Anti-vaxxers. Climate change denial. GMO-crusaders. Anti-intellectualism. Widening income inequality. Open-carry activism. Religious extremism. Extremism in all forms, full stop. All of these movements have a common thread that profoundly puzzles me.
What could possibly unite these disparate notions, you wonder? I’ll tell you. We seem hell-bent on flirting with disaster. It’s as-if, as part of our biological make-up, we are drawn to stick our hands in the fire. With the recent measles outbreak, I have this sensation of stumbling upon a medieval time warp. Why yes, we ARE experiencing a disease outbreak that is entirely preventable via a safe, cost effective and readily accessible medical procedure (i.e. a shot), and has been almost non-existent for decades. And yes, people (moms, even!) are CHOOSING to put their own children and others in danger, based on belief rather than evidence.
I am baffled by this rejection of science. For almost all of recorded history, humans have been incredibly aware of and dedicated to understanding and advancing our understanding and connection to the natural world. And of course, many (probably the vast majority) still are. And yet there is this vocal and influential minority. It is a virulent strain within our population and the unifying theme seems to be a need to to find grand conspiracy in progress.
To my mind, progress, by definition, is a good thing. One can certainly narrowly define progress as forward movement toward achieving a goal, irrespective of whether the goal is good or bad, but to me- progress is a fundamentally positive concept. That’s not to say it isn’t without change or a destructive side. And perhaps that’s what the most ancient part of our brains react to.
Humans have evolved to be thinkers and planners. We have become increasingly focused on the long game. We consciously plan for the future and although we have been doing this for thousands of years now, the time horizon that we plan for has significantly lengthened through the combination of the written word, technological advancements, and the lengthening of our own lifespans. If you are anything like me, you have plans that extend out 10, 20, maybe even 40 or 50 years. Of course, Egyptian Pharaohs elevated planning for the long term to a never-again equaled way with the construction of the pyramids. I digress…..
And yet, there remains a part of our brains that is very focused on the present, the now, the uncovering of imminent threat. We are wired to be on the lookout for our own destruction and as the real sources of imminent threat are reduced, our brains are left sifting through what flows down our neural pathways for something to grasp on to.
Turns out the danger-o-meter in our brains just wants something to do. It wants to be useful. There is part of our brain that is a loyal guard dog, no longer useful in it’s present incarnation, but desperate to serve and protect. We still need our kidneys, livers, and lungs, but the part of our brain that kept us safe from immediate harm for so long… well, it’s going the way of the appendix. Progress is doing its thing- slowly, deliberately, destroying the imminent threats in our lives.
As a lover and student of history, I am constantly reading and thinking about events, patterns, cultures, leaders, and the shape that progress has taken through the centuries. As magnificent as our progress has been, and make no mistake- there is no time in the history of the world you’d rather be living in than RIGHT NOW, it is littered with absolutely hideous and atrocious events- on both the small and large scale. We can talk for days about genocides, epidemics, wars, and plagues, which have claimed millions and millions of lives, but there are an equal number of smaller tragedies that seem to sprout from our inability to manage the part of our brains that seeks to identify and respond to danger.
Since the horrific massacre at Sandy Hook in 2012, we’ve had 102 school shootings, eight since the start of 2015. It’s the beginning of February, people. How is that even possible? Mass shootings are an entirely (or nearly entirely) preventable event and yet, we’ve done essentially nothing to stem this tide. Instead of rallying to stop these tragedies from happening, through a wide variety of measures- common sense gun laws being only a part of the answer, we’ve somehow appeared to actually bolster and grow a movement that runs directly counter to the idea of making our communities, children, and world safer. High powered, high volume weapons in the hands of every person! Huzzah! Seriously, there is no way that this doesn’t stand in direct and flagrant opposition to common sense and safety.
But humanity needs a foil, a boogey-man to respond to. Right now, the lack of imminent and unifying danger has us running in all directions to seek and destroy *something* to protect ourselves. Global climate change, harbinger of mass extinction, just isn’t immediate or sexy enough to satisfy this part of our brains. We need to see our enemies. We want to slay dragons. This observation isn’t new, of course, but I do have this sense of the collective pressure building for us to have a worldwide crisis to galvanize us. You know what we need? We need an alien invasion. Or godzilla. Or a massive disease outbreak…. oh, wait.
So, how do we combat this tendency within ourselves and our communities? I wish there was an easy answer… and I actually think part of the answer IS easy, though as the business world knows- great ideas are a dime a dozen but good execution makes or breaks you. The most effective inoculation against this disease is to vigorously combat ignorance. If there is one single boogey-man out there that we need to go after, it is ignorance. I would posit that ignorance is as fundamentally bad as progress is good. One of the many by-products of ignorance is destruction. But unlike progress, which has a positive gravitational force, the destruction caused by ignorance pulls us backwards, pulls us downward, pulls us towards chaos. Destruction for destruction’s sake.
Ignorance fuels fear, intolerance, and violence. The primeval part of our brain rejoices when it can be so heavily utilized- for when ignorance reigns, it is in constant use. And I think there is a certain euphoria or “high” that comes from that. It’s why many people in the military or from war zones have trouble transitioning to a more pedestrian life. It’s why some people’s lives seem to be in constant self-generated chaos. It’s why thrill-seeking sports and activities exist. There is a powerful allure to use that part of our brains.
Luckily, combating ignorance also offers a certain euphoria- though perhaps not as intense, it is longer lasting. Learning, cultivating a sense of history, scientific discovery, plain-old curiosity, and the humble pursuit of wisdom- all of these activities are powerful, positive creative forces that we must value and dare I say, venerate, within our society as beacons that lead us away from ignorance.
Even though we seem unable to entirely escape our tendency to flirt with disaster, we do continue to make forward progress. Ignorance rears its ugly head on an all-too-frequent basis, but recognition of it is the most important first step. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, ignorance in any name, in any form, must be rooted out and prevented from spreading.
Thanks for reading! I love it when you join the conversation! Please share and discuss.
A few months ago, I decided I had to face up to a truth that was haunting me. I had never read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I’m not sure how I could even call myself a “book lover” or well-read without it on the list. A fundamental piece of American literature missing from my mental stacks. It was time to right the wrong.
Uncle Tom’s cabin was written by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a Northern white abolitionist woman in 1852. It was written and published serially, and was widely read initially and great to become an iconic part of our American history. It’s said that Abraham Lincoln said to Ms. Stowe when he met her at the start of the Civil War, “So this is the little lady that started this great war.” It is a fantastic, fascinating read. Far better than I expected and not just because much of the prose has held up incredibly well, but also because as a piece of our history, you can read it with both an immediacy and a certain distance that helps you see how it functioned in society. If you do pick it up, there’s a fair amount of religion to wade through that can be a bit repetitive (part of serial nature of how it was published), but if you skim those sections, it goes quickly.
Another reason that Ms. Stowe’s novel is so compelling is because it begins with what I have always thought was one of the most pernicious myths of slavery- the “happy” slave. The fictional Uncle Tom is the well-loved and gently treated head slave on a plantation owned by a kind couple. A couple that only own slaves because “that’s how it is” and the woman in particular thinks it’s an evil institution. This is particularly clever as a opening device because it establishes a sympathetic connection between Northern readers and the main characters. These Northern readers that Ms. Stowe wanted to inspire are the type who may have been opposed to slavery on Sundays (on Sundays), but who were lulled into inaction by the myth of the happy slave and benevolent master. Naturally, this myth is deftly exploded and destroyed over the course of the book.
The book steps the reader slowly, even gently into the ever-darker truth of slavery. I can imagine the genteel reader of the mid-1800’s by turns being titillated, horrified, and at the end wondering how did they get here? Of course, the story has a redemptive ending, as the freed & runaway slaves cross into the safety of Canada, aided by the help of brave and pious Quakers. The aim of the book was to make the lives of slaves come alive for the reader and further show that there was a path to freedom. By avoiding projecting the story into the future, she doesn’t directly address the question of abolition in the United States, though her characters discuss it freely.
By coincidence, while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I began another book that made the experience of reading it all the more relevant and telling. I started to listen to the audio book of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a book that came out in 2010 and had been on my to-read list since shortly after it came out. This non-fiction book chronicles the life and legacy of a young black woman who’s cells (tumor cells) have become one of the most important building blocks of modern medicine and science in the form of “HeLa cells.” The story is incredible on it’s own, and I’d highly recommend the excellent audio book of it, but when read in conjunction with Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the two stories paint a vivid history of the black experience in America- both how far we have come, and how far we have yet to go.
Henrietta’s life experience, her care, her treatment, and the struggles of her children and family, when viewed against a backdrop of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the slavery that was the reality of her parents lives, are an important and humbling window into the black American experience. Of course, the fact that Henrietta’s story is true makes it all the more compelling. While listening, I laughed, I cried, I shook my head at the indignity, and learned a great deal of fascinating science in the process. Ms. Skloot handles a complex story and the even more complex science with care and balances objectivity with deep empathy for her subject.
With the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, among too many others, fresh in our minds and hearts, it’s vitally important for all of us, particularly whites, to understand the historic tapestry of slavery, oppression, fear, discrimination, and exploitation that leads to where we are today. Chris Rock’s recent interview, in which he makes the brilliant observation that the idea of “black progress” is a fallacy and that it’s really “white progress” that needs to be scrutinized, resonates even more strongly when help up against these stories as a backdrop.
I love history and particularly personal histories. Both non-fiction and historically-accurate fiction have the power to teach, heal, and guide us. I have spent a number of years especially engrossed and amazed by the scale of WWII and the people involved, but I am so glad to have traveled deeper into our own US History through these two books.
I highly recommend reading both of them and if you are like me, and enjoy having a couple of books going at the same time- you couldn’t find a more compelling pairing.