to play games that other people like to play.
That’s kinda what you tell your kids when they’re playing a game like soccer or hockey, you say: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it matters how you play the game.” And, really, what you’re telling your children is: “Life isn’t a game, life is a series of games and the rules that govern playing the series of games isn’t the same as the rule that governs playing a single game.”
You don’t want to be the winner of a single game, you want to be the winner of the series of games, and if you want to be the winner of the series of games, then you have to conduct yourself in a certain manner. And that’s not arbitrary. It’s so far from arbitrary that it even governs the behavior of rats.
It’s not sociological. It’s not learned. It’s not whim. It’s not arbitrary. It’s not opinion. It’s an emergent property. Morality is an emergent property that emerges across a sequence of iterated, voluntary games. Then you might ask yourself: “How do you have to conduct yourself if you’re going to be the person that emerges victorious across an indefinite sequence of games?” And the answer to that is: like the big rat, you have to play fair.
Then you might ask yourself: “Well, if you watch people trying to play fair over a 150,000 years and try to infer what it looked like to play fair, what would your descriptions be?” And the answer to that is: you would describe the hero, the individual hero whose positive actions are constantly represented in drama, and literature and mythology.
In the West, I believe that we have fortunately managed to articulate the principles of fair iterated play better than any society has ever managed in the past. I don’t believe that that’s because there’s anything particularly special about us. Because I believe that the principles of fair play, as I said, even govern the behavior of rats. But knowing this, or even appreciating it as a possibility, puts a new twist on two ideas:
One is that you should be proud of your culture. It’s like… no! You shouldn’t be ‘proud’ of your culture. You should bloody well recognize that it got some things right and that all of your good fortune is dependent on that, and then you should take the utmost responsibility for continuing to play the damn game properly.
And you should have enough sense to be grateful for all the sacrifice that was made by all those people who came before you so that you could end up being the beneficiary of this eminently playable game.
So, I could say: “Well, what are the rules of the game?” There’s an idea in Genesis: to the foundational story of Western culture, that being emerged from something like potential, from chaos, as a consequence of God’s use of language, the Logos. Logos is the deepest idea of the West, and it means something like clear, competent truthful communicative endeavor. So, there’s an idea in Genesis that that’s the spirit that God used to bring forth order from chaos at the beginning of time. When God employed the Logos to extract order out of chaos, he extracted habitable order, and then pronounced that it was good.
At the same time, when God made human beings, he pronounced the maiden the image of God, which means that human beings have the capacity, that Logos-like capacity, to speak habitable order into being out of chaotic potential, and the deep idea is that if you do that truthfully, then what you bring forward is good. That’s aligned very tightly with the principle of fair play. It’s easy to play fair with someone who tells you the truth. You can communicate with them, you can trust them, you can take risks with them, you can cooperate with them, you can negotiate with them, and you can jointly engage in the endeavor to bring forth the habitable order that is good from the chaos of potential.
When we insist that the immigrants who come to our countries, to become beneficiaries of the game that we’re playing, follow the rules, we are not merely saying; ‘we have a culture, you have a culture, you’re in our culture, so you should follow our rules’, what we’re saying instead is: “We have inherited a culture and it seems to work. It works well enough so that we’re happy to be here, and many people would like to be, and if you want to come to our culture and be a beneficiary of the game, then you have to abide by the rules that produce the game. We’re not saying that you have to do it because it’s ours, or because we’re proud of it, or because in some sense we’re right as individuals, or even as a culture. We’re saying it because we’ve been fortunate enough to observe what the rules that make a functioning society actually are, and sensible enough, thank God, most of the time to follow them well enough so that there are a few countries on the planet that aren’t absolute pits of catastrophe.”
Now, I didn’t know what to say about immigration when I decided to do this talk, but I don’t think it matters, because there are many complex things that can be said about immigration, about many of the problems that face us, but there is a meta-question, which is not ‘how do you solve a difficult question?’, but ‘how do you solve the set of all possible difficult questions?’
The answer to that is quite straightforward: Speak the truth and play fair, and that works.
So I have been communicating that as diligently as I can for the last three decades, predicated on my observation that we got some things right, we should do better with it even, and that if we transformed ourselves, each and every one, into better people, predicated on the observation of that core identity, that we would then become collectively the sort of people who could probably solve any problem that was put to them no matter what its magnitude. And so what I was hoping to do today to set off this discussion about identity and immigration in Europe in the 21st century is to say: Be the sort of people to generate the proper solutions, and then perhaps the solutions will arise of their own accord. Thank you.