Insulation is a mainstay of human society. It allows us to erect buffers between ourselves and our situation and experiences, to cushion life’s blows and lessen its impacts. The first form of Insulation may well have been our ancestors’ construction of shelter. And the underlying mechanics of the Insulation process have changed little since, though Insulation has expanded into an elaborate network that touches every aspect of our lives. We insulate with physical mechanisms, we insulate with intellectual constructs, we insulate with emotional topography, we insulate with political arrangements, we insulate with economic striation, we insulate with demographic patterns, we insulate with racial profiles. Insulation mediates between us and a potentially hostile world and seemingly allows us a measure of control over what we will or will not encounter, both personally and socially. Over the millennia this ability to successfully insulate ourselves has brought humankind enormous comfort, longer lives, far less pain, far more pleasure, and vastly increased safety.
That is its upside.
Insulation has also generated an escalating collection of psychological distortions, social imbalances, political pitfalls, and moral challenges for those who practice it. We can’t afford to ignore any of those deficiencies. Indeed, responding to them and adjusting our urge to insulate accordingly will be pivotal in negotiating our future.
My friend Amy reminded me of Insulation’s downside the other night. She is a lawyer who gave up her profession because she was tired of always arguing. We were both attending a meeting and she caught me up on her life during a break in the agenda. Amy’d just come back from Arizona where her extended family had gathered and Amy expressed amazement at one of her cousins.
“He works for the Air Force,” she explained. “He pilots one of those remote drones over Afghanistan and Pakistan. He just goes to the office, fires up his computer, and spends his day chasing people down and blowing them up on the other side of the world. When his shift ends, he drives home to his wife and kids and dinner in front of the TV, like he’d spent the day ordering produce for the Piggly Wiggly. That he has leveled houses, blown legs off, and scattered corpses doesn’t seem to figure emotionally for him at all. It’s like he has no clue what he’s been doing actually looks like or feels like. It’s a kind of human life without faces or identities, just puffs on the screen and vectors and logarithms, never any screams. He doesn’t really compute that it all means people are dying at his hands. Just targets hit or missed. Talk about Insulation! It doesn’t get more insulated than this.”
I could only nod in agreement.
“Consider the implications of that kind of uncharged, anonymous behavior,” Amy continued. “It’s like the world has been restaged as a video game in which genuine consequences have given way to a reset button. Killing at your fingertips without any of the unseemly mess.”
As Amy suggested, I considered the implications and came up with four for starters:
We lose our moral grounding. Our ability to evaluate behavior has always been rooted in assessing its consequences in real time. If we deny standing to those consequences, as our Insulation does, we are without the means to appreciate and control our own actions. We need to experience behavior in its totality in order to guide ourselves. All the great crimes against humanity share a characteristic Insulation. They are conducted when the situation has been abstracted by training or ideology or rage or hatred or conviction, so brutalities or prejudices or tortures or exterminations are conducted inside a construct that hides its horror from its perpetrators, at least temporarily. On issues of life and death particularly we need to bare our consciousness to the horror in order to be sure it is worth inflicting. And dispensing pain and suffering without such a surety is beyond the bounds of acceptable human behavior. Right and wrong can only be known when Awareness trumps Insulation.
We isolate ourselves and truncate our lives. Insulation that diminishes Awareness, diminishes us. Insulated from knowledge of consequences, we are restricted to shrinking orbits of self fulfillment and realization. The more we function inside a constructed reality with the bad parts edited out or obscured, the smaller the collection of qualities we can develop in ourselves and the less profound our own experience of human life inevitably becomes. We sentence ourselves to settling far short of what we might be by opting for protection over perception. Most of the most important human possibilities require facing what is going on, not just an acceptable version thereof.
We diminish everyone else. The primal bond that links all members of the species and joins us as humans is one of the first casualties when Insulation obscures Awareness. We cannot know others if we do not know how we impact them. It’s like loosing the sense of touch as we grope in the dark. Connection always includes deepening our consciousness of what other people experience. If we can’t identify them then we certainly can’t identify with them. Love is often unavailable to the hyper Insulated. They sacrifice the joy of human communion for the protection of Insulation. We need to appreciate the other in order to realize our own existence as full form humans and that is impossible without Awareness of what we do.
We cripple our ability to cope with what’s coming. The extent Insulation eclipses Awareness is also a measurement of our future viability. The higher the Insulation we maintain toward the chemical alteration of the atmosphere and the burgeoning climate disruption, the smaller chance we have of lessening its impact and pulling ourselves back from the brink. It has never been more important to recognize the consequences of our behavior and never have we been more Insulated from them. In this case, what we don’t know may very well kill us. Our urge to protect ourselves is having the reverse effect of our intention. And down the line, Insulation will be no substitute for clear vision, sensitivity, and open mindedness, the sooner the better.