The trouble with our right brained revolution

In Ian McGilchrist’s master piece “The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” a brilliant exposition is made of the functional divisions of the brain, but more importantly between two modes of experiencing the world that are often in conflict with each other. The right hemisphere with it focus on synthesis and connection on the broadest universal sense and the left hemisphere with its focus on breaking things up and narrow attention. That conflict is beautifully captured in a fable (attributed to Nietzsche) the goes

There was one a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and it with it the need to trust implicit the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of it ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his mission on the the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

The master (right hemisphere) has been usurped by the emissary (left hemisphere), such has been the tragedy of our times. We live in “[a]n increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised word, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness”. It is a case of a “dysfunctional left hemisphere” dominating our experience of the world  

The impetus of the Egyptian revolution as I experienced it, was clearly of the right brained variety. There were no plan,  script, or grand idea that roused noble passions. It was, as McGilchrist would put it “essentially involv[ing] a certain disposition, the disposition to experience sorrow at the other’s misfortune… To be just is to be disturbed by injustice. Pain, suffering, and the loss of pleasure, then, sometimes constitute who we are and what we value. They are essentially woven into our deepest commitments. As reasons flow from our deepest commitments, we will sometimes have non-instrumental reason to suffer.”

It was the pain and suffering that we experienced during the revolution that made many of us feel  more human, more willing sacrifice our physical being for something with a touch of the divine. Something electrified our right hemispheres and awaken in us a fresh, yet somewhat latent, vision of reality. What that “something” is? Words fail at capturing it. It feels to me that the attempt to describe it would limit it, defile it, and cheapen it.  This is beautifully put by McGilchrist

Making things explicit is the equivalent of focusing on the workings, at the expense of the work, the medium at the expense of the message. Once opaque, the plane of attention is in the wrong place, as it we focused on the mechanics of the play, not on the substance of the play itself; or on the plane of the canvas, not what is seen there. 

Yes, we cried in Tahrir for “bread, freedom, and social justice”, but the words have since been prey to demagogic abuse and political manipulation. It was the process, the mechanism, the prime cause that gave rise to those words and a myriad of creative expressions in Tahrir we should have protected and preserved. We now seems to be chasing phantoms of that humanizing force. Mere shadows, distortions, and reflections and not the pure light itself.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the 23 July revolution. A purely left brained affair. Young officers planned, schemed, and calculated to maximize their personal self-interest. The young officers lacked little in terms of rational ability. They often fumbled, but their rational motives were always clear. Their drive to dominate was a purely selfish affair, no empathy, no love of other, and no altruism. The current ruling Junta (SCAF) are a byproduct of the earlier revolution. We rose against those mechanical men, who can only conceive of a world were people are spurs and gears in a diabolical machines of their construction. Devoid of creative abilities their machines jammed and broke down and yet they continue to fix them. They are prisoners of their hackneyed mental constructions.

Many who truly witnessed the revolution of 2011 still believe in their hearts that another world is possible. It was a world that they had a glimpse of in the 18 days following January 25, 2011. But it is also a world that they failed to protect. The rise of Islamists now represents yet an another manifestation of the lifeless and mechanical vision of the world. Yet, it is far more insidious. It makes appeals to that which gives meaning and beauty to the lives of many. In its ascent it will lay barren fertile fields of human values. Religion, like many things that are of crucial importance to our human existence

…cannot withstand being too closely attended to, since their nature is to be indirect or implicit. Forcing them into explicitness changes their nature completely, so that in such cases what we come to think we know ‘certainly’ is in fact not truly known at all. Too much self-awarness destroys not just spontaneity, but the quality that makes things live; …. religious devotion [can hence] become  mechanical, lifeless, and may grind to a half if we are too self-aware.

With each passing day, I feel the memory of the early days in Tahrir ebbing away. The sublime beauty of the experience is giving way self-doubt and disbelief. The noise of the immediate is becoming overbearing. A noise that captures the attention of the left brain. Through innumerable logical (yet mostly fake and self-serving) contraptions the limits of what is possible are being drawn. How will our right brained revolution survive as its pathos gradually slips away from mass consciousness? 

In the absence of truly inspired artists, all that will remain will be some slogans with continually diminishing potency, as smattering of confused ideological posturing, and dreams that can not “be make explicit” lost in the detritus of time.

I can only pray that the following statement will hold true: “The spirit grows, [and] strength is restored, by wounding”

Increscunt animi, virescit volnere virtus

3 thoughts on “The trouble with our right brained revolution

  1. The master (right hemisphere) has been usurped by the emissary (left hemisphere), such has been the tragedy of our times. We live in “[a]n increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualised word, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness”. It is a case of a “dysfunctional left hemisphere” dominating our experience of the world,”
    This is completely cart before horse.
    Alienation makes us use the antisocial parts of our brain, not the other way round.
    You blame our own brain, mine is completely innocent.

  2. @Little Richardjohn I am not trying to attribute the cause of alienation to a brain defect that is widespread in a population.
    A more relevant question would be: What give rise to mass alienation?
    The answer to this question in McGilchrist’s book has to more to with a general cultural outlook the views the world as composed of disconnected fragments and without an ability to be “sympathetic” to the constituent elements.
    McGilchrist very nicely traced how this outlook came about from antiquity to our time.
    This is a bit tangential to the thrust of my article.

  3. I just happen to believe that if we’re turning to science for political explanations, we would be much better endorsing the concept of Reciprocal Social Altruism, as proposed by the genetic evolutionists. This provides a much more tactile explanation of society as we experience it, and the parts of our true nature which millenia of hierarchical exploitation have abused and deformed to their own purpose.
    Or as Orwell puts it:
    “I suggest that the real objective of Socialism is not happiness. Happiness hitherto has been a by-product, and for all we know it may always remain so. The real objective of Socialism is human brotherhood. This is widely felt to be the case, though it is not usually said, or not said loudly enough. Men use up their lives in heart-breaking political struggles, or get themselves killed in civil wars, or tortured in the secret prisons of the Gestapo, not in order to establish some central-heated, air-conditioned, strip-lighted Paradise, but because they want a world in which human beings love one another instead of swindling and murdering one another. And they want that world as a first step. Where they go from there is not so certain, and the attempt to foresee it in detail merely confuses the issue.”
    http://www.k-1.com/Orwell/site/work/essays/fun.html

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