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Category: Humans

Unauthorized
I’ve been engaging in a political thought experiment recently. My findings are still incomplete, but I thought I’d reach out for some peer review before I get too far into this thing.

The experiment deals with the “authoritarian mind.” You may have read about this idea over the last year; it’s gotten a lot of attention as a part of the many tortured attempts to explain the rise of Drump within a free, enlightened society. The term authoritarian here does not refer to the control freakish behavior of authoritarians themselves, but rather to the willingness of their followers to submit to such behavior.

The authoritarian mind is evidenced by a desire to be told what to think and do and a willingness to cede all personal responsibility to a strong leader. “I’ll take care of everything,” says the leader. The follower, seizing his chance to be let off the hook, replies “You’ve got my vote. Do whatever you have to!” — and the authoritarian relationship is officially established.

These relationships occur outside of politics, of course. Religion uses them to great effect. Most scams, both large and small, depend on the mark’s eagerness to give up personal control of their life or money and hand it over to someone who will promise to make everything better.

So here is my experiment: what would our world be like if all of these authoritarian minded people disappeared? Never mind why or how. If it makes you feel more comfortable, perhaps they’ve all been transported to heaven in the Rapture. Whatever. They’re gone — maybe 40% of humanity — and only those people who are willing (most of the time) to confront facts are left behind. Since you haven’t stopped reading this out of disgust, that group includes you, me, and everyone who tries to lead an evidence-based life.

Would the world be a better place without authoritarians? Would there be peace? Would reason finally triumph? Would the Age of Aquarius dawn at last?

Or would some fundamental element of humanity be lost? Would civilization stall and finally crumble to dust without the participation of true believers? Can our species survive without a blind faith that is impervious to facts? Who is to say that, with these people gone, some of us wouldn’t rush to fill the void of credulity and obedience? Movements need such people. So do armies. Maybe, as a species, we all do.

I prefer to think not. I prefer to think that an evidence-based life will lead me toward meaning and understanding and happiness. If I can maintain vigilance that is. I know that we all have an authoritarian inside us, urging us to give in to promises of simplicity and certainty. Who wouldn’t daydream of finding an easy way out of the daily drudgery of figuring out what to do in life? That drudgery can be a total pain.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe, to be truly human, we must be gullible. Happy sheep waiting to be fleeced by the Controlling Class. Ba-a-a?

I don't think so. For me, the correct answer is “Bah!” That blissful certitude sounds even worse than the total pain option. Even though there will be lapses into gullibility, at least there’s the hope that I’ll snap out of it. I’m voting for endless doubt over contented ignorance.

I guess I’ll just have to miss out on the Rapture.
What Is True?
I caught a little of the PBS special about the human brain yesterday. The brain is a big topic for any TV program, so it left a lot of questions unanswered. In fact, I’m still sorting through the ramifications of one claim that was made on the show. It concerned the nature of reality. What is real, brain scientists suggest, is strictly a product of our own minds.

What they meant was that we digest what our senses take in and reconstruct it later to form our own personal version of what happened. To do that, we use our memory of events coupled with some kind of subconscious, base-level analysis. That’s the straightforward scientific take on this phenomenon, and it wasn’t intended to have any larger philosophical implications. Even so, I find it a little unsettling that each of us is cooking up his own distinct version of reality…second to second, day to day, year in and year out. It raises the possibility that there is no objective truth at all — only billions of these separate, very personal concoctions made up of wishful thinking and emotional imperatives.

There must be something real out there, though. We manage to function and survive within the world outside our minds (or so it appears), so we must have some kind of handle on that world and how it works. We get up, we go to our jobs, we eat, we continue to exist. We don’t die. Whatever version of reality we have constructed seems to be working on some level. That tells me that we have a hold on some kind of truth.

And maybe that’s all we can hope for…some kind of truth. You might even argue that that is enough. As long as we can stumble along using trial-and-error and the advice of others, why worry? Does it really matter if we get a few things wrong? The all-star professional basketballer Kyrie Irving, for instance, believes that the earth is flat. He is absolutely convinced that this truth — his truth — is the true truth. Kyrie’s a multimillionaire. He’s famous, he’s admired (at least up until now). What’s the diff if his truth is actually false?

It’s certainly easier not to care. The truth is simply what you overheard on the bus. Or what somebody said on TV. No need to check it or think about it or question it at all. Just swallow it whole and move on. The alternative is to remain constantly on guard, trusting no one, fact-checking everything. You might spend all kinds of time digging for an answer — with no guarantee of actually finding it. It’s a complete hassle.

And what is true, anyway? If reality is being pieced together in our separate subconsciouses, as those brain scientists say, maybe we can never be sure.

Even so, I’m going to take the controversial position of being pro-truth. In the long run it’s just more reliable than untruth. And as my ultimate success story, I will point to science itself. It built our modern world based on the tested, verifiable truths gleaned through the scientific method (Kyrie Irving notwithstanding). And all of that came from asking the simple question, What is true?

If it’s good enough for science and engineering, it’s good enough for every other field, including politics. So I say keep asking that question. Over and over again. And trust no one, including me.
Take It or Leave It
Like most people, I was taught that I should take responsibility for my actions. If I messed up, my parents and teachers said, I should own up to it and try to make things right — especially if others came to harm because of my mistake. It’s always nice to apologize to people too, but as I understand the responsibility rule that part is optional. The main thing is to stand up and be accountable. Being nice is covered under a different section of the rulebook.

I have never questioned the wisdom of this take-your-medicine maxim. It is based on honesty, after all, and we all know that’s a good thing. It seems fair and honorable, too — I certainly want other people to treat me that way.

It might even be good for you. Admitting mistakes can be a hard thing to do sometimes, but don’t you always feel better once you’ve stepped up and faced the music? Not only is it evidence of character for anyone watching, but the act of taking responsibility itself seems to build character by reinforcing your own self-respect.

Furthermore, it could be argued that accountability is at the very foundation of a properly functioning free society. For the system to work, enough of us have to carry our own weight so that the whole enterprise doesn’t sink under a too-heavy load of mendacity and bad faith.

That said, I can understand why this concept may not work for everyone. Even though the practice of owning up brings some very desirable benefits with it, for some people there might be a point of diminishing returns. If you are the kind of person who makes mistakes all the time, for instance, you might be better off hiding a few of them. Honesty is the best policy and all that, but you don’t want to get a reputation for being a total screw-up. Fairness, for all the hype, is probably a luxury that only the competent can afford.

Better to lie. To yourself and others. If that fails, sometimes denial and rage will work. And whatever you do, don’t apologize.

Or better yet, play dumb. Under the circumstances, no one would doubt your sincerity.
Killer
Tilikum died last week at the age of thirty-six. That’s a long time for an orca in captivity.*

At his death, he was the most famous member of his species, or at least the most infamous. During his sad life, he was involved directly in the deaths of three humans. In the last of these incidents he acted alone, and the killing was particularly brutal.

There were calls at the time to “put down” Tilikum. “Execute him” better reflects the public mood right after the incident. People naturally reacted with horror at the thought of a 12,000-pound killer whale murdering a defenseless trainer who meant it no harm. The rage passed, though, when the creature’s life story became known.

Tilikum had been captured off Iceland when he was about two — just on the cusp of living separately from his mother. Like all orcas, he was utterly dependant on the close-knit social structure of his family. His first stop, however, was a small concrete tank where he waited alone for over a year for his destiny to unfold. When that day came he was kept in tight confinement with two larger orcas who disliked and physically abused him. At times during his long captivity he exhibited behavior consistent with deep depression, stress, and psychosis. When people learned how he had been mistreated — especially after the movie Blackfish came out describing his plight — opinion quickly turned in his favor and against the inhumane practices at places like SeaWorld.

Tilikum was spared. His actions were, after all, a product of his own nature and the awful environment he was made to live in. Also spared were the humans who enslaved and mistreated him. Whatever responsibility they bore for the deaths was forgiven, SeaWorld paid a fine, and everyone moved on with their lives. For Tilikum, that meant a long illness in captivity and his eventual, very difficult, death.

It’s hard to find fault with the people who care for orcas or any of the creatures held for public display at zoos and aquariums. They seem to genuinely care about the animals in their charge. Members of the public (including me) like seeing the animals and watching them perform. It is hard to deny, though, the inherent cruelty of the whole enterprise. A zoo is a prison. The “performances” are unnatural abuses of living beings. The misuse of captive animals, no matter how humanely managed, is an ugly reflection on the humans who oversee it.

Including us.

*Most marine biologists place the life expectancy of male orcas in the wild at 60 years.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon