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Archive for August 8th, 2012

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.  –  1 Corinthians 13:11

The human race as a whole has developed and grown, just as an individual human develops; this growth is reflected not only in the accumulated wisdom of our species and the level of our collective behavior, but also in the number of individuals capable of mature thought.  I’m sure that even in the most ancient times there were isolated individuals who were vastly more morally developed than their fellows, and as they lived and taught or recorded their thoughts they were able to pass their wisdom on to be absorbed and built upon by the wise and perceptive of later generations.  But it’s also true that many humans still function at a very childish level, and since the insecure need to control others is one of the most primitive and immature of human traits it is inevitable that the least developed of humans are disproportionately represented in positions of power.  Another large fraction function in a sort of moral adolescence:  they are able to grasp some mature concepts quite well, yet in other areas are still hopelessly childish.

Take tribalism, for example; far too many people are unable to function as free individuals and so seek identity as a small part of some greater whole.  Some accept a ready-made identity as part of whatever race, class, religion or ethnicity they were born into, or in some cases fell into by virtue of genes or chance (the GLBT community, the disabled community, etc); others adopt some other subculture, religion, party or “-ism” later in life.  I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with taking pride in one’s heritage, or enthusiastically embracing a cause, group or philosophy; what I’m talking about are those people whose individuality, if they had any to start with, vanishes wholly into the group identity so that they scarcely have a thought or publicly-stated belief which is not included in the group’s scriptures or passed out like cheap adhesive name tags by its leadership.  Such people never notice the inconsistencies in their prepackaged doctrines, and if the leaders’ positions change over time you can bet the rank and file will parrot the new catechism with equal enthusiasm.  Furthermore, they will attack those they are told are their ideological enemies even in areas where their beliefs approach or even overlap those of the “enemy”; anyone who has ever read any comment threads on Huffington Post will understand what I’m talking about.  Philosophical consistency means no more to this sort of person than the fact that he has no real personal stake in “his” team means to the rabid sports fan; what is important is the group identity as a Christian, Democrat, feminist, etc.

Worse and more foolish still is the belief that a nonhuman thing, either material or immaterial, can be “bad”.  Like children or primitive people who ascribe magical properties to “lucky” or “taboo” objects, rituals or even cracks in the sidewalk, all too many moderns imagine that plant matter or technological devices can be intrinsically evil; that certain words or images can be literally harmful to children or even to grown men and women; that the mere action of taking a photograph of a naked person (or in some cases, even a clothed child) is intrinsically inimical; that certain forms of human interaction can mystically harm the participants even if they freely choose to engage in the activity and suffer no physical damage; that magical vestments or talismans can grant power over other people or absolve the wearer of moral culpability for his actions; that official pronouncements from anointed leaders can make things vanish; and even that being given a spell-scroll of one variety can make a “dangerous” action into a beneficial one, while being given a different kind of rune-inscribed parchment can make an innocuous action evil.  Worst of all, those who reject the taboos of other identity groups never even think to question those of their own group, no matter how much alike they appear to the dispassionate observer.

No matter how much the human race matures, there will always be some individuals who believe in this kind of nonsense, but that’s OK; problems only arise when the children in power hire armed thugs to confine everyone else in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe with them.  Once we had a set of rules we all agreed to live by, but somewhere along the line the bullies started to cheat and everyone else was either too scared, too involved in their partisan squabbles or too invested in the system to say anything about it, so here we are.  None of us, no matter how dispassionate or logical, is entirely free of irrational beliefs, and because we are all different there will always be a plethora of those beliefs.  That’s why we should all insist that laws, public policies and official actions be based on facts rather than faith, and reason rather than emotion; though we will still disagree on the interpretation of those facts (and even, in many cases, what they are), such conflicts are inescapably tethered to the concrete in a way that hogwash about evil weeds, cursed weapons and unholy words could never be.  It’s time to set aside childish things, and start dealing with one another like grownups.

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