Good vs. Evil vs. Enlightenment
The struggle to know what’s right from wrong, in a world setting you up to hate someone instead.
People are funny, on the one hand, they are capable of great analytical thought, on the other hand, they are predisposed to making snap judgments. And this is almost assuredly because of nature, or more precisely, sharing an ecosystem with dangerous inhabitants.
In most cases, making quick decisions is a boon. When confronted with a raging moose, or a landslide, we don’t want to think too deeply about our relationship with the danger, we just need an exit strategy. Being slow might get us killed. So we can rightly assume, that in some cases, we need a kind of critical path thinking, where we can bypass the non-essential parts of our brain, all in the name of speed.
Our critical path thinking stops us admiring the truck careening towards us while driving, and allows us to take evasive action, before it’s too late. This detail focus, the truck coming to squash us in this example, that takes precedence over anything else. However, many people chose to focus on details, or minutiae, in every situation; this is called detail oriented or small picture thinking.
Contrast that to philosophy, where we spend years pondering questions, often never reaching a conclusion. We can take our time with these ones, there’s no deadline. Failing to understand why someone develops a latex fetish won’t lead to personal injury. The large majority of these kinds of ideas evolve, they evolve from other ideas, they evolve with inspiration, they evolve with our emotional state. These things often can’t be forced; some even need intense discipline.
Philosophy is big picture thinking, this is how we went from believing indentured servitude is chic, to finding voluntary forms of slavery. It wasn’t an individual slave having a cruel master, that’s not what shaped the dialogue, but rather that the whole idea is cruel. We didn’t stop to calculate how many happy slaves there were, or which masters gave back rubs, because the very act of slavery encouraged abuse.
Interestingly, being sad or hurt makes us more inclined to question our assumptions, which suggests that we shouldn’t try so hard to protect ourselves from emotional hurt. Remember that next time you try to comfort someone in their misery. It’s a natural part of re-evaluating what got us to that point. Unlike the pharmaceutical industry would have you believe.
So if people are mentally lazy, and generally contented, they won’t engage their big picture mode.
In the west, people are largely free of danger, people have a lot of free time to play, and relax. Naturally you would think this is the ideal environment for fostering big thinking. Ideal for discussing the audibility of collapsing trees in a forest, on a cloudless night, around a campfire, but it isn’t, the television has seen to that.
We are constantly being emphasized the importance of thinking about ourselves, and how to change our appearance, or change our social standing. There are thousands of glossy pages printed every day, specifically to make you feel inferior, and to purchase the new (and improved) solution! The TV belts out hysterical voices telling you to be afraid, doesn’t matter why, just be afraid, only then will you be safe. The newspapers tell you how many people died that day, just to remind you how awful the world really is, and that salvation is a capsule of refined chemicals away.
The talk shows are constantly suggesting that the viewer should be enraged over the topic of the day, nevermind that no one fixed yesterday’s problems, we have new ones to to be incensed about! The scaremongering conservative media tells you not to trust the evil liberal media, the free press tells you not to trust the conservative ideology, all very confusing. You could totally forget, that you live in a nice house, you eat well, and have little chance of dying, right? The end result is that many are convinced that philosophy is just intellectual masturbation, and that the important stuff is right under their nose.
In fact, there are countless shows on the cable networks, that deride anyone for thinking too deeply about social issues. They would prefer you focus on what’s being taken from you, in the name of social policy. Such as when the topic of taxes comes up. Most people feel like the government is siphoning their hard earned money, to pay for someone else’s children, or worse still, some immigrant’s children. Even though the government is giving away nearly a trillion dollars of taxes to track space junk.
It makes people very antagonistic, it makes people not want to share.
Do you remember, when was the last time that America wasn’t at war, invading, or bombing, at least one other country? I don’t. Whatever the date was, it doesn’t matter anyway. Every empire needs an enemy, real or imaginary, to justify hoarding the powers they do, to justify the military spending, to justify keeping you "safe"… at gunpoint.
Political leaders know that dissent is catchy, ideas are catchy. They also know that humans look to their peers for acceptance, this is why advertizing with famous sports heroes is so effective, we are more open to believing or supporting what our friends and allies do. That makes suppressing dissent critical, as long as it’s isolated enough, it won’t gain traction.
One of the best ways to suppress free speech, and thereby keep the majority of people supporting their government, is to sweep it’s actions under the guise of patriotism. The idea that you don’t, or can’t, question your government over it’s actions, or you are branded unpatriotic, trains you not to raise your voice in protest. There hasn’t been a real revolt against government policy in America for decades, yet you only need to watch the news to see they are regular occurances in other countries.
However, the most insidious way of keeping a tight grip on power over a population is nurturing ignorance. The less perspectives a person is exposed to, the more they believe their own, especially if the few others they are exposed to are radically different. So instead of knowing what motivates other people, what dreams they have, what they want out of life, you hear only about what makes them too different to sympathize with. You can’t hate your enemy if you know them, and you see they are just like you.
So we are fed stories, we are told how evil they are, they kill babies in their incubators dontcha know, or they kidnapped 3 people, or they were adults that could potentially hold guns, and eventually we stop fighting it.
We label them barbaric and EVIL, while we are the civilized GOOD in the world.
The Catholic church, along with many of the other major religious groups, and theocratic leaderships have been using these tactics for centuries. At one point, the Catholic church even realized it was inefficient trying to convince ignorant people to fight for them, and formed their own hit squad, the Spanish Inquisition.
Although the idea of good and evil predates them, they just perfected it as a means of including or excluding people, as a way of directing our fury towards their enemies. We are not meant to take a nuanced view of others, that’s the key to it’s success. When someone does a bad thing, we can forgive them, we do bad things too, but when they are labelled evil, we stop with that sympathy nonsense. Conversely, we stop questioning the actions of the good.
It sounds so simple, so obvious, but it’s an idea most people fall for, not just because they grew up hearing Bible stories. It just seems so self-evident. When a remorseful man, kills another man out of necessity, he must be a swell guy, but if he kills two men, for no discernible reason, and shows no remorse, that’s downright evil!
Except there’s a problem. People are not black and white, they are all pink on the inside, they are all relatively squishy sacks of fluid, and they all bleed red. Our actions can’t be viewed as black and white either, at least not without being willfully ignorant. People can do extraordinary things when pushed to their limits; a pacifist may kill their captor, a squeamish person will eat insects to survive, a weak person will brave freezing waters to save their dog from drowning.
If a lynch mob hangs a serial killer, was that an act of good, or was it murder without trial? Is a multiple sex-offender in counseling more evil than a man stealing the life savings of millions of people? Tough questions from afar, they’d be much more self-evident if you were the victim, but that’s small picture thinking.
What if an act of cruelty leads to a greater good? This is a theme we often hear from doctors. So when we hear a story about our personal discomfort being necessary for the greater good from a Defense Secretary, we aren’t so fearful of it. We hear how our rights to privacy, our freedom to congregate, and our ability to discuss freely without worry of retribution all must be compromised in the name of the greater good. We hear how this will keep us safe. We hear this is the only way to get those evil-doers. What if the cure is worse than the disease?
How then do we decide what action was truly good, or evil, or none of the above?
If we use raw emotion to decide guilt, that wouldn’t work in a case where the crime is systemic, where a great injustice involved many actors, many of which were clueless of the effect of their actions. Surely the chairman of the Federal Reserve doesn’t feel personally guilty, that Mary in Chicago can’t work an honest job, and pay for daycare simultaneously. Besides, many of the worst human beings were charming sociopaths.
If we go by statistics alone, America would be classified as a greater sponsor of terrorism than Saudi Arabia, which itself would be far higher on the list than Afghanistan ever was; Palestine wouldn’t even register. How can the land of the free, the ones with a robust legal system, the ones who elect figureheads instead of dictators, be so much more dangerous than the rest of the world? President Obama, the nice guy that he is, has authorized bombings in 8 countries, while Saddam Hussein, the madman, only attacked 3, the most deadly of which had America’s backing. Makes the crying over Russians arming eastern Ukraine a bit hollow doesn’t it?
Rationally, there’s no way to justify killing a thousand bystanders, when you wanted to kill 41 terrorist leaders, but that’s happening in the middle east right now. Yet, there’s hardly any social commentary from the western media, pundits, or even leaders about the injustice of it, after all, they are evil. You don’t even know who they were, just that they were so ungrateful for your freedom bombs! Whereas the increasing number of shootings of unarmed civilians is leading to riots. These black men weren’t necessarily beautiful human beings, they were even smeared in the media by the police, deliberately, to make them seem just a little evil. It only failed to have the desired effect, because it was a half-hearted attempt.
And sometimes, the brainwashing has side effects, the same fear and loathing can turn against the architect.
What if we all imagined ourselves, just like everyone else? Not better than everyone, not special, not more civilized, not more progressive, just different. Some people wearing ceremonial hats, others wearing fashionable scarfs. And what if after imagining that, we took a good look at how we are really similar? What would we see?
We would see families, organized into similar groups, generally with a man as the head of the household, but with a woman keeping order within the household. We would see children, ones just like us, when we were children, ones who play silly games, with vivid imaginations. We would see personal tragedies, loved ones lost to disease or accidents, but also inspiring events, like communities coming together to help rescue strangers trapped in rubble. We would see people love, and hate. We would see they want a better life for their children. We might even see them wish there was world peace.
Perhaps there’s even a glimmer of hope in really understanding other cultures, and other points of view as it relates to values; big thinking. Maybe what’s lost in the discussion isn’t even about the cultural differences, but the possibility that our common values are more true than the cultural values we cling so dearly to. That if you, or I, or they disagree, neither of us is correct, but that if we all agree, we are all inherently correct. That we are united as a people, not as divided as political or social structures would have us believe.
This is why militaristic empires are so afraid of big picture thinking, you might wake up one day, and realize they are your enemy.