The inability to be heard is a very disorienting and disempowered state. You can learn that first-hand, as I did, if you accidentally sign up for a silent meditation retreat.
I didn’t know until I arrived on a remote, West coast island, that the course I had signed up for was essentially dawn-to-night Buddhist meditation, for almost a week. We were expected to remain silent the entire time, except when asking questions during the daily dharma talk. For six days we sat, walked, and ate in silence, even avoiding engaging others in eye contact.
The effect is profound. In a silent community, you suddenly find yourself without luxuries you didn’t know you had: the ability to ask questions, to apologize, to criticize, to consult with others, to make your viewpoint known, to suggest a better way to do something — and for others to do these things with you.
In retreats like these, there are practical reasons for this silence. It really aids the meditation, which is what you’re there to do. Discussion can always be had later. But at the same time it made me acutely aware of how vulnerable and isolated we become when we aren’t allowed to talk to each other.
During the interview, Carlin asks Dyer whether human “progress” simply amounts to the world becoming more Western, or if we only presume that Western values are more “advanced” because they happen to be ours.
This is a huge, ugly political question and I know it doesn’t interest all of you. But huge questions require huge answers, and part of Dyer’s 20-minute response is fascinating. In a flash it threw my whole role as a writer and a human being into sharp perspective, and could probably do the same for your own too.
Yesterday and every day before it
After beginning his answer, Dyer interrupted himself and then offered a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains the whole story arc of human beings — where we are and where we’re going. It’s a generalization but I think it can teach us quite a bit.
It goes something like this:
For most of human existence, we lived in little, roaming groups of roughly a hundred people, and those groups did not have leaders or classes. Nobody gave orders to anybody else. Important decisions, Dyer says, were made by discussion and consensus. He uses native Americans as a familiar example of how it might have gone:
“If you’ve ever been exposed to the way native Americans make their decisions — everybody has a say, as often as they want, for as long as they want. It’s one of life’s most boring experiences, to be present while they’re making an important decision, because it could go on for days.”
In these little groups, everybody knew everybody, and even the people who didn’t get their way respected the consensus.
Think about it — in such a tiny society, where everybody had to live alongside the same people for years, they would naturally become very well aware of each other’s strengths, faults, values and viewpoints. They would quickly become aware of virtually every viewpoint that existed in their society, which represents a level of social awareness we later humans couldn’t possibly even come close to achieving, once we began living in towns and cities and nations.
Dyer says this is the way all human beings lived up until 7 to 10 thousand years ago, when agriculture changed everything by allowing for cities, trade and enormous populations.
The old kind of egalitarianism was only possible because those groups were so small. Fifty adults who all grew up with each other could easily have a fair and civil discussion around the fire, and ensure that every view was heard and considered. Once people were living in towns, in hundreds or thousands, alongside people they hadn’t grown up with, this kind of consensus and respect for opposing views quickly became impossible. There were now far too many viewpoints to even hear, let alone understand, and it was virtually impossible to communicate your viewpoint to more than a fraction of the population anyway.
Once societies get that big, the rules must change. “Functionally, those societies need hierarchy,” Dyer says. “…and hierarchy emerges, and boy is it not pretty. So you go in to this seven- or eight- or ten-thousand year night of universal dictatorship, tyranny and oppression. Everybody, everywhere in the world, [was] living in some slot of a hierarchy, and almost certainly doomed by birth to live and die in that slot.”
The campfire conversation quickly became extinguished. We could no longer have any semblance of deciding, together, what we want our society to be like and how we might get there. You could talk to a few of the people in your slot, and some of them might understand you, but you could never reach most of them, let alone be listened to by members of the other slots.
Essentially, we lost the ability to talk amongst ourselves, in any kind of way that could change the course of society. Whenever small groups of people decided by consensus how society would be run, it was only the most powerful class doing it, and they were deciding how things would be for everyone. That became the rule for how societies operated, and it continues today.
Keep in mind that this is only the most recent fraction — maybe a few percent — of human existence. We live in this burning tip of the cigar.
But something happened a few hundred years ago that began to break this spell. The printing press (and much later the internet) began to restore our ability to have an inclusive conversation about what to do next. Suddenly, for the first time ever, a common person could speak his or her mind to a thousand people, and that is a very big deal.
Even though there are billions of us now, and we are dependent on each other in ways prehistoric people never could be, we can talk again.
As Dyer says, as soon as this social conversation becomes possible again, you see the old egalitarian impulse re-emerging wherever technology allows it to, even if there are nasty growing pains. People start printing their thoughts, and in no time at all they start overthrowing kings and tyrants, and calling out institutions on their cruelty. The Protestant Reformation happens. The American Revolution happens. The French Revolution happens. Democracy proliferates. Slavery in many nations is abolished. Civil rights movements happen.
Today we’re finally having fruitful conversations about topics like LGBT discrimination and our atrocious war on drugs. And because we’re talking about them, these present-day forms of tyranny are gradually (or sometimes quickly) eroding and and beginning to fall away. Tomorrow we will talk about injustices that we take for granted today — ones that seem so entrenched in the way we do things that we mistake them for human nature.
All of these changes are the result of sharing ideas about better and worse ways to run a society. You and I are, at this moment, doing what ancestors couldn’t for thousands of years. We are sharing ideas, across class lines, across borders, even across language barriers. We are talking about who we are, what we value and where we want to go, and we could potentially include many millions of others in this conversation.
This sudden loss and gradual recovery of our ability to talk to each other leaves us with plenty to think about. [I highly recommend listening to the whole interview (and really any of Dan Carlin’s history podcasts — they are excellent.)] The subtext of Gwynne Dyer’s theory, as I take it, is that honest, inclusive conversation across a society will reliably lead to equality and higher quality of life, in any place it is allowed to happen.
It’s crucial that we recognize that many (most?) people today still live in rigid hierarchical slots, and they will remain there until we have all the conversations that still need to happen surrounding that ancient question: “Where do we want to go and how do we get there?”
Yet many modern-day Westerners — who will live their whole lives with freedom of speech and the means to talk to almost anyone about anything — remain convinced they are essentially powerless to improve human life around the world, and use their internet access primarily to share pictures of cats.
There’s nothing wrong with using our incredible communication abilities to share cat photos. But let’s remember that they also allow us to do what many of our ancestors could only dream of: to talk freely about how we can live together better than we have been.
Another way to think of it is this: Today we have a second chance to use the greatest gift we ever had, and there are good reasons to believe it’s our last. Let’s use the daylight while we have it.