Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How the World Changes (And How to Help It)

As the famous analytical philosopher Bertrand Russell once said:

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” 

 This is a common sentiment, I think, among intellectuals. We tend to take the conclusion from it that this state of affairs accounts for many of the problems of the modern world: the psychotic, intoxicated circus that constitutes our political scene, the virulence of radical religious movements, the volume of artistic pablum that every form of media churns out on a daily basis. The enduring crisis as it affects the modern world, then, is this: it is never the most intelligent individuals who make the most important decisions. Einstein may have developed the theoretical underpinnings of the atom bomb, but it was Truman who gave the order to drop it, and so it ever shall be.

I don't quite agree with this conclusion, but I do see two solutions to the problems to which Russell alludes. The first is that intellectuals need to be more active. The second is that people need to become smarter.

Is it not the case that we would benefit from an outpouring of doubt and indecision? Decisive action may need decisive action in response, but overall, a dearth of it would do this world good. The doubt that intellectuals face is not delusive - it really is difficult to determine what one ought to do, which is why people of action are so much more focused on the doing. The trouble is that this type of thoughtless action requires imposing one's own order of things upon the world, which in turn necessitates the use of force. The unimaginative are much more inclined to be violent and destructive toward the many things they do not understand.

The world changes by degrees. It is not by the will of any one individual that social climates shift. We live in a time that, regrettably, is full of people who really do believe they can remake the world in their own image. This is a belief that is both highly incorrect and highly certain, which naturally necessitates action on the part of the bright.

I believe that this is what intellectuals can and must do: educate the masses. Spread the ideas that will ultimately bring about positive social change. The more uncertain and individual is, the more valuable grows their certainty - and for all we do not know, there is a great deal in which the intellectual has unshakeable faith.

Here are a few of the ideas which I believe need to be spread most urgently:
1. The solutions to the problems of the present do not lie in the past, but in the future.
2. In a free society, no ancient text or doctrine can justify discrimination of any kind.
3. The ideas of manhood and womanhood are constructions. What really separates male humans from female humans is obvious. Everything else is up to the individual, including adjustments to their own anatomy.
4. Seven billion human beings really do produce enough waste to significantly alter the conditions of the natural world. At the same time, life on this planet is several thousand times older than humans on this planet. There is no guarantee that it will continue to support our existence indefinitely.
5. There is no evidence of external forces intervening in our physical affairs through prayer, the law of attraction, charms, curses, clairvoyance, or the like. In the continued absence of such evidence, the only reasonable conclusion is that the human race must solve its own problems.
6. No idea is worth killing for.

Obviously, this list it is far from complete. I hope that you will make additions and adjustments of your own. How does one go about spreading these ideas? By interacting with people. It's never been easier to broadcast knowledge than in the internet age. Granted, it's also easy to broadcast falsehood, which is one of the reasons why spreading good ideas is so urgent. However, one might also remember that the truth has an advantage: it is the only possible source of universal consensus. The truth is that which exists independently of our desires. Only by searching for and accepting the truth can the entire world be brought to one conclusion. The less our certainty, the more active and outspoken we must be in defense of it.

Most importantly, we must be humble. It is our greatest strength.

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Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Ultimate Questions

Over the past few months, I've been working on and off on a sort of manifesto. It concerns the story of humanity, starting as close to the beginning as possible and putting some of the issues and tensions of our day in a larger context. It's quite long compared to most things I've published, but it wants to be read and commented upon very badly. Here is the link:

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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Historical Look at Misogyny

There's a tendency in the liberal arts to look at history as a fall from grace. Marxist thinking, for instance, seems to take this as its underpinning philosophy: "Everyone was equal until humanity started producing more than it needed. Then a group of people took the surplus, because they're assholes. Fuck those guys." A lot of other empowerment movements tend to understand themselves in a similar way. There is the idea that prejudice is an evil that descended upon us in the form of the insidious thoughts of deceitful human beings, which must now be hunted down and eradicated. I want to make the case that we might have it backwards. It is possible that tolerance, not prejudice, is the world-shifting innovation.

In the earliest stage of human history, it is well-known that we lived as hunter-gatherers, not unlike many other omnivores. We roamed a wide, borderless world in constant search of food and other resources. Our main source of competition in this was not predators, but rival bands. Like any other form of life, humans expanded their population when the resources were available to do so, and when bands became too large to forage enough to sustain themselves, it was natural for them to split to cover a larger area. However, divergence led to distrust. An individual human could only be sure of the motivations of the other members of their own band - they could be sure that anyone within the band wanted the band to survive, because their own survival very much depended on it. But the same could not be said about other bands. Where there were not enough resources to feed all groups that occupied a particular range, fighting broke out.

There was an evolutionary drive acting on these small human groups. Natural selection favours what survives best, but the means of satisfying that criterion are not limited to genetics. Groups could evolve as well. They could evolve to be bigger, stronger, and more united, so that they would be sure to win conflicts against members of other groups, hence ensuring the survival of the humans within that group. In return, the humans would carry the instructions for organizing that type of group in the future - not in their loins, of course, but rather in their minds. This is where society originates.

The patriarchal social structure can be found in societies all over the world, especially the largest and most powerful ones. The reason for its evolutionary success is that it makes societies very good at supplanting others, for a number of reasons. First, it in effect forces women to reproduce. A society with high population growth will eclipse a rival society without it even if they never go to war. Second, it encourages men to be aggressive. It makes them think that the only way they can get the things they want, especially sex, is by being "manly." The ideal of manhood is constructed from this imperative of societal competition: he must be loyal to his friends and country, eager to fight his enemies, and willing at all times to have sex with all available women. All of these things strengthen a patriarchal society by making it procreative, effective militarily, and filled with aggressive thinking that makes fertile soil for imperialism and colonialism. By the same token, the ideal woman in such a society is submissive, obedient, and loyal to exactly one husband: it is implied that the strongest men will win the lifelong ownership of women, and any woman who sleeps with other partners erodes the value of that societal promise. Finally, any man who does not want to have sex with women also weakens the system; the society has no leverage on him and thus he is ostracized and persecuted into denying his orientation. (Lesbianism is a bit of a grey area, unless it interferes with the man's societal right to his sexual property.)

This is the primitive form of the society from which most major civilizations evolved, driven by the evolutionary forces of constant competition, tension, and war between neighbors. One might be inclined to ask why it matters now. Canada doesn't have to worry about American raiders storming its borders and looting its cities. We don't rely on population to be powerful - the strongest nations aren't the ones with the most people, but the best technology and economy. Moreover, a lot of us aren't nationalistic anyway, and it's not like the lack of patriotic fervor endangers our survival. So why are there still so many misogynists?

Part of the answer is that these societal blueprints are not chosen. They are passed down, unexamined, from generation to generation. These ideas of sexual dichotomy and discrimination have been so hard to expunge precisely because they are so old. They are as ingrained into our culture as the ideas of good and evil: the "good" being the society you belong to, the "evil" being the society to which you do not. If simply disproving these assumptions about the world was enough, they would have been abandoned centuries ago.

If we want our society to be less misogynistic, the solution isn't really to change the law. Misogyny is just one aspect of the grim and cruel legacy of millennia of near-constant war. Militarism, nationalism, homophobia, bigotry, racism, and classism are others. As much as we may want to bury them in the history books, they still influence our world today. It is not enough to deny their validity; they must be defeated. This can only be done by superseding them with better ideas. I think it's important to acknowledge why patriarchy existed, and why all of us, regardless of identity and background, should be glad to abandon it in favour of an egalitarian world.

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