Imagine visitors from another planet landing on the earth and drawing up a profile of human beings to send home. Surely one of their main reporting points would be that this is an incredibly diverse species with an immeasurable range of individuals, and yet, if the neural matter in each of their heads doesn’t form similar patterns, they are prone to set about killing one another. As a footnote the visitors would likely observe that once certain brain patterns set up and become deeply ingrained they are difficult or nearly impossible to change or alter.
Unless they regarded such behavior as normal, I suspect the aliens would leave earth trying to figure out how a species that seems to defend individual initiative so strongly would strive so hard to emulate the regimented behavior of insects. It would puzzle them that so many individuals could insist on bee-like or ant-like behavior from their fellow man and would readily condemn those who are reluctant to conform as being unpatriotic or subversive in some way. Returning to their own planet, our visitors could easily speculate that if these human beings were only secure enough in their own views to be able to tolerate contrary views, the killing might stop.
My own inquiry suggests that once a person’s fundamental beliefs are formed, they are very much like snapshots or still photos, and extraordinary efforts will be required to justify a reshoot. On the one hand, this propensity ensures our survival because it enables us to make instantaneous decisions based on confirmation with our photographic assumptions. But this propensity also threatens our existence for the very same reason. We are too quick to make up our minds, since we require only a hint of confirmation from our stored mental picture to confirm the views we already hold. In too many instances we make no room for alternatives or exceptions, and we ignore or reject contrary evidence.
All human beings, regardless of where we are on this planet, are born into reality shelters that we commonly refer to as our culture. The late cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argued that cultures amount to codified hero systems in which members are aided in seeming to transcend death through deeds and their reverence for icons and symbols. And thus we grow up with a take on reality given to us in such nuanced and discreet ways that we remain unaware that we are internalizing an off-the-shelf worldview. If we aren’t careful, it can stultify and set up like software that can’t be overwritten or reprogrammed.
After more than 30 years of dedicated self-education, and now at age 70, I’m confident that educator Neil Postman was right when he said, “Education is a defense against culture.” It’s that and more. We live in our heads. What we do with the knowledge that our respective cultures insist we put there, and how we deal with it, set the tenor, tone, and trajectory of our lives. What we learn and come to know is important, but it’s what we strive hard to understand beyond our culture that determines the essence of our character, what we do with our lives, how we relate to others, and how and for what we are likely to be remembered.
That things are often not as they appear is one of life’s most important lessons—so glaringly self-evident, in fact, that few of us doubt it. Unfortunately, even fewer of us heed the lesson. From an early age, we are taught that appearances are deceiving, and yet we do not hesitate to take a firm position on matters we’ve never really looked into beyond a superficial appraisal. We are quick to make baseless snap judgments that diminish our potential for achieving a just democratic society, even as those judgments add to our personal angst and inflame our contempt for matters we haven’t yet investigated.
A willingness to learn can trump our predisposition to act tribally and selfishly. It can dispel our mistrust of those whose politics, religions, traditions, and lifestyles we’ve not previously made an effort to understand. It adds quality to our lives, making the termgolden years something more than a cliché. A willingness to learn and to continue learning is our best chance to leave the world a better place.
Computers are not much help unless we have many rewritable programs. In similar fashion, our lives are much less enjoyable if the software in our heads has solidified and our minds can’t be changed. It is an unfortunate trait of our species that we are predisposed toward an ethos of the fewer the facts, the stronger the opinion, and that we will argue vociferously over subjects we know nothing, whatsoever, about.
All one has to do to verify this is read a sufficient number of letters to the editors of magazines and newspapers. Popular talking points serve as substitutes for in-depth knowledge, and arrogance stands in for a willingness to do one’s homework before commenting. Limited worldviews lead to misunderstanding and to the warring conflict that follows.
Extraterrestrial visitors could understandably have a hard time getting their minds around our egotism and our unwillingness to learn beyond our cultural indoctrination. I can imagine them scratching their heads on the way home, wondering if there are any other species in the universe who reach adulthood and think they already know everything they need to about everything important without a purposeful intention to continue learning.
Sunday, 10 March 2013