Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Importance of Lies

(*tap tap tap* Hello?  Is this thing on?  Oh, good.  Alright, Hellooooo blogosphere!  I'm back, for now, sporadically.  You know how I am.)
Death: Humans need fantasy to *be* human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape. 
Susan: With tooth fairies? Hogfathers? 
Death: Yes. As practice, you have to start out learning to believe the little lies. 
Susan: So we can believe the big ones? 
Death: Yes. Justice, mercy, duty. That sort of thing. 
Susan: They're not the same at all. 
Death: You think so? Then take the universe and grind it down to the finest powder, and sieve it through the finest sieve, and then show me one atom of justice, one molecule of mercy. And yet, you try to act as if there is some ideal order in the world. As if there is some, some rightness in the universe, by which it may be judged. 
Susan: But people have got to believe that, or what's the point? 
Death: You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become? 
--"Hogfather" by Terry Pratchett
I use the above quotation a lot.  One might even accuse me of abusing it (*ahem*), but it's so bloody profound that I think it would actually be hard to overuse.  However, I think it is very easy to underestimate the power, the point, or the import, of what is packed into this set of lines.  And what's so neat about these lines is that the meaning and depth of them keep unfolding for me.  I think I've got my brain wrapped around the message, and then WHAMMO! whole new perspective opens up before my eyes.  Awesome.

I've spent a lot of time this morning thinking about cases for action--that is, reasons for why action is better than inaction, or worthwhile at all, or not a waste of time, etc.  I'm talking about this in a very generic sense on purpose.  I'm not talking about "the case for fighting climate change" or "the case for adapting in place" or any other particular "case for blah-blah-blah".  I mean the more generic "what is the strategy by which one determines that something is worth doing."  Because I'm sure there are plenty of things that really are worth doing, and plenty that are not worth doing, and it might matter which one is which when deciding things like, oh, how to live your life.

I've seen lots and lots of "cases for action" for a variety of topics, and I like a lot of them in various situations.  For example, I've always thought that Pascal's Wager is a perfectly awful rationale for agreeing with any particular religious doctrine, but a pretty wonderful rationale for changing one's lifestyle to combat climate change.  I'm also favorably disposed to arguments for action based on the marketing strategies of "opinion leaders" (and I really could have sworn I'd written a post about that at some point, but right now I'm not finding it.  If anyone knows what I'm talking about, linkit, wouldja?)  I find these positions and others fairly persuasive, at least for certain topics.

There is one core problem with all of these, though (isn't there always)?  Almost all of the cases for action I've seen are predicated on the idea that one has the power to purposefully change their world, or at least, their own situation.  Any case for action you want to pick, that's pretty much operating somewhere in the background.  Your decision to make X, Y, and Z changes in your life will (at least likely) have the affect of A, B, and C in the world, in society, in your own life, etc.  These cases for action, then, revolve implicitly around the need to convince you of your own power--that you can do these things.  Think of the great (if overused) quotation from Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

But what if you don't believe that we have the power to purposefully change the world?  What if you genuinely, thoroughly, not-gonna-be-convinced-otherwise believe that the rank & file humans (i.e., us) have been so thoroughly stripped of our power that we cannot even make purposeful decisions in our own lives?  That whatever sense of decision-making and personal power we have is little more than self-deception in order to keep us chugging along?  When the distinction between "redesigning your life to plan for the collapse" and "redesigning your life to react to collapse" becomes deep and meaningful, and you think that the first one is off the table, what then?

This isn't an academic question for me (and certainly not for my husband), because I pretty much agree with this position, at least when I pull off my self-deception goggles.  I don't think that we are really capable of working to change our society in ways that will have any effect.  If we ever really had that power, it's long gone.  Deep down, I believe that the most power we have left is to attempt to map out a lifestyle that will be capable of reacting to collapse when it happens, not in any way to steer how it goes or work towards any specific outcomes.  We'll be riding the wave, not driving it.

So if I really believe this (and I do, so I'm guessing there are others who do as well), what could possibly function as my case for action?  No power = no action, right?  That seems almost like a self-sealing argument.  Where does my source of normativity come from--that little, insistent "ought to" voice in the back of my head, urging me on to new and different lifestyles?  Why doesn't she just shut the bloody hell up and let me enjoy my Playstation and my dryer?!

Here's my answer.  It comes from the lies we tell ourselves about our power.  It comes from hanging onto beliefs that we still can effect the world if we work hard enough and are sincere enough, from drinking Margaret Mead's kool-aid.  Assuming that the world isn't just "a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan," and there really are powerful people in it, I think those really powerful people would find this amusing, and are generally glad that there's something to keep people occupied who don't have televisions.  But they're wrong to think so.  They should be far more concerned about people who mistakenly think they have power.

You see, here's the catch.  I do not believe that we have the "power to change the world!"  But at the same time, it is manifestly the case that the world does change, is changed, all the time at the hands of people that I think are powerless, like me--often those small groups of sincere people that Mead described.  The difference is, the change that comes is not planned or purposeful.  You see, the real source of our powerlessness, I think, is not that we have no power, but that we really don't have any control over that power.  It's not the lack of power per se, the problem is with the "planning" or "purposefulness" end of things.  I think there's a lot of reasons for this:  a genuine lack of control over our lives, the usual human condition of not knowing the full scope of our actions and their effects, and so on.  Be that as it may, we have power, but we don't have purposeful power.

So we delude ourselves--what else could we do?  And here is where my case for action comes in.  As I said before, I do not believe we are existentially powerless, I think there's just too much evidence to the contrary.  I suspect strongly that about 99.8356% of us will never do anything on purpose with our lives which results in the sorts of history-changing events that so many of us activists work towards, and that maybe 99.365% of us won't even manage to pull that off.  But there is this slim percentage of people who will make these changes--and they have absolutely no idea who they are or how they will do it.  They do not have control.  They react to their environment.  The changes that take effect are the billiard-ball reactions to a thousand other things which somehow careen themselves into events which make our world a better place (or worse, it works both ways).  Maybe they can prepare a bit, maybe they can be well-read and have a bright imagination; all of that will help, I suspect.  But at the end of the day, they react to their environment and the gods *bing* them with their wands of power-granting and the world morphs.

So what?  So why lie to ourselves about all of this?  Because, as the quotation above says, I think that we have to believe the little lies in order for the big ones to become.  We have to act to create the preconditions for the world-changing events to happen.  We have to be the sorts of people who will change the world, even if we simply never will be.  We have to continually create and maintain that culture, and bring other people into our delusion.  Because someone, somewhere, will be the source of important and good things, even if the huge majority of us really, really, really never will be.  We have to create the world that allows those people to exist, and that means we have to believe that maybe, just maybe, it will be us.  But if we do not believe that we will be, if we do not act as if we will be, then the chances of the change we desire happening go to naught.  We shrink the options, the possible times when great things could happen.  Mohandas Gandhis turn into lawyers who never felt the compulsion to turn their back on their profession.  Dietrich Bonhoffers become quiet Lutheran ministers.  Anyone who's watched enough Dr. Who should have no problems understanding this sort of reasoning, convoluted and wibbly-wobbly as it might be.

So if you believe that people do have the power to change the world--on purpose--then go on your merry way!  I'm not interested in dissuading you from this belief, because I think it's a fundamental part of what will in fact make our world a better place, even if I disagree on the particulars of how we'll get there.  And if you don't?  If you feel utterly helpless and hamstrung by our current situation, stripped of all motive for action, then think on this post.  Maybe it will help, maybe not.  But I think there is a case for action, purposeful-yet-pointless action, in the long span of human history, and even over the course of a human lifetime.  Act like you will change the world, and somehow, someday, in ways we would never imagine or plan for, the world will change.


  1. I'm reminded of the phrase "survival of the fittest" and how most people misunderstand evolution. People tend to think species survive over the long haul because they are finely adapted to their environments -- when actually the opposite is true. Species survive over the long haul because they are dragging along a whole inconvenient multitude of maladapted misfits, outliers, sorry mutants, and mothers' disappointments. But when time change (and change they always do) the finely adapted individuals are suddenly the doomed, and it is some outlier -- some flower that always bloomed too early or too late or some gazelle that was too big and slow -- that is "fit" in the new scheme. It's diversity and often enough the crazy, maladaptive periphery that is the key to survival in changing times, and that's why I think we should all do our best to wander off in some direction that seems plausible. If things go bad, we'll still all be mostly doomed, but someone maybe won't be. Because they got off the narrow path that had seemed so safe and adaptive and inevitable just a moment before.

  2. There's a quote from "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" that I think you'll like. I'll email it, as it's super long.

  3. I expanded my comment into a blog post of my own if you'd care to read it. Thanks for provoking some thought!

  4. I love that quote! I have shied away from Terry Pratchett because a guy I don't like LOVES him, but I keep seeing good people refer to him... maybe I should check him out!

  5. I happened upon this blog this morning. You certainly do provide food for thought. Margaret Mitchell is both right - and - wrong. At least a modicum of belief is essential to me.

  6. Now I know the importance of lies. Very interesting article having fun reading it.