Part 5: Battling the TPP with Enlightenment, Love and a Thirst For Meaning in the Face of Death

January 23, 2014


By Ian Hansen

Part 5 of a five part series: Sleeping Through the TPP Coup: Why a Trans-National Corporate Power Grab That Hurts Almost Everyone Is Arousing So Little Outcry


(Article changed on January 25, 2014 at 02:04)

This is the last part of a five-part series: Sleeping Through the TPP Coup: Why a Trans-National Corporate Power Grab That Hurts Almost Everyone Is Arousing So Little Outcry

Part 1: What is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, And Why Don’t I Care?

Part 2: Obstacles to Anti-TPP Coordination: A Social Psychological Account

Part 3: The Puzzle of “Liberal” Obama’s Support for the TPP

Part 4: Pitting Fear of Our Complicity Against the Fear to Resist the TPP

Part 5: Battling the TPP with Enlightenment, Love and a Thirst For Meaning in the Face of Death

The first part of this series introduced the Trans Pacific Partnership “trade deal” scam, identified its potential dangers, as well as the dangers of allowing it to be “fast-tracked” through Congress. It also posed the question: why have activists had so much difficulty raising the mass awareness and mass outrage that the TPP threat warrants?

The second part drew on social psychology concepts like ingroup favoritism, cognitive miserliness, the halo effect and cognitive dissonance to explore some potential answers to that question.

The third part applied cognitive dissonance and other social psychology concepts like conformity and obedience to address the mystery of why “liberal” President Obama is seeking fast-track authority for the TPP. It also made the case that drawing a distinction between “liberal” and “left” (one based in psychological research) can explain Obama’s behavior better than collapsing liberal-left vs. conservative-right into one dimension.

The fourth part argued for the activist utility of cultivating a strong locus of control and sense of self-efficacy. I then drew on the social psychology of fear, and on some under-appreciated monotheistic ideas about hell and the fear of God, to examine how some kinds of fear (like fear of state violence) may be holding us back from action on the TPP, and how other fears–like the fear of being passive or complicit in the face of something deeply wrong–are potentially effective ways of overcoming this fear.

This fifth, and concluding, part, will focus on how to use social psychology not only to explain our obstacles to action but to actively overcome those obstacles.

If you take the scientific pretensions of social psychology too seriously, you will be inclined to imagine that its findings about social influences and related processes are unchangeable human universals–universals that you as an individual cannot hope to overcome. Fortunately, social science is a domain of probabilities, and whenever a scientific fact is only probabilistically true, it is always possible to be an exception. In fact, just by dosing you with all of these social psychology findings I might actually be causally inclining you (probabilistically) to become exceptions.

I’m aiming here for something that social psychologist Kenneth Gergen called an ” enlightenment effect .” Gergen hypothesized that these effects are likely to occur when people are exposed to unflattering social psychological findings about humanity (or about some other group that they consider themselves a part of). Gergen anticipated that we would feel an inclination to resist being an example of this unflattering behavior, and would strive to be an exception–and to move others around us to be exceptions too, potentially transforming our group, our culture and even humanity itself.

Gergen said that the downside of acknowledging the potential for enlightenment effects is that they threaten the long-term reliability (and thus pretensions to scientific universality) of social scientific findings. Call me unscientific, but that’s a price that I am willing to pay.

So please, be an infectious exception that eventually invalidates the rule. If the scientific pretensions of some social psychology research program come crashing down as a result, it will be a loss we can all endure. And if they don’t come crashing down, continue being an exception anyway. Even if the whole objective world doesn’t transform around you, your own subjective world might.

Here are a few guidelines for being an exception…with regard to the TPP at least:

  1. Go back to Part 1 of this series and check out the “How to act if you’re ready to act” section.
  2. Reach out to groups that are active in opposing the TPP and make inquiries about how you can help them out. You might need to do a bit of shopping to find a group that’s on your wavelength and is receptive to your style and skills. The advantage of the TPP threatening so many movements is that one of those movements is likely to be a good fit for you. Try to meet other activists in person. Make friends and build solidarity.
  3. Encourage whatever group you link up with to organize distinctive protests around particular themes in polite non-coordination with other TPP-affected movements. This means that protests organized on behalf of anti-TPP netheads would potentially take place at different times and locations from protests organized on behalf of anti-TPP environmentalists or anti-TPP labor activists. And each mini-movement should explicitly give the others permission to completely ignore all TPP issues other than the ones likely to galvanize their constituency. This good-fences-good-neighbors approach potentially resolves the ingroup favoritism problem. It would also address the cognitive miserliness problem by keeping each group’s anti-TPP message really simple. Something like: “Corporations are trying to use an anti-democratic procedure–“fast track”–to slip through a secretive ‘trade deal’–the Trans Pacific Partnership–that will be terrible for [insert the one thing your constituency cares about here]. Smack back fast track! Flush the TPP!” This non-coordination doesn’t have to last forever, though. Once each of these mini-movements have their safe space established and energy mobilized, then they can all merge together into one big Occupy-style anti-TPP soup.
  4. I mentioned this already, but type the following into a search engine: TPP and Petition, and then start clicking the links and signing the petitions you’re okay with signing. That’s a good start because it’s easy and it’s what social psychologists call a ” foot in the door ” to more committed and high impact action later on down the road. This “foot in the door” process doesn’t necessarily work by cognitive dissonance (as it’s not particularly mentally painful to sign a petition you already believe in). It can also work by another process called ” self-perception ” (an idea of Daryl Bem). When you observe yourself doing something, you are more likely to believe doing that thing reflects on who you are, and your future actions become more likely to accord with this perspective on yourself. This is particularly the case if you were raised in an ” individualist ” culture like the United States, where personal identity and actions taken in the world are expected to align regularly.
  5. Do a search for TPP or Stop TPP on facebook and twitter and see if there are any upcoming actions you can join (be careful–a couple of these actions might be organized by someone out of state and you might be the only person who shows up at them when the day comes). I’ve been part of a weekly Monday action to get the Daily Show and the Colbert Report to cover the TPP and thus hopefully break the mainstream media blackout. The transformative potential of that action might expire soon if the TPP gets fast track authority (and the bill to fast-track has already been introduced), but if you want to start with a stay-at-home cyber action, this is an easy one.
  6. Read up on the TPP (and watch a few youtube videos) to get yourself up to speed. Search engines are your friend. If eventually you think you have a better way of getting the message out than what you’ve seen, put it out there! I’ve already pointed out a number of TPP sources in the earlier links of this article. Don’t limit yourself to these though.
  7. Sit still for an hour or so and reflect on what you can do about the TPP that perhaps no one else has thought to do before. Focus on the intention to bring transparency to the TPP and to stop its worst features. Wait for a particularly clear and animating inspiration to hit. Then act on that inspiration if it isn’t contrary to your conscience and fairness to the rights of others.
  8. Okay, if that last one seemed out of left field, this one’s from outer space. Start writing down your nightly dreams in the morning–one of them might inspire a good idea for taking on the TPP. It was an acted-upon dream that sparked the women’s peace movement in Liberia that brought Muslim and Christian communities together, ended the brutal civil war, and set in motion events that led to Charles Taylor being tried for war crimes (all covered in the excellent documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell ).

    Overhead shot of Occupy Wall Street at Times Square, NY by Jeff Weinstein


    The idea of being an exception brings me to another social psychological theory I would ask you to keep in mind: Robert Sternberg’s theory of love. Sternberg’s “Triangle of Love” idea, one I will readily admit to not knowing the empirical basis for, held that love can be conceptualized by a triangle of relations between principles. The three points of the triangle delineate seven orientations towards love–one for each point (3), one for each line between points (another 3), and one for the exceptional place directly in between the three points. The organizing points are intimacy, passion, and commitment.

    Sternberg called love involving only intimacy “liking,” love involving only passion “infatuation,” and love involving only commitment “empty love” (because commitment with no passion or intimacy would be pretty empty). A love involving only passion and intimacy he called “romantic love” (which might die off if there is no commitment formed). A love involving only intimacy and commitment he called “companionate love” (the kind that long term couples tend to settle into once the youthful passions cool). A love involving only commitment and passion he called “fatuous love”–it’s fatuous (i.e. stupid) because if you make a huge commitment to someone out of passion but know hardly anything else about them then it doesn’t take a genius to see trouble ahead.

    Then comes the last and supposedly best kind of love: “consummate love.” This is love with intimacy, passion and commitment in equal measure.

    Why am I telling you all this? Because consummate love–the exceptional kind–is worth pursuing in everything we do, not only in our potentially sex-enjoying and/or baby-raising relationships, but in all of our endeavors, including political activism and moral witness. Are we going to exude consummate love from all pores at all times? Probably not, but it doesn’t hurt to try. If you notice an element missing in a love you’re called to, try to cultivate it. Commitment, in relationships and activism, can be increased by actually taking small at first but real and increasingly larger steps towards commitment. These steps are a “foot in the door” to larger commitments down the line. Don’t take these steps if you don’t want to take them, but if you want to become more committed, that’s how to do it.

    Intimacy can be cultivated in personal relationships by sharing and disclosure of self, by seeking to know more about the other, and by really trying to get around the barriers that people throw up between each other–like resentment, blame, and judgment. Intimacy can be cultivated in activism by seeking to know better the issues and people involved in that activism, and getting around the interpersonal and intergroup barriers there too.

    Passion is perhaps the hardest aspect of love to cultivate. We tend to be led by our passions rather than to lead them, and to some extent this is appropriate: passion is something we naturally prefer to surrender to rather than to manufacture out of obligation. Listening to our passions is generally a better approach than trying to beat them into supposed correctness. But a more passively receptive approach to passion can go wrong sometimes. For instance, in relationships, if we don’t feel passion that we once felt, we often conclude that there is no basis for it anymore, and then we wind down any existing intimacy or commitment accordingly. But passion can be blocked by things other than the hand of destiny.

    Sometimes, of course, passion is stifled by the actions of others over which we have little control. If those actions and attitudes are actually harmful deal-breakers, and the other party doesn’t turn away from or at least try to change those alienating or abusive actions and attitudes, then letting the passion cool enough to sever the link is probably healthy and sane. But sometimes passion gets stymied by roadblocks that we put up ourselves. They are roadblocks that we didn’t have to put up, roadblocks we can take down once we’ve seen how optional they are. Sometimes these roadblocks are minor, and sometimes major–even serious betrayals of intimacy or commitment. The latter especially are likely to cool passion because of cognitive dissonance. However, if we recognize, make amends for, and turn away from those betrayals, then the passion that was there before can sometimes come again.

    My focus in this series of five articles has been on the obstacles we face to mobilizing opposition to fast-tracking the TPP, but it could have been about anything else that calls for passion, including passions that are closer to your heart. If you’re moved by my call to action on the TPP, I hope it’s a “gateway” to acting with more consummate fullness on the passions that are more properly your own.

    I’ve sketched a few sources of potential betrayal of (or, less harshly, diversion from) one’s own values and callings that social psychologists have identified over the years. I can’t swear by the science behind these assertions. Some of the social psychology findings I’ve mentioned are probably not cross-culturally universal , and others may atrophy in reliability as historical trends muddle along (possibly with the help of enlightenment effects).

    Still, knowing that certain forces acting upon you might have contributed to your “diversions” may help you see your actions in a new light, forgive yourself for them, and take new, more conscious, action to turn away from them. The hope, and I think it’s justified, is that seeing a big picture (even if it’s a bit distorted from true reality) and acting on it will unblock the blocks and let the passion bloom again. Here’s to hope.


    I did not get interested in the TPP by being an attentive progressive. I wasn’t paying more attention than others to the independent media stories about it until about a month and a half ago (apparently this trade deal has been in the works for three years). What little activism I have taken part in since then has been motivated partly by the desire of myself and mutual friends to honor someone named Joe. Joe died suddenly on November 8 last year. He had been trying in the months before that to get us all moving on the issue.

    I was focused on other things and hadn’t been reading Joe’s emails too closely for those months before he died. I didn’t know him that well, but when he died I felt like I owed him something. He had been an organizing figure in my neighborhood and had a remarkably positive impact on my life, albeit indirectly. From three and a half years or so ago he had regularly arranged the occasions that allowed some good friends and I to meet and get to know each other. He also introduced us to one of our favorite places in the neighborhood: Terraza 7 Train Cafe (the owner was letting him and others show political films there; various groups still show films there, though it’s better known for its music).

    Death is something that I’m not comfortable with admitting is going to happen to me eventually, and I can’t really cope with the thought of it happening to close others either, though it has already struck my life a good number of times. I used to be a lot more thrown off course by it than I am now and would often respond with existential incompetence, even to the point of avoiding all memories of certain deceased people when news of their passing came to me. When deaths of people in my world happen now, I try to make room to grieve them and to make some meaning out of them, and to give the people who passed some honor.

    According to Terror Management Theory (another blast from social psychology), grasping for meaning in the face of death is par for the course. TMT asserts that death is such an acute challenge to our daily habits of self-understanding that whenever it rears its head in our psyche we have to do some work to repair the terrifying subconscious rupture that it makes.

    Ernest Becker, TMT’s inspiration (he was himself inspired by the psychoanalytic theories of Otto Rank and the theological philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard ), claimed that the entire edifice of “culture” by which humans shape each other’s lives is an attempt to manage our death anxiety. Culture concretizes our hope of having something we’re attached to that will outlast our dust-bound bodies. TMT-inspired empirical research generally supports Becker’s theories about our attachments to culture in the face of death. Unfortunately most of TMT research focuses on a subsidiary claim of Becker’s that a common culture-bolstering way to “repair” the psychic rupture of death awareness is to project negativity and aggression onto people who are different from us, particularly those who hold different worldviews. That’s not the only way to fill gaping fissures in meaning, though, and taking a better look at the expressed passions of the recently deceased is a relatively harmless type of calk to try to fill the fissure with (I hope).

    I had to do some independent reading and go to a TPP teach in (which had to compete humiliatingly with a noisy event in the same Tuesday night church hall) before it became possible for me to articulate what was was wrong with the TPP, and with the whole fast tracking process by which its supporters are trying to make it law. I can’t blame you if you still don’t see it, even after making it all the way through this five-part monograph. You have to do what you’re called to do at the end of the day, but I hope that someone out there who IS supposed to do something about the TPP has had a galvanizing moment of clarity. Joe, at least would appreciate that, and probably all the would-be victims of a fast-tracked TPP would appreciate it too.

    Submitters Bio:

    Ian Hansen is a social psychology professor specializing in cultural and political psychology and a part time activist on behalf of the good things in life.

Categories TPP

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