The essential problem of humanity’s continued existence can be approached as follows: many if not all of us are vulnerable to a simplistic way of looking at things: instead of recognizing the real complexity of moral problems, we grasp only two possible options on how to behave. Not surprisingly, one represents good, the other evil. You’re either with us or against us. If you’re against us, you are unacceptable at a fundamental level. This basic x-or-y view is stubbornly held, with no chance of a critical argument fazing the believers.
Consider this quote from To Make Men Free: A History Of the Republican Party. Author Heather Cox Richardson describes the rise of Movement Conservatism in the US, starting in the 1960’s:
What Movement Conservatism had going for it, above all else, was that it offered a clear, simple, positive solution to the terrible tangles of the 1960’s and 1970’s. In those decades, America floundered through the Vietnam War, soaring inflation, social unrest, Watergate, and the Iran hostage crisis. These were complicated issues all ... but Movement Conservatives explained them in black and white terms that made it easy to tell which side a good American should take ... That their rhetoric did not address reality mattered less than that it seemed to offer a comforting route to bring back the prosperity and security voters associated with an idyllic American past. (p.273-4)
Very important to this mentality is its complete intransigence:
Helping their cause was that they were so convinced they were right they refused to budge on anything. As they held fast, they forced the rest of America to leave the middle of the political spectrum and move toward them. (p.273-4)
Also scary: in times of uncertainty, as with war and economic flux, the allure of the black-and-white fallacy gets stronger and stronger. Many politicians must grasp this, at least subconsciously, and push for what is generally detrimental to increase their own power.
What happens to a democracy when this bifurcative delusion grips a large segment of the population? The government, elected by the people, loses touch with basic truths. The great ship of state steers in fog without admitting the shoals, or even the nubilous opacity itself. We can’t afford this kind of denial, not when global warming is threatening to redescribe the geological surfaces of the Earth and, in conjunction, induce worldwide anomie. We can’t afford the short-sighted comforts provided by obtuse ignorance, not with so many nuclear weapons poised to launch, about 16,000 of them.
It’s a recipe for doom: A world with 16,000 nuclear weapons and virulent fire-eating politicians screaming that you are either with us, or you are the evil enemy. You’re with God or Satan. You’re with the “real” Americans or you’re a traitor.
The ancient habit of mass fanaticism is not going to work, not in a world overtaxed with billions of humans, a world with terrible technologies such as ICBM’s and microbes engineered for biological warfare. In the past, fanaticism lead to great slaughter, torture, inquisition, oppression, racism, sexism, and so on--all absolutely disgusting. And of course, we continue to be awash in tides of woe driven by willful Ignorance and it’s awful minion Violence.
But the price is now literally unbearable. We are all interconnected more than ever before. Unless humanity can rise to a new level of psychological awareness, one in which black-and-white rhetoric cannot grip the masses, we’re going down.
It’s not a matter of awakening. A consciousness-raising related to empathy and understanding that moral issues are complex. The Humanities are a good route to such consciousness-raising. Alas, we are cutting them back.
So far, in the journey of human history, fear and hate have been as strong as love. But now comes the has come to make the great choice that will determine the human future: will we open our minds and, go with informed empathy and critical thinking, say in the fashion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, or will we go fall into the maw of the irrational, a place immune to logical where facades of green, white-fenced grass hide the snarling teeth of hate?
A lot of people have made the right choice anyway. So it can be done. We are not doomed by ‘human nature.’ We know that ‘human nature’ is a combination of biology and environment; and that the environment, which includes the general ideas that guide us, largely rests within our control. If it didn’t, women would not now have gained the right to vote, and Martin Luther King, Jr. would not be seen as great. Only in the last few years have gay people started to receive the rights of marriage.
Good change happens. So does backlash and the most vehement hatred. Welcome to the tightrope walk over the valley of doom.