I’d like to address something that has been bothering me lately. The state of discourse in everyday life, let alone on the internet, is absolutely depressing. It has become an idea space totally lacking in manners, and lacking any semblance of a general, humane ethic. I often ask myself: Where is all the derision and cruelty coming from? Why so much character assassination, sadism, and thought-policing? Why do certain people take certain topics so seriously that they are willing to sink to the lowest common denominator to “prove” the other guy wrong? I think it’s rather funny that people act as if anything can be “proved” with 100% surety. We can’t even prove what a fundamental particle is, let alone what it’s made of. Clearly some of us take our own assumptions for granted to a perverse degree, and our regrettable behavior reflects that fact. I just find it sad, pathetic, and emblematic of the decline of westernized culture.
Don’t just take my word for it. Visit almost any site that promotes a controversial topic — such as cold fusion for example — and look through the comment sections. It almost seems as if certain skeptical voices spend their entire day lying-in-wait, hoping for even the tiniest of opportunities to shovel shit and yell “gotcha!” Frequent something like the JREF forum and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Or if you’re feeling particularly masochistic, take a guided tour of Rational Wiki. Some of the slanderous nonsense you’ll encounter there will blow your mind. Even almighty Wikipedia tacitly approves of polemics, diatribes, and the liberal use of prejoratives. It can make even the most optimistic person begin to question their faith in modern man.
Cynical, misinformed, arrogant, ignorant, boorish, dismissive, overzealous, sarcastic, bigoted, and straight up mean-spirited opinions litter the digital landscape. It seems that Lawrence Krauss-style demagoguery is now the norm amongst the hyper-skeptical crowd. People utter cowardly things that they would never say to another person face-to-face, and almost everyone who makes a habit of acting like this has an air of fundamentalist absolutism polluting their worldview. I’m not saying these people aren’t smart, or do not possess the capacity for kindness or level-headedness. I’m saying many of them often abandon that ideal and indulge in insane behavior out of habit.
Last I checked, everyone was so excited about the internet because it “connected” people. I now see just the opposite in many cases. People habitually hide behind their avatars and pseudonyms as they utter some of the most disturbing prejudicial nonsense imaginable. Many appear obsessed with winning some sort of imagined war of ideas — maybe because they feel powerless to “win” or effect meaningful change in everyday life. Who knows. I’ve had a longstanding interest in human psychology — and the human mind — and can’t help but wonder over and over again: What is wrong with these people? Why are they so eager and hell-bent to make up their mind about this or that? Why are they so desperate for surety? And why are they so willing to virulently attack others in their quest to impose intellectual consensus?
Certainly a lot of it has to do with the design of the internet specifically, and society generally. As Buckminster Fuller often pointed out, many of humanity’s problems can be traced back to the poor design of any institution, technology, or belief system. The internet, through its emphasis on anonymity and sound bite-driven dialogue, literally promotes trolling and insensitivity through design alone. People can hide behind their online personas and participate in hit-and-run trolling tactics to their hearts content. Both Douglas Rushkoff and Jaron Lanier are deeply troubled by this trend, and have addressed it extensively in their books Program or Be Programmed, and You Are Not A Gadget, respectively.
Another part of it certainly has to do with animal instinct and our yearning for security. We feel safe and secure when our beliefs become crystallized. We strive to minimize uncertainty at all times. It requires work, energy, and effort to rewire our brains and it is generally recognized that humans, if given the opportunity, will naturally gravitate toward the lowest level of activity possible. It’s in our nature to maximize leisure time and minimize discomfort. So in many ways it’s basically become an issue of chemical dependence. Many of us are junkies addicted to our own false egos and belief systems — literally. Our brain delivers little dopamine rushes whenever we “zing” the other guy, or make that “deluded moron” we disagree with look foolish. We have become chemically hardwired for fundamentalist and myopic thinking, and are now slaves to our own subconscious physiological processes.
And lastly it’s a cultural thing. Westernized culture breeds cruel, smug, egomaniacal conformists. Look closer at the shallow pursuits many people devote their lives to. Look at how most of us spend our lives mindlessly frittering away our free-time. Or simply turn on the television, and then try to cobble together an argument as to why I am wrong. I think it is a testament to the transcendent nature of the human spirit that one can still find a large contingent of warm-hearted and fair-minded people out there, despite the pervasive conditioning process we are subjected to.
It’s plainly obvious to me why western culture breeds these types of standardized people. Its entire existence is predicated on manufacturing scarcity and creating mindless-competition between its unwitting “citizenry” (aka consumer-base). Many of us have become so alienated and damaged by the limitations and labels our corporatized culture foists upon us, that we begin to cannibalize one another out of sheer desperation.
I believe the philosophies of people like Robert Anton Wilson should be taught in every school — alongside many other philosophies of course. Before he passed away, he argued we are living through a “New Inquisition,” a fact that can be intimidating and generate feelings of unease for those of us who choose to publically challenge orthodoxy. I hope someday we will wise up and take it upon ourselves to adopt Wilson’s brand of “Maybe Logic” alongside a universal ethic of respect and fair-mindedness. We certainly don’t need to reach some sort of utopian consensus, but we should all be able to agree that our reality-tunnels are woefully limited in some way shape or form, and we need to be more humble about what we say and what we think.
Basically, we need to be less dogmatic and start interacting in a more constructive manner. Unless you’re arguing with a neo-Nazi (and why would you even bother in the first place), set aside the self-righteous indignation will you? Understand your opinions and the topics you are arguing so virulently over are not as important as you think they are. Everyone is guilty of being overly snarky or dismissive now and again, even myself. But when it becomes habitual, when it becomes hardwired into your brain, you may reach a point of no return. And if it ultimately comes to that, all I can say is that I pity you, and I rather not engage with you at all. Let’s start loosening up the orthodox intellectual totalitarianism a bit, shall we? In the immortal words of Roy Rogers, “Don’t fence me in.”