The Basic and the Unfamiliar Human Community

By Idries Shah

All human societies are based upon, and their continuity and growth are reinforced by, the use of hope, fear and repetition.

Although this simple structure is not visible to the overwhelming majority of people, everyone who is concerned with human groupings uses and approves the application of hope, fear and repetition.

The structure is employed in every type of organisation: whether tribal, national, political, religious, recreational, educational or other.

Two things militate against the recognition of the structure by the people in it and those operating it:-
1. The seeming diversity of objectives of the societies in question;
2. The very simplicity of the structure. It is so obvious as not to be self-evident in the way in which people think things are self-evident.

There is also an unspoken, because unrecognised, consensus in human thought upon this matter: Because everyone is accustomed to being manipulated by hope and fear, and because everyone assumes that repetition is necessary, the possible progress in analysing this situation is virtually at a halt. It is as if one might say: ‘We make sounds. Why should we turn these into words? They suffice us.’ — in a pre-verbal condition of man.

Such a hypothesis (about words not being necessary) would be adequate only under circumstances in which there was no real need for coherent speech. In a society, in other words, where there were no dissatisfaction and no real curiosity leading to investigation which might result in the production of a useful instrument (that is to say ‘speech’) and the removal of a source of tension and annoyance leading to frustration (for instance, superabundant grunting and chattering!).

When such statements as the foregoing are made clearly enough, experience shows that they tend to elicit two main automatic reactions. These reactions may be presented as attempts to avoid or resolve the challenge. In fact they are capable of doing neither.

Summarizing the first reaction:
‘Man can learn only by these methods. To abolish them would be to prevent learning and reduce the chances of human cohesion.’

Summarizing the second reaction:
‘This contention does not prove that there is any other way of learning or organisation, or that quality and measure in these techniques exists or needs to exist.’

Now, it is always difficult to deal with prejudices which provide people with advantages — such as not having to think. It is equally difficult to satisfy people who inwardly but not admittedly fear that they might be revealed as shallow; or who fear that the consequences of admitting something unfamiliar might ‘change’ them. It is difficult — it is not, however, impossible.

If it were impossible, the human race would have died out through lack of adaptive capacity. It is true, though, that those who cannot or will not adapt to constructive but unfamiliar information are members of the segment of humanity which does, in the cultural sense, die out. Those individuals, schools of thought and societies which have not adapted to ‘now’ (that is, unfamiliar) information and environmental changes have died out.

The two main reactions just quoted are less plausible than the contentions which they oppose. For that alone they could be dealt with merely by ignoring those who hold them, and regarding the actual fact of holding such opinions as evidence of the incapacity of the person to adapt to unfamiliar ideas: evidence of his relatively poor survival ability.

But there is a mechanical trap here, and it is worth observing in passing. People who oppose ‘now’ or unfamiliar concepts can be made to accept them if the ‘new’ conception is sufficiently energetically projected. That is to say, there would be no real difficulty in conditioning, by fear, hope and repetition, these objectors to ‘believe’ that fear, hope and repetition were undesirable in quantity or quality. The trap is that you would now have plenty of conditioned people who objected to conditioning because they had been conditioned to object! They would be useless to further understanding, almost by definition, certainly by the crudity of their operational capacity.

So agreement with your original statement, or ‘belief’ in it, is not what is aimed at. This in itself is a very unfamiliar concept, since virtually all human societies prize above everything agreement and belief. What do you seek, they will (and do) ask in bewilderment, if you do not seek converts, heroes, martyrs, believers, dedicated supporters, disciples, propagandists, enthusiasts, representatives, common denominators, and so on.

What you seek, because it is an essential prerequisite to understanding, is people who can accept the possibilities which follow:-

1. That virtually all human communities are established and maintained by the reward/punishment and repetition mechanisms;
2. That there might be an alternative;
3. That this alternative might not require the abandonment of membership of one or several of the ‘basic’ types of grouping; the basic type is a grouping produced by hope and fear and maintained by repetition;
4. That it might even be necessary for man to remain, for some of his purposes, formally grounded in one or more ‘basic’ grouping;
5. That it might be possible to add the unfamiliar form of relationship to one’s range of experience, without disturbing the ‘basic’ type already implanted;
6. That there may be a value in some form of understanding which could be prevented by conversion;
7. That it might be useful to observe and recognise the occurrence and operation of the ‘basic’ structure in all forms of human association which surround everyone;
8. That it might be advantageous to absorb this ‘new’ information rather than to react to it as if it were a key, panacea or magic wand;
9. That it is being suggested that it could be the exclusion, (not the cultivation) of emotional or intellectual bonds based on hope and fear and operated by repetition, which could open a door to knowledge of a kind different from that which is available through the single system just described.

From The Commanding Self, page 63
© 1994, The Estate of Idries Shah

Idries Shah, who died in 1996, was born in Afghanistan and educated in the East and West, spent more than 30 years collecting stories from the Sufi tradition and adapting them to contemporary Western culture. His more than three dozen books have been translated into 12 languages. A practical philosophy with deep roots in Afghanistan, Sufism is sometimes mislabeled “Islamic mysticism” in the West because it is widespread in Muslim countries, although it is not tied to any religion and has included members of all faiths.