Articles for The Human Journey Project

I’ve taken on a job commissioning, editing and occasionally writing blog posts at The Human Journey website. The online initiative, a project of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), a California non-profit founded by psychologist Robert E. Ornstein, makes available current scientific knowledge about our origins, evolution, and human development potential. It’s a super-valuable education resource.

The blog showcases writing on important aspects of human nature, culture and psychology, as they relate to humanity surviving the challenges of the present and future. For those like me with an interest in this cross-disciplinary area, both the blog and the wider website are well worth exploring.

I’ve written a few of the pieces there. “Escaping the Either/Or Thinking Trap,” looks at the conundrum and impact of dualistic thinking in our culture. “Finding the Right Way Home” is about cults and the ubiquity of cult behaviour in our day-to-day lives.

The Reason Why Larry David Hasn’t Been ‘Cancelled’

Early last year I started watching the HBO comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. Several long-time fans of the show finally convinced me to give the series a spin after years of praising it to the heavens. For those uninitiated: the show’s producer, Larry David (the co-creator of Seinfeld), also stars in the series and plays himself—a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive and socially awkward Jewish comedian and producer living in Los Angeles who gets into all sorts of trouble for the inappropriate things he says and does.

I wasn’t that attracted to Curb at first. It’s an unusual sort of sit-com with a strange, vacuous, molasses-slow feel. It’s not made in a studio. It doesn’t move at a clip. Nor does it use an audience or employ laugh tracks. It’s shot reality-show style with lots of camera shake and with the actors often semi-improvising their dialogue—a lot of which is plain silly, or slapstick in nature. By way of Larry’s numerous gaffes and blunders, the series pokes fun at nearly every social, ethnic and professional grouping in society, including some to which Larry belongs: from his co-religionists, to Hollywood actors, to entertainment producers, and the moneyed classes of L.A. No one is spared. The scenes are often awkward and cringeworthy.

Yet, over time I’ve discovered that Curb‘s irreverent and politically incorrect humour makes for some of the best comedy out there. The show is a deep breath of fresh air and I’m unapologetically hooked. Two decades of seasons now running in the double-digits is testament to its continued popularity. At one level Curb Your Enthusiasm is a satire about “political incorrectness,” which uses our own deeply conditioned and nervous reactions to it to fuel our laughter as an audience. Humour, an age-old form of political subversion, has always been the bane of dogmatists and demagogues everywhere.

And yet most people who appreciate the series are also aware that it lives, at least theoretically, on a knife’s edge. There is a recurring refrain I hear among nearly all Curb aficionados who at some point in the conversation always say: “Larry David gets away with murder.” That comment is seldom not followed by, “I have no idea know how he pulls it off.” Apparently, Larry David still doesn’t know either.

Indeed, given the extent of blinkered and ideological thinking run amok nowadays, why Larry David doesn’t find himself embroiled in controversy, or even cancelled over the humour in his shows, ranks as one of greatest unsolved mysteries out there. Only such questions as the fate of Jimmy Hoffa and the construction methods of the Giza pyramids place higher.

And yet, I think I’ve come up with something approximating an answer—or rather an answer in multiple parts—that could finally put this daunting riddle to rest. I’ll start with the simpler and more mundane quotient of the explanation first.

One answer may be that the show is simply not appealing or popular enough across the board to draw in a critical mass of detractors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a niche, cult-comedy series hidden behind the CRAVE/HBO paywall that speaks to people who appreciate a certain brand of humour (think Mel Brooks jokes, but a slightly broader appeal). Those not prone to becoming outraged won’t go anywhere near it in the first place. Perhaps, because of this, the show isn’t discussed enough among the chattering classes for some of those conversations to go viral. The fact that Larry David isn’t online playing the Twitter game definitely helps in that sense. Thus he and Curb may just lack the requisite “stickiness” as a topic.

That explanation may illuminate part of it, but alone doesn’t entirely wash given the show has been running for so long and all you need is a few troublemakers online to start an avalanche of scandal. It seems too lucky. There has to be something else at play.

Instead, I believe the main answer lies in psychology. Two elucidations stand out, after much thought on the matter, both of which overlap. I’ll start with the first:

People don’t try to cancel Larry David because he’s likely not considered by most people to be a sufficiently worthwhile target. Let me explain.

In his book The Status Game, British author and journalist Will Storr writes that much social media behaviour, including attempts to cancel others online, is driven largely by status motivations. People who virtue signal by calling out other people online are not only trying to score points to elevate their own status, but they are also working to take down people they deem to hold too much status. Other social psychologists, like Jonathan Haidt, have argued similar things. This is evolved primate behaviour seen in more than one species, including humans, whereby group members often combine forces to knock down leaders who become too big for their britches.

It’s true that Larry David is a very big celebrity and a high-status guy in real life. But on the show, in which he plays himself, his alter ego is profoundly self-deprecating and he comes off as a kind of a loser who’s always getting into trouble with family, friends, colleagues and strangers. The show, I suspect, may inadvertently create the illusion that Larry David himself is a low status guy in real life who stands on no serious pedestal from which he can be knocked off. His goofiness may make him difficult for anyone to take seriously enough.

And this relates to what I suspect is the main reason we don’t see more people go after him: Larry, who again, plays himself, suffers serious consequences in each episode for the politically incorrect things he says and does.

Other people attack him, yell at him, get angry with him, or lash out at him for his faux pas. He loses money, opportunities, and jobs as a result. This again possibly creates the illusion in the mind of viewers that the real-life Larry David, by way of the alter ego, has received his just punishment—and doesn’t require further berating.

In other words: Larry getting in trouble on the show might also deactivate, or discharge, peoples’ bloodlust to try and cancel the real life guy.

The late Idries Shah, a writer and thinker whose work has influenced some of our understandings of human behaviour, and who wrote many books about the traditional psychologies of the East, illustrated a similar phenomenon in his book Knowing How to Know.

Shah described being at a press conference in London, where an unpopular businessman accused of improprieties was about to address a group of journalists who were intent on grilling him. Before the businessman arrived at the venue, a bystander loitering among the journalists began to viciously harangue the tycoon in his absence. The rabble rouser attacked him at such length, and with such conviction, that some of the reporters began to feel uncomfortable—even though they themselves had intended to do the same thing.

When the businessman finally arrived at the presser, the journalists, whose bloodlust and emotional excitement were discharged by the bystander’s raving attacks, treated him kindly and fairly. Their write-ups and media coverage later also demonstrated fair-handedness.

Similar dynamics might have protected Larry David from the sorts of criticism and cancellation that have plagued other less fortunate entertainers, who weren’t deserving of that fate.


A still-frame from the BBC documentary series "TraumaZone" by Adam Curtis

For the majority of us who’ve never visited, lived-in, or studied Russia, trying to understand Vladimir Putin and the collective culture and psychology of the nation he and his inner circle control can feel almost futile at times. Not only does Russia embody both Eastern and Western mores in a way that few, if any nations do, but it has also experienced a variety and degree of tumult that we aren’t able to imagine without having lived through it.

I’ve just watched a 7-part BBC documentary series on Russia, entitled ‘TraumaZone: What it Felt Like to Live Through the Collapse of Communism and Democracy.’ I can’t recommend it enough—as not just the bizarre and spellbinding romp through recent history it is, but as an object lesson in how collective trauma impacts the perceptions and behaviour of groups.

Director Adam Curtis presents a collage of random story vignettes drawn from old BBC archival footage to give us a sense of what it was like to live through Russia’s turbulent and destructive emergence from the Cold War years, between 1985-1999. The old video montages are a cross between Instagram video reels, and the ‘No Comment’ segments from Euronews. There is no formal narration per se—only sparse titling marking important milestones in the story.

Curtis implicitly shows us, masterfully, the devastating experiences that have shaped the Russia we see—behaving as it does—on the world stage today.

His narrative ends with the instalment, by Russian Oligarchs, of a much younger and more spritely Vladimir Putin into the country’s presidency—a final desperate act to stave off collapse caused by a fast-and-furious embrace of liberal democracy which was ill-suited to Russia, and promulgated by the West.

You can watch the series on BBC’s iPlayer in the UK, or on YouTube where the episodes also run.

Polarization Op-Ed in the Globe

We have another opinion piece running in the Globe and Mail today about increasing polarization in Canada, ritualistic opposition in politics, and the misuse of the party system to those ends. We argue that political parties have a beneficial cooperative function, too, beyond the tools they’ve become for senseless bickering.

You can read the piece here.

Canada’s UFO Files

old black and white photo of a UFO

Having penned a non-fiction book about Sasquatch lore, it was only natural that I’d be commissioned to write a review of a book about the little-known history of the UFO phenomenon in Canada, right?

My writeup of Matthew Hayes’s Search for the Unknown: Canada’s UFO Files and the Rise of Conspiracy Theory, a most interesting work, is appearing in the July-August 2022 issue of the Literary Review of Canada.

The review is entitled “Eyes Like Saucers.”

Iain McGilchrist’s ‘The Matter With Things’

The Matter With Things Iain McGilchrist

I’m half-way through The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions and the Unmaking of the World by psychiatrist and scholar, Iain McGilchrist. The book is an epic exploration of the impoverishment our culture’s strictly left hemisphere view of the world compared to the right-brain’s—which sees a reality that is infinitely more rich and holistic. As the subtitle of the work suggests, it is a big picture journey through the human condition and describes where we’re headed as a race unless we change our mode of thinking. It is an astounding and profound work.

McGilchrist’s magnum opus, ten years in the making, builds upon his other notable work entitled, The Master and His Emissary. That preceding book lays the foundations about the relationship and differences between the brain hemispheres and their impact on human culture across the ages.

McGilchrist argues in both books that in a healthy mind the left and right hemispheres work in tandem, but that the right brain—or “master”—should be dominant over the left—”the emissary.” This is because the right brain has much greater gravitas and capacity to both “see” and make decisions. It experiences the world more broadly, is more receptive, and aims at understanding, whereas the left hemisphere is grasping, controlling and focused on detail. In other words, the right brain has a wider view of reality. However, western culture has been hijacked by left-hemisphere thinking, which has de-throned right brain, causing endless problems and dysfunction due to its autistic nature when functioning largely on its own.

McGilchrist recently appeared in an interview with Mark Vernon on YouTube in which he discussed certain features of our left-brained world. The below quote from the Q&A about linear thinking  struck me as poignant and describes one aspect of the left-brain’s approach to the world. But it also defines the root of many long-term problems that imperil humanity: the idea of endless economic growth, deforestation, overfishing, urban sprawl, identity politics, social justice, artificial intelligence, Covid-19 policies, the Ukraine war, and a lot more:

There is a good point at which to stop pushing in a certain direction. That is something we absolutely don’t understand anymore. We think that things are just linear and if you keep on pushing in a certain direction you’ll achieve further and further distance from what you wanted to leave behind. Actually and unfortunately space is curved and mental space is curved and time is curved. And what happens as you push is that you achieve the precise opposite of what it was you meant to achieve. So, as you say, there is a part of our brain that is devoted to helping us to survive. It is a bit of an irony that it is actually that part of our brain that is now making us effectively soon extinct.

You can watch his excellent interview with Mark Vernon, here.

Kaliningrad: Inconspicuous Enclave

A postcard showing the city of Konigsberg, which is today Kaliningrad, Russia

As a travel writer drawn to obscure and remote locales, I’ve developed an interest in a mysterious territory tucked between Poland and the Baltic states. The place is called Kaliningrad—a Russian province and enclave located within Europe and behind NATO lines. Formerly German Königsberg, it became part of the Soviet Union when it was awarded to Stalin after World War Two, in 1946.

Today, the region of roughly one million people contains Russia’s only northern warm water port and is one of its most strategic military perches. It houses Moscow’s Baltic Sea fleet—among other weapons of war—and is situated an uncomfortable stone’s throw away from several European cities.

Most people have never heard of Kaliningrad because it’s been a restricted area for decades. You couldn’t just go there on a whim if you were an independent traveler backpacking through Europe, for instance. Even on maps it has an ambiguous countenance that makes it nearly invisible, or at least easy to forget if you manage to see it in the first place.

Its geostrategic and military relevance, given the deterioration of relations with Russia, is now undeniably heightened.

For those interested, I’ve written a short opinion piece with my colleague, John Bell, about Kaliningrad in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago entitled, “As Tensions Between NATO and Russia Increase, Look to Kaliningrad.”

Ukraine Op-Ed in the Globe

I’ve co-authored an opinion piece with my colleague John Bell which ran in today’s Globe and Mail about the war in Ukraine. It argues for a more nimble approach to the conflict by the West in light of the dangers of nuclear escalation.

You can read it on the Globe’s website.

If the paywall gets in the way, you can access it on The Conciliators Guild blog.

The Attention Factor

My Dinner With Andre

As a freelancer I’ve spent many years (prior to the pandemic) working in coffee shops. As those who work in cafés know all too well: you become inadvertently and unavoidably privy to the conversations of the others sitting at nearby tables. That comes with its plusses and minuses, though largely the latter.

But one fascinating thing I’ve noticed, beyond some of the very unusual and personal topics discussed, is there tends to be a default dynamic at play in many of these meetings between people. 

Often one of the interlocutors dominates the discussion, while the other, or others, sit passively and do the listening. Put in a different way, one person receives most of the attention, while someone else does the giving. The frequency with which I’ve seen this over the years is staggering. It operates in people as if it were an unspoken contract, and often in excess: too much talking in one person, too much listening in another. 

I’ve often imagined the people involved unconsciously seeking out one another to play-out those specific, complimentary roles.

Certain traditional cultures have known for a long time that humans have an innate need to both give and receive attention. It’s a sort of nutrition. Just the right amount fulfills us. Too much giving or receiving (as anyone who’s been stuck listening to an interminable rambler who has been holed up for too long on their own, knows), throws us off. It can even make us grossly inefficient.

This is such a powerful factor in human affairs, that much of what we do, in fact, is driven by disguised attention motivations arising out of that need: both at the individual and collective levels. We often rationalize our desire for it—one look at the state of social media demonstrates that. And yet, in our modern culture, as with other tendencies, we’re largely unaware of it. At most we might give disapproving lip service to “attention-seeking” in overactive children or misbehaving adults. We don’t see the subtler, wider ranges of that tendency that operate daily in ourselves. 

Social interaction is a very good and necessary thing. Covid lockdowns have underscored that fact. But one also wonders: if we were more cognizant of our attention needs, and thus managed them better, how many of those asymmetrical café discussions—or other excessive reflexes born out of a similar deprivation—would need to take place?  And how much more selective might we become with whom, or what, we give our attention to—including those who may need it the most?