Check your privilege

One thing that worries me about our attachment to knowing is that our knowing is outpaced by its impacts.

The systemic complexity of our world seems to be slipping beyond the wit of Homo sapiens to manage. This was evident in the financial crash of 2007, when it was revealed that those in charge of the banks had no understanding of the complex derivatives for which they were responsible. Google and Facebook have no real means to manage the uses of their networks by bad actors. In fact, their incentive to keep enabling malevolent uses of their networks pushes Google and Facebook themselves into the category of bad actors. And in Brexit, the UK Government is managing a process the consequences of which it seems unable to understand, still less contain. We shall see.

We like to construe the human story as one of gradual progress. But with every revolution in human development came disbenefits as well as rewards. The First Agricultural Revolution turned us from hunter gatherers, opportunistically finding food to farmers cultivating a food surplus. But Yuval Noah Harari argues that it took us away from a relatively leisurely lifestyle at home in a vast landscape, to becoming labourers settled in small territories monotonously working the land all day. The main purpose of Homo sapiens became focussed on refining farming methods to yield incremental improvements in productivity from one generation to the next.

There’s a familiar quality in what he describes of humans being so engrained in their present reality that they are unable to conceive of it as being at odds with their nature. Our addiction to smartphones and information technology, while enhancing our lived experience in some ways, also eats away at aspects of our wellbeing – our ability to empathise, our conducting of relationships in the flesh-and-blood world, our need to step back from the rollercoaster of social interaction and spend time in a more contemplative state.

Complex challenges require a different kind of knowing than the cognitive instrumentality that is our default response. First, they call for an unknowing of the recipes we have tried before to address quite different scenarios; then, an emergent knowing as we respond intuitively and experimentally to discern a path that cannot be mapped in advance.

This is not to denigrate cognitive knowing. It serves Homo sapiens well. But, along the way, we have neglected a different kind of wisdom. Perhaps our rational cognition needs complementing with a rekindling of the kind of knowing that is our inheritance from earlier humans: an instinctive knowing that works from sensing in the real world of trees, rivers and lions. This is, after all, part of our mammalian nature that we share with dogs, cats and chimpanzees. It includes the resonance which enables us to read each other’s emotions, even across species, and to live in a more harmonious relationship with our environment.

If weakness is a strength overplayed, we may be reaching a point in our evolution where our cognitive prowess represents an impediment to our flourishing. Human development in the future might benefit from deconstructing the privileging of our cognitive rationality to give space to our more embodied knowing.

I have a feeling that the conditions that might demand this could close in on us more rapidly than most of us can envisage.

2 thoughts on “Check your privilege

  1. Yes, indeed, there is a dialectic of progress and we are called to a further stage of development (collectively) to sort out the level of complexity to our current problems. Do we have the capacity and is there enough time to get there? Gulp!


    • Yes, the collective aspect of this is important. One of the problems with the identity politics of our age is that it creates in an individual a confirmation that they are on the right path. But it inhibits the connection between people on which moving collectively to a further stage of development depends. We have a tendency to cut ourselves off from those who don’t know in the same way we do, instead of exploring how we can make common endeavour.


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