When terrorists crashed planes into buildings and sent the world spiraling toward oblivion on September 11th 2001, I really wanted to know why.
I didn’t think I got a very good explanation, to say the least of it.
George W. Bush said “the terrorists” were “evil” and they “hated us for our freedom”. He later seemed to shut down alternative opinions by condemning “ridiculous conspiracy theories”. At the time, I wasn’t much of a conspiracy theorist, but just calling people “evil” really didn’t seem like a valid explanation for such a world altering event.
My dissatisfaction wasn’t entirely about evidence standards, mind you. It wasn’t even some prior distrust for the government. I just thought the bit about the cartoon super villain, cackling with his henchmen about their plans to destroy the world, for no other reason than the sheer joy of doing something terrible, was kind of hard to believe.
Perhaps if I had stronger religious convictions it would have been easier to swallow. “Ah, must be the devil!” wouldn’t bring us any closer to solving such problems, but it would at least give my mind the comfort of considering the puzzle solved.
Whatever the obstacles, I didn’t buy it, but at the time, I didn’t care, either. “It’s us vs. them” was enough for me to support the wars and feel good about killing the bad guys. Maybe they were evil, maybe they just had a conflict of interests, maybe they were getting back at us for something, but if your team and my team are going to have a killing contest, I want my team to win, and we can ponder the philosophical implications after the game has ended in my side’s victory.
Years went by, and I didn’t feel like I had gained a much clearer understanding of the underlying issues, even though I spent my evenings watching Fox News on more nights than not.
Then, in 2009, I stumbled upon what would commonly be described as conspiracy theories. Greed, envy. vendettas, thirst for power, and other simple human motivations were assigned to various known and unknown persons and groups to explain world events. The world was no less scary when I started to think my own government was responsible for every horrible thing in the world, but there was a certain comfort that came with thinking that things were at least going according to someone’s plan, even if it was a plan I disagreed with, and being able to make sense of things through a series of dot connecting exercises which, in hindsight, varied significantly in their merit.
A few years of that often paranoid worldview eventually gave way to what I, for a time, thought to be more grounded to reality. Sure some people were control freaks and greedy beyond the average person’s comprehension, but the vast majority of people, I told myself, were simply misguided. They had simply not been exposed to what I told myself was the one true moral principle of non-aggression, and by this ignorance had sought to impose various methods of control on their fellow citizens with the most noble of intentions. In this view, everyone wanted to be a good person, and was simply in error as they went about this pursuit.
The Leftist infiltration of the libertarian movement made this viewpoint impossible to maintain. As well financed propagandists, well versed in our way of thinking, went about trying, with substantial success, to subvert the teachings of our thought leaders with communist propaganda, ignorance was suddenly off the menu. It is easy to believe somebody is misguided when they are unaware of the better path, but when they study that path, and use that knowledge to deter people therefrom, mens rea, a Latin legal term for guilty mind, comes into play.
This revelation was vital in my ideological shift rightward from libertarianism. I used to think Left and Right were equally misguided in their pursuit of power over one another, but now the Left had revealed themselves as knowingly working against what I perceived to be the highest value.
One could say similar things about the Right if they translated the term to mean “whatever is said or done by members of the Republican Party”. However, as the Leftists were wreaking havoc on the libertarian movement, and more of us were pushed rightward thereby, it became obvious that there was a significant disconnect between the likes of Paul Ryan, and the intellectual foundations of Right wing thought.
My effort to understand this phenomenon, combined with the sudden focus on immigration in the political discourse, led me to more deeply contemplate ethnic motivations as being more central to human action. This surely did more to explain our foreign policy than mere greed and bloodlust. Domestically, it served as a vital complement to my prior view which was much more centered on economics. Ethnic groups, acting on primal motivations to see their group succeed over others, acted in often unconscious ways to that end, and since their subconscious minds were being led by primitive survival instincts, they were always assured of the righteousness of their cause.
Though not speaking in ethnic terms, Jonathan Haidt described this in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He used the analogy of “The elephant and the rider” in which one’s conscious decision making processes represent the human rider of an elephant, which itself represents one’s deeper instincts and the emotional needs which stem from them.
He describes the analogy thusly;
I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.
Viewed this way, moral narratives are reduced in value almost to the point of irrelevance. Our moral narratives are shaped in our own minds around baser instincts, and have no objective standard by which to measure them.
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