Not So Smart

February 2005


When you apply the same principles to societal norms that we apply to individuals, you can come up with some pretty peculiar conclusions about how well-adjusted our society is.

An acquaintance of mine came up with an interesting paradox the other day. He was considering the nature of kindness. He said that he could think of any number of times people had been mean or obnoxious to him, but he couldn't put his finger on a single instance of someone being deliberately kind to him. It reminded me of the scene in Pretty Woman, where Julia Robert's character wonders why it's always the bad things people say about us that are easiest to believe.

I wonder what this human fascination with the dark side is all about? When someone accentuates the negative or exaggerates the worst, we have a name for that: humor. Very seldom do we find entertainment in the absurdly good, but the absurdly bad is almost always entertaining.

Think about yourself: think of the last time you consciously and deliberately did a "good deed?" By good deed, I mean something that was done for someone else's benefit, without any thought of reward or compensation. The most selfless act would be doing something kind for someone that they will never know about. {Pause} OK, now that everybody has half a dozen instances of their own goodness to others in mind, consider when was the last time that you were selfish and did something for your own benefit, that either ignored other people or actually might affect someone else badly. In this category we ought to put: deliberate lies, driving with reckless haste, and deliberately missing an opportunity to help or share.

Are we all such crummy people, or is there something wrong with the way we're looking at things? Certainly kindness is in the eye of the beholder. Also, we already defined the most selfless acts of kindness as anonymous. By that logic, if everyone were successful in their acts of kindness, we'd never know about many of them, and not knowing about them, we'd naturally find it hard to remember them.

We also have a common prejudice about being modest. When was the last time someone accused you of doing them a good turn and you felt the need to deflect their praise? Why do we feel as if we are being accused of goodness? If we've done something that we're ashamed of, we often can't wait to tell people our side, to prove that we were really doing good. We understand that when you do something bad, you have to present your version of events to avoid blame, in case you get caught.

Is society teaching us to be more afraid of praise or of blame? We deflect the praise and rationalize to avoid the blame. I have a theory that we're so neurotic because of all the bunk we're supposed to pretend to believe in. It starts when you're in school: so many bald-face lies are shovelled in school that most students come out of the experience terminally confused. When you go to work, it's not much better. A business, that actually operates on the premise that one of its core directives is to provide a livelihood for its employees, is rare indeed. Most firms make some kind of effort to con their employees into thinking this is so.

Of course the punch line of this is an Orwellian reality that is truly sick and twisted. And the sickest and most twisted part is that people who consider themselves to be doing well operate to preserve the status quo. This entails believing that everything is perfect, with conviction, in direct contradiction to every kind of evidence. This borders on the psychotic.

Our national media spends half its time selling the notion that nothing is wrong, and the other half of the time frightening us with makebelieve. We get into a war that costs hundreds of billions of dollars because of weapons of mass destruction that don't exist, when every hour of every day we're actually in real and imminent danger from the thousands of nuclear weapons pointed all over the globe on a hair trigger (ours, the Russians, the Chinese, and various others). All it takes is for one computer glitch to run to conclusion for millions of people to die and cause an escalation that has the very real possibility of wiping mammals off the Earth. But we do very little about that, except to spend more and more money every year to build even more nuclear weapons of increasing sophistication, thus making the whole problem worse.

We may not be such crummy people as all that, but we surely must conclude that as a species we're not very smart.

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