Are we governable?

Despite an avalanche of laws, political systems, religious doctrine, and just plain ordinary human experience, humanity’s wildness persistently asserts itself. Our hopes and disappointments propel a fusillade of argument and criticism directed at the very institutions and leaders we’ve enabled. While it’s true that it’s impossible to please everyone, if social and communications media are an indication, modern life seems to be breeding widespread dissatisfaction.

Human wildness is an ancient legacy, and likely why the world’s major religions proffer commandments and precepts to regulate behavior. Our wildness inclines us to kill, steal and lie, covet our neighbors possessions and to worship false gods by creating idols like money. No wonder life feels difficult; with behavior like this, how could it be otherwise?

I’ve previously noted that depicted in the central hub of the Classical Buddhist Wheel of Life one finds the images of a rooster, a snake and a pig. These three represent aggression, greed and ignorance and they are central, inescapable aspects of being human. Try as we may, we cannot simply avoid or extirpate them; they are the heritage of history and evolution. Say what you will about them, the reality is that alongside our creativity, compassion, empathy and intellect, they have brought us this far.

We keep trying to improve ourselves, to empower our better angels; establishing democratic government certainly ranks among the highest achievements of that effort. At its core, democracy relies on a belief in goodness, that we can disempower our wild, animal nature and instead organize ourselves in a rational, thoughtful way for the betterment of all. It’s a noble experiment, but an experiment it is, and given the poor quality of many who we’re presently electing, its results are anything but certain.

To be fair, our electoral system has been hacked. What should be the even playing field of one-person/one-vote is distorted by money, that and an ill-informed, poorly educated electorate which is easily manipulated by propaganda, falsehoods, rumors and conspiracy theories. Combine all this with the activity of professional lobbyists, entrenched bureaucrats, and corporate consulting firms and we’ve got all the reasons in the world to feel dissatisfied.

To boot, we suffer from what Psychiatrist Eric Fromm diagnosed as our “escape from freedom,” an avoidance of the responsibility that accompanies freedom. The burden of staying informed and the responsibility of making good though often difficult choices, is too much for some people to bear and they repeatedly rush into the arms of “strongmen” dictators and autocrats instead. Mix our natural wildness with lazy cowardice, and you’ve got a lousy, bitter-tasting cocktail.

In places like China, governance comes at the barrel of a gun. It’s not really governance, it’s systemic violence that acts as a buffering agent to suppress wildness. Our own governance laws are intended to produce the same effect, but have the added insurance of civil rights that limit the power of the state to unreasonably enforce its will. People are controllable, within limits, but none of this fully answers the question – are we governable?

Aggression, greed, and ignorance are part of who we are as a species. Eliminating such traits is as hard as eliminating desire, and to do that would mean eliminating imagination, making us less than human. Is it possible to transcend our human nature, a challenge that has to be undertaken not after death, but while still living? Are we governable? Time will tell.

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