How we consistently fail to see the obvious because we assume the inevitability of arbitrary things.
Anyone who’s glanced at the USA will know that it suffers from astonishing self-imposed gun carnage. Outside the USA the solution is obvious: don’t let civilians own firearms. Inside the USA, however, the obvious is entirely non-obvious.
Instead, discussion perpetually revolves around the Second Amendment, the so-called “right to bear arms.” And so nothing ever changes, and every single year, year in and year out, over 32,000+ people die from gunshot wounds and an additional 70,000+ or so are injured. That’s more than 100,000 people per year, which is a level of violence not seen even in war zones or unstable states like Afghanistan and Sudan.
If we reframe the debate, the madness becomes instantly obvious. Let’s imagine that the Second Amendment stated that people must be allowed to sacrifice babies in order to ensure a good crop harvest in the year ahead. This isn’t an unrealistic suggestion, as we have records showing that this was indeed the kind of thing a lot of societies did until quite recently.
Now, even if this right to sacrifice babies was a centerpiece of one’s Constitution, and even if one’s parents and grandparents had embraced this right, would we still think it was a clever idea today? Sure, there would always be organizations dedicated to maintaining our right to slaughter babies. No doubt there would be the National Babykilling Association, eagerly supporting political candidates devoted to protecting this national right. And no doubt there would be plenty of politicians eager to take the money proffered by the NBA to promote its cause.
But would we seriously, truly, think it was a clever idea to keep on slaughtering babies merely because a long time ago, in a situation quite different from that pertaining today, someone wrote it down on a piece of parchment?
Let’s take another example: representative democracy. Today we tell ourselves it’s a really great system of governance because it is claimed to be better than having Kings or Emperors. In fact, it would be very difficult to prove that claim using historical data. At best, representative democracy creates more or less the same set of blunders, short-sightedness, and human folly as seen in any King’s reign. At worst it’s national suicide, as Trump and Brexit have clearly demonstrated recently and as Hitler so kindly illustrated a century ago.
Representative democracy began with a set of unquestioned assumptions: that those standing for election would be qualified, because two hundred years ago the only candidates for election came from the upper classes, and everyone knew they were “good chaps” who “had what it takes.” This has resulted in today’s situation where we require no qualifications whatsoever in order to stand for election. Meanwhile, we require no qualifications from those who vote, because, well, we never actually thought about it. We expanded the franchise step-by-step and never once considered the consequences.
So today we have ignorant foolish people voting for ignorant foolish candidates. This is not exactly a recipe for success in a complex inter-connected world of global-scale challenges. Which is why we have today’s wave of mindless populism tearing our fragile civilization apart.
While we squabble over the wording of out-of-date documents and cling to what we know even as it undermines what’s left of our societies.
If we turned the question around and asked: “Would it be a good idea to let passengers vote for who gets to be the pilot, by voting for whoever promises them the most unrealistic outcomes?” we would probably not receive a resounding “Yes!!” But when you ask people if they think today’s version of representative democracy (which is the same thing as the voting-for-the-pilot scenario) is a good idea, we do receive a resounding “Yes!!”
And that’s why we’re in such trouble.
It seems to me that if we adopted the habit of reframing the issues that are presently having such a deeply negative impact on societies all around the world, we might be a little less inclined to remain trapped in intellectual dead-ends and perhaps just a little more likely to arrive at ways to lift ourselves out of the traps we’ve dug ourselves into.
Blind acquiescence to the status quo serves no one except those who long ago learned to game the system.
So I encourage everyone: the next time you read about some madness, try to reframe the problem in a way that exposes the underlying faulty assumptions. This is the first step towards arriving at more adequate solutions.
Or we can just keep chanting slogans and sound-bites as our tattered civilization falls apart.
It’s our choice.