(This post is not about religion) A few years back I got the chance to read David Bentley Hart’s defense of Christianity, “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies“, and he made a point that has stuck with me to this day: society eventually embraces concepts that are foreign, only to have people stand on top of the results of those concepts centuries later to denounce the entire effort. I’d call it stupid, but it’s so pandemic that the phrase “crisis of education” seems more appropriate.
And so we have people living in a modern world, provided for by capitalism, which while amoral is not stupid and doesn’t normally do stupid things, telling us about the evils of capitalism — in tweets sent from their iPhone. We have people buying “pure” products without chemicals in them — not aware that chemicals are an irreversible part of being alive. We have people not wanting to vaccinate their kids — not realizing that the only way you could rationally be able to do that is in a world where everybody else vaccinates.
We have people ranting on and on about the bad things democracies have given the world — not realizing that freedom of political speech is the very reason they’re able to rant. We have people ranting on and on about the dangers of a security state — without honestly acknowledging that being protected from dangers to democracy is the very reason they’re allowed to rant. (I abhor the security state, but that doesn’t mean that there are not honest and logical reasons for it, or that all counter-intelligence efforts are bad, just that we’ve went way too far with our application.)
I personally criticize the social nature of science — where popular ideas get funded and unpopular ones get shunned, and sometimes it takes a generation dying to get closer to the truth. I hate the herd mentality and the activist scientist. I think they cause harm to science itself. But many take the human vulnerabilities of science to make a case that science is itself mostly worthless — that everything in the world is just a matter of belief. They say that believing in gravity is much the same as believing in divine providence.
Everything is not the same. Bedrock principles are not there by blind luck. We’ve tried other ideas and they didn’t work at all. This is an extremely important thing to know. We have learned a lot about how to allow humans to live, love, and have a meaningful life over the past several centuries. Picking out principles for having a dynamic economy or a vibrant scientific community isn’t like choosing a flavor of ice-cream at a dinner buffet. Yet vast swaths of people — people with six-figure incomes and college debts — think it is. They haven’t been taught the critical thinking skills or given the testicular fortitude to make cultural value decisions. And so here we are.
This convenience of belief is even more evident in identity politics. The Irish in America were treated like hell, until things got better. But do you think they’d stick up for the African-Americans? Not a chance. Once their lot improved, they left the African-Americans to their own defense. Would the blacks stand up for the Hispanics? For the most part, no. How about the Hispanics standing up for the LGBT community? Again, mostly no. In fact, I’d argue that in general the group most recently stigmatized are often the worst at doing the same to others. Time for a little payback.
Everybody seems to love to argue principles as long as it’s their group. Once it’s not their group, the principle doesn’t seem to matter so much any more. Yet it’s the application of principles that allows the conversation that society needs to evolve. Instead of understanding that certain principles allow for most any kind of government where progress and freedom can occur, we pick up principles are if they were convenient clubs to beat each other over the heads with until we get our way. We stand on the very thing we seek to criticize.
This is from people who mostly consider themselves well-educated and knowledgeable. Don’t get me started on the ones who don’t have the benefit of a higher education. I’m not going to go down that road. Why? Because the highly-educated group spends much of their time looking down on this group! It’d be a comedy if it weren’t so tragic.
I am not saying that this is a black-and-white thing. That some concepts are all pure and need no criticism at all. Far from it. I’m saying the exact opposite, in fact. Yes, the way we have implemented many of these ideas have hurt a lot of people.
But there’s no sense of proportion. An idea like freedom of speech might cause great good in the world and have a .0001% failure rate. Yet we denounce the entire concept when it suits us. Laugh at the British Muslims above if you like, but many of us do the same exact thing, just with lesser-understood principles. We get away with it because of rampant ignorance. We’re just as idiotic, just not as obviously so.
We are living in a generation raised with no idea how to separate political invective from serious conversations about how systems of people work.
Personally I don’t want to see the human race repeating the same mistakes over and over again, so to me this is a terrible tragedy. I can understand that many political leaders would feel otherwise. But we’ll never be able to fix something if we don’t understand which parts of it work and which parts do not (and more to the point, why).If you've read this far and you're interested in Agile, you should take my No-frills Agile Tune-up Email Course, and follow me on Twitter.