If People Were Better – As You Were

As You Were – looking for connections between the work of Brené Brown and Daniel Quinn as I revisit them in book clubs. See the introductory post for what this is all about. In this post, I look at:

  • Daniel Quinn Book Club — My Ishmael, session 3 reading: Intermission through School Daze
  • Brené Brown Book Club — Daring Greatly, starting session 2 reading: Chapter 3: Understanding and Combating Shame through Chapter 4: The Vulnerability Armory

(Commissions earned on Amazon links.)

My Ishmael


“But the fact remains that whenever anthropologists encounter tribal peoples, they encounter people who show no signs of discontent, who do not complain of being miserable or ill-treated, who are not seething with rage, who are not perpetually struggling with depression, anxiety, and alienation.
“The people who imagine that I’m idealizing this life fail to understand that every single extant tribal culture is extant because it has survived for thousands of years, and it has survived for thousands of years because its members are content with it.” Echoes Wholeheartedness.

The Fertile Crescent

“Retaliation is giving as good as you get, going to war is conquering people to make them do what you want.”
“So, even though it’s possible to say that it’s ‘war in either case,’ it’s different kinds of war, with different objectives. The object of retaliation is to show people that you can be nice or nasty, depending on whether they’re nice or nasty. The object of going to war is to conquer them and bend them to your will.” Brené points out various somewhat unintuitive opposites. “The opposite of scarcity is not abundance; the opposite of scarcity is simply enough.” “The opposite of play is not work – the opposite of play is depression.” Here we see a similar opposite: the opposite of war is not peace — the opposite of war is giving as good as you get.

“‘Going to war’ is acceptable to you, but erratic retaliation is not, and it never has been. Right from the beginning, the Takers have been unalterably hostile to this tribal strategy. I suspect it’s because erratic retaliation is fundamentally self-controlling and fundamentally unsusceptible to outside management. And Takers don’t trust anything that’s self-controlling. They want to manage it all and can’t stand having anything going on around them that is outside their control.” Compare Brené on power with vs. power over.

“Now you’re in a position to see that competition among people with the same lifestyle is necessarily more comprehensive than competition among peoples with different lifestyles. Farmers compete more comprehensively with other farmers than they do with hunter-gatherers.”
“Wow, that’s true,” I said. “So that by creating a world full of farmers, we’ve heightened the level of competition to the max.” Compare Brené on the prevalence of competition, comparison, productivity and exhaustion within shame-based culture.

The Crescent, Part II

“What was vitally important for all these peoples was to have ways of dealing with humans as they are. They didn’t think of humans as flawed beings, but this doesn’t mean that they thought of them as angels. They knew very well that humans are capable of being troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy, violent, and so on. Humans are nothing if not passionate and inconsistent, and it doesn’t take a giant intellect to figure this out. A system that works for tens of thousands of years is not going to be a system that works only for people who are invariably agreeable, helpful, selfless, generous, kind, and gentle.” Compare Brené on Wholehearted people having room for the whole of human experience, and on feeling worthy now without needing to be better than they are.

“Among tribal people, you don’t find laws that forbid disruptive behavior. To the tribal mind, this would be supremely inane. Instead, you find laws that serve to minimize the damage of disruptive behavior… Again, the objective is not to punish but to make right, to promote healing, so that as far as possible, everything can return to normal.” Compare Wholehearted people’s willingness to acknowledge imperfection and to have difficult conversations in the service of maintaining connection.

“And as you pointed out a minute ago, this meant that the Erratic Retaliator strategy went out the window — and tribal independence went out with it. The Takers wanted to administer a world where people worked, not a world where people wasted energy playing Erratic Retaliator.” Productivity and power-over are inherent to global civilized culture.

“But though they belonged to a new world order, people didn’t stop being troublesome, disruptive, selfish, cruel, greedy, and violent, did they? The same old behavior continued — but without tribal law to moderate its effects.” Explains why things that are not “problems” for Wholehearted people have become rampant and inherent, creating a shame-based culture.

“Because tribal peoples didn’t waste time with laws they knew would be disobeyed, disobedience was not a problem for them. Tribal law didn’t outlaw mischief, it spelled out ways to undo mischief, so people were glad to obey it. The law did something good for them, so why would they break it? But from the very beginning Taker law was a body of laws that you knew would be broken — and (not surprisingly) they’ve been broken day in and day out for ten thousand years.” Again compare Brené on power with vs. power over.

“Having saddled yourselves with laws that you assume will be broken, you’ve never found anything to do that makes better sense than punishing people for doing exactly what you expected them to do in the first place.” Compare Brené’s early learning as a social worker that shame essentially cannot change behavior for the better.

“For hundreds of thousands of years, people as smart as you had had a way of life that worked well for them. The descendants of these people can today still be found here and there, and wherever they’re found in an untouched state, they give every evidence of being perfectly content with their way of life. They’re not at war with each other, generation against generation or class against class. They’re not plagued by anguish, anxiety, depression, self-hatred, crime, madness, alcoholism, and drug addiction. They don’t complain of oppression and injustice. They don’t describe their lives meaningless and empty. They’re not seething with hatred and rage. They don’t look into the sky, yearning for contact with gods and angels and prophets and alien spacemen and spirits of the dead. And they don’t wish someone would come along and tell them how to live. This is because they already know how to live, as ten thousand years ago humans everywhere knew how to live. But knowing how to live was something the people of your culture had to destroy in order to make themselves the rulers of the world.” Compare Brené on Wholeheartedness, on the ills that plague shame-based culture, on power over.

“But the Taker life has always been an arrangement of haves and have-nots. The have-nots have always been the majority, and how were they supposed to discover the source of their misery? Who were they going to ask to explain why the world is ordered as it is, in a way that favors a handful, leaving the vast majority toiling just in order to be hungry, naked, and homeless? Were they going to ask their rulers? Their slave masters? Their bosses? Certainly not.” Compare Brené on competition, power-over, and oppression.

A Goddamned Pride Thing

“But, oddly enough, almost any of your improvisations would have worked if…”

“If people were better.”
“Of course. All of this would work beautifully, Julie, if people would just be better than people have ever been. You’d be just one big happy family, if only you would be better than people have ever been. The warring factions in the Balkans would hug and make up. Saddam Hussein would dismantle his war machine and enter a monastery. Crime would disappear overnight. No one would break any law. You could dispense with courts, police, prisons. Everyone would abandon self-interest and work together to improve the lot of the poor and to rid the world of hunger, racism, hatred, and injustice. I could spend hours listing all the wonderful things that would happen… if only people would just be better than people have ever been.”
“Yeah, I’m sure of that.”
“This was the tremendous strength of the tribal way, that its success didn’t depend on people being better. It worked for people the way they are — unimproved, unenlightened, troublesome, disruptive, selfish, mean, cruel, greedy, and violent. And that triumph the Takers have never come close to matching. In fact, they never even made the attempt. Instead, they counted on being able to improve people, as if they were badly designed products. They counted on being able to punish them into being better, on being able to inspire them into being better, on being able to educate them into being better. And after ten thousand years of trying to improve people — without a trace of success — they wouldn’t dream of turning their attention elsewhere.” Compare Brené on the fundamental importance of meeting people where they’re at and upholding worthiness now, without condition.

“It’s some sort of goddamned pride thing,” I told him.
“Go on.”
“If we had a planet hitched up next door that was inhabited by members of an alien race — I started to say advanced alien race — that would be one thing. It would be tolerable if they knew something we don’t know. What is not tolerable is to have these goddamned savages know something we don’t know.” The cultural level of running away from worthiness as we are.

“You may think it odd that this is so, but it’s the men of your culture who are being hit the hardest by the failure of your cultural mythology. They have (and have always had) a much greater investment in the righteousness of your revolution. In coming years, as the signs of collapse become more and more unmistakable, you’ll see them withdraw ever more completely into the surrogate world of male success, the world of sports. And, much worse, you’ll see them taking ever more violent revenge for their disappointment on the world around them — and particularly on the women around them.”
“Why on women?”
“The Taker dream has always been a man’s dream, Julie, and the men of your culture imagine that the collapse of this dream will devastate them while leaving women relatively untouched.” Compare Brené on men feeling shame from feeling weakness — and on the danger of white male power taking a last stand.

“For the most part, the prisoners have chosen to be governed by men — or allowed themselves to be governed by men — but these men don’t run the prison itself… The prison is your culture, which you sustain generation after generation.” Compare Brené below on who is the patriarchy.

School Daze


Daring Greatly

Chapter 3: Understanding and Combating Shame

“It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free.” Compare above, Taker culture never making the attempt to find what works for people, because by design it is a prison.

“In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.” Compare Taker culture requiring people work far more than Leaver culture does.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Taker culture universally believes that humans are flawed, so no wonder Taker culture inherently breeds feelings of shame in its members.

“We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders, and bullying. Researchers don’t find shame correlated with positive outcomes at all — there are no data to support that shame is a helpful compass for good behavior.” Shame keeps people in line the way Taker culture demands, which is precisely against the healthy interests of people. It produces these results that Quinn describes as being part of Taker culture and not inherent to Leaver culture.

“My new commitment to setting boundaries comes from the twelve years I’ve spent studying Wholeheartedness and what it takes to make the journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’ The most connected and compassionate people of those I’ve interviewed set and respect boundaries.” Compare Taker culture destroying cultural boundaries to enmesh ever more within itself and ending up with rampant dehumanization within, while Leaver cultures maintain strong cultural boundaries without dehumanizing each other.

“We have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us… My wife and daughters — the ones you signed all of those books for — they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.” Compare Quinn above on men being hit hard by the culture.

“Basically, men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Do not be perceived as weak.” Compare Taker culture being all about power and conquering.

“As scarcity has grabbed hold of our culture, it’s not just ‘Don’t be perceived as weak,’ but also ‘You better be great and all powerful.'” Again, Taker culture needs power and conquering.

“There was a moment when I was driving home from an interview with a small group of men and thought, Holy shit. I am the patriarchy.” Compare above, all prisoners keeping the culture in place, not just the leaders of the prison.

“‘Shame is being afraid, showing fear, or being vulnerable.’
“When I asked him what he did next, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I turned my fear into rage and steamrolled over the guy in front of me. It worked so well that I spent the next twenty yeas turning my fear and vulnerability into rage and steamrolling anyone who was across from me. My wife. My children. My employees. There was no other way out from underneath the fear and shame.'” Again, compare Taker culture needing power and conquering, and especially for men.

“We are hard on others because we’re hard on ourselves. That’s exactly how judgment works. Finding someone to put down, judge, or criticize becomes a way to get out of the web or call attention away from our box. If you’re doing worse than I am at something, I think, my chances of surviving are better… What’s ironic (or perhaps natural) is that research tells us that we judge people in areas where we’re vulnerable to shame, especially picking folks who are doing worse than we’re doing. If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choice. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance. We’re hard on each other because we’re using each other as a launching pad out of our own perceived shaming deficiency.” Compare Taker culture being filled with shame and rife with competition and hierarchy. Compare Taker culture judging Leaver culture for being unproductive when it needs itself to be ever more productive, weak when it needs itself to be ever more strong, savage when it is itself the most violent culture in the history of humanity, etc.

“… often the children who are engaging in the bullying behavior or vying for social ranking by putting down others have parents who engage the same behaviors.” Compare Taker culture being inculcated generation by generation.

“As we think about shame and love, the most pressing question is this: Are we practicing love? Yes, most of us are really good at professing it — sometimes ten times a day. But are we walking the talk? Are we being our most vulnerable selves? Are we showing trust, kindness, affection, and respect to our partners? It’s not the lack of profession that gets us in trouble in our relationships; it’s failing to practice love that leads to hurt.” Compare Quinn pointing out areas in which system design and goal are not in sync, i.e., in which a perceived defect of a system is in fact a requirement of the system’s design.

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