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Be a Self or Be Swept Away: Regulators of Behavior in Social Systems

You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown...Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.        Herbert Spencer


If society can make the man, the question becomes for all of us, how can “I” be a thoughtful, more principle-driven individual in a society that just might like to make me into its image of a needed or useful tool? Yes, our behavior is often shaped more than we like to see, by the social context in which we find ourselves. Society pressures us to join the group and believe and do as the group does. If you wonder how others may have influenced you, consider what you felt or said or how you reacted to the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden. Where did those reactions come from?

Curiously both Hitler and bin Laden’s deaths were announced on May 1st, in different years of course. A coincidence, yes, but also a reminder, a warning if you will, of how societies, “allow evil,” in this case leaders, to emerge in times of chaos and uncertainty. We may debate how they emerged but clearly each man led large segments of the population to join in blaming others for societal problems. The result in both cases was genocide, albeit on different scales.

Look around the world today and you will see people being swept away by anger, madness and fear. Leaders arise but whom can we trust? If it were possible to know the early warning signs of emotionally dangerous people would there be a way to take a stand in stopping these kinds of “social inflammations?”

This is difficult to do, even in small families, much less society. But by thinking about the family and how one person becomes a terrorist, or depressed, or takes on some other symptom, we might see how the other family members are sensitized to react and then look for someone to blame or someone to hurt, or even kill. We saw this unfold in California also on May 1st, as a 10-year old boy shot and killed his Neo-Nazi father.

It is not too hard to see that a similar process happens in and between nations. Just as in a family, passions are activated by threats. In nations, a segment of the population feels “wronged” and feels entitled to take over others' countries, dominate them, take resources. This begins an agitation between people in nations resulting in the symptoms of war, and retributions. Sometimes one nation focuses on the other as the problem, just as parents do towards a difficult child. They move in reducing autonomy and to fix them. Children and nations rebel and war begins. Nations, like parents, can also misinterpret and project anxious fears on others. For example, during the Cold War the United States misperceived the economic strength, and the military power of the Soviet Union. 

In a mature family, people make an effort not to control and dominate others. They make statements like, “I am going to do this, or this is my plan. I hope you can hear this as my action without it threatening you.” However, under stress people start saying things like, “You stop doing that, you make me feel bad, it is your fault that I am not ... " fill in the blank...(happy, well to do, safe, etc.). Then there are the threats: "Why don’t you do what I want you to do? If you do not do it my way I will ..."

How do we see what is going on in the social world?  Read more....

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