How to build walls that last
60 Days Beyond The Wall: Part 6
If you’re really ambitious read through Part 5.
If this all seems daunting, feel free to just read this — it should stand alone.
Chobe, Botswana, 3/27/2018, Hippos are all around me
It turned out that the murderous lights in the distance were fisherman camping to get the first catch. I watched with my jaw lowered, bread knife still in hand, as blue and yellow trucks crawled over the sand with fishing poles mounted near their front license plates — definitely a face-in-palm moment. Definitely not kidnappers.
I write this as the sun climbs over an endless field of elephant grass, grass so tall that it envelops your car entirely as you drive through it. Hot water begins to steam for coffee beneath our roof tents.
We drove north along the Skeleton Coast until the landscape morphed from desert to canyonlands with sparse greenery.
I tracked the black rhino deep into these canyonlands.
We continued northeast, camping in the plains all the way to the border of Angola, into the swamplands.
On our last night in Namibia, I watched as lightning illuminated the landscape, breaking the sky like fissures in the earth. Not more than 100ft from our unfenced campsite along the river, one could hear the grunts of hippos as they slowly began to leave the river for evening grazing.
I’m not going to lie. Hippos are the most dangerous mammal in Africa, if not on earth. They can weigh several tons, run faster than any human, and have jaws strong enough to literally tear a person in half. The last detail was emphasized quite clearly by our canoe guide the day before. Following my trusty amygdala, I would periodically jump on the roof of our car every time I sensed that they were getting closer, within eyesight of our campsite.
Clouds rolled in, and in anticipation of rain, we began to anxiously collect the half cooked spaghetti that boiled over the campfire. Within minutes, I was utterly soaked, shivering, as my friend filled my tupperware container with pasta.
We sat in our car and ate spaghetti while a bottle of Namibian whiskey went back and forth like a metronome. Outside a storm raged on and monsters encroached.
Hippos do not care about arbitrary territorial boundaries when they are numbered and large and you are few and small.
We should constantly evaluate the boundaries we draw.
Cape Town, South Africa 4/7/18, The walls that unify us
Long ago, our species traveled in nomadic tribes of around 40 to 60. We walked the earth foraging and picking off the remains of larger predators.
It takes a lot of mental horsepower to avoid conflict and keep track of all the nuances in a medium sized group. Who is overly selfish? Who eats too much when the group hasn’t had their share? Who likes who? Who dislikes who? Who is helpful? Who should you avoid? Think about cooperating in an office. Your mind instantly begins to profile people especially in the interview process. We use a system of shared values — maybe a mission statement or a list of cultural values — to decide who will gain admittance to our tribe. It also gives us a code of conduct for how to behave in the tribe — be transparent, help others, etc.
There are only a handful of species that can cooperate in large numbers like this — ants, termites, and bees to name a few — and many of them leverage a simple binding force. They are literally all brothers and sisters with a single queen. When we are not directly related, this becomes much more challenging, and we have little to keep us from tearing each other apart. We need some way to know that a person thinks the way we think.
Maybe it was the need to create a shorthand for shared traits of cooperation that drove us to create the first value systems. Eventually these would become the banners that we rallied behind and the alters upon which we prayed.
The wall at its core represents the process of joining similar on one side and separating from dissimilar on the other. It is the mechanism by which we unite and protect our tribes. It gives us the shorthand information to know who to trust and who to distrust. The wall can be a system of values, a religion, or a column of dried mud.
Tribes are everywhere and we build walls wherever we go. Go to a football game or a presidential election ceremony. Attend an academic conference and listen to the verbose description of a narrow insight that has revolutionized field x, but not field z. Our walls help us make sense of a world that would be too complex and dangerous to navigate without them.
However, when left unexamined, our walls can spread destruction and confusion like wildfire.
If there was anything to be learned from the horrors of the 20th century, it would be that we have an unparalleled ability to draw lines, classify others as subhuman, and use symbols of propaganda to unleash a bottomless capacity for destruction.
In the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu used the symbol of the cockroach to describe the Tutsi. This symbol became so engrained and reinforced in the minds of the Hutu soldiers, that the Tutsi — children, teachers, farmers — became indistinguishable from insects that had to be exterminated.
It’s very difficult to escape this tendency. It’s literally hardwired into the way we think. Even those who carry out horrific monstrosities feel justified, even righteous for doing so. We see them as monsters who must be removed from the earth.
I believe we need something more sophisticated than walls in the modern day to slow human cruelty. Of course, it may be impractical to allow certain people to participate in a peaceful society when they have an unquenchable thirst for destruction. However, it’s worth trying to understand why we do what we do in order to avoid these patterns in the future and within ourselves. Walls are the obstacles between us and this understanding.
Something like 1/5th of death row inmates have repeated instances of severe head trauma in regions of their brains that regulate aggressive behavior. A tumor in the amygdala can make a monk into a murderer. I’m no believer in tabula rasa, a blank slate that we all start from, and I do not believe in evil. We were all dealt a certain cortical hand and in the wrong environments, we will feel justified to carry out terrible deeds. We can wage war on evil, but this is always a slippery slope.
Our walls have a unique property. They give us the illusion of complete understanding. Everything is either tree or not tree, life or not life, good or not good, my nation or not my nation. The “us” and “not us” division is the most basic way of making sense of the world and our walls are built for this simple purpose. However, when a small subset of “not-us” does terrible things, our minds jump to the conclusion that all of “not-us” must be terrible. After all, they are on the that side of the wall where terrible things happen.
Our thoughts construct the lens through which we see the world. If we decide someone is evil, we will see horns and a trident. If we decide someone is stupid, all of their most basic human errors will be viewed as gross examples of incompetence. Viewing people this way, especially if we are in positions of authority, only leads us towards creating realities that confine them to these traits. In a work environment, this is productivity loss. We ignore root causes that can be corrected through thoughtful observation. In conflicts, this is the spark that ignites an unending sequence of resentment, grudges, revenge, and counter vengeance. It only ends when one side is annihilated and the other is forever imprinted as a doer of the cruelty they once fought against.
The long and short of it is this.
Make yourself fully aware of the walls you stand behind.
In the pursuit of knowledge, use walls to demarcate the edge of what you know, as a symbol of ignorance. Break them down as soon as you learn more. When we do not break down walls, we create unnecessarily complex mazes. We lose sight of the horizon.
See the wall as a categorical tool that we once created to make practical sense of an endless continuum. When we forget this and confuse reality for the imagined walls that we use to understand it, we become students of semantics rather than of nature. We cling onto obsolete knowledge and forever seek the edge of the flat earth.
In personal conflicts, try to dissolve the wall entirely. Just because someone is on one side of the wall does not necessarily mean that they share all the traits you hate. We are all doers of wrong and the difference in how wrong really only matters to our fragile egos. It’s much easier to seek an explanation where you are both joint-contributors to a bad outcome than force another to admit to one entirely.
As I write this, my country is undergoing a political division, the likes of which I don’t think we’ve experienced for several decades. One side may see the other as uneducated, greedy in the consumption of shared commons, and completely apathetic to the human condition. The other side may view it’s opposite as entitled, overzealous in the dissolution of treasured traditions, and lacking in patriotic sympathy. Whatever it is, division begets division and walls only create the illusion that we have more differences than similarities. The side you despise will only use your aggression as justification for their cause and visa versa.
I do not know what will come of this, but if there was one thing to be learned from stepping beyond your walls, it would be that we are more similar than we are different. All of our progress — the internet, telephones, modern transportation, even the walls we build — was born out of an effort to bring us together, not apart.