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.