Clueless

We humans, by our very nature, are easily misinformed, misled by gossip, taken in by grand lies, seduced by rumours and conspiracy theories — and often downright stupid.

A cursory glance at the average post on social media reveals the degree to which stupidity and gullibility are routine. I suspect we constantly underestimate the number of stupid people in circulation. But it’s very difficult to avoid them. They are to be found everywhere — in academia, industry, government, politics and big business.

Let’s be clear. I am not talking about ignorance or a lack of education. Many uneducated people are incredibly smart while countless stupid people have had a particularly decent education. I am using the term stupid quite explicitly to identify those among us who consistently display their capacity to ignore reason, who habitually disregard the obvious, who doggedly believe they are right, and who remain convinced of their own infallibility, come what may.

Most of us think we are smart. Stupid people think they are smart but are not. Deluded, they remain totally unaware of their stupidity. This is potentially hazardous for the rest of us, especially given the strong likelihood of stupid people being in positions of influence or power. Complicating the matter is the fact that even intelligent individuals can be stupid on occasions.

To deride stupid people, to single them out in order to laugh at their naivety would, in itself, be foolish. For stupidity seems to be a conditional norm. As a species we are clueless a lot of the time. If that were not so serious it would be amusing. But stupidity is a reality we need to face up to — particularly in an age characterized by the collapse of certainty and by the failure of systems we rarely challenge yet whose genesis arose from flawed assumptions and vague intentions. Many of these are grand lies; misfortunate social memes that have ingrained themselves across generations and cultures to shape a shared civilizational weltenschaung.

In purely technological terms we are a remarkable species. In a more general cognitive context our capacity to solve complicated issues probably justifies the conclusion that we are a highly developed sentient intelligence. But that is only a half-truth.

Over the past few centuries fundamental design issues and associated down-stream problems have recurred generation after generation and in every culture. Our undoubted technical and engineering capabilities have leapt ahead of any comparable expertise in social design. Furthermore, our much-vaunted technological brilliance is set on destructive purposes rather than being used as a tool for good. All things considered, wisdom is in short supply.

I doubt very much that we can continue for too long in our conventional clumsy ways. But what should we do in a political and cultural landscape in which alarmist rumours, lies and superstitions are peddled as sacrosanct beliefs and where such fictions have more currency than fact-based truths?

Blaming individuals is counterproductive. Condemning particular groups or communities for being ignorant, greedy or malevolent will not get us very far. Criticizing an education system that still focuses on subject disciplines while failing to teach social interaction, empathy, altruism, learnable intelligence, critical thinking, eco-literacy and systems dynamics, is simply too easy. On the other hand, we do need to tackle our collective stupidity. And if messaging has such a significant impact on how we interpret factual evidence, then there are few alternatives other than countering the more preposterous lies with a narrative that simply tells the truth.

Let’s start with the biggest lie of all. The truth is there is no God. At least not in the sense of an omnipotent, omniscient man in the sky — compassionate or unforgiving depending upon one’s source of indoctrination. During the Enlightenment it became obvious that the God-myth was an elaborate hoax. It has endured, and flourished for a while, nurtured by those whose best interests were served by defending such infantile propaganda.

But it is now time to grow up and to acknowledge the myth for what it is. Like Zeus or Thor or Quetzalcoatl, the God of monotheistic traditions is pure fiction — fabricated at a time of relative scientific ignorance to account for phenomena that could not be explained any other way.

On one level the God-myth reflects imagination, inventiveness and beauty. Reactions to the myth from the faithful can be pure and sincere. Nevertheless, pause for a moment to reflect on how bizarre our situation has become at the behest of this myth. As the potency of the lie became clear to rulers and those in authority it was used calculatingly and comprehensively to wield social control over the rest of us until, today, its impact has become insidious and irrational. For example, nobody in the US can seek public office unless they are prepared to pretend such a God exists.

Much of what passes for good public policy in any number of cultures is forced to conform to religious taboos more suited to a medieval theocracy. Meanwhile crimes against humanity are routinely condoned on the basis of some kind of religious-inspired logic within a forlorn illusion that “God is on our side”.

In this day and age, when scientific and spiritual knowledge combined has reached a stage of sophistication that enables us to design, create and sustain life, but where much of the suffering we inflict upon each other can still be attributed to religious hatred, war and delusion, the God-myth has become indefensible. It is stupidity and self-deceit at its most scary. To refute this lie is a moral necessity.

Other lies, almost as grand, flow from this. Serfdom is a case in point. The ancient claim of monarchs and popes to be God’s representatives on Earth intrinsically entrenched their power in an era where the God-myth was intense and could not be defied without the risk of eternal damnation.

Yet it amazes me that millions of people around the world are still in thrall to rulers and autocrats who blatantly and in full view of the media accrue wealth at the expense of those who pay allegiance to them. The mystery, pomp and ceremony surrounding “majesty” is simply incomprehensible when set against the fact that each day over 4 billion people have insufficient access to clean drinking water. Inequities and injustices would diminish considerably if we were able to institute more egalitarian, less corrupt, regimes.

Another grand lie that distracts us from the invention of better futures is the assumed role of business in today’s society. It is often asserted that the role of business is simply to make profits for shareholders and that no other role should be countenanced. That is the kernel of stupidity. For sustained profits depend upon continuous economic growth which, we have discovered, is impossible. It flies in the face of physics. We have reached the limits imposed by nature — and nature is reacting in ways that are alarming.

In pre-industrial cultures production and consumption were mostly localized. Value was self-evident in that the quality of life was to be maintained. Meanwhile mastery of one’s craft was nurtured by a system of guilds. This system, based on trust and equity, was to generate value of one kind or another for the entire community.

The advent of the modern, limited liability company, changed these dynamics, creating a legal behemoth that enjoys freedoms and benefits denied mere mortals. Initially the invention of the corporation spawned a level of growth and development previously deemed unlikely. It opened up new markets and expanded the range and quality of goods and services that could be purchased. But over time the corporation’s obsession with money and profits eroded trust, amplified greed, and set humanity on a course from which we are now finding it is almost impossible to recover. Marketing and advertising amplified the lie until it morphed into a toxic spiral of unending desire and consumption.

This lie does great damage and needs to be overturned. We cannot keep manufacturing more and more stuff in the expectation it will make us happy. Nor can business merely serve the financial interests of a minority especially if, in order to do that, it has to ride roughshod over the environment or the rights or ordinary citizens. Business has to become an amplifier of value, but in ways that are more equitable than in the past, that recognise the inherent value of non-commoditized resources, and that accept responsibility for future generations.

I should point out that this is not some kind of utopian dream but a practical solution to some of the problems facing us today; problems that will not fade into memory without a conscious effort to destroy the lies underpinning them.

There are myriad interrelated myths to which we adhere in spite of all evidence pointing to their fantastical and deceitful nature. Contemporary stupidity covers the full range of policy issues — from the absurd to the irrational. Whether it is the bullying use of war, that changes nothing in the long run, the denial from large corporations that small-scale local farming is the key to solving world hunger, the proliferation of guns in a country where deaths from the use of legal arms is on the increase, farcical arguments around whether or not global warming is caused by humans, or the unsustainable nature of a global monetary system based on debt, it is the tissue of underlying lies and erroneous assumptions that are of most concern and that play into the hands of stupid people.

While dogma and inconsistencies abound, stupidity will flourish. But we can rise above it by accepting culpability for our stupidity, letting go of our ego-driven need to be right all the time, and coming to terms with the underlying flaws in our most life-critical systems — many of which were designed in and for a previous era.

Human intentions, together with our knowledge base for leading, governing, making, contributing, managing, consuming, exchanging and relating (to each other and to the environment) all need a drastic overhaul and brought into a situation where the truth, rather than fiction, is the primary design tool for societal evolution.

Whether we opt to approach that from a scientific viewpoint or a spiritual ethos the issue is the same. We must find ways to transcend our collective stupidity, especially by rejecting obsolete fears and superstitions that may otherwise continue to trap us in a quicksand of escalating crises from which we will find no way out.

The alternative is to remain clueless.

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Richard David Hames

Philosopher-Activist and Executive Director at Centre for the Future