Sunday, December 2, 2012

Missionary Zeal and Human Discord

I was wondering today why people feel a need, not just to form groups, societies of like minded people, but also to create rivals, those to whom a group is opposed. Be it Windows versus Apple, Linux versus Windows, Colts versus Steelers, vegetarians versus meat eaters, Facebook versus MySpace, Catholics versus protestants, Democrats versus Republicans or what have you. It seems inevitable, as soon as a group is formed, there will be formed a rival.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized the motivation, and why some of these struggles are more vehement than others. People usually form groups because they have found something they think is good or worthwhile. Be it a 12 step program, a political platform, Amway or a new video game, they have discovered something they think will make other people happy, and they want to share it. And that is why they join a group, they find like minded people, who share their enthusiasm, and they can all discuss how it made their life better. The enthusiasm obviously varies, with model railroaders being less enthusiastic than, say, evangelical Christians (though not always).

The problems then arise when someone says they don't see the benefit of the new idea, or, worse, they think the new idea is not a good thing at all. It is then that the first rivals are formed, the supporters versus the skeptics, critics and other non-supporters. We saw this, most notably, with the FairTax crowd. When anyone who did not immediately sing the praises of the FairTax was accused of being a shill for the CPAs or an idiot who could not grasp "the book". This is the first sort of rivalry that arises, but usually, except in the case of extremely enthusiastic groups (such as FairTaxers, Scientologists, some AA members, and a few political fringe movements), this is not a terribly strong rivalry. In most cases the proponents of the new thing are willing to admit others may just be wrong, or mistaken, they aren't necessarily evil if they disagree.

On the other hand, the second type of rivalry tends to produce just such feelings. That is when the proponents of some new thing meet others with an alternate solution. Be it Linux users meeting Windows users or Objectivists meeting communists, when a true believer meets a true believer in another faith, we tend to see the birth of quite strong feelings, and nasty recriminations. It is here that we hear accusations of not just malice, but attempts to mislead the uninitiated, to sabotage whatever the one true belief is and so on. For whatever reason, humans have a very difficult time seeing those promoting a rival practice, be it a sports team, a political platform or a religious creed, as not just differing, but must see them as, at best, idiotic, and at worst morally suspect. (If you doubt this, explain soccer hooligans or the descriptions tossed out by fans of traditional rival teams. I admit, US football and baseball rivalries don't quite rise to the level of Constantinople's greens and blues, but we aren't that far from them. And let us not forget the charming tradition of college --and sometimes pro -- basketball riots.)

Of course, none of this is new, I discussed it before, in political terms, in my essays "The Nature of Evil", "Life Without Villains", "Enemies Into Villains", "Rethinking My Earlier Position", "Three Versions of Evil and the Confusion They Cause" and "Tyranny Without Tyrants". And, as my mention of Constantinople and the chariot racing factions which not only ran riot through the city but actually drove city politics show, this is nothing new. And, of course, the long history of outright religious war and persecution shows quite clearly that differing beliefs can lead to quite deadly opposition, not to mention the many slanders against Jews by Christians, Protestants by Catholics, Catholics by Protestants, and so on. Of course, religion, being one of the more important questions one faces, and evoking such strong feelings, tends to produce very strong reactions, but, even much less significant questions, such as sports team associations, can produce reactions coming pretty close.

But, as I said, all this is old hat. Everyone who has studied man's history has noticed something along these lines. And, if they thought about it, has marveled at those few rare periods, such as some part of the Age or Reason, when some part of mankind rose above it, if only in a few cases for a little while. So I am saying nothing very new.

And I know that. The only thing I wanted to mention here is that this tendency, not only the tendency to see those with opposing beliefs as incompetent reprobates, but the tendency to want to spread one's beliefs to all and sundry, regardless of means, is one of the most threatening tendencies in mankind. As I have argued many times, much can be forgiven in politics, but once we start using the government to protect people from themselves, to make them act for their own good, as seen by our lights, then we have opened the door to unlimited government.

And sadly, even supposed conservatives seem to fall prey to this, and frequently. I once wrote liberals are more upset when you criticize their political beliefs because they draw so much of their self worth from their politics, and so a criticism of liberalism is an attack upon them, while conservatives tend to have more sources of identity (religion being a prominent one), and so are less upset to hear their beliefs criticized. Unfortunately, it seems the right has been slowly forgetting that. The more I hear conspiracy theories about the left, and calls for armed insurrection, the more I worry the right is becoming like the left, ever more willing to see the opposition as less than human, and to believe that others must be forcibly dragged into understanding.

It is understandable, I suppose. Seeing the one remarkable experiment in self government and freedom being slowly dragged back into the muck of yet another centralized, authoritarian state, it is frustrating. However, the solution is not to revolt, nor is it to force someone to adopt the right beliefs. It is there that I think the libertarians err as well. Shoving freedom sown another's throat does not make them free. What we must do, frustrating as it is, slow as it may be, irritating as it might seem, is slowly, and deliberately, educate the public once more. Recall, it took over a century for the ideas of the enlightenment to come to fruition, and even then, it was a close call. The US, for all its strengths was far from perfect, we still had the false start of the Articles of Confederation, the rather dangerous authoritarian tendencies of the Federalists, and the struggle over the Banks of the Unites States, and the entire slavery debate from the founding of the nation through the Civil War, among other bumps in the road. So, if it takes us a lifetime, or two, to bring our nation back, that is hardly unreasonable. And though we might not live to see victory, is it so bad to spend one's life in such a struggle? Is a hero only a hero if he returns alive? Or do those who fall along the way do a service as well?

We need to stop thinking of the opposition as evil foes, and the public as incompetents in need to a good thrashing, and start looking for those traits we share. Look for those who seek to better the conditions of mankind and show them why freedom is the only path. Look for those who share one or more of our goals and convince them of our methods. And yes, maybe along the way there will be a few truly opposed souls, who seek goals incompatible with ours, or speak dishonestly, and we need to recognize that, but we need to not start off thinking every difference in belief heralds a villain.

But it will be a long struggle, and doubtless I will have cause to write of this again. So, for now, I am going to let this end, saying in closing that, while it may not be glamorous or exciting or dramatic to do the slow, tedious work of changing men's minds, it is the only way to a secure, stable future. And so we need to surrender our juvenile quest for brave deeds and daring do and grow up and face the real work that needs to be done.


Some of this topic was discussed in "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events", "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative", "The Path of Least Resistance", "Misguided, Deceptive or Evil?", "In Defense of Civil Debate" and "A Small Digression". Some of my thoughts on how this perspective harms government can be found in "The Inherent Disappointment of Authoritarianism", "Traffic Lights, Predictability and Conservatism", "Reforms, Ideal and Real", "Competition","The Case for Small Government", "Why I Am Not A Libertarian", "Consolidation and Diffusion", "Redundancy as a Protective Measure", "Greed Versus Evil", "Brief Discussion of Envy", "Envy Kills", "Envy And Analogy", "Symmetry and Asymmetry in Government", "Government Intervention and the Purpose of Government", "Negative and Positive Rights", "The Single Greatest Weakness" and "Minimal Reforms".

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