The Dark Side of the Mirror

An excerpt from a comment by Usha, made in response to my post of 16 February 2008, Exercising Compassion:

One further thought, regarding the mirror neurons, which I've been reading about quite a bit, lately. It's interesting to me that they're referred to as "Dalai Lama" neurons. I guess that's because they must enable our empathy and compassion. But I've also thought that there is a flip-side to this, for it would seem that mirror neurons must also enable the ignoble "mob mentality," which is not something we'd readily associate with His Holiness.

The raw material of our humanity seems to provide ample potential for the development of both our higher and lower natures. I think it matters a great deal how we cultivate it.

Dear Usha,

You are entirely right, of course, about the “flip-side” of mirror neurons. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, especially with the approach of the 40th anniversary of the My Lai massacre, which occurred in nearby Quang Ngai province.

It’s important to realize that each of us does have the capacity to express both the dark side of human nature, as well as something more closely approximating the Divine. And it’s instructive to examine our own lives in order to understand what conditions bring out the best in us and what brings out the worst. For my own part, I note that I am at my best when I feel relaxed and appreciated. When I feel stressed and unloved, I am hard-pressed to put my ideals into practice.

Larry Colburn was an 18 year-old gunner on the helicopter crew that intervened to stop the massacre of unarmed civilians by American troops in My Lai in 1968. In a 2002 interview, he took pains to note the difference in stress levels between his job and that of the troops on the ground. His job, which consisted of drawing enemy fire in order to locate hidden enemy troops was a dangerous one, he noted, but he and his crew slept in relative safety back at base every night. On the other hand, troops in the field remained in harm’s way continuously. It doesn’t excuse the mayhem that those troops exacted on the unfortunate villagers of My Lai, but it is, perhaps, a cautionary note: a combination of unrelenting fear and stress, along with the kind of solidarity fostered by the military can and does trigger the dark side of mirror neurons—the “pack mentality”.

Forty years ago, the American government tried its best to cover up the atrocities committed at My Lai, just as the early reports of prisoner mistreatment by Americans assigned to Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison were dismissed as “pranks” committed by a few “bad apples”. We’re getting into murky waters these days, when the highest officials of our land condone “enhanced interrogation” techniques and deny any responsibility for the literally uncounted civilian lives destroyed by the reign of destruction in Iraq and Afghanistan. American soldiers are subjected to the unremitting stress of repeated deployments under extremely hostile conditions, while knowing that their often heroic efforts are making no one’s life better. Their superiors consider the Geneva conventions to be “quaint”. Could we design more perfect conditions to bring out the worst in both the Iraqis and the American soldiers? What kind of world is being created here?

While military culture and conditioning is relatively easy to see, at least to those of us standing on the outside, the everyday conditioning to which all Americans are subjected is harder to perceive, at least when you’re sitting in the middle of it. The uncertainty that ordinary Americans experience, living far from any war zone, is in no way comparable to life in Baghdad or Fallujah. It is, nevertheless, unrelenting. Fear-mongering by the Bush administration in the aftermath of September 11th is, perhaps, the most obvious source of that anxiety. Other elements, however, combine to make us feel insecure and thus indisposed to be the best human beings that we can be. Corporate America finds it extremely profitable to conjure up boogeymen for us. Whether your perceived issue is bad breath, financial insecurity, or lack of sex appeal: Corporate America has the cure -- for a price. The backbone of their business plan is the creation of insecurity, which can only be mitigated through the frequent purchase of their products.

We can’t, as individuals, change the way that corporate America and the American government promote their twin messages of insecurity and compulsive consumption. But we can elect to tune those messages out. We can turn off the television and choose to focus instead on creating nurturing communities to replace those that American corporate culture has worked for decades to dismantle. We can work to help those around us feel secure and appreciated. And we can, each of us, strive to model behavior that will make this world one in which we would choose to live.