Monday, January 25, 2010

We are Trees, not Machines

Imitation and the Crossfire Syndrome

By John Taylor; 2010 Jan 25, Sultan 07, 166 BE

A couple of years ago I compared our complacency in the face of global warming to the no-man's-land between opposing in a war zone, a land owned by nobody and opposed by all for no reason. I even personified the owner of this disputed territory; I called him Adolph Nobody. Whenever you get personal attacks based on ideology and fixed opinions, our common ground becomes disputed territory, and it is safest to stay low, no matter what you think. Adolph Nobody is the enemy of all, extremists and moderates alike. This is why all Holy Scriptures forbid gossip and backbiting.

Lately I ran across the following passage from a speech that Michael Crichton gave almost twenty years ago, where he calls this problem the "crossfire syndrome." He is talking about the press to reporters, but this way of thinking applies to every section of society I think.

"Worse still, characterization lies at the heart of the impulse to polarize every issue - what we might call the Crossfire Syndrome.  We are all assumed, these days, to reside at one extreme of the opinion spectrum, or another. We are pro-abortion or anti-abortion. We are free traders or protectionist. We are pro-private sector or pro-big government. We are feminists or chauvinists. But in the real world, few of us holds these extreme views. There is instead a spectrum of opinion." (Michael Crichton, Speech given to the National Press Club, Washington D.C., April 7, 1993,

I have to wonder how this speech came across to the lickspittles in Washington. He roundly blames journalists for what he calls out and out incompetence at their job by refusing to take the time to ask nuanced questions, or wait for detailed replies. He even tells a funny story of how an Inuit instantly knew whether it was a television, radio or print reporter just by the amount of time he spent interviewing his people. Myself, I do not blame the pawns, the rooks, the queen or the king; I blame the player who moves them all. That is, I blame the owners of the press. Anything less than a representative ownership by all humans of the press subjects it to manipulation. Incompetence is not the problem; the problem is that they know very well what they are doing. Crichton continues:

"The extreme positions of the Crossfire Syndrome require extreme simplification - framing the debate in terms which ignore the real issues. For example, when I watch Crossfire, or Nightline, or MacNeil-Lehrer, I often think, wait a minute. The real issue isn't term limits; it's campaign finance reform. The real issue isn't whether gasoline tax is regressive, it's national security -- whether we'd prefer to go back to war in the Gulf instead of reducing oil consumption by taxing it more heavily, as every other nation does. The real issue isn't whether the US should have an industrial policy, it is whether the one we have - because no policy is a policy - serves us well. The issue isn't whether Mickey Kantor is a protectionist, it's how the US should respond to its foreign competitors."

Not coincidentally, the issues that Creighton points out here are all deeply engrained in the root causes of climate change, and we still swallow red herrings that keep us from addressing the real issue. He goes on to point out, all too correctly, that both the cause and the effect of polarization and redirection is blind prejudice and imitation.

"This polarization of the issues has contributed greatly to our national paralysis, it posits false choices which stifle debate that is essential for change to occur. It is ironic that this should happen in a time of great social upheaval, when our society needs more than ever to be able to experiment with different viewpoints. But in the media world, a previously-established idea, like a previously-elected politician, enjoys a tremendous advantage over any challenger.

"Hence the familiar ideas continue to be repeated, long past their demonstrable validity. More than two decades after right-brain, left-brain thinking was discredited in scientific circles, those metaphors are still casually repeated in the media. After thirty years of government efforts to banish racism, persistent racial inequality suggests the need for fresh perspectives; those perspectives are rarely heard. And more than three decades after the women's movement began amid media ridicule, the men's movement finds itself ridiculed in exactly the same way - often by leading feminists, who appear to have learned little from their own ordeals."

The measure of man is man, not Adolph Nobody. Equanimity and temperance impossible if the crossfire syndrome dominates the discussion of public affairs. Conflict perverts the forum of opinion and makes it into a war zone, a no-man's-land. As J.S. Mill pointed out in "On Liberty," freedom is a good thing only if use of it makes us fully rounded human beings. This happens if and only if we go to the trouble of working out truth for ourselves. This is only done by avoiding the facsimile of truth, which is imitation.

"He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision. And these qualities he requires and exercises exactly in proportion as the part of his conduct which he determines according to his own judgment and feelings is a large one.

"It is possible that he might be guided in some good path, and kept out of harm's way, without any of these things. But what will be his comparative worth as a human being? It really is of importance, not only what men do, but also what manner of men they are that do it.

"Among the works of man, which human life is rightly employed in perfecting and beautifying, the first in importance surely is man himself. Supposing it were possible to get houses built, corn grown, battles fought, causes tried, and even churches erected and prayers said, by machinery -- by automatons in human form -- it would be a considerable loss to exchange for these automatons even the men and women who at present inhabit the more civilised parts of the world, and who assuredly are but starved specimens of what nature can and will produce.

"Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing." (J.S. Mill, On Liberty)


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