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Saturday, 21 March 2015

The Two Great Evils

In my opinion, humanity has two great evils.

They're a old as humanity itself - as long as we've been self-aware, as long as we've been capable of thought. They have their roots in social evolution, and they are often held up as virtues by their greatest exponents.

Those two evils are greed and ignorance.

Let me expand on my definition of those two terms.

When I talk about greed, I don't only mean money - hell, I don't even only mean stuff. I mean a grasping overwhelming need for power and influence, be it fiscal, political or personal.

When I talk about ignorance, I don't mean a lack of learning. I mean wilful ignorance more than anything - a deliberate lack of comprehension or empathy. (Yes empathy. Empathy is understanding and ignorance is a lack of that.)

Most shitty things that people do to one another - either directly or indirectly, en masse or person-to-person - tend to stem from either of these things or a combination of the two. It doesn't take a lot of thought to work out how, either. A mugging in the street is a combination of greed (I want that guy's watch) and ignorance (I don't care how that guy feels to have his things stolen). Slinging racist abuse at someone is yet more of that ignorance (both a lack of empathy and a lack of understanding of external cultures) and power greed (I feel the need to demonstrate my perceived supremacy over this person).

The big step here is recognising each of those evils for the nuanced things they can be. Greed for money is just power greed in a more complex form - after all, having a large amount of money is a legitimate way to have a large amount of influence over your environment (see my previous blog post, Kraft und Macht, Wille und Geld). Humans are naturally afraid of things they don't understand, and in a society that punishes curiosity more than fear, such non-comprehension can very easily lead to fear - and from that, anger.

Our two demons came from what we used to be; admittedly, from different periods of our social (and physical) evolution. Greed, for example, is from when we used to worry about actual survival in a very visceral sense. If we look in nature, we see greed as a necessity - wolves gorge themselves whenever they can because they don't know when the next meal will come along. The urge to dominate and acquire and control was a strong survival instinct. Unfortunately that's an ancient seam of primordial need threaded into a modern and complex being, taking firm and unshakable root.

Ignorance is more recent. In and of itself, not knowing something isn't a sin - nobody is born knowing what lightning is, or how to throw a ball, or how to pronounce the word concupiscent. It is how one deals with not knowing that can lead to problems. Rather than be comfortable with not knowing, people have - since time immemorial - made things up to fill in the gaps; and when that made-up stopgap explanation is challenged, some people don't necessarily take it well. In a weird sense it can lead to an anti-academic sentiment; we've all heard the term know-it-all used as a pejorative, after all. There's no end of examples as to how people's egos and pride can be more valuable to them than understanding, from the persecution of Galileo in the early 17th century to the current anti-vaccine movement and the war on drugs.

Both of our particular demons are somewhat enshrined in modern life. They're promoted, almost - though greed is far more overtly pushed than ignorance.

"But John," I hear you cry, holding aloft hands filled with lead ingots and standing atop of crates of demonic chickens. "But John, without money, society would fold in on itself, nothing would work! We need money! What's so bad about having more of it?"

Well here's the thing: our current economic system is so ingrained in all of us that we, of course, think it is the best - perhaps only - way of doing things. In truth, the neoliberal revolution of the eighties did make a lot of people a whole hell of a lot of money; but at the same time, it vastly increased financial inequality. It sold a story of putting your oar in and trying hard and succeeding and elevating yourself above what you had before, what you were before. It had to. The only way such rampant (some might say irresponsible) growth can be maintained is if everyone buys into it, and lo and behold, everyone did.

Aside from the miners - but that's another story.

Thus it is a tacitly accepted fact of life that acquisition is normal, that we should all strive to acquire as much as we can, because if we can lay hands on it, we're entitled to it. Why work part-time to sustain the lifestyle that you are currently in when you can work full-time and also afford a holiday and a bunch of other luxuries? Look at lifestyle magazines - something like 70% of them is advertising space. That sends out a very clear message: your lifestyle is primarily dictated by that which you purchase, that which you own.

Ignorance is a more subtle sell. I can't speak for the present day but when I was in school, you got treated pretty poorly by your fellow students of you were a good student or the like. I find it hard to pinpoint a cause for this outside of, maybe, some kind of tribal respect system. The school forces people to confront their academic worthiness (or at least their ability to take exams), and rather than accept that value, those who maybe don't do so well at it turn it on its head - sure, the teachers think the swotty kids are the best, but we all know the secret.

It's a crying shame that, in a world wherein the answers to most questions we can even think of asking are literally at our fingertips - so many people with smart phones - so many people don't understand the basics of modern life. Again having to relate back to my school life, when we were taught Home Economics, it wasn't anything to do with economics and it was very loosely about the home - it was cooking. If it was really a home economics class it might have taught me what a mortgage is, what interest rates mean, why banks give out loans, what happens when you don't pay them back.

Also it's sometimes a case of people not wanting to learn. Why bother understanding the ins and outs of a foreign culture, or why people move to this country, or the difference between immigrants and expatriates, or why inflation happens, when we have "real" problems to deal with? Because the importance of these things only becomes evident when you actually put in the effort to learn about them in the first place. It's a tough ask - go read this wikipedia page, we promise you'll appreciate why you have to after you've actually done it. One can understand how one's worldview, after a certain point, doesn't grow that much wider.

Throw into that the fact that an education beyond high school is astronomically expensive and the breeding ground for ignorance is primed and ready - and it works in conjunction with its pal greed very nicely indeed. After all power greed is just as valid as money greed - and if you can dismiss anything you don't know or understand as unimportant, you firmly shore up your version of reality as being the most important one, thus increasing your own personal perception of power and influence.

Greed and ignorance; if we could only defeat them, or overcome them, or even weaken their grasp on our species, then perhaps we'd be getting somewhere.

All we have to do is shrug off a aeon-old survival instinct and a product of our own ego.

No problem.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Why We're Here

Last night I got to talking with one of my best friends about the notion of purpose, of why we're here. My thinking on the subject could probably be described as nihilistic - so fair warning, it might get a touch dark, or a touch nothing.

To put it bluntly:

We don't have a purpose.

That deserves refinement, mind. We do of course have purpose in our day-to-day lives but those purposes tend to be situational - be they from the very, very short-term ("I need to walk to the bus stop so I can get the bus to get to work") to the rather more long-term ("I need to work to earn money to go on holiday").

In terms of a great over-arching defining purpose, though - well that's a different matter. I don't - can't - believe there is some kind of mystic race track that we should be going down. That leans a little too close to determinism for me, and I don't believe in destiny or fate. I believe in causality and chance and consequence.

That doesn't mean to say I don't feel there's an answer to the question: "Why are we here?" That's another matter entirely. We're here because of sperm and eggs and natural growth cycles and survival. Again, to need a greater meaning to that flies a little too close to the mythical for me. The very notion leaves me a little cold, and I'll tell you why.

If we all of us are born with a purpose, then the next question is obviously: what is that purpose? Are we fulfilling it without even knowing, or are we stumbling away from it with no way to tell we've gone off-track? If there's no way to know that we are off-track as mentioned, then the purpose itself is totally irrelevant - and if the only sign that we're off-track is that vague feeling of questioning unease we experience with regularity, then we're in trouble, because it's perfectly normal for human beings to experience anxiety and doubt. It's probably best to try and find the real source, though, rather than convincing ourselves that we've fallen off the invisible tightrope and need to find it again to feel better.

Let us suppose, though, that there IS a purpose. That the road map exists, in the ephemeral sense that it is there in ways we can't actively perceive.

If I'm doing it right, and following that road map, then fuck you, whoever drew the map. My life hasn't been that great. There's been some great views and some fantastic stopovers but the roadworks have been fucking awful and some of these directions have been totally counter-intuitive. Thanks for not warning me about the traffic jams too. You asshole.

If I'm doing it wrong...then...what? What's the consequence for my non-deviation? Is it this anxious feeling? This gnawing doubtful ache that sometimes sits low in my stomach and keeps me awake at night? Fuck you again, whoever drew the map. If I get punished for not walking the line but you don't signpost the line, then that's arbitrary cruelty. It's like drawing an imaginary box around a puppy and kicking it whenever it leaves the box that it can't see. Think about that image for a moment.


I can't believe that there is purpose beyond that which we make for ourselves. That's a valid sense of worry and angst - not knowing where you are going because you can't decide, not because you don't know what the skywizard or the fatewriter or whatever the fucking thing is has decided for you. If our own inability to determine our own fate leaves us so insecure that we feel the need to assign a greater meaning to that inability, then we have bigger problems than what the invisible road map says.

We are not the slaves of puppet strings stretching off into the infinite abyss of bullshit. We've got enough strings - strings like our biological need for food and water and warmth and shelter, like our psychological need for comfort and security, like societal pressures, like the drives and urges that swell and surge in our minds from a thousand different sources. Assigning them to the wishy-washy outer spheres of existence is outright denial of the most awful, and yet most liberating and beautiful, of all truths.

If there is nothing outside of us and what we are, and what we perceive as real, then the universe is still jam-packed with wonders and miracles. If all that exists is what our senses and the tools we use to enhance those senses can detect, then we still have an entire galaxy populated by the beauty of numbers and the magnificence of the horseshoe nebula and the awesome yet tiny world that inhabits a plant cell seen through a microscope and the surging rush of absolutely everything that your favourite song sends through every single nerve ending in your body whenever you hear it.

If there is a purpose - if there is truly a reason for us being here - then it is simply for us to be here. What this means is that we need to keep going. Find whatever we need to keep us going to tomorrow, because in the end, our lives aren't measured by how well we followed an invisible non-existent road map. Our lives aren't measured by anything outside of ourselves.

Don't waste that life inventing reasons to be afraid. Don't wait for a destiny to spring out of the echo of your own mind - or anyone else's. Find those things that make you want to see tomorrow, and then see that tomorrow.

See every tomorrow you can.

I think that's more than enough purpose for me.