“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell
“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell
The January 7th massacre at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in Paris leveled a damaging hit to the very core of free inquiry and critique. The satirical publication is a pillar of reason in France and, in a way that can’t be understood by intolerant people, is also a crucial component of tolerance.
It is a part of western media and political narrative that the plight of the jihadist is of course understood. The jihadist hates westerners. But this narrative is at best flawed. Really it serves the agendas of western states. But however little we understand about the mindset of the perpetrators of this attack, it is hard to imagine a place they could have done more damage.
What leads an individual to beliefs of violence and intolerance is a complicated matter, but it is a sad irony that those individuals would probably have found more understanding and compassion in the editorial meeting they attacked than in many places elsewhere. As much as Charlie Hebdo would critique the very ideology that led to the deaths of so many of their staff, they would also critique the violent imperialism that probably has more to answer for than any other factor here.
It is hard not to think of the sentiment among tolerant people after the September 11th attacks of 2001. It didn’t demand much imagination to predict that such a violent event would be followed by a fallout so severe that it would take this issue into new eras.
It might have been hard, though, to predict how extreme and unrestrained that reaction would be. At that moment it couldn’t have been known that so many children of another generation in the Arab world would grow up in poverty, oppression and violence as their natural resources benefited only a privileged few. And the very country who benefited the most would periodically be back to drop bombs on them, paid for in part by the very wealth gained at their expense.
Innocent Muslims were soon being persecuted in the U.S. and it wasn’t long before the intense fear generated by the attack was being recast as the justification for more violence. What would ultimately be an unforgivingly collateral-heavy conflict in a resource-rich region that has been ravaged by imperial powers for longer than living memory.
Even conservative estimates place the civilian death toll in Afghanistan since 2001 at over 18,000. U.S. air strikes have killed vast numbers of innocent men, women and children. People who had never supported the Taliban (formerly the U.S.-funded Mujahideen) were seeing innocent people killed or maimed by more foreign forces. What kind of reaction is this supposed to inspire?
That the response to such tyranny can be resold in the west as reasons to commit more violence against the very same people is a toxic logic. It is propaganda that serves state interests to control domestic populations, to fight an enemy they have created, and to justify further enrichment of an elite minority at any cost.
How would the Arab world look now if it wasn’t for outside interference? Of all the ways we might deal with dangerous ideology, or with people who seek retribution for loved ones illegally killed by foreign powers, violently ravaging those regions into the middle of yet another decade leaves the notion of progress lost to the hysteria of the mob.
“A sickness that befalls the internet is a sickness that befalls the whole world” – Julian Assange
How different the world would be if people only campaigned for issues they weren’t affected by.
“You can’t think about thinking unless you think about thinking about something” – Seymour Papert
“She had that rare sense that discerns what is unalterable, and submits to it without murmuring.” – George Eliot from Middlemarch
“Bolivia is there to welcome personalities who denounce — I don’t know if it’s espionage or control.” – Evo Morales
This show of understanding and support to Edward Snowden from Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, was enough for the U.S. state to later force his private plane to land in Vienna, where it was searched. I like what Morales said, the point about control (mass surveillance, after all, is an instrument of power). The whole event is thinly reassuring too in that it shows clearly the cards of the U.S. state: Nothing says ‘we were just trying to protect you’ like desperately demanding the search of a private plane belonging to an apparently far less corrupt head of state to try to silence someone who showed the world just how thoroughly you protect your populous. I mean come on.. You just can’t have it all.
The U.S. government would have us believe that their mass-surveillance programme was a compassionate act to protect us even if we never knew the extent of their efforts. While at the same time we must believe that a person who I actually think understands the word compassion should be thrown behind bars for life for clearly becoming concerned that a state, notorious for its corruption, was abusing its power. I think it’s safest to believe nothing we hear from U.S. politicians but this is surely too brazen to possibly be allowed to continue.
In Freud’s The Future of an Illusion he draws our attention poignantly to the consolatory nature of religion. His dissection, for what it’s worth, follows our development through childhood where, in a world we can’t understand, our parents seem to have all the answers. In the loss of innocence that follows we lose that protection and support. Maybe it was never there, but for most of us there was a power, mother or father, that seemed greater than the the things we feared. There was a soothing figure who could protect us from the world.
In Freud’s mind, we yearned to restore that lost omnipotent protection of our childhood. Of the religions that have survived the longest, this characteristic of an all-powerful, all-knowing father, certainly seems prominent. But it is the consolatory nature itself that I want to discuss, specifically the difficulties that arise from the irrational beliefs we construct to cope with fears that I would argue we should instead face.
I wonder if every curious person in their mid-twenties, at any time, has thought both that they live in one of the most interesting junctures of history and that around the corner waits certain doom. I think many young people have had the experience of their enthusiasm for impending disaster brushed aside by their seniors who’ve ‘seen it all before’. But the failures of the generations of the past to show sufficient caution to the warnings of the wise, like that of George Eliot, who said; among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous, does not necessarily mean this time that the assertions of the current voting majority – that ‘everything will be fine’ – are right either.
But prophecy really is the folly we share. Take for example what might animate an energetic young person to believe in their dose of doom and denouement. On the one hand our political and public debates are as circular and subjective as ever. Today, conjecture and lies that play to the tune of the individual are still more influential than the truth. And the policies that emerge from what is as much a surreptitious economic elite monopoly as ever, are still supporting the destruction of our planet if they aren’t maiming innocent children too close to the mobile phones of ‘terrorists’ sentenced to death without trial.
On the other hand, buzzing quietly in the background, technology is going through a transition that none of us really understand. As Dr. Albert Bartlett showed us in the seminal talk on sustainability that he has been giving since the 1970s, humans cannot understand exponential change. He also noted: If there’s anything in short supply in this world today, it’s people who are willing to think.
Technology has been changing exponentially for over three decades now and even a look back on the last few years should have many commentators admitting the foolishness of their predictions. Five years from now AI may be applying human-like abstract integrative cognition (creative thinking) to problems that rely on data sets larger than humans could have ever reasonably come to terms with, and I would say – perhaps inevitably – producing solutions we could only dream of. And the possibility that they lead us to destruction to protect future children from our cruelty aside, it is likely that the progress of technological capability may accelerate again. One can only imagine the rate of advancement once future generations of AI are designed by.. well it won’t be humans, I can tell you. Maybe it is not so unlikely that if we don’t invent our way out of trouble, our inventions might do the inventing for us.
The way we are abusing our planet, though, is an outrage that should not be taken any less seriously just because we may soon develop the technology to produce clean energy cheaper than the harmful current favourites; which nobody would argue wouldn’t be the key to incentivising humans to change (to really make progress, though, we may need to establish regulatory framework that makes a wild animal, or an untouched habitat, more valuable than the resources it holds). Here on this celestial body we have gone a long way to destroying something beautiful and I hope soon we have rejected the climate change deniers and are beginning to try to undo the violent damage we have done so far. Which brings me to my point..
Probably every holder of a radical belief is relieved when that belief makes it into public discourse. In recent weeks we have started to talk about why it is we cannot change our minds in the face of evidence. Carl Sagan said; it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. And it is false beliefs that hold a consolatory nature that prove such a tyrannical obstacle to progress. I don’t even need to suggest that a person might betray obscenely their suppressed fear when a soothing fantasy is challenged, a look around the world today will more than do that for me. It might not be widely covered in Western news, but unfortunate men and women are still having their heads violently severed and their lives lain to nothing, too often to bear, for such challenges. Watching the nature of even the non-violent reactions of the fearful to their delusions being questioned, reactions that leave no sensitivity to reason, makes for grave viewing to say the least.
I’m sure anyone who saw Bill Nye taking part last week in CNN’s crossfire ‘debate’ could see the despair on his face. To put it simply, beliefs that we cannot damage our planet or that we aren’t in danger, as absurd as I hope those notions seem, still persist. But more and more, I would argue, we can see how gripped in fear the remaining holders of those beliefs are. Watching such individuals jump on any consolatory scraps that come their way could be just tragic if their political trust wasn’t so easy to seduce. If they couldn’t so easily be convinced that they are right and that in return for a vote they can have everything they want and keep their head in the sand too. I feel I could only fail in attempting to find words scathing enough to describe the baseness of one of the figureheads of such dangerous, self-serving thinking; ABC’s own vaccine denier and fear-monger Jenny McCarthy.
Sir David Attenborough said; anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is either a madman or an economist. It seems we have no shortage of those. The idea that climate change is not really happening – that we can continue to increase the rate at which we use the finite resources of planet Earth and all the while continue to change the delicate natural world, without consequence – is wish-thinking that cannot be tolerated. If people want to cover their eyes and tell themselves that everything will be fine, then that’s ok. But they must surrender their say in the policies that are going to affect our children and the generations of the future. Dr. Tali Sharot put it well when she said we need to burst a giant bubble – the notion that we perceive the world as it really is. For society to accept the role of fear-alleviating fantasies, of biases, in the persistence of dangerous beliefs, may be very complex; particularly as any illumination of this relationship would in a sense rob an individual of this problematic comfort; and so may be rejected on face. Personally, I think the point can be made very simply, if no more influentially, by merely wondering; when will the adults of the world show the maturity they are currently lacking? The maturity to see that overbearing, polar beliefs are almost reliably strongest when the relevant topic is least understood. Anyone who has gone through the humbling process of educating themselves on an issue will know that nothing is as simple and clear as we thought it was when we were ignorant.
Many people say democracy is a flawed system and I’ll agree that there are many flaws in how unregulated those who seek power are once they obtain it and in how disconnected certain decision-making is from voters. But in my opinion the only major flaw in democracy, aside from a common want of transparency and accountability, is a lack of education, and there seems to be a correlation between countries who invest heavily in education and those with more advanced, legitimate democracies. If we can educate our collective on the issues our species faces and on how we have been fooled by the corrupt, unethical leaders of the past and present, then I would argue we would be likely to elect far better leaders than today’s.
Someone recently said to me; ‘but where are the candidates who embody the qualities of a real leader?’ (which I would say start with a willingness to do what you think is right even at your own expense). And to that I would say that once the voting pressure exists, they will be coming out of the woodwork. If we as a people valued leaders whose authority was only reason and who were prepared to admit they had been wrong and weren’t afraid to change their minds, and who didn’t attack mind-changing as a weakness; who showed they understood their own fallibility and would work with experts to try to reach informed decisions; who would make the realistic appropriations – that our juvenile current selves reject – to plan for our futures and those of our children; who would place their populus before themselves; who would act to change circumstances that led to the abuse of power rather than engineering them; who would try to advance debates rather than occluding them and smearing their opponents; who wouldn’t resemble solipsistic sociopaths; who would try to be ethical. If we educated ourselves to the point of seeing that these qualities, or some better-assembled list, are what we need, then candidates promising to always embody those values would come ten a penny. If we could then assess critically and dispassionately how they performed on those fronts, consecutively raising the bar for our leaders towards the level required, then we would have made some major steps towards becoming a successful civilisation, something we have shown no decisive signs of yet. The key is to have the discussions that lay the foundations for the voting pressure to emerge. Jose Mujica deserves a mention for being such a contrast to most democratic leaders. We could use a few more like him.
I couldn’t possibly say what I think our biggest obstacle is in shaking off the toxic political climates that are compounding the problems in the world, but coming to realise that we are more likely to believe a soothing lie from within than the terrible truth from outside, seems to me a good start. Aldous Huxley said, Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. It is an old principle in psychology that the only real therapy for fear is exposure. It is time we as a species did not indulge our panic. It is time we stayed in the moment, however horrific.
If Freud is right and the history of consolatory fantasy shares a connection with a desire to restore those lost, protecting parent figures of our childhood, then the great irony now is that it is stopping us from growing wise to our collective errors and abuses of power by our politicians; and by extension is preventing us from benefiting from the more adult consolation of the leaders we really need.
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jJj0JlcFKzY) – Bill Nye on CNN crossfire debate with Jenny McCarthy.
(http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/stephen-hawking-transcendence-looks-at-the-implications-of-artificial-intelligence–but-are-we-taking-ai-seriously-enough-9313474.html) – Stephan Hawking discussing AI.