Are we better than this?

The honest answer is “no.” What we’ve seen this past week is part of who we are: complicated, confused, misinformed and violent. Of all of these, by far the most significant is complicated; it’s not possible to reduce human thought and behavior to a simple formula, particularly in a democracy.

The inclination of our scientific age is to formulate behavior and reduce its constituent parts to defined and predictable qualities, but human complexity makes such efforts futile. The closest we get is through statistics, establishing data sets for groups of people – or for that matter, mobs – and determining numerical values in relationship to a mean. In this way, we attempt to document humanity’s shift from nature to culture and define what constitutes acceptable behavioral norms.

There’s also the complexity of the personal versus the collective, “I” versus “us.” Who I think I am does not pertain to anyone but me, and what’s understood as “us” is an abstraction; “us” is a fluid, non-specific entity of statistics and imagination. Now some might say that a real “us” invaded our national capitol, and that’s correct; but that “us” was comprised of many “I”s. Violent things can happen when angry “I”s form a mob.

Each of us objectively exist in our own discontinuous, subjective world. When someone we know dies, that person and their subjective world disappear, but the world we each subjectively experience as real continues; we call this continuity “objective reality” and collectively attempt to agree on what it means. Accordingly, laws, traditions, and social conventions mediate between our subjective and objective worlds, but each person may choose to accept or reject them. This brings us to the concept of the ideal.

The ideal exists in purely imaginary space as a collection of ideas. We have attempted to discern and describe the ideal; our Bill of Rights is such an attempt to define what constitutes a good society. It, like all ideals, is an aspiration, as are the Ten Commandments. Such ideals do not describe who we are, rather, they describe what we could or should be – how to be better. This brings us back to complicated, confused, misinformed and violent.

Solving our behavioral problems, it’s advised, is a matter of proper education. This is the approach taken by the totalitarian regime of Communist China, which has placed millions in “reeducation camps.” American’s, however, can pick and choose what to think and believe, influencing their actions and behavior. Historically, the description of America’s objective reality was fairly uniform, if not entirely accurate. We’ve variously branded America as “the land of opportunity,” “a great melting pot,” and a “bastion of freedom.” True for some but certainly not for all.

Today, the complexities of American history are more visible; they were always there but were not part of acceptable mainstream thought. As Ibram X. Kendi points out in his history of American racism, Stamped from the Beginning, black Americans experience an entirely different objective reality than white Americans. For some whites, the ideal means that black Americans are inferior, that might makes right, and that Democrats are dangerous socialists. 

“Those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature,” wrote Georges Bataille. Society is as complicated as human beings are. Creating a good society is not simply a matter of being better or worse; it’s a matter of admitting the truth and working with it.

2 thoughts on “Are we better than this?

  1. “it’s not possible to reduce human thought and behavior to a simple formula”

    how about “cogito, ergo sum”?

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