Monday, March 19, 2007

What Ails the World

Tibor R. Machan

The ills of the world aren’t mostly medical, of course, but philosophical, moral, and cultural. And the main one is definitely something only straight thinking can hope to cure.

Now, mind you, straight thinking doesn’t produce results immediately. It’s like a fitness program which needs to be followed rather strictly and over a good bit of time before its effects can be realized. But thinking well really is the only answer—it is, in fact, the only thing that’s under one’s control, the rest in about the forces of nature and the consequences of past religious, scientific, legal, and related thinking now embedded in the societies in which people live their lives. The mind is the free organ of the intact human agent from which the complex actions that can transform the world spring. (Yes, there is debate about this but the skeptics refute themselves when they make their skeptical case with, you guessed it, their minds!)

So then what is the main malady and how can it be fixed? First and foremost the world needs to give up on lumping people all in with groups. The Asians, illegal Americans, refugees, blacks, whites, middle class, politicians, merchants, and so forth—thinking about human beings as if they all managed to fit such groups, as if their identity consisted of their national, racial, ethnic, religious, class membership, or origins is nearly always a bad idea. Now and then it is acceptable, as when some biological similarity can help predict how someone will fare medically or when people make commitments to be part of a group and others can infer how they will act as a result. But even here it is how they act as individuals that will make the greatest difference—whether they take the initiative to educate themselves, to work hard, to rethink the ideas they have accepted mostly unthinkingly and so forth.

Tribalism is the term I prefer for the kind of “we” think that so many folks practice both when it comes to themselves or to other people. Women this, Southern Californians that, Europeans yet another thing, and all the rest that bury who a person is by virtue of his or her choices and decisions beneath layers of group identity. The practice is evident in the thinking done by the most unsophisticated as well as the most erudite folks one runs across.

Multiculturalism is one implication of this kind of constant classification of human individuals across the globe. Diversity programs even at those bastions of supposed independent thought, namely, colleges and universities, focus on lumping students and faculty not by the variety of thinking but of color, race, gender, national origin and so forth, as if when one looks different from another, or hails from a different place, that necessarily means one will think and look at the world differently.

Not only is this demeaning of people—regarding them as if they were made with cookie cutters and had no hand in directing their own lives (which then can actually become a self-fulfilling prophesy)—but it also renders most creativity difficult to get off the ground, especially about social and political issues. It is difficult to escape it. Yes, it is possible but tough because most people do not cherish being deemed weird. Yet of one thinks for oneself, that’s often the result.

Tribal thinking has been around for most of human history and has had its periodic uses, too. But the damage it has wrought has been devastating (e.g., the Holocaust). Such a way to view people tends to make it appear they are replaceable, predictable, and interchangeable within the group. As if their individuality didn’t much matter.

Of course, this is way off—anyone knows that the death of a friend or loved one cannot be remedied by replacement. That’s because in their essence human beings are individual, unique, irreplaceable. But this doesn’t suit tribal policy-makers much, those who have plans for people as members of groups regardless of their individual choices and agendas.

For me, a first generation American, it was American culture’s stress of the importance of the individual that held out the greatest hope. It was, even if only rhetorically, what gave the place its uniqueness among the societies of history and the world. And it is still, I am convinced, the major cure of what ails the world.

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