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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Social media shows us what people are really like

An update on Solzhenitsyn's most famous warning

O ne time in the lab a student asked me how he could be sure that, if he carried out a certain reaction, that the predicted product would appear. I told him: you have to have faith.

By that I didn't mean faith in the existence of some supernatural deity. I meant faith in the immortal, unchangeable, impersonal, eternal, and utterly ruthless laws of nature. Which, if you think about it, amounts to exactly the same thing.

There's a persistent idea that the hate-and-lie-riddled social media and the vicious cancel culture are unprecedented and that they're caused by the Internet. There are literally hundreds of opinion pieces out there saying it's a new authoritarianism coming from the left. Or maybe from President Trump. Or maybe science, or the Chinese, or the Russians are at fault. Or maybe, as Solzhenitsyn said, it's because people have forgotten God.

None of these are true. Left to their own devices, humans can destroy their own culture without need of politics, leftism, fascism, religion, or the Internet. It has happened many times in the past and it's important to understand why.

Here are some inconvenient facts that people have forgotten.

  1. The news media never tell the truth about anything, and they never have. Not the newspapers or radio or television in the olden days, and not the Internet or cable today. News is manufactured to spread a narrative and it always has been.
  2. People lie. Patients lie to their doctor. Doctors lie to their patients. People invent lies about each other to get approval from their friends and increase their social status. When someone thinks they will get more benefit from lying than telling the truth, they will lie.
  3. People may deny it, but deep down they all hate anyone who disagrees with them and mistrust anyone who looks or acts differently from them.
  4. People will say and do unimaginably vicious things to anybody, even to their own children, and even kill them if they think they will derive more benefit from doing so than from not doing so.

The key concept here is that almost all human behavior is the result of a cost-benefit calculation. To think that the facts above apply only to other people, or only to bad people, is to deceive oneself. The only difference today is that the Internet has made it easier to see it in action. And, in a way, that is good news because it forces us to see what we must change.

We try to pretend these dark aspects of human nature are not real. We'd much rather maintain a shared illusion that it's possible for people to be sincerely nice to each other and help each other out of enlightened self-interest. We don't want to think about what humans are really like.

People who have been psychologically and physically abused by their parents (and there are many more than most people realize) have learned the truth the hard way. They grow up convinced that no one can ever be trusted and often believe that friendships with other humans are impossible. Over time, they learn the behavior patterns—the language of the humans—that allow them to keep people at bay and allow them to interact successfully in society. But deep down they know what human nature is really like, because they have lived it.

For them the shared illusion is impossible to maintain. They may refuse to invest their savings because they know it will be stolen. They may refuse to date because they believe attachment is impossible. Sometimes they don't even bother to make friends because they believe friendship is always fake.

There is a certain amount of wisdom here. Humans are essentially a gigantic pack of wild animals. The only reason any of us is still alive is the social pressure that inhibits people from slaughtering each other. This pressure arises because killing someone arouses fear in the surrounding humans that they might be next, so they turn and attack the killer. So it is with lesser offenses.

Societies survive only so long as humans are able to maintain the pretense that they are basically kind, caring creatures. They all pretend to believe that others are basically good. At some point, if some event comes along—maybe a charismatic leader who promises them riches, or an economic crisis, or a military humiliation—that destroys that illusion, the pretense dissipates, and they discover that the polite smiles they used to give each other are hardly different than the bared teeth of snarling dogs.

It is for these reasons that humans invented religion. And it is also why there is much truth in Solzhenitsyn's often-repeated remark about why Russia turned Communist: “We have forgotten God, that is why all this has happened.”

Though the laws of nature are still only dimly understood in their particularity, the ancients saw them as a personified deity. However we imagine them, they will tell us how we need to act if we wish our civilization to survive.

If humans forget that they must control their baser instincts—their craving for power, the urge to steal and attack those who believe differently from themselves, and so on—those instincts will wreck their civilization, tear down everything they have created, and ultimately destroy them as a people. Behind it all is the loss of the knowledge—what religious people call faith—that those laws have absolute power over us, because it was those laws that created us and which can, just as remorselessly, destroy us.

oct 29 2020, 6:16 am

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