Monday, July 03, 2006

Cockeyed Optimist

I’ve been hearing a lot of comments lately about the terrible state of The World Today. Every day, people are being murdered, children are going hungry, wars are smoldering, the environment is being ravaged. It looks like the human race is intent on going completely down the drain. The only question is what will kill us off first, war, famine, global warming or avian flue.

Those who read my blog know that I believe quite the opposite; that mankind is making huge (though painfully slow) improvements in equality, peaceful dispute resolution, and humanitarianism.

As humans, we are ever grouping ourselves into specific communities. These are concentric circles of interest. At the core is our own family unit. Beyond that is our friends, then perhaps our coreligionists, our fellow nationals, those who share our language and culture, etc.. To those closer to the center of our circle, we feel heightened empathy and trust and grant equality and respect. The farther out we go from our own group, there is a natural drop off in our level of interest and empathy, and an there is a corresponding increase in our level of mistrust, prejudice and hostility.

The story of our history is of the slow, back and forth plodding progress of ‘global inclusion’. In ancient days, groups seldom went beyond the close knit familial or tribal level. As time went on, these groups ultimately expanded to kingdoms and nations, and as religious ideas spread, they too played a role in defining our native groups.

To those who believe that we are regressing, or that we continue to be steeped in the same inhumane behavior of the ancient days, let’s take a good and honest look around. And let’s compare not with one or two thousand years ago, but with just two hundred years in our past. What did we have:

- Slavery throughout most of the world.
- Even in the few democratic nations, women did not vote.
- There was no such thing as a minimum wage or health insurance, etc.
- There was no Geneva Convention, League of Nations, or UN.

Moreover, it was completely mainstream to believe that men were superior to women, whites to blacks, Christians to Jews, etc.. Multitudes starved on the streets of all of the major cities of the world. The poor died without medical attention. No one sent aid to the less developed countries, the European world raided the third world as a matter of colonial right.

The fuel of hatred is isolation and ignorance. The antidote is information, communication and understanding. And our ability to even communicate with each other on a global scale is very, very young. We may have a long way to go, but look at how few years we have had the ability to meet, speak, read, and learn about each other.

- 400 years ago: No printing, no powered travel, no electronic communication
- 200 years ago: No powered ships or trains
- 150 years ago: No telephone or transcontinental telegraph
- 100 years ago: No radio
- 75 years ago: No television
- 50 years ago: No commercial transcontinental air travel
- 25 years ago: No internet
- 10 years ago: No blogs

We are very imperfect. But, in general, our misdeeds to our fellow man stem not out of sociopathic evil, or even from selfish callousness. It stems out of our ability to close our eyes to the needs of others – to the humanity of others. It stems from our preconceived notions about our differences, and from our lack of trust in each other. It stems from fear.

Humans, for whatever reason - spirituality, evolution, practicality - are inately good. They are empathic, they are altruistic, they care about each other. Many, many things interfere with our ablity to act on that native goodness.

We are far from perfect, but we are still young.


Blogger Ben Avuyah said...

Amen !! I always view the 60's as the worlds adolescence, or at least america's. I hope that as we gain strenghth and direction we can mature into a powerful young adult civilization. Of course, there are many pitfalls along the path...

July 04, 2006 12:02 AM  
Blogger Big-S Skeptic said...

I would also like to believe that we are improving, but I think we need to remember how easy it is to fall backward without realizing. (The Inquisition was probably also considered a great leap forward by its supporters.) In Judaism, when you read Rambam, Ralbag, or Crescas, you have to wonder whether Judaism has ultimately advanced or retreated since then. Looking at America, I see a completely failed public education system, and political figures who are far more interested in debating flag-burning than in addressing any actual systemic issues. I see America slowly being surpassed in economic might by India and China, both of whom possess extremely dubious capacity to exert democratic influence in the world. I am thrilled with the advance of technology, but I am not so optimistic that civilization is inevitably moving towards the betterment of humankind.

July 04, 2006 10:52 AM  
Blogger drjeff said...

Although there may be an inevitable march towards progress and enlightenment, we can't ignore the hiccups and regressions along the way, like WW II or the war in Rwanda. It seems that we have to experience something like these things every so often to remind us what NOT to become....

July 04, 2006 12:05 PM  
Blogger dbs said...

ben, big, drjeff,

I certainly agree that there are plenty of reversals along the way. As us engineers would say, the progress is 'non-monatonic' - not every step is upward.

I don't mean to gloss over the problems which exist now. In fact, if you subscribe to evolution, we have our roots as being (pack-oriented) agressive preditors. Those traits helped us survive and thrive on this planet, but now they endanger our existance. We also have incredibly strong selfish survival instincts, which will often overwhelm even the most altruistic tendencies.

And, of course, technology is a double edged sword. It helps build bridges and expand our inclusiveness, but it also provides us with much more distructive capacity. The last hundred years has been a series of close calls, as we re-integrate the new realities of our world.

July 04, 2006 5:23 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I agree that the world is non-monotonic, but to stretch this science/math metaphor further, I think it is oscillating at its resonant frequency. We fluctuate between good and evil, but each fluctuation is wider and wider. Unfortunately, at some point the fluctuation toward evil may not give us the ability to recover from it.

July 05, 2006 11:36 AM  

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