The best way to master someone else -- to crush him or her in the mental judo by which we enwrap our opposites in arguments from which the other cannot escape -- is to convince them that they are motivated by fear, ignorance or stupidity. At that point they begin to distrust their argument, and lack the will to complete it, which in scientific terms means their insecurity doesn't allow them the energy to forcefully explore enough options, so their brain picks conservatively among weak options and loses.
Human fear, for this reason, is vastly misunderstood because we use it more as a token of manipulation than of diagnosis. Like love, sex, God, death and other sacred things, it has become a symbol in the tug-of-war for mindshare that is our advertising-driven, consumer-fueled, individualistic society. Even more, because we live in a time of social judgment predominating over situational complexity, we are not encouraged to investigate fear. It's bad. Period. Got it?
Instead, I think it makes sense we look at the fears of human individuals with the open eyes of a nihilist. A good starting point is to acknowledge these basic categories of fear:
We fear any action by ourselves, others or the world at large that can show us to be on the wrong side of evolution. Specifically, anything that shows we come up short, whether in penis length or muscle strength or brain strength.
Our popular culture has downdumbed evolution into a wrestling match, where two people fight and one survives, breeds and defines the future. It's obviously more complex than that: post-natal care, prosperity and wisdom are even greater influences than supremacy in combat, because often the most well-endowed person in the room avoids combat to be constructive instead. This is not to in any way disparage combat and aggression, both of which are necessary.
In the modern time, our culture has a paranoiac fear of inequality. Our logic is that if we suppress evolutionary measurement for all, we'll be safe from it, so we declare ourselves equal. Of course it doesn't work, because there will always be a best locksmith in town who you need if it's an urgent task that can't be screwed up; on the other end, cynical disillusioned underachievers stop believing the rhetoric as well and start using "equality" as an excuse for a looting party.
Our fear of inequality is fear of competition. As is our fear of elites, nudity, grades, salaries and the judgment of others. We all know the smarter critters come out ahead, and since they're smarter, can see what we dumber creatures don't, possibly as they stand over our steaming carcasses. That scares us, so we make it socially taboo.
Here's one to keep you up in the small hours: some things are completely random. Even if you live a really good life and do the best you can, that 747 up there with engine trouble may land on your house and roast you and your family into kerosene-glazed hams.
There is no reason to it because there's no narrative controlling all of life and judging each act from an anthrocentric perspective; even the most astute theists will characterize God as a system with a will, rather than a judging personality, so we have no expectation that acts like randomly falling planes are deliberate. Rather, they're random, which doesn't mean without order but does mean without an order that considers us as individuals.
So we fear random chance. Since it occurs without precursor -- leaving a car unlocked with a laptop inside is a precursor, where a random homeless crackhead breaking into a car with nothing visible has no precursor -- we have no way of knowing that the SUV two lanes over is going to veer left as its driver has a sneezing attack, ploughing us and our loved ones into fat dappled red paste.
- The physicality of our minds
It's late at a party. People are speaking into the wee hours. You start to notice how when we talk, we often screw up -- not just the ums and stutters and un-grammatical sentences revised ad hoc halfway -- but the times when our brains, grasping for a word, pick a similar word with a dissimilar meaning. Or, mangle a cliche.
Usually we confuse words or phrases we use commonly with what we're trying to say, and spit out the wrong thing, like a database mis-indexing a search. "I wasn't album I mean able to be there" or someone confusing congratulations with condolences at an inopportune moment because they were nervous -- these are good examples.
We're quick to "I screwed up that phrase" but that's a way of hiding one of our oldest fears. I didn't do anything; my brain, which is physical, had a mechnical (bio-electrical) error and so wasn't able to complete that thought. We're quick to say "I did it" not to claim responsibility but to disclaim the idea that, beyond our control, our brain is an organic gadget which can misfire (a "brain fart") without our control.
This is one of the most sacred human illusions. We like to believe we're in control of our minds, that everything we do is deliberate, and that when we make errors, they were bad choices. Increasily, science shows us that our errors originate in biology: too little of certain nutrients or neurotransmitters, confusion causing us to breathe shallowly and starve the brain, exhaustion, etc. This draws into question whether we as personalities, souls and individuals have much choice over our actions at all, and this is why the physicality of our minds is a big taboo.
It's so taboo, in fact, that you will find people extremely unwilling to discuss this. You can bring up weird sex, murder, racial inequity, joyful child rape and the apocalypse and people will be less queasily unable to handle it than they will with this topic; after all, those are external events. By mentioning the physicality and falibility of the mind, you're striking at their self-identity and subverting it.
- Self-interest of others
This taboo is a social taboo: if you mention that all people are motivated by self-interest, whether material or identity or (in the rare case of 1% of the population) a desire to act in an idealistic sense of "moral attention," people freak out. That's because this knowledge undercuts the social illusion, which is that by demanding we all be equal and sociable, we have somehow cancelled out our ability to manipulate behind the scenes, invisibly, for our own self-interest.
Society is like two guys with guns. They agree to not shoot each other and put their guns on the table. But for how long does this bond last? A promise can be broken. Treaties often are. One guy may have a knife that he hasn't mentioned, and the other a sap that he keeps incognito. If one of these guys is motivated by self-interest, he may wake up to life and think, "You know, I'm never really safe from this guy until I've killed him, because he can always grab that gun or whip out that knife. So I'm going to sap his ass until he falls over, and then take both guns, and I'll have improved my position."
That's why self-interest terrifies us. Civilization itself is based on the idea that we can set aside self-interest and instead act according to collective rules designed to preserve others. However, no one else knows what goes on in our minds, and in every society -- even the most repressive -- there is ample opportunity for scheming, planning, and conspiring behind the scenes. In public I can hand out money to charities and speak profusely of brotherly love; in private, I can leak your police record to the press, bankrupt your company and screw your wife, because I'm acting in self-interest.
Interestingly, ancient societies understood this principle, and so fell over themselves to find that 1% who because they're deep space idealists will always act in favor of a moral goal that underscores all their acts. Sadly, such people are a threat to those who both recognize their self-interest and are able to deceive other people that they don't, and so the spacy idealists are the first to die in any political turn of events.
- The narrative
We fear a narrative to life itself: an external force, manipulating for reasons we are too dumb to see, that creates the actual narrative of life versus the ostensible. Witness a lemming procession: the ostensible narrative is that we're going to the promised land. The actual narrative is that the lemming who told us we were going to the promised land is leading us over a cliff, and when the thrashing and gurgling is over, will go back and claim our lemming-holes and lemming-wives for himself.
We can divide hidden narratives into the following categories:
- Conspiracy: a secret force controls the world for its own purposes
- Paranoia: some force or secret metaphysical order to nature manipulates us
- God: there is some force of judgment or wisdom that knows when we're behaving like monkeys
- Determinism: all of what we do is determined by what came before us; there's a plan!
These scare the crap out of us. Not only do they mean we're suckers for buying into the ostensible narrative and not noticing the secrete narrative, but they also mean that our efforts to reward ourselves will not reward us in the ways that matter according to the actual narrative.
A good dose of relativity -- not relativism, which is a false objectivism based on personal empowerment by pretentious assumption of the ability to judge others and give them compensatory scoring for the relative disadvantages only wise you can see -- can help cure this problem. The only narrative that exists is that found where all things are relative to the whole, and only one thing fits this definition: the whole of physical/informational reality itself. (For more on that, you'll have to see our columns on idealism.)
There's a duality to our fear of hidden narratives, however. When things go badly for us, we like to blame them. It wasn't me that screwed this up -- God cursed me. It wasn't our fault that we elected corrupt leaders -- it was the Masonic-Zoroastrian conspiracy. Don't worry about striving because we know the mathematical order of this universe determines that only the good die young, all things must fail, etc. -- let's go to the pub, there's nothing we can do! Shrug.
All of these great hidden fears -- and they're hidden, because confessing your actual fears to others reveals your weakness, so confess trivial instances of those fears instead -- have one thing in common: they acknowledge the limits to our autonomy, knowledge and self-control. In short, they show us that we are exactly what we appear to be, which is a small tribe of monkeys that got smart on one planet and are now trying to gain self-control so they can be realistic and progress to the next evolutionary stage.
These fears together act to hide that reality because it is fundamentally threatening to have an actual goal. If there's something we should be doing, all the things we do which are not means to that end can be seen to be the flakiness, selfishness and laziness they are. We don't want that. We want freedom from the judgment of others because we fear our weaknesses will be seen, so we try to blind them to the actual goal (smart monkeys!) in order to hide our motivations, even if that means our species drifts further from having a realistic impression of what it's trying to accomplish.
In order to hide these truth-fear pairings, we make up a countervailing fiction, which is that we have a better way -- and we base it on social, or anthrocentric, concerns instead of the world as a whole. "All of us here agree" is a way of programming your brain to ignore reality and to focus instead on what other monkeys want you to think. They will call it Progress, Science, Wisdom -- profaning all holy and sacred and reverent things in the process -- maybe even Morality, but this social fiction creates a consensual reality which slowly obliterates all other truths by becoming an assumption underlying their supercessors.
The problem with this consensual reality -- some call it "social reality" and the political movement it engenders Crowdism -- is that since we define our own needs and reality, we create an ever-widening circle. Truth threatens? Redefine truth as convenient. But now the new truth becomes inconvenient, so we alter it a little further. In the next generation, further. Soon we're way, way far from any sense of truth, but we can't see it because all the monkeys around us are repeating to us, in new and innovative ways, the underlying assumption that we need a social reality to replace nature. We call that cognitive dissonance.
Even worse is that as we subsidize others who want to evade reality, we slowly place the burden of our salvation on those who deny social trends and insist reality is, indeed, real -- this is the one radical and taboo act in all eras and civilizations -- and these people are a minority. Soon it becomes more convenient to kill them, and the civilization plunges into disorder because people are acting on what they'd prefer to be true instead of what is realistic. This is how all civilizations die.
You might think this article is a hit piece on God and tradition, but those two terms were very sensible innovations that allowed us to name our fears and displace them onto the whole of reality, instead of ourselves. They can be abused, but there is nothing which cannot be abused because names and symbols differ from what they reference, so we can always change the definitions of signals (like names or symbols, even God) and then use them as if they were still valid. If anything, if the symbol "God" has become corrupted, the smart response is to embrace God and start working to redefine the symbol toward reality -- but that's another topic for another day.
Our secret fears, like our secret hopes, reveal what we know at our innermost souls and, because this pattern repeats among all humanity, what is probably the most accurate depiction of our reality. While the socially acceptable response is to deny fears exist and not look into them, as it will destabilize others, the intelligent response is to explore fears in the laboratory of ourselves so we can understand more about this magical world in which we live.
February 7, 2009