The Tyranny Of ‘We’

“Marcel Duchamp Fountain, 1917, photograph by Alfred Stieglitz at 291 art gallery following the 1917 Society of Independent Artists exhibit, with entry tag visible. “

Right now, I have a cat on my chest so it’s somewhat obvious that I’m not alone in this world, let alone supreme. Then my son comes in and wants help going to the bathroom. He’s just one of the many creatures whose digestive processes I’m intimately involved in. Of course, I myself require trillions of microbes to digest my own food. And trillions more make the oxygen I breathe.

As John Dunne, said, no man is an island, and that’s understating things. No man is even just a man, we are deeply connected with all things. And yet we don’t live like that, do we? We live in an artificial world built on the assumption of human supremacy. Even the John Dunne poem — which I like — contains the underlying assumption that man is something special, and islands and continents are just metaphors to be arranged around him. As he wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

As you can tell from the suspect reference to Europe, John Dunne was missing something big. Europe, of course, is not even a continent but a racist line drawn across Asia. In the same way, the division of mankind from other kinds is ultimately false and arbitrary. Like European identity, it has led to terrible atrocity. Dunne — in his focus on mankind — misses the point not by half (women) but by a factor near infinity. He misses the majority of god’s creatures, of which we are a transient minority. The whole thing makes me think of a TikTok joke about finally meeting divinity.

In the joke, a man gets to the gates of heaven and St. Peter says he just has a few questions. The first question is “how many bugs did you kill?” The man says a normal number and is told to go to hell. The man, apoplectic, asks to speak to the manager. Peter says fine and God appears. God is a bug. “Ohhh,” the man says. “I see.”

Do you see? Isn’t it far more likely that God looks like a bug, or a bacterium, than a mug like you or me? They’ve been around much longer in much stronger numbers, why shouldn’t they be the face of divinity? Why would the god of creation look like something created so late in the day, and which might not even stay? Isn’t it likely that God would be a successful creature like a crocodile or a dinosaur, or something effectively eternal like a virus? Why on Earth would they look like you or me and, even more obscurely, why would the male of our species? Does god have genitalia? What are we even talking about here? Everything is (literally) poisoned by the assumption of human supremacy. This is the tyranny of ‘we’.

We Wee

Dr. Tom Murphy has an interesting thought experiment called Are We Lucky? It’s fundamentally about the word ‘we’ and what that pesky little pronoun means. I thought about it so much that it’ll take me a while to get to actually quoting Murphy, so bear with me.

I use the pronoun ‘we’ a lot in writing, and it’s the rhetorical punch of most pieces on climate change. ‘We’ should do something, ‘we’ should think this, ‘we’ should change our consciousness and act accordingly. In a secular way, ‘we’ is our way of appealing to a higher power. But we’re fundamentally pissing on God’s leg and calling it rain. Being centered on your own species is the same as being selfish, just with a vague gesturing at creatures that look like you.

While the rise in consciousness from the individual to collective level is certainly noble, it’s still part of a feudal system that keeps nature enslaved beneath. The best we can muster is that we should be better lords of nature, but never a humble part of it, and certainly not beneath. Oh no, that’s not you and me. We’re intelligent, despite doing the dumbest things in living history. As Yuval Noah Hariri writes in his latest hate crime, Unstoppable We:

If you understand how corporations work, and if you know how to post a story on Instagram or organize a demonstration, then you can help save whales and other animals. From a whale’s point of view, you can do so many amazing things that you almost seem like a superhero.

What dreck is he peddling kids here? The human supremacy is as bad as the casual colonialism that pervades Hariri’s other book, Sapiens. Whales are supposed to be impressed by Instagram posts? Humans are going to ‘save’ whales by generating more hot air and mildly inconveniencing ourselves? Rather than realizing our place with whales, children must be told that they’re ‘superheroes’, flying above them and ‘saving’ them out of nobless oblige? What a deeply human supremacist attitude.

Honestly, who do we think we are? How little do we think of other creatures, and how much do we think of ourselves? Unstoppable We should be called Unstoppable Wee. We’re pissing on the leg of God and calling it rain. It reminds me of the Monkey King.

The Monkey King

The Monkey King, Sun Wukong, was lord of the Island of Flowers and Fruit. He was a most learned ape, possessed of actual superpowers, and great bravery. One day, after much provocation, the Monkey King declared himself the Great Sage Equal To Heaven, and started a war with heaven itself. And actually beat everybody. Sun Wukong caused so much ruckus that not just a Bodhisattva but the actual Buddha had to be called in to settle him down.

The Buddha met him calmly and extended a palm. “If you can jump out of my palm, little monkey, I will give you the kingdom of heaven,” they said. “Jump out of your palm?” the Monkey King laughed, “I can leap a thousand leagues with one bound! Consider it done.” And so the Monkey King leaped and was gone. He flew and flew to the end of the world where he saw five vast pillars marking, well, the end of the world. He plucked a hair, turned it into a brush, and wrote ‘Sun Wukong’ on one pillar. Then he took a wee on another. When he returned to the Buddha he stuck his palm out, to receive his reward. Instead, the Buddha smiled. “Little monkey,” the Lord Buddha said. “You never left my palm. Look down.”

What did our dear monkey see? He saw ‘Sun Wukong’ written on the Buddha’s first finger, and some steaming piss pooled under his pinky. He had never left the Buddha’s hand at all! Before the Monkey King could say anything, the Buddha turned his hand over, turned his hand into a mountain, and turned the Monkey King into a captive for 500 years. So begins the Monkey King’s story, called Journey To The West, but we’ll end here. I hope you get the message. The higher powers may be slow and mysterious to move, but when they do, you get a thundering slap.

The great power we claim today — to leap a thousand leagues in a single flight, to make day out of night, to change form into whatever delights—this is all hubris. We call ourselves great sapiens, equal to heaven, but all of our technology can’t do shit about the weather. All of our science is mere parlor tricks in the face of the awesome power of nature and the ancient gods we’ve dug up and lit on fire. Like monkey kings, we thought we reached the end of history and took a piss on the world. Nature (or whatever you want to call them) is pissed off. That’s the consequence of ‘we’. Might as well be wee for all the good this particular hallucination has done us.

To Return To Murphy

To finally return to the thought experiment that started these thoughts, let me finally quote Dr. Tom Murphy. Murphy’s thought experiment sets up a straw man and then lights him on fire. Who is this man? That man is Murphy as a young man, and also me. That man is anybody (many bodies) that believe in the power of ‘we’, and cite all the cool stuff humans do as proof. As Murphy writes:

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday. What we’ve learned is amazing — we have tamed so much — our reach and control are ever-increasing. Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything. We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all — even immortality may be in the cards soon. We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck — no longer mere animals. We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators. We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent — but that’s just the start…

We’re lucky, he says. Let’s look at that. Are you convinced? Are we lucky? Is this the good life for us? Or — if not yet — are we shambling toward the good life? I invite you to reflect on the words “we” and “us” in the above questions. Who does it include?

Are humans — and specifically members of modernity — the only ones who count? Is this “our” planet? Is it justifiable for humans to objectify, commodify, and disregard everything else? Well, humans are only 3% of animals on the planet, by mass, and only 0.01% of all life.

So, I encourage you to spend a few moments thinking about who WE really are. Expand your horizons. Humans simply could not exist without other life on the planet, any more than a tree leaf can survive without the twigs, branches, trunk, roots — and indeed other leaves.

Humans are really just one branch of a tangled evolutionary tree. Yet we sit here—having been around for a rounding era in dinosaur time—thinking that we’re the top of the tree. In reality, we’re out on a very slender limb. We make furniture out of our ancestors, we make food out of our sisters, we enslave our brothers, we dig up and burn the ancients that were buried underground for a good fucking reason. And we call this ingenuity. We’re just a bunch of monkeys, sitting in a tree, sawing off the very branch we sit in. It’s the very meme of folly. Such is the idiocy of ‘we’! As the cat on my chest or the child whose bum I’ve been washing for five years could tell you, there is no such thing! We are all connected and we ignore this at the peril of everything.

As the Lord Buddha said, offering refuge to our monkey minds:

Who is always gathering (life’s) blossoms and whose mind is entangled, death snatches that man away, as a great flood sweeps away a sleeping village.

Who is always gathering (life’s) blossoms and whose mind is entangled, death overpowers him, while he yet remains insatiate with regard to his desires.

As the bee, not harming the flower or its colour and fragrance, takes away the pollen, even so should the sage move in the village.

Having known that this body is comparable to foam and understanding that it is of the nature of a mirage, let him go beyond the site of death, having broken off the flowery arrows of Māra.

(The Dhammapada, E.W. Adikaram translation)

The Buddha reached actual Enlightenment, but the faux European Enlightenment trademarked the name for something, frankly, profane. It’s important to remember that the Buddha, Jesus, and the prophet Muhammad were all offered great powers and kingdoms on earth, by Māra or the devil or whoever you want to call him. They turned him down. The real innovation of the Enlightenment was being offered a deal with the devil and taking it. Enlightenment philosophy is built on the illusion of the individual, the race, and all that reason and science can do. The Capitalist economies that emerged out of this are built on selfishness as their core value.

The ‘great’ European powers thought they’d do all sorts of evil shit to other humans, animals, and nature because they were more cunning and deserved it, and this wicked science worked wonders for a few centuries. Far from rebelling, other humans largely wanted to get in on the deal, and ‘developed’ accordingly. But this was all built on a false enlightenment — on illusion — and was, in the end, just a planetary Ponzi scheme. Like any deal with the devil, the getting was good for a while, but the devil gets his due eventually, and inexorably. Getting might hot, ain’t it?

The devilish rub is that the illusion of the ‘self’, of ‘we’ really did work miracles. Power, goods, energy, kingdoms beyond all imagining. ‘We’ was of course violently restricted to rich white men and then slowly expanded to theoretically include all people (though practically, still just the rich). We called this is progress, towards humanism, but we were still missing the forest for just one branch on a tree. A branch humanists are still sawing off, most assiduously. It’s in the name, isn’t it? How is humanism any different from the other execrable isms, like racism, and sexism? It’s just a matter of degree. Racism and sexism all actually different hierarchies within the mother hierarchy of humanism.

In our humanism, we still miss the point that human supremacy is as bad as white supremacy. That enslaving animals is as bad as enslaving humans and that stealing from nature is as bad as stealing from anybody. It feels weird to even say that because of course human life is special, but is it? As Murphy said, “humans simply could not exist without other life.” If you can’t exist without something, is there really a meaningful distinction? That’s the tragedy of ‘we’. We think we can ‘solve’ our problems by being ‘better’ humans, not understanding that the problem is the myopic focus on ‘humanity’ in the first place. How can ‘we’ solve the problem, when the problem is ‘we’?

Unconsciously (in the paradox we call consciousness), we restrict ‘we’ to mean humans. ‘We’ restrict ‘we-ness’ even further to mean ‘modern’ humans, literally defining ourselves by the point we ‘stopped’ being animals. This is the tyranny of ‘we’, leading to the oppression of other animals, and thus ultimately ourselves, because we are animals. We do not know where we come from or who we are, which is a classic recipe for ruin. Which is where we find ourselves presently. Pissing away the future, in a giant, collective wee.