The times are out of joint. Everyone seems to hate everyone else. There is plainly more craziness abroad in the land that at any time in my long life. Once Americans were assumed to be a reasonable people. That conclusion seems to have gone out of date.
When I was in college, I imagined that the world was becoming more rational. As the first in my immediate family to get a higher education, I believed that I, and those like me, were increasingly apt to use facts and logic to come to important conclusions. I was dead wrong.
We humans are inherently non-rational creatures. Although we are able to think in terms of evidence and strict reasoning, most of the time we do not. Instead we use a variety of techniques that have both positive and negative side effects. Ironically, this is necessary if we are to maintain our social integrity.
I know that liberals believe conservatives are not very smart; whereas conservatives return the compliment. The truth is that intelligence has nothing to do with our propensity to be unreasonable. Not only is this so, but ironically we would be in deep trouble if it weren’t.
In order to coordinate our activities, we humans require mechanisms that enable us to arrive are synchronized conclusions. Not only that, but these techniques must also permit us to shift from stable arrangements to flexible ones. Logic per se might not allow this to happen.
Let me provide an example. Humans are hierarchical creatures. We rank ourselves in terms of our relative power. Moreover, those at the top are accorded deference. This enables them to organize group pursuits. Among other things, this permits them to dictate what we believe.
When those at the top know what they are talking about, this can be beneficial. Yet when they do not, all concerned may be led off a cliff. Isn’t this what both liberals and conservatives accuse the other side of doing? Moreover, don’t both sides argue that their adversaries’ leaders have lost touch with reality?
Even so, both factions put up a vigorous fight to impose their visions. Irrespective of this, the rank and file do not take time out to examine the facts. They don’t privately sit down to apply logic to verified data. Instead they simply accept what they were told and use this as ammunition against their rivals.
As to their leaders, they too are not necessarily seekers of truth. More often than not, they are in quest of persuasive talking points. Their desire is to influence people, not to assemble a catalogue of undeniable verities.
The upshot is that we are able pursue common goals. Because we don’t think for ourselves, we adopt shared perspectives. Furthermore, when there is widespread agreement, this is usually beneficial. When, however, there is not, the conflicts can get out of hand.
Today this is exactly what is happening. Given that neither liberalism nor conservatism can muster universal consent, people fight about what we should collectively believe. As it happens, this is characteristic of periods of change. With the authorities are incapable of sufficiently influential answers, people fight to see who will prevail.
All of this can be quite unsettling. It can also lead us into folly. The good news is that our mistakes are usually corrected. The bad news is that this may only be after blood has been spilled.
There is an answer however. If we understand what leads us to be non-rational, we can control the most dangerous aspects of this tendency. Denial is far worse. This can produce a dangerous hubris, which prevents us from recognizing our deficiencies.
In any event, non-rationality will be with us for as long as we are human. In my book “Social Stupidity: The Inevitability of Folly,” I explain the many ways we go off track. It is precisely because we are a creative species that we make a host of imaginative errors.
Although none of us likes to believe we are at fault when things go wrong, humility is in order. Only when we accept our limitations can we calmly review what we know and what we don’t. That is not what is happening today, but it could if we had the courage to admit what we were doing.
Anyway, Social Stupidity is now available on amazon.com. As usual, this is at $10 for the paperback and $5 for the eBook.