The Flaw With Personal Experience and Self-authority

It is a mainstay of social decorum to treat an individual’s personal experiences on any given issue as valid contributions to a topic.  Often, it’s quite common to observe two people arguing fiercely about a controversial topic, only to have it end with one of them bringing up the fact that s/he has been in a similar situation to the one being discussed, therefore her/his opinion on the subject has more value than the person who lacks any such personal experience.  And, usually, even if the other person doesn’t outright accept this reasoning, s/he will still yield some level of authority on the subject to the experienced individual.  This is a trend in casual discourse that annoys me to no end.

Now, allow me to clarify my discontent with anecdotal testimony by preemptively refuting my own subjective experiences.  Occasionally, a debate pops up about the issue of whether or not a terminally ill patient has the right to end her/his life, if they so choose.  For the sake of argument, let us suppose that I am passionately in favor of one side of this issue over another that I engage in regular arguments with people about it.  Let’s further suppose that in the middle of the discussion, I make the claim that I must have a great grasp of this issue because eight years ago my father died after several months of suffering due to a terminal illness.  What have I just done?  I have attempted to gain some level of authority on a subject strictly on the bases of an anecdotal experience I have had.  The problem here isn’t that I tied my personal experience into my argument, rather it’s that I am attempting to assert my rightness on the topic over my opponent strictly on account of having had this personal experience.  A line of reasoning that often goes completely unchallenged, even by the person in the discussion who is being silenced by this appeal to self-authority.  However, reasonably speaking, I would argue that having a personal experience makes one less likely to objectively examine a topic, on account that that you have a greater emotional investment in the outcome of the issue; in other words, it’s harder to be objective when you are the subject.

Again, please do not misunderstand me.  I am not objecting to people using their subjective experiences to motivate their engagement of any particular topic.  Nor do I object to referencing one’s personal experiences to add context to an issue being discussed.  The problem is the presupposition many of us accept that because I may have had a personal experience, and you have not, I am inherently more likely to be right on the topic, and have to shut up and listen to my great “anecdotal” wisdom.  This is wrong, in my view.  It’s not just wrong, it’s absurd.  Yes, experience adds perspective.  But it does not bestow infallibility.  If this were true, then only those who have gone to war should be allowed to comment on war; only those who are involved in the political process should be allowed to comment on politics; only those who have committed a crime (or have had a crime committed against them) should be allowed to comment on crimes; etc, etc, etc.

Personally, my experience is that it’s rarely the case that any one person is completely right on any one issue (though, at times, it does happen–depending on the issue).  If you happen to be more informed (thereby, more right) than the arguments you present in favor of your position will be apparent to the casual observers, without needing to pull on their heartstrings.  To attempt to persuade/silence another person by appealing to your own authority is not just wrong, but a potential discredit to the very position you are championing.  But that’s just my subjective objection on the matter.

Advertisements

Electoral Amnesia

Politically Active Citizen A:  “You know, I’m sick and tired of all these politicians just lying to us to get elected.  And then when they get into office they completely ignore the campaign promises they made.  The whole political establishment seems to be set up against the interest of the common citizen.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “Totally, no matter where you stand on politics, we can all agree that the politicians we have in charge now are awful at serving the interests of the people.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “I agree.  Something must be done to bring about true reform in the political system, to let these politicians know we don’t approve of what they’re doing to our country.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “The problem is that people aren’t doing their part as responsible citizens.  Last election cycle I led a petition that registered millions of new voters to take part in the political process.  I figured that the real problem was apathy on the part of the citizens, and if more people go out to vote political corruption would be eliminated or lessened…somehow.  So we all voted in record numbers, but it didn’t really bring about any vital reform in the government.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “That’s very discouraging.  Maybe this year will be different.”

Politically Active Citizen B:  “It will be, as long as even more people vote.  The only way to defeat a corrupt government is for people to fervently partake in the very process that continuous to validate its existence.”

Politically Active Citizen A: “I’ll start an online petition through Facebook immediately.  I just need a catchy name and logo–maybe a chant or two–this will show them we’re serious.”

My Rendered Counsel 

I have two basic sets of questions to the politically active:

1.  If all these politicians are indifferent about passing legislation to serve the interests of all of you who are already active in voicing your grievances with the government (the people whose political participation they depend on for their continued employment), how exactly will adding more voters (with varying degrees of understanding of political issues) into the mix help reform the situation?  What’s to guarantee that the addition of more average citizens will not be equally ignored in a political process where the size of a contributor’s financial donations ensure greater attention from prospective policymakers?  Also, within a larger group of people, the emergence of dissenting opinions is almost always a given.  So, how will you prevent people from being swayed to vote against their own interest (i.e. your interest) by these sneaky politicians?  Moreover, how do you know you aren’t one of those people yourself?

2.  As hinted in number 1, in a democratic system, the political establishment is sanctioned by citizen participation (in theory).  If people are voting (and, yes, the electors in the electoral college count as legitimate representatives of the people under current law), and the candidate with the most votes wins, then the political order is validated by virtue of the popularly agreed upon system.  So, if you agree with this fundamental aspect of the system, and you have hope in the positive efficacy of this system–and going by the fact that you actively partake in the process that sustains the system (i.e. voting), and encourage others to do so as well–in what way have you not, at least passively, consented to the workings of the current political establishment?  To put it more cryptically, if you disapprove of the game, why are you still playing along with the rules?

My honest goal here is not to discourage people from voting.  (What sort of silly goal would that be?)  My intent is to let those of you who have a tendency to get overly enthusiastic about your political participation understand that the reasons your non-active cohabitants in this country choose to abstain from the election process altogether are, at times, a bit deeper than the convenient apathy/ignorance explanation some of you are eager to attribute to them.  And if you truly want to persuade them to see (what you believe to be) the error of their ways, you might want to avoid sounding preachy about your own convictions.  Because to the unconverted, any preacher’s words will be about as convincing to listen to as static noise.  Just some food for thought, for the next time some political activist wants to put his or her self-righteous flyer in my hands without warning.

The Canard of Potential

It often seems that there are some people who no matter how hard their life gets, no matter how much they are repeatedly exploited by the entities that surround them, never fail to keep moving forward through their suffering and humiliation; focusing on nothing else but a private conviction that somehow future circumstances will provide the means by which they will escape their lowly situation.

It is popularly referred to as a testament to the resilience of the human spirit to always advance forward against the hostile odds of life.  And many individuals proudly carry the torments of their life’s struggles as badges of honor.  However, despite the endless amount of cheer and hoot about how such determination is always deserving of the utmost praise from all factors of society, it can’t go without notice that those who cheer and hoot the loudest about the great virtuousness of the lowly man are almost always those who stand well above his “noble” rank.  To put it in another way: it seems very strange to me how it’s those who wield the most power and influence, in (at least) the public sphere of the sociopolitical scene, who are the most vocal about their sympathies for all those in society who are by default the most powerless.  I would think that if the status of the impoverished and voiceless was so admirable to the socially affluent, the latter would be doing more to bring themselves to the former’s virtuous level.

The rhetoric of elected officials is easy to understand in this matter; they need to get elected, to get elected they need votes from the electorate, the people are the electorate, hence the politician will praise the virtue of the common people from dawn ’till dusk (except those people who lie outside of his/her political base of course , they can thoroughly go to hell for all anyone cares).  But it isn’t just politicians who follow this “virtue of the lowly” narrative, it is just about every information source operating.  And the one thing that is constantly being reiterated is how those who may be at the bottom now need not worry, because as long as they work, and sweat, and struggle, they will eventually have the opportunity to escape their status–they have potential.  They have the potential to do better, to become more, to achieve something, to be masters of their own destiny.  And those for whom the message is meant to resonate with the most, those who wish for more in life because they honestly do not possess the means by which to live comfortably, will embrace the validity of their yet untapped potential.  “I may be at the bottom now, but eventually I will get my due,” is the popular sentiment of the potential-laden man.

About a century and a half ago, when the southern portion of the United States briefly seceded from the Union in order to form the Confederate States of America, many (if not most) of the white residents living in the new territory gladly signed up to fight for the cause of the Confederacy against those pesky Yankees.  What was the cause?–The right to own and keep the country’s black population as slaves.  At this point I’m imagining a crowd of my southerners screaming in anger, “No!  No!  No!  It was not about slavery, it was all about state sovereignty.  They were fighting against the intruding Federal government, trying to control the South’s economy and way of life.”  Indeed, they were fighting for state sovereignty and states rights.  Unfortunately, the primary right our southern states wanted to retain full sovereignty over was the right to keep black people as property, hence it is fair to say that the economic system they wanted to protect was one that rested on the enslavement of other human beings.  (Which is why every one of the individual Confederate State constitutions explicitly mention the right to retain slavery as a valid form of commerce.)  However, it needs to be remembered that a great deal of the fighting population of the Confederate Army were non-slave owning white men, who were too impoverished to ever be able to set foot in the hallowed farming grounds of the pseudo-aristocratic plantation owner who benefited most from the South’s peculiar institution.

Which ought to leave one wondering, why did so many men readily die for a system that offered them no direct benefits?  The simple answer is that our forebears were racist fools, who no matter how illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and economically broken they were kept by the system they so cherished, they could not let go of the deluded idea that all of these negatives were unimportant as long as they could lay claim to the coveted price of being called white.  For as long as they had that, they still had potential for more.  The fact that this potential had no chance of being realized, that by all accounts they–and their direct descendents–have always and will always die just as illiterate, unwashed, ignorant, and broken as they had lived, makes no difference in the great scheme of such a mindset.  Because the power of potential is not to lift one’s physical self from the obstacles in one’s depressing environment, but to lift one’s spirit and numb the physical body from the pangs of life’s depressing obstacles–that is to say, it holds no real powers at all.

The individual’s hope in her/his potential is the greatest placebo a mind can fall prey to.  Rather than motivating a person to reach higher, and strive for better, it makes her/him content with the lowly position s/he is inhabiting now, on the indolent basis that “my time will come eventually, after all, I have the potential to do better.”  It makes one cope with personal setbacks and failures, and even nourishes a certain level of pride in both, spiritually feeding on the mock appreciation heralded at the paupers’ “noble suffering” by the physically well-fed princes.  All the while life goes by, as we sit back daydreaming about alternate existences we could have pursued but didn’t, and never will.  If I could think of one sentiment to erase out of the human consciousness it would be our liege to the hope of potential.

Technology and Human Dependency

It is at times said–by people eager to have things to say–that modern society is too dependent on technology.  Personally, I consider this to be a prime example of a nonsensical statement.  For what is modern society, but its technological advancements?  The progress of technology is the characteristic by which we define modern society from archaic civilizations.  So, how on earth does it make sense to speak as if our priced modernity could have existed independent of our technological dependency?

A more pointed (and coherent) question would be to ask, has the technology we depend on to function in modern society surpassed our intellectual comprehension of it?  The answer to that is undoubtedly, yes.  In the past, technological machinery was simple (i.e. wheelbarrow, pulley crane, water wheel, etc.), and easily replicable by the common observer.  Today, the technology we use on a daily basis is well beyond our comprehension.  How exactly does the wi-fi on my laptop work in correlation to my internet service? Hell, if I know.  I just know how to log on to my screen name, and let the machine do the work from there.  I’ll be damned if I was ever asked to replicate the phenomenon from scratch, even if I was given an unlimited amount of resources to do it with.  Same goes for my cell phone, and various other appliances I depend on to function in modern society.  I understand there are individuals who actually do understand all of the basic components, and indeed can create the whole machinery from naught, but that doesn’t change the fact that the population at large cannot.  Most of us simply push button on/off on appliance XYZ, and don’t give the rest of it much thought.  Not necessarily because we’re too lazy to look up each individual component that goes into creating the machinery, but because the knowledge that goes into it is too far out of our intellectual depth for us to ever be able to truly grasp it.

Although technology is guaranteed to become even more complex as it progresses, human intelligence (as a collective) may very likely remain unchanged due to there being no real environmental pressure for us to understand the mechanism behind a piece of technology, beyond its practical utility to serve our needs.  So, what are we to make of this?  I can see both negative and positive points people might raise, but none of that really matters to me.  All I know is that humanity is at a developmental point where to speak of social modernity, absent of technological dependency, is an impossibility.  If human society continues to progress, so will technology, and both will do so entirely with complete dependence on the other.

Utopia is Dead!

Utopia once stood as an ideal place that mankind ought to strive to bring about, as a means to elevate and enhance the human experience for all members of our species.  Where it once entailed a spirit of optimism and hope, utopian now stands as a pejorative term against those we see as possessing an irredeemable naivete about life.

“Fool, can’t you see that life is cruel.  What business do you have talking about improving conditions to an ideal state.  How dense do you have to be to think that any such state is even attainable?  The nature of man doesn’t allow for such things.”

I, like most of us, can sympathize with the negativity leveled against the utopians.  But the real issue I’m discussing here is that any such critique is equivalent to chasing shadows in a dark room, devoid of light.  Because utopia, as an ideal, does not exist anymore–utopians do not exist anymore.  There are individuals who wish to improve matters in society, who want to challenge authority, but nowhere can you find someone defending the feasibility of creating a real-life utopia.  Our ambitions have been humbled to reject such grand visions.  Reality forbids us from even entertaining such fanciful projects.

We have cast our ballots, and the verdict is in.  The ideal of utopia is too infantile for our sophisticated sentiments, and mutual contention will be our new ideal, adequacy our new state.

John Locke’s Call for the Dissolution of Bad Government, Through Strictly Lawful Means

Part One: Analysis

John Locke’s “Second Treatise of Government”, in his Two Treatises of Government, makes a clear point that the people of a commonwealth grant authority to their governing body, and thereby have an inherent right to bring about the dissolution of that body, if it violates the principles upon which it was initially established.  But Locke goes further than to simply condone the overthrow of a bad government.  He examines and rationalizes the tenets and limits to authority of government; what sort of situations would constitute a government that has overstepped the authority designated to it.  And concludes how it is by peaceful, legislative means that the people who constitute the society being governed can dissolve the governing body, which has become alien to their will and interests.

Locke’s view of governing authority is that it should serve the will of the people that make up the commonwealth, because they are the ones who grant legislative authority in exchange for security and protection.  This is stated in Chapter 9, paragraph 131, “And so whosoever has the legislative or supreme power of a commonwealth, is bound to govern by establishing standing laws, promulgated and known to the people / to be directed to no other end, but the peace, safety, and public good of the people.”  Furthermore, since legislative authority ultimately resides with the will of the people, the dissolution of such authority is subsequently reserved by the people as well.

Locke makes a distinction though between the dissolution of government and dissolution of society (TT.II.211).  In regard to the dissolution of society, the union can only be disrupted through the conquest of a foreign force, thus if a government is dissolved, the society it governs can continue to exist and authorize a new legislature.  The dissolution of the government is different however, in that the legislative powers, who have been granted authority to make laws for the good of the people, are themselves subject to the laws they have made (TT.II.143).  Since the governing body is dependent on the people’s will, it can only function as long as the commonwealth of people sees fit to maintain it.  If the actions of the government are counter to the will, or good, of the people, then it is also counter to the laws by which it itself is bound, and thus can be dissolved by the society that has empowered it, because it no longer upholds the interest of the commonwealth (TT.II.202).

On the issue of altering legislation, Locke equates the act similarly to a foreign conquest, which in itself is, “as far from setting up any government, as demolishing a house is from building a new one in the place” (TT.II.175).  And generally dismisses belligerent disobedience against the laws of government, either by ruler or subject, as vile and criminally despicable (TT.II.230).  As far as Locke is concerned the only legitimate law is one that derives from the consent of the people; if a law does not derive from, or stands in opposition to, the original framework consented by the people of the commonwealth, it is a breach in contract and the authority bestowed upon the guilty party is automatically invalid:

By this breach of trust they forfeit the power, the people had put into their hands, for quite contrary ends, and it devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty, and, by the establishment of a new legislative (such as they shall think fit) provided for their own safety and security, which is the end for which they are in society (TT.II.222).

The function of the government is to serve as a representative to the interest of the commonwealth.  If the government chooses to behave in a self-serving arbitrary manner, neglecting the good of the people, it is breaking the principles upon which it was founded.  The people have a fundamental right to oppose any force that is contrary and harmful to the principles that they have agreed to build their commonwealth on, and if that force happens to be reflected in the actions of their current government, then the government can be opposed by its subjects since that government has ceased to be their government.  Although, this might seem like a defense for revolutionaries, Locke also notes how this revelation does not invite the incessant dissolution of one government for another, because, “People are not so easily got out of their old forms, as some are apt to suggest” (TT.II.223).  He uses Britain as an example, where even through countless government scandals, administrative corruptions, and calls for revolution, the monarchial system of king, lords, commons, has yet to be replaced.

How then can a people, by Locke’s doctrine, rebel against a government that no longer serves their interest?  Not by force, because, as already stated, a violent strike against an existing legislature will produce effects similarly to foreign conquest (TT.II.218).  That is to say, the resulting structure will be rendered as invalid on the grounds that whatever new institution is erected in place of the old is not compatible with the original foundation consented to by the commonwealth.  In truth, Locke views this doctrine, where power is authorized by the people who alone hold the right to dissolve a legislature that is not protecting their property and providing their safety, or is acting in any way contrary to their trust, as the ultimate barrier against rebellion (TT.II.226).  If the people see fit to dissolve the government, because the legislators have altered laws that have been agreed upon by the people, it is the legislators who are the dissenters by rebelling against the government that has been authorized by the people, who alone are the authority on what is to be their society’s ways of governance:

When they, who were set up for the protection, and preservation of the people, their liberties and properties, shall by force invade, and endeavor to take them away; and so they putting themselves into a state of war with those, who made them the protectors and guardians of their peace, are properly, and with the greatest aggravation, rebellantes rebels (TT.II.227).

The people do not need to rebel, because once the actions of the government no longer represent the will of the commonwealth, the people who make up the commonwealth have no obligation to remain subjects of what has now become a de facto foreign power to them.  And if violence does occur when a people consciously rise against a corrupt legislature, the fault cannot lie with the honest man who is trying to preserve his rights and the rights on which his society was formed, but will always fall on the conscience of the invading force, invading his rights and the rights of his neighbors (TT.II.228).

John Locke’s treatise is a proclamation for majority governance, where ruling authority rests with the commonwealth, the people, who have the rights to determine what is best for their society.  As it is their right to establish, for their own good, whichever sort of government they see fit; it is also inherit in their authority to be able to dissolve an existing legislature, when it no longer serves their good, as they are not obligated to be subjects of a government whose priorities are not representative of their own.

Part Two: Critique

As already mentioned, Locke pronounces that the people of the commonwealth grant authority to the legislature and thereby reserve the right to determine whether or not it is legitimate, and if deemed illegitimate by the commonwealth, the governing body relinquishes its legislative powers back to the people who can then install a new sovereign to represent their interests.  All of this sounds sensible, but Locke also mentions that, “acting for the preservation of the community, there can be but one supreme power, which is the legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate” (TT.II.149).  This seems to be an implicit contradiction to his appeal for majority governance, in which it is the people who are the sovereigns of the land, and the legislative is an institution through which they protect and preserve their rights.  Locke goes on to say, reconcilably, that, “the legislative being only a fiduciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust repose them” (TT.II.149).  This statement appears to have been made by Locke in order to smooth out the discrepancy of his earlier statement and keep his proposed form of government consistent with democratic theory, but despite this attempt the sentence is still a non sequitur.

If Locke wants to identify the legislative body as the supreme power in the commonwealth, then its authority cannot be limited by the people of the commonwealth, because once a power is limited then by definition it is no longer supreme.  Perhaps, Locke meant that the people authorize the legislative with supreme power to institute laws favorable to the general good of the commonwealth, while the commonwealth still retains a certain trait of supreme power giving it the ability to pass judgment over the governing body: a separation of powers.  However, this is still unsatisfactory and only works if one is willing to be charitable to Locke, who did not bother to define his reasoning or assessment of how or why both the people and the legislator can hold supreme power in the commonwealth and in certain passages seems to refute any such claim:

In all cases, whilst the government subsists, the legislative is the supreme power.  For what can give laws to another, must needs be superior to him: and since the legislative is no otherwise legislative of the society, but by the right it has to make laws for all the parts and for every member of the society / and all other powers in any members or parts of the society, derived from and subordinate to it (TT.II.150).

Even if we are charitable towards Locke in this one statement, the fact still remains that the rest of his treatise treats the legislative authority as subordinate to the will of the commonwealth, which is composed of the interests of the people.  His occasional divergence from this point, rather than strengthening his argument, renders it moot.

This also causes a fundamental problem to arise when one looks at Locke’s views on how the people retain a basic right to dissolve the government that they have authorized to begin with.  When you have the ability to depose of an entity, then you do in fact hold some sort of dominion over that entity, making it subordinate to you.  A point Locke himself might reject according to the above quote, but a Lockean would have to accept if he or she follows Locke’s reasoning throughout the treatise.

Locke explicitly states that when a government is destroyed the commonwealth remains in full form (TT.II.211), meaning that supreme power cannot be equally shared between the two (separate or otherwise); for if the roles were balanced, then it would also be true that the government can theoretically dissolve the people just as readily as the people can dissolve the government.  But this is not true, because the people hold ultimate authority on how the government behaves/exists.  The relationship between the two is one in which the legislative body cannot act on its own will (such as deciding to destroy the commonwealth), because that will is dependent on the will of the people, going so far as to be composed solely of the will of the people (TT.II.142).

Locke creates a similar problem when he mentions that the legislative is what combines the commonwealth into one coherent living body, “This is the soul that gives form, life, and unity to the commonwealth: from hence the several members have their mutual influence, sympathy, and connection: and therefore when the legislative is broken, or dissolved, dissolution and death follow” (TT.II.212).  Here, it is implied that as the product of the society’s communal interest, the legislative is the representation (or soul, if one was keen on a more metaphorical prose) of the society’s will.  It is the uniting agent by which the commonwealth expresses its founding principles, operating as a physical embodiment to exercise the people’s collective will, and were it destroyed the resulting conclusion would be the removal of the commonwealths ability to physically exercise that will.

To Locke’s political theory of majority governance, this is disastrous, and the Lockean responds would be swift to counter the reasoning with the following:  First, one could argue that the statement made was Locke’s way of assessing all possible scenarios of the dissolution of government.  Rather than conceding that the destruction of the legislative body leaves the commonwealth without the ability to exercise their will, Locke was applying deductive reasoning to the situation.  This is supported by how in subsequent paragraphs Locke truly does explore varies alternative forms of existing and dissolving governments, the possible approaches that can be taken when they are no longer in line with the people’s will, and what results from each possible approach.  The second defense would be that since Locke ultimately concludes that, “the people have a right to act supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves, or erect a new form, or under the old form place it in new hands, as they think good” (TT.II.243).  Thereby, the will of the commonwealth is not entirely tied in with the existence of legislative and the intermediary scenarios are irrelevant to Locke’s ability to reach his wanted outcome; the defense of majority governance.  Now, as fervent as such defenses may be, they do little but try to redirect from the issue at hand.  If it can be supposed that as the representative entity of the commonwealth’s will, the legislative is a needed component in order for that will to be organized in a coherent way, then it goes to show that Locke’s insistence on the readily manner by which the commonwealth can dissolve a governing body is not universally applicable in theory or practice.

The Lockean dismissal of the major faults with Locke’s theory as irrelevant due to its focus on the semantics of Locke’s premises, rather than his conclusions, reveals a great deal about the flaws of John Locke’s argument as a whole.  It is in the ways a philosopher constructs his argument that deems it coherent or not.  Locke’s final conclusion in the Two Treatise of Government, of a governing body that is authorized by the people for its own interest and protection, and who retain the right to judge, mediate, and dissolve said legislative once it no longer serves the will of the people, is an idea that resonance favorably with the masses; not to mention an idea that was quite radical in Locke’s time of monarchial governance.  Nevertheless, as shown here, the manner by which Locke constructs his premises is far from consistent, and nowhere near as articulate as he indeed could have made it.  He sets out to defend the core part of his theory, the need for a limited government preceded in authority by the will of the people of the commonwealth, and fails by breaking from this premise and designating both parties (government and commonwealth) separate but equally supreme in authority (actually maintaining that it is the legislative that is the supreme power, though somehow still limited in authority).  Only to falter again by concluding that it is really the legislative that is dependent on the will of the commonwealth after all, despite stating that this will is correlated to the existence of the legislative.

Bibliography

Locke, John.  1993.  “Second Treatise of Government,” Two Treatises of Government, ed. Mark Goldie.  Churchill College, Cambridge:  Everyman.

The Need to Resist Institutionalized Fear

Fear is an involuntary reaction to a specific situation, and can often be an indispensable survival mechanism to an organism.  Even if the fear itself yields an irrational response, such as being afraid of heights when standing only two feet above the ground, the fact remains that being afraid of heights (in general) is not an unreasonable mindset to hold (seeing as how the avoidance of great heights altogether will also reduce the occurrence of great falls, and the possible injury or death that may result from them).  The nature of these sort of fears are perfectly sensible when reduced to their core impulses; however, our tendency to allow for our fears to be overgeneralized to more situations than can be rationally justified, is anything but.

The strive for safety is a consequent in the greater pursuit of peace of mind; a goal that is largely unattainable in a modern society, due to the sheer number of unknowns (whether people or places) most of us are forced to interact with to make a living.  As an example, in the course of the past 1,825 days (that’s five years total), I have been mugged walking home in my neighborhood twice.  Now, 2 days of life-threatening fear (of which only a few moments in either of those days are even relevant in this discussion) compared to 1,823 days of mostly undisturbed solace (at least as far as not being robbed at gunpoint goes) is a danger-ratio that should be called too statistically negligible to even warrant a concern.  Knowing this does absolutely nothing to ease my mind when it comes to taking the extra precautions to reduce the chance of such an event happening for a third time.  The reason for this is that we–as a people and as a society–are much more likely to shape our lives around our bad experiences than the good ones, because the bad experiences hold more risk to harm the delicate nature of the personal ecosystems we nurture around ourselves.  And the primary goal of each person’s instinct in this topic is to keep the conditions of her/his ecosystems as controlled and predictable as comfort allows.

On an individual level, this is an understandable development, and as I said before can serve to inform and protect a person when dealing with any future dangers that might come up in her/his life.  However, when dealing on a broader societal scope, our collective sensitivity to (more often than not) respond to dire events with impulsive fear creates something more dangerous than personal panic or an awareness for greater precaution–it creates an unwarranted paranoia, where patterns are concocted to explain a relatively rare phenomenon as compensation for our collected feeling of helplessness in averting a tragic situation.

Very, very bad things happen; very, very bad things will continue to happen; a decent probability exists that very, very bad things will occasionally happen to you.  Yet, a higher likelihood exists that, if you live in the industrial world, the vast majority of your life will not consist of such bad experiences (more than likely, your life be mostly made up of danger-neutral events).  And an even higher likelihood exists that you will ignore this simple fact whenever the next attack, disaster, tragedy, or chaotic event makes the national news.  Moreover, an even, even higher likelihood exists that you will misconstrue my words here as an indefensible call for irresponsible inaction in the face of danger, rather than a warning not to allow institutionalized fear to dictate the means by which we evaluate the world and the people around us.

The reason I care about this topic is that fear–socially appropriated fear touted out as a response to a heinous/disastrous event–is the default tactic used by authorities to endear themselves to a person’s desire for safety to cement their own political interests, while effectively silencing any reasonable opposition or nuance that may be raised to question the merit of these interests.

Fear is the means by which we assess the observable threat in our surroundings to help us avoid suffering and/or death.  Despite the fact that the existence of fear (as a bodily/psychological response) appears to be largely innate, it is also undeniable that many of the specific fears of particular things we have are learned through experience in our interactions with the external world.  My position is that in our pursuit for greater safety, for us as individuals, as well as society at large–especially in the face of tragic events–we don’t make the mistake of adopting fear as the guiding principle from which we argue for social and personal improvement.  Instead, I’d argue that sincere introspection and critical self (and social) scrutiny would make for a more productive means by which to deal with the more frightening facets of social life, and never to forget how, despite their hold on our consciousness, these facets are far almost always less prominent and less absolute than our fears would have us believe.  But that’s just my two cents.