Hsu Yun Chan Yuen
Home : Literature : Essays by Ming Zhen Shakya
 » Collective Dangers
Ming Zhen Shakya

Collective Dangers

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY

The urge to play, "Can you top this?" is often irresistible. No sooner did our comments about "selling pain and silence in the golden age of torts" appear, but several good humored readers responded with legal horror stories that were even worse than the one we told about the woman who sued Delta Airlines because airport security investigated the whirring motor of a sex toy that had prematurely gone off inside her suitcase. Onlookers laughed, and this caused her embarrassment for which she felt she should be compensated. Nobody worried about the anxiety and the inconvenience the other passengers had experienced because of the flight disruption her frenetic sex toy had caused - these folks were simply absorbed into the "Delta Collective" - they were Delta clients or flight attendants or airport personnel. It will surprise no one if she and her attorney prevail. Delta may be tempted to settle just to avoid the expense of trial or the not-unreasonable fear that a jury of her peers will find her self-generated embarrassment worth billions.

And so in the mood of this sad state of American litigiousness, the clipping we received that struck us as being the most odd and regrettable concerned a jury in New York City that awarded $34,100,000.00 to a woman who had tried to commit suicide by lying across subway tracks. Warned that there was a possible suicide attempt ahead, the subway train immediately slowed down - but not quickly enough to avoid injuring the woman. The judge reduced the award to 9.1 million dollars saying that, after all, she was partially responsible. Perhaps the judge had never ridden a New York City subway or any other subway or perhaps he just didn't understand the laws of motion. When a subway train comes to an abrupt stop the people in it keep moving. Even an ordinary slowdowned-stop can make the standees feel like tenpins in a bowling strike.

The subway conductor had to choose between injuring one woman who wanted to die so much that she had laid down on subway tracks, and a whole train-full of people who wanted to live so much that they were commuting to their jobs on that subway. Hmmm. How much thought does that require? More, apparently than we would suppose. The collective welfare of those who struggled to live was not the equal of one who determined that her own life was worthless - at least until she consulted with a reappraising attorney. Those commuting taxpayers will now have to pay the award.

I admit to finding these immense jury awards deplorable or amusing or perhaps deplorably amusing, but recently a couple of experiences have caused me to look more deeply into this peculiar situation, to see it in both in the terms of an individual cast against a collective, and in the darker aspects of group dynamics, specifically in the dangerous state of psychological "snapping" - that irrational emotional response we so often find in religious groups.

While driving on the freeway a few weeks ago, I noticed that stones were bouncing on the asphalt in front of me. One struck my car. Usually, if we're driving behind a big earth-moving truck, one laden with gravel, we expect a little shower of pebbles. But the vehicle in front of me was an ordinary delivery van. I looked more closely and saw that the stones were being tossed out the open sliding-front door on the driver's side of the van. There was no writing on the back doors and the license plate had strategically placed globs of mud over some of the numbers. As soon as I could, I pulled into the left lane and came alongside the van. Globs of mud also covered the name of the advertised auto glass replacement company; but I did get a glimpse of the driver, who held the wheel with his left hand and reached into a bucket on the seat beside him and casually tossed handfuls of stones out the open doorway. He saw me look at him and pulled into the right lane which merged into what was for me an unfollowable exit ramp. Still disturbed by this I got home and told the story to a neighbor who unexpectedly laughed, completely missing what I thought was a clear moral point. "That's what I call 'beating the bushes'" he said, "or 'drumming up business.'" He grinned as if he was applauding the man's initiative. I stammered,"But what about the people whose windshield had to be replaced?" "Hey, car insurance is compulsory. We're forced to carry it. The insurance companies make fortunes!" And then he added, "My wife's car sits in the driveway because we can't pay the premiums. So, sure, let a working guy make a few bucks." In over my head, I changed the subject.

And then a few weeks ago during a discussion in our prison Zen sangha the topic of AIDS came up and I tried to explain scientist Stephen O'Brien's "Bubonic Plague Survival Population" explanation for the difference in susceptibility of African and European populations to the AIDS virus. . AIDS and the Plague invade the body in much the same way and only those persons who carry a protective mutant gene are immune to both diseases. Those Europeans who were exposed to the Plague but who survived it obviously carried that gene; but since the Plague had apparently not struck Africa there were no African Plague survivors. The African death toll from AIDS might easily approximate the European death toll from the Bubonic Plague.

"Where does AIDS come from?" anAfrican-American newcomer at the back of the room asked. "Originally," I said, "I think it was simian... apes or monkeys gave it to human beings." "That's a lie!" the man said vehemently. Several African American men around him agreed The emotion they showed was a signal - one that beckoned to be followed.

"Do you have a problem believing that Mad Cow disease comes from cows or trichinosis comes from pigs?" I asked. They didn't. "Then why do you have trouble imagining that monkeys transmit AIDS to man? Troops of monkeys live in tree-canopy environments just as flocks of sheep live on pastoral lands. People in either environment get protein from eating animals - whether monkey or sheep. And since it is usually more convenient to kill an animal before eating it and killing and dressing the animal involves blood and any nick on the hands of the person who's handling the carcass provides the necessary entry port of infected blood....well, why do you have a problem with that?" Before anyone could respond the discussion moved on; but out in the hall after the meeting, the men were waiting. They wanted to know more about AIDS being an actual disease and not an unfortunate coincidence of conditions as they had heard - and also about its simian transmission; but I couldn't answer their questions. I could only give a "coffee klatch" version of the discoveries of the scientists. But the deeper questions at issue were on my turf and I, not Stephen O'Brien, needed to answer them.

Science often makes premature judgments that religious people seize upon to justify their otherwise untenable but venomous theories. As we talked I reminded the men that at the outset of the AIDS epidemic scientists had insisted that it was specifically an anal sexually transmitted disease. Since it had initially killed so many homosexual men it was, in fact, called the Gay Plague.

Immediately from Fundamentalist Christian pulpits ministers proclaimed that it was punishment from God for the sin of homosexuality. Later, when new data forced the reappraisal of the manner of transmission, it was also disclosed that the disease had a simian origin, an African simian origin. And now from their pulpits (and I can personally attest to this) many Christian Fundamentalists proclaimed that Africans produced the AIDS problem by having sex with monkeys. African Americans were understandably offended by this - but while mainstream African Americans responded knowledgeably to the idiotic charge, many of their own Fundamentalist groups, seeing themselves as victims of "minority" prejudice, took what was regarded as a brave stance against "majority" condemnation and, referring to some flimsy pseudoscientific theory, insisted that AIDS was not a specific disease at all. It was the result of several different well-established human illnesses - and as such could not in any way be transmitted by monkeys. The entire AIDS controversy was a ploy to con poor African-Americans into using "safe-sex" condoms and thereby to reduce their population.

And so, to do battle against an ignorant Goliath there rose an equally ignorant David with a readily formed cheering section behind him. And this is the point of the attack against the collective. It is easy to root for the individual who stands against the collective. We are moved to support the underdog - even, evidently, when that dog has rabies.

Why is it that we will act so inimically against our own interest? Surely it must have occurred to my neighbor that filing claims against insurance companies does not serve to lower premiums. And surely a jury of taxpayers might think twice about awarding huge punitive damage claims against public service agencies which they, themselves, fund. That an individual is committing a crime by tossing stones onto a highway with the intention of damaging other cars or that a person has no right to commit suicide at all - much less in a way that puts the welfare of others at risk - doesn't seem to matter. An irrational link - one made of steel emotion - is forged with the perceived victim of the powerful collective. And it is this irrationality, this "snapping" that we so often find in juries and in religious groups.

Why do people congregate? Obviously, the formation of collectives furthers survival - else we would not instinctively form them. Jung noted that this instinct - the Shadow - was rather like a coin that has two opposed sides: a friend and an enemy. We see the advantage of the herd: there is safety in numbers. And among cultures the group provides for the benefices of a larger gene pool; a larger variety of interests and skills; a larger and more diverse market, the exchange of information, and so on. The collective can afford projects - bridges, roads, irrigation, schools, and so on - that the individual cannot afford. On the individual level, the Friend affords the advantages of the buddy-system, of the confidant, of the friendly competitor and alter-ego, and the limited social experiences which will be expanded to accommodate group behavior.

The amount of energy we invest in forming bonds with friends is enormous. And the pain of being rejected by the group or betrayed by the friend is also enormous. As the men in prison well understand, there is no pain in having someone "give" State's evidence against them. They expect that. It's only when someone "turns" State's evidence that they suffer betrayal. (Only a friend can be "turned.")

We project trust upon friends and in religious groups we see that trust carried to familial extremes. We employ such appellations as "Father," "Mother," "Sister," "Brother," when addressing those with whom we have no genetic relationship.

Also, in religious groups one person is regarded as the leader who frequently undergoes apotheosis when the enthralling energy of the Hero is projected upon him. We "trust" friends; but we "believe and obey" leaders.

Each of us human beings has an Enemy Shadow - a reservoir of enmity that has accumulated throughout our life experience. Each time we are humiliated, injured, insulted, abused, accused unfairly, rejected, ignored, neglected, etc., we have to bear that pain; and no ego can long survive with such a burden. Our solution is to dump the resentment into the Shadow's reservoir which we then tap whenever we feel threatened or angry or identify with someone who is similarly discomfited, or, as in the case of the attack upon the collective, whenever we feel our family, clan, tribe or nation is under attack. The Shadow reduces our enemy to subhuman status, to those animals that steal our food or befoul our nest, creatures that we can kill with impunity and so we call someone with whom we are in conflict "a rat, a snake, a skunk, a bitch, a cockroach, a worm." We do not call him a giraffe or a panda bear.

Since each member has this font of enmity in his psyche and since the leader knows he cannot get his group to congeal into a stable entity if the members release this destructive energy upon each other in internecine strife, he knows that he must collect and then project these shadow elements outside the group onto some hapless enemy. Any clearly identifiable 'different' group will do: racial, national, philosophical, economic - it does not matter. The inside group must in some way despise an outside group for there to be successful fellowship within.

And this was, in fact, the situation that the men had encountered. They had heard the pseudoscientific nonsense about Africans, homosexuals, monkeys and AIDS disseminated by White Fundamentalist preachers; and their response was to rally round the counter-nonsense of Black Fundamentalist preachers. That this ignorant reaction was inimical to their own interests was irrelevant. It provided for a catharsis of shadow content, a purgation of pain, the inevitable victory of emotion over ratiocination. Their response was identical to those of the man who applauded the deliberate tossing of stones onto the highway and to those people on juries who award fantastic sums of punitive damage for an individual and against a collective - even though in the long run, it is they, themselves, who must pay the price of such largesse.

In religious matters, emotional responses, no matter how bizarre they may seem to an outsider, are always sensible to an insider. We look at cults' behavior and so easily see the horrendous stupidity of their actions. Jim Jones said that he would lead his flock to a Jonestown Paradise; but not a single one of them wondered how any Paradise could be so geographically close to Devil's Island, the French penal colony. Rajneesh Puram proclaimed itself a center of Indian Virtue and Wisdom in Oregon; and then, to gain control of a local government proceeded, on the evening before election day, to poison as many non-supportive inhabitants of the community as they could. This action was evidently in perfect accord with their high ethical standards. The members of Heaven's Gate studied science and mathematics and bought new tennis shoes to wear when, after committing mass suicide, they boarded a spaceship they were certain was riding the draft of Comet Hale-Bopp.. What university degree or course in astrophysics contradicted this belief? In every case of such irrationality we find that same arrogance, that "them versus us" mentality, and the special regard that insiders have for one another which inspires their terrible fear of being cast outside the group into that mass of inferior creatures that surround them.

I talked to the men about the goals of Zen. "If you can help somebody, help him and then burn your good deed behind you. Don't mentally write out an IOU for him, a marker that you can collect on in the future. Don't have friends, just be friendly to everyone. Above all," I said, "be emotionally detached. Never sacrifice your individuality. Understand the dynamics of group membership without losing your sense of unitary security, of peaceful independence."

It seemed to make sense to them. "Being cast outside the group," said one man "is why solitary confinement is considered such bad punishment. But finding peace in your own individuality is what really puts a man apart from the rest of the guys."

Somebody remembered Richard Pryor's line in the movie Stir Crazy - when he had finally been released from solitary confinement. "Hey," said Pryor's character dejectedly, "I was just getting into myself."

It's strange how quickly men in prison can grasp a principle.  


back   Back 
Last modified: July 11, 2004
©2004 Zen and The Martial Arts