Aug 31, 2009

An Abbreviated History (part 2). The Power of Myths & Ideas

Why Do People Believe Crazy Stuff?

[continued from an earlier post, Abbreviated History]

Are you ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the "Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya"? No? Well, it's all right, but Colonel Qaddafi, like the Pope, rely on lots of people to buy his message.The Soviet Union had a brutal regime, yet it had lots of sympathizers, many in the West! Another brutal regime in theocratic Iran relies on violence & suppression and on a large mass of Iranians who see modernity and the liberal democracies as evil.

Any benevolent supreme ruler would tell you that his people don't know what's in their best interest so he decides for them. Any ruthless leader would also use threats and violence to make people behave. Do as I say or I you'll experience hell--in this life or ..later. Sounds familiar? Both types of leaders don't trust their flock. They establish a system whereas sheepish behavior and obedience is encouraged.

But how do people get certain ideas? Well, it varies. Parents, at first, schools, and society at large imbue everyone with ideas and concepts. Many ideas become part of a person's identity and they are not revisited, never to be changed. Obviously, some ideas are good some are bad. Some are useful some are against the individual's own interest and against the interest of the majority of society. Yet, they persist!

Culture provides society with a value system, a way of doing things, stability of custom, and, guess what, notions of preserving the status quo. The masses used to be rather ignorant and in the absence of education, open dialogue, and freedom, they followed the "tried & true." Conservatism is no accident. It's a disposition based on perceptions deeply implanted in the human mind. The power of ideas, of myths, of belief systems, is immense. More so, if you don't have the means to critically evaluate them. Besides, it takes effort to blaze your own trails. Fear of the unknown or the incomprehensible is unsettling. Uncertainty is for the brave. Responsibility is for the strong. Inquiry for the curious. Reality is for those who can handle the truth.

Imagine that you believe you'll be super-rich tomorrow. Or, that you'll die of an evil spell cast on you. Or, that by strapping explosives on your body and detonating them in a crowded place, you're actually doing God's work. Or, that those who have another faith, nationality, color, whatever, are not worth anything but the worst treatment. You get the picture. Your actions will be based on those beliefs.

History can be seen as a clash of civilizations and ideas (belief systems). Humankind has raised hell on earth because of the power of myths that reached a critical mass of people who accepted them. There's always an excuse for embarking on a destruction of another civilization, culture, peoples. And, it doesn't have to make lot of sense. The key is to accept the first premise.

or example, you may accept the premise that you exist in a lovely building that was made for the chosen ones. The first step is crucial. Once a "foundation" belief is embedded in your brain, then the rest of assumptions and actions can be reasonable. Sure, you can imagine such a building needing several rooms for specific purposes, beautiful furnishings, and ambient music! You can argue that a sun room should face south--a good choice! Then you can argue that all the residents must please the landlord of this building so he won't throw you out of punish you--a rational choice; no one wants to be evicted, right?

Another interesting fact is that the human brain is capable of holding several contradictory ideas at the same time. Logical inconsistencies exist in all of us. The difference is what do you do when you discover one? Can you amend your views? Or, like in US politics, you can never appear as someone who admits he was wrong and changed his mind? Consistency at the expense of accuracy! Also--and this is important--can you question something that millions of people for thousands of years believe as true? Suppose such a belief is given to you as part of your identity. What do you do, how do you approach this?.. Can you even touch the subject with a critical mind?

Without singling our Catholics, why do many believe the Pope is infallible in matters of dogma? Why do they follow his edicts? Over the millennia, Popes have reversed their predecessors. What does this imply? Why there wasn't much of criticism when the current Pope declared that even AIDS (and other sexually-transmitted diseases) is bad, condoms are worse! Seriously, people will die because of such a stupid statement--translated into policy. Has anyone pointed out this contradiction: Thou shall not kill, one Commandment instructs us. But, married men who have AIDS can transmit a death sentence to their wives because condoms are not to be used under any circumstances!

Do you remember the Bill Moyers-Joseph Campbell series on the Power of Myth back in the 1980s? That got me interested in the power of ideas and how peoples' behavior is based on their ideologies. [By the way, Moyers has a great resource on Faith & Reason on the PBS site] What I find discouraging is that in this 21st century, at least in the so-called advanced countries, there should be lots fewer ignorant people. I wouldn't be surprised if Qaddafi still commands a majority support from Libyans, for the latter don't know any better and can't entertain any alternatives to the former. But, in the US there shouldn't be so many kooks, charlatans, con artists, and b.s. dispensers. They would all be irrelevant if there was no critical mass supporting them.

How come the largest Catholic country, Brazil, didn't rise in disgust to the latest official stance of the Catholic Church (in Brazil and the Vatican) when a man who raped his 9 year old step daughter and got her pregnant didn't earn excommunication but her mother and the doctor who performed the abortion did?.. It's the same scenario where a critical mass of people support genital mutilation, keeping women as chattel [term derived from cattle], and silencing any free expression.

Our political discourse would have been much better. The current health reform "debate" would've been more reasonable. But, how do you communicate with someone who doesn't want reform because he doesn't like Obama turning this country into a socialist/communist one?! In a democracy the people have to be convinced to vote against their own interests.... especially those who could afford it the least!


PS>You may want to click on the first picture to get it to open bigger so you can read about the norms of the American society of our parents. I can't vouch for the content authenticity, but I can tell you it's accurate in its essense. I'm old enough to have met people who were adults in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, and even women accepted those traditional roles. I'm glad there's been progress but not as fast as I'd like. Yet, even in the last 15-20 years, there's been serious change. There's support for repealing the "don't ask, don't tell policy"; several states are legalizing same-sex marriage; we elected a black man to the presidency; and we may do away with a conservative party fit for the Dark Ages. For an advanced industrialized country it's a shame that we have so much violence, so many people in prisons, so much religiocity, no universal health care, and such a huge gap of wealth between the elites and the rest of society.