Saturday, February 09, 2013

Interesting Article

I read a very interesting article recently, about the type of thinking we as a society have about why events happen the way they do, and how to shape them.

The article is very dense and intellectual but I hope you will read it nonetheless. The take-home points I got from it were encapsulated in this quote:
The two deep cultural ideas that we hold to that manifest around guns and gun control alike–and around many other things besides guns–are as follows: 1) that individual action focused by will, determination and clarity of intent can always directly produce specific outcomes and equally that individuals who fail to act when confronted by circumstances (including the actions of other individuals) are culpable for whatever happens next and 2) that there are single-variable abstract social forces that are responsible for seemingly recurrent events and that the proper establishing structure, rule or policy can cancel out the impact of that variable, if only we can figure out which one is the right one.
Basically, every society has some form of magical thinking in it. It is easy to see others' magical thinking, but not as easy to see our own. American magical thinking is that first, by sheer power of will, we can manipulate outcomes (and if the outcome is not in our favor, it is because of a personal failure); and second, there are single causes for certain types of events and if we can find the proper way to control that cause, we can eliminate those types of events.

He is talking about this in the context of gun control, but I can see how it applies to almost everything in our national discourse. Often we have people who believe that there is a single cause to our problems in society, when in fact it is quite nuanced. So for example, people who need welfare are obviously lazy and if they were more industrious or harder working like me, would not be in this situation. And the way to stop people from being on welfare is to punish them for being on welfare. In reality, there are many reasons people may find themselves on welfare, from a lack of socioeconomic opportunity to personal tragedy, and if those multitudinous causes could be addressed, we could reduce the incidence of people needing welfare.

Unfortunately, this magical thinking is embedded in the American identity, and is therefore hard to eradicate. The idea of the rugged individual, depending on nobody, is what it means to be American. But even in elite academic circles, where that idea would be dismissed, there is still a strain of this belief.

When I was in college, the movie Forrest Gump came out. One of my professors hated the movie because the title character made history yet he appeared to have no intellect, no intent, and no agency. I think he felt it was insulting to see this person with no intent making such an impact on history. He believed that a person made history, not that history made a person. This is an intellectual strain of the same belief.

If someone had smothered Adolf Hitler in his crib, would millions of Jews still be alive today? My professor seemed to believe that yes they would -- neglecting the myriad of other factors surrounding the rise of Hitler, such as heightened anti-Semitism, German poverty, and the German nationalistic identity at the time. Hitler rose to power because of those factors, and if he hadn't been there, it seems likely that someone else would have risen in his place.

While of course one person's actions can make a difference, and we should by all means continue to do the best we can to make this world a better place, there is not one single factor. You can't save the world by yourself, nor can you ruin it alone. Understanding this fact can be depressing (because you can't make things happen in the way you want them to) but also liberating (because the responsibility for the world is not solely on your shoulders). The world is a complicated system and the best we can do is to manipulate the few variables over which we have control.

No comments: