Monday, September 7, 2009

Name Calling

“They’re idiots!” I’ve long recoiled at such statements, partly because for the first 30 years of my life I often used them to describe myself, and partly because as I grew older it became clear that all of us have areas we can improve on.

Name calling is something we all learn as children. In my opinion, it serves two purposes. First, it enforces uniformity in a group while communicating one’s identity as part of the group. Second, it teaches simplistic ways of understanding the world by categorizing people according to a limited set of characteristics.

I’ve had two episodes as an adult when name calling was too prevalent to ignore. The first was when a coworker in a blue collar job I held for a few months insisted that another pair of coworkers were stupid because they were creationists. The second was when the Bush administration’s unwillingness and inability to accept reality led to wholesale destruction of life, liberty, and natural systems. To some extent, these two examples were related, because Bush and many of his supporters were also creationists.

I didn’t hear of creationism until the first episode in the early 1990s. Everyone I’d associated with were either well-grounded in science, or at least well enough educated in high school biology to know that evolution formed the basis of much of our understanding of the world. I was so surprised that someone would believe otherwise that I developed a dialog with the two creationist coworkers in an attempt to provide mutual education. I soon discovered that they not only assumed that evolution had been debunked, but that the laws of physics (particularly the speed of light) were intentionally altered by God to test people’s faith; in particular, stars are much closer (and apparently much cooler) than they appear. Particularly ironic was the fact that we all worked in a semiconductor clean room, whose existence depended on the laws of physics being correct.

Trying to keep an open mind, and finding that doing so made me a pariah among the literalist Christians, I finally concluded that faith had deluded these people into believing pure fantasy that could be easily debunked. Besides, if evolution as an explanation of empirical reality was flawed, it was because it was part of the ongoing process of refining understanding that defines science. Newton’s Law of Gravity may not be purely accurate, but it explains a lot, is still useful, and is subsumed in its more accurate successor, Einstein’s General Law of Relativity (which itself is in the process of being updated).

Whereas science flourishes and grows when problems are found with its tenets, I realized that the world view held by the creationists was like the proverbial house built of sand; all it took was a strong “wind” to destroy huge chunks of it, so any challenges must be met with full force. I came to accept that such unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs is dangerous, not only to individuals but to all of society and must be fought just as hard. If it takes some name calling to chastise those immature enough for it to have an effect, then name calling is justified; but ONLY then.

The unwillingness to challenge one’s beliefs was, I think, the main reason for the waste, destruction, and death that was caused by the Bush administration and the people who support it to this day. This isn’t to say that the rest of us don’t share some of the blame for what’s happened. We let the pursuit of personal power trump the survival of all because we accept certain core tenets of daily existence, many of them economic, that like Newton’s laws of physics are not adequate explanations for the phenomena we are experiencing in a world of observably and exponentially diminishing resources. The difference may be that we can recognize and draw complex abstract curves, while they choose to only recognize simple ones drawn by others; so we at least have a chance of figuring out a solution before all is lost.

A disturbing “name” has been floating into my consciousness more and more frequently lately: “planet killing zombies.” I recently used the term “vampire” to describe corporations which suck the life out of us through advertising-laden entertainment, basically turning many of us into what the new term represents. These epithets are simplistic and insulting, but they do embody certain characteristics that focus our attention, just as any simple theory only explains a part of reality that we choose to measure. This use of name calling, instructional as it is, therefore has some positive value if it helps challenge our beliefs and our images of ourselves as part of a process of finding more accurate ones and altering them through real action into more healthy ones.

1 comment:

DME said...

When you said "I realized that the world view held by the creationists was like the proverbial house built of sand; all it took was a strong “wind” to destroy huge chunks of it..." you based your view of all creationists off one conversation.
I don't mean to sound like you haven't had other experiences like this (which you probably have). There is a lot of validity to the creationist worldview, it is just misrepresented so often that few seem to know about its strengths. Although not exhaustive, the Answers in Genesis websites has a lot of peer-reviewed articles that have shown me that science really supports the Bible's account of origins more than evolution can.

P.S. I say "evolution" but I don't mean that natural selection (a perfectly valid theory in science), I mean change between whole kinds of animals/plants not change within a kind of animal/plant.