Scream early and scream often
We seem increasingly to be living in a world in which volume is the primary determinant of success. The media rewards strident sensationalism above all else because this grabs eyeballs and eyeballs means we can temporarily placate the twin gods of relevance and revenue.
Want to have the so-called news media give you blanket coverage? Create a sensation, the more shocking the better. Want to be an Internet star? Wrap vapid assertion into an easy-to-spread meme. Want to win an election? Pander to humanity’s very worst instincts.
We’ve created the perfect feedback loop: success comes from evincing the most damaging traits we’re capable of.
Now that this is the guaranteed formula it’s necessary to keep increasing the volume in order to be heard above all the other vitriolic shrieking because everyone is trying to out-scream everyone else.
The human brain is not evolved to reason. This is because attempting to think burns precious calories that for most of our evolutionary history were very scarce and more frequently required for strenuous physical activity. So our brains seek simplicity wherever we turn because this consumes fewer blood sugars. Although today we’re surrounded by a superabundance of food, our brains remain hardwired for the exigencies of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia.
Unfortunately, we have created an extremely complex and globally inter-connected world. The efforts of a tiny percentage of clever people have yielded technological marvels than serve to amplify our instincts. As our instincts are consonant with living on the fringes, always barely clinging on to survival, this means we have almost no capacity to use our technological marvels wisely.
Hence we’re denuding the oceans of life by over-fishing using the most destructive methods imaginable. We’re burning down the rain forests. We’re hunting the last few non-farm large mammals into extinction. We’re pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. We’re poisoning almost everything we touch, including ourselves. The rap sheet against homo sapiens is long and depressing and there’s no sign whatsoever that any large-scale changes are going to occur in order to mitigate the harms we are doing.
Not only are we wreaking large-scale havoc around the planet but we’re also fracturing into ever-more-intolerant splinter groups dedicated to elevating edge cases and making them more important than truly vital issues. Today, everyone is a victim. We seek to out-victim all the other victims who are likewise clamoring for compensation.
Need a cause? Life provides an abundance, so take your pick.
We now see lifelong feminists who’ve been through countless struggles for equal rights and equality in the workforce being excoriated by ultra-feminist groups insisting on (for example) transgender rights at any cost. We see the great-great-grandchildren of slaves agitating for taxpayer dollars as recompense for harms suffered by those long dead. We see wholesale re-writing of history to appease those intolerant of reality (a process last seen in the Soviet Union, where it was said that a successful Soviet historian was one who could correctly predict the past).
Academia, which ought to be one of the main places in which freedom of thought and rational inquiry should be promoted, is now a fearful reactive jelly of Political Correctness lest any hint of unhappiness emerge from an increasingly self-obsessed minority seeking publicity for their fringe demands.
To be rational in academia today is to jeopardize one’s job.
Further down into the intellectual mire, it’s commonplace now for politicians simply to deny reality in order to pander to uneducated foolish voters. Who cares that there are huge real-world consequences? We can always blame the other side!
Here’s the thing: so long as we pretend that volume makes right, we simply ensure that the most extreme and the most ruthless rise to the top. That’s why revolutions always result in the establishment of tyranny (and no, the so-called American Revolution wasn’t actually a revolution and those in power at the beginning were those in power at the end).
Society isn’t a single-issue body. Any humane civilized society recognizes the need to accommodate a wide range of differing requirements. No one gets 100% of what they want because this would result in others getting nothing. No progress is possible without harming some group, so change ought to be carefully considered and involve a balance of benefits and costs.
There are no perfect solutions.
But we pretend there are, because this makes things easier for our tiny ape brains. Our world is one of simplistic memes and easily chanted sound-bites. Hashtags have supplanted discourse. To get what we want we just scream more loudly than everyone else.
This is a world of infantile behavior, of temper-tantrums dressed up as probity. It is a world in which reason has no purchase.
It is not obvious how we can solve any meaningful problem by stamping our feet and screaming until we’re hoarse. This is the road only to increasing intolerance, extremism, and death.
So I’d like to propose a highly unfashionable alternative: reason.
Yes, go ahead and laugh. Call me a dreamer, an impossible optimist, a fool. Better yet, shout as loudly as you can that reason is merely a patriarchal construct designed to suppress the natural rights of <insert name of your group identity here>.
That’s OK. I’ve already pondered Neo-Heuristics: a Post-Structuralist Critique of the Calculus as a Tool of the Patriarchy and survived with my frontal cortex intact.
So long as we continue to pretend that screaming simplistic nonsense is the best way forward, we’ll continue our descent into horrors. But if we try reason, we may possibly be able to find ways to tackle some of the really big issues we’re facing; issues that could determine the future of most life on Earth.
Sure, there will never be a shortage of issues we need to address and injustices we need to correct. But if everything is piled on top of everything else and stridency is the only determinant of where we place our efforts, it’s highly unlikely that we’ll achieve anything other than continuing to squabble over where to put the deck-chairs as the Titanic slips rapidly below the gelid waves.
We can’t all be angry victims looking for solutions that give us 100% of what we want and damn the cost to everyone else. We need to remember we live in large social groups in which everyone’s needs (not wants) must be taken into consideration. We need to remember that life at best admits of Pareto-optimal solutions but far more often not even that. We need to discover tolerance. We need to attempt to calm ourselves down rather than continually wind ourselves up into an ever-greater fever of intolerance and hatred.
Because we know where that always leads.
To get there I think we have to start by ignoring the so-called news. These days, it’s mostly empty sensationalism and serves only to induce fear and hopelessness. Just as we can’t afford to stuff our bodies with junk food, we can’t afford to cram our minds with junk inputs. Pretty much the entire media is nothing more than a source of mental sewage, from the grotesque Prozac-stunted characters of Disney to the mindless propaganda of Fox News.
We can’t lessen our mental illness while we’re still consuming the poison that increases our sickness.
Next we need to re-learn how to read. History books, physics books, biology books, biographies, economics texts; anything that can expand our comprehension of this complex and highly inter-connected world we live in. We need to ponder what we’ve read and see what conclusions we can draw. We need to find ways to disagree that don’t involve hurling vitriolic accusations at one another. We need to look for solutions rather than continually mining new grievances.
And we need to realize that there is no necessary equivalence between one argument and another. “Meeting in the middle” is not the same as using reason to arrive at less inadequate solutions to some of our most pressing problems. Today we’re screaming at each other so loudly that we’re failing to recognize true evil in the world, and so evil is triumphing while we squabble among ourselves.
Here’s our situation: like it or not, we are all, every single one of us, passengers on a bus that is careening out of control high up on a twisty mountain road. Do we really want to spend our last moments tearing each other apart over the question of what color the seat covers ought to be?
Some potentially useful resources for those who want to know what’s happening in the world at large without subjecting themselves to mental effluent:
And if you can only read one book on social costs & benefits, this is a great primer:
Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action