So you think what we’re doing makes sense?
During my childhood in the late 1960s my family lived in South Africa for a couple of years. Among many other experiences, this was when I first encountered US pop culture. A local convenience store sold a few out-of-date comic books featuring then-current superheroes, the most notable of which were Superman and Batman.
I remember being puzzled by their fondness for baroque and rather impractical costumes. Why was their underwear on the outside of their pants? For what purpose did they adorn themselves in capes? And why was every problem solved by means of punching other people? For the most part the story-lines seemed tediously repetitive and boring.
The one story that did interest me, however, introduced a parallel Earth: Bizarroworld.
Defying basic physics, this quasi-Earth was a cube rather than an oblate sphere, and its inhabitants were likewise defective copies of the original. There were many incongruities: Why was only quasi-Earth a cube while the rest of the nearby universe conformed to normal surface tension dynamics? How could such stupid inhabitants have developed parallel technologies and social structures?
Yet the thing that struck me most was the fact that the parodic world was in fact a far better description of our actual world than the cartoon Earth on which the costumed heroes normally plied their trade.
Just as in our real world, no one on the cube Earth questioned group norms. Whatever happened to be the case was accepted as right and normal. And that’s a perfect description of how we humans operate. No matter how wildly dysfunctional a norm may be, we cling to it because it’s what were accustomed to. The more the comfortingly familiar norm begins to crack the more desperately we cling to it, conjuring up all manner of irrational reasons to defend its persistence.
Anyone who’s acquainted with evolution understands why this is. We’re a primate group species and we have no physical attributes that permit us to survive outside the group. We depend on group membership for everything, so it’s not surprising that millions of years of evolution have shaped our brains and thus our behaviors so as to maximize our probability of fitting into whatever group we find ourselves in.
Though someone (presumably possessed of a cruel sense of irony) named our species homo sapiens a far more accurate representation would be homo congruus. The one thing we do really well is to conform to group norms, whatever they happen to be, because this is essential for our individual survival.
And that’s why Bizarroworld struck me as such an apt depiction of our actual world. It was full of people doing the most immensely foolish things while believing that these things were proper and correct. The inhabitants of Bizarroworld were essentially incapable of coherent thought and endlessly self-harmed as a result. In Bizarroworld, as in our own, the simple ruled and the complex was beyond comprehension.
As a child I watched the adults around me conforming to group norms, self-harming with alcohol and tobacco, clinging to dysfunctional relationships, and being quite miserable despite their conviction they were doing things that would make them happy.
I’ve spent my entire adult life living in Bizarroworld.
When sitting my Finals at university, I had to dress in sub fusc. Apparently the powers that be were convinced that one needed to dress “properly” in order to answer questions on exam papers, regardless of the actual unsuitability of the uniform. Whether one performs better or worse when wearing a suite, carefully-ironed shirt, and a bow-tie in an airless examination room is not really an open question. Supposedly the exams were to test our knowledge and comprehension but very clearly we were also being assessed on our capacity to conform to an entirely arbitrary and rather dysfunctional sartorial code.
When I commenced work as a management consultant, things were just as silly. Once again the uniform was paramount: clients, after all, were probably too clueless and harried to have any capacity for assessing the value of our work; thus our appearance was of paramount importance. Never mind the fact that modern business attire is suitable for precisely no situation whatsoever aside from relative indolence within a carefully climate-controlled office.
All craft guilds know the uniform matters. Ordinary people have as little ability to assess performance as the typical corporate client and so appearance is everything. It’s why doctors wear their white coats despite the garment being totally pointless in terms of utility. It’s why judges wear silly clothes and wigs. It’s why nurses are made to wear utterly ridiculous clothing that inhibits their ability to perform their function. No one stops to ask, “why are we wearing these anachronistic and largely unsuitable outfits?” We wear these things because we live in Bizarroworld.
Indeed, the more absurd something is, the more vociferous the claims as to why it is essential that we don’t try to change it. We humans are terrified of the unknown, because for nearly all of our evolutionary history the unknown was outside-the-group. And that meant death.
This is why people yearn to return to the office despite the fact that the office was merely a temporary nineteenth-century solution to the need for centralized data processing at a time when modern communications technologies did not exist. So people will wave away the appalling costs: the energy-sapping commute, the pollution, the tiny cubes, the squalid office politics, and the inability to be with one’s children. All of this is swept under the rug merely because we’re accustomed to going to the office. Yet for nearly all of human history, the office didn’t exist. We don’t actually need offices. But now that we’re used to them, a great many people simply can’t conceive of any other mode of existence.
Likewise with schools. Today’s age-segmented approach to education is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, when factories required units to be produced in a manner that resulted in an easily-assessed set of standards suitable for the age of mass production. Forget all the studies that show children fare far better both intellectually and socially when they’re in mixed-age groups and when children can proceed at their own pace rather than at the arbitrary pace of the standard curriculum. Forget the fact we know children learn better when they’re not forced into school too early in the day, and do far better when no lengthy summer vacations are imposed during which they forget much of what they’ve learned.
No, we brush all this aside simply because the current approach to schooling is all we know. We tell ourselves teachers are doing wonders for our little darlings, and we endure the morning school run and all the miseries that playground politics inflict on our offspring simply because we can’t imagine anything else. It’s the norm so we automatically conform to it and then defend it with absurd “reasons.”
The Internet could in theory be a mechanism by means of which we expose ourselves to a variety of other cultures and other ways of doing things, and thereby begin slowly to see that our own norms are purely arbitrary and very often dysfunctional. Sadly, the opposite has occurred. The Internet makes it easy to create little groups in which highly dysfunctional norms are promoted. Sometimes these little groups expand to encompass other groups, and thus mass movements can accrete.
Anyone who spends a few moments delving into the fetid recesses of the Internet will be appalled by many of the groups that lurk in the shadows. Whereas forty years ago a young male might be dissatisfied with his romantic life and feel somewhat angry against an amorphous external reality, today these psychologically damaged men can enjoy the comfort of a self-reinforcing Incel group that promulgates increasingly hate-filled and violent norms.
Whereas forty years ago, a low-IQ uneducated white male might gaze lovingly at images of Nazi paraphernalia and dream of a world in which his pendulous gut could be squeezed into a chic uniform designed by Hugo Boss, today he can join one of the many neo-Nazi groups online and participate in rallies that reinforce his sense of belonging. Even better, within the safety of the group he can get to intimidate normal people in a gratifying way.
Young sexually repressed people who’ve been raised within the context of religionist mythologies are likewise easy fodder; we need only think of the sad little boys who imagine that after their glorious martyrdom they’ll be given seventy-seven virgins with whom to enjoy an eternal afterlife, or the Jewish fundamentalists who regard themselves as “chosen” and therefore above all concept of secular decency with regard to their treatment of hapless Palestinians. Christian fundamentalists in the USA agitate for a very regressive agenda that will harm millions and Buddhist extremists in Burma are inciting violence against their Rohingya neighbors. In India, Modi is whipping up Hindu extremism as a political tool and the inevitable horrors are following.
The Internet is an extremely helpful tool in creating and binding groups of people who would otherwise be too physically disparate to encounter each other and certainly too dispersed to cause much harm to others. Group norms that would otherwise be difficult to sustain in the ordinary course of events become strongly reinforced within these social bubbles, amplifying the madness and hatred until it spills over.
Meanwhile the rest of society stumbles along, entirely unconscious of how fragile civilization is and ignorant of how their own norms may contribute to social erosion. It’s highly unlikely that waddling MAGA-spouting Trump supporters have even the vaguest notion of the fact their group’s norms are destroying the very society they claim to be making great again. It’s unlikely that Politically Correct virtue-signalers understand anything about the dubiousness and corrosiveness of their own group’s norms.
If only we could pause and stand back for a moment and ask ourselves the simple question: why do I believe the things I believe? Then we might be able to ask ourselves: why am I doing the things I’m doing?
We all tell ourselves, “it’s just the way things are” and “who am I to think I can change anything?”
But if someone doesn’t start somewhere, no changes for the better can ever occur. If Rosa Parks hadn’t decided that segregated seats on the bus were stupid, it’s likely the US civil rights movement would have struggled much more to overturn the worst excesses of US racism and bigotry — a struggle that is far from over today. If Emmeline Pankhurst hadn’t decided that it was time women were granted the right to vote, the UK could have taken decades longer to change its mind on this topic.
And going further back in history, if Martin Luther hadn’t felt it was worthwhile to raise his voice against the deep corruption within his beloved Catholic Church it’s likely that all of Europe would have remained crushed under the dead hand of religious custom for centuries more.
Just recognizing that we live in Bizarroworld is a start. Just realizing that we don’t have to do stupid things always and forever is a beginning.
Just questioning what’s normal is usually enough to kick the process of positive change into gear.
Try it. You’ll be astonished by how suddenly the entire world seems different.
We don’t have to be trapped in Bizarroworld forever.