As an atheist, I have a recurring conversation with many believers. They can’t understand why I bother to try to be a good person without the impending fear of judgement and damnation. If I don’t think God is watching me and keeping score, why don’t I just go on a hedonistic binge of barbarism?
I always try to patiently respond that my motivation is mostly internal. I want to judge myself to be useful, productive, helpful, and caring. There is an external aspect to it as well. I want my family and friends to judge me positively. I don’t believe in life everlasting. My only shot at living beyond my mortal years is in the recollections of those who might remember me. And for reasons of my own making, I want that legacy to be based on fondness, respect, and maybe even admiration, not on infamy. That is what I aspire to, and what inspires me.
What I don’t usually share is that their question frightens the hell out of me. The implication (or in some cases, the outright admission) is that the only thing standing between them and a life of raping and pillaging is belief in some exogenous force poised to reign retribution down upon them. They are not a tamed animal, they are a caged one.
Of late, I’ve begun to wonder if this same need for external fear-based motivation extends beyond the realm of religion and morality. In economics, I hear the repeated notion that minimum wages, guaranteed health care, food stamps, unions, and any other program designed to help the poor or the working poor is inherently destructive. It removes the incentive to work harder, train harder, or even to work at all. The underlying assumption seems to be that absent the fear of homelessness and starvation, no one would get out of bed in the morning. It isn’t enough to have a sizable carrot in front of you unless there’s a big angry stick behind you to keep you moving.
This same attitude seems to bleed into foreign policy as well. The notion that the USA must remain the preeminent military power on the planet because otherwise we’ll lose our ability to influence other countries seems predicated on the notion that our power comes from fear that we instill. We repeatedly demonstrate that fear of terrorism will motivate us to actions we would otherwise never consider. In fact politics has largely degenerated into a game of which party can paint the scarier future if the other guy wins.
It even strikes me that much of our gun-culture stems from fears that everyone else, left to their own devices, would pose a threat. It is only by being a bigger threat yourself, that you’re able to keep them at bay.
I do believe that most people view others through their own life-lens. That is, they project their own desires, tendencies, and morality onto the behavior of others. People who worry about the downside of atheism, economic security, and world peace are reacting from the awareness that they themselves realize that in such a world, they would rapidly fall into an existence of varying degrees of unfettered sociopathy.
That there exist so many people contained only by a variety of fears is more than disconcerting. And it would be one thing if there was a recognition that fear-based motivation was destructive and there was a collective consensus to mitigate it. Conversely, what we’re seeing is a resurgence in the idea that fear-based motivation is essential and good.
I had hoped for better, but in the end, maybe we are just barbarians with iPhones.
Yet wall posts, like the one at the right, from the ironically named Facebook page Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children, attempt to link gun control to the rise of a second Hitler. Never mind that the Europeans have had much stricter gun control laws during our lifetimes, and democracy hasn’t fallen there.
However, the gun control debate aside, the notion that in this modern world we live in, tyranny would come via militaristic control is a complete failure to understand our country, and moreover, the goals of those who would seek to control it.
Guns are messy solutions what with all the noise, and the bleeding, and the dying. Marketing is the key to power. You need to sell people on the idea they must give up their freedoms to ensure their safety, and even pay for the privilege. How much better is it when citizens willingly yield their power and their wealth as opposed to having to take it at gun point?
Consider that the people being whipped into a frenzy over the relationship between guns and tyranny are largely the same people who have been sold on the ideas:
- There’s no reason to worry about the government monitoring you if you have nothing to hide.
- Net Neutrality is anti-capitalist, and Internet censorship is essential to protect the children.
- Torture is effective, and detainment without due process is warranted when our safety is at stake.
- Additional funding for the largest military the world has ever known is essential.
- Hobbling or dismantling social safety net and insurance programs is the key to prosperity.
- Making the rich richer will ultimately benefit us all.
- Government subsidies of exiting corporations like Hollywood, big oil, and pharmaceuticals is essential to the economy.
- Government investment in new technology like green energy, genetic research, and other “disruptive” advancements is wasted money.
- Government regulation should never impede profit.
- Unionized workers are the reason manufacturing jobs went to China.
Desperate people are far more compliant and easy to control. If you are scared, broke, hungry, and/or sick, getting you to trade your long term interests for satisfaction of your short term needs becomes child’s play. Snake oil salesmen enrich themselves by playing on your fears, your needs, and your hopes. And you thank them for the privilege of buying into the illusion.
The snake oil salesman doesn’t care that you have a gun. In fact, he may be glad that you do. Because he knows he controls your mind. And won’t it be handy for him to have armed minions at his call when the rational people finally try to run him out of town?
Humor me for a bit and engage in a little Sci-Fi thought experiment. Just suppose a technology was invented in the near future that allowed you to kill with your mind.
Let’s put some constraints on this. No exploding heads (ala “Scanners“), but maybe something subtle like stopping the heart. No mess, no fuss, they just drop over dead. Let’s further say that this cannot be by accident. It requires a brief but sustained and specific intent toward a specific individual, and this person must be within 25 yards. Let’s also add in that during the attack, the attacker will have glowy eyes so that anyone around can see who is acting, and that the attack will leave an unmistakable fingerprint on the victim so that the attacker will be known. Only one person can be attacked at a time, but there is no “recharge” time so multiple people could be taken out serially. Also, any action is immediate and final. No second thoughts, no “Do you really want to delete this life?” confirmation screens. Once started, the deed is done.
Now, let’s say this is all available via a $200 implant to anyone of age. The implants are injectable by any competent tattoo artist, and most shops carry them. As a result, the vast majority of the adult population is armed within a year. Full accountability. No accidents. No one is out-gunned. Everyone is equally lethal.
The question is, in this world, do you feel safe?
Is quite likely that rampage killings like Sandy Hook, Columbine, or Ft. Hood would be almost non-existent. If someone walked into a school and started taking out children, one of the adults would likely respond quickly and the damage would be contained. There might be one or two deaths, but not dozens.
But what of the rest of your life? How many coeds would be killed for sleeping with someone else’s boyfriend? How many bar fights would end in dead patrons? How many divorces would actually see both parties survive to sign the final papers?
Did we learn nothing from the Cold War? Yes, the MAD strategy (Mutual Assured Destruction) was effective at deterring violence, but worked only because both sides took extensive precautions to prevent lone rash actors from initiating an attack. At the individual level, mutual assured destruction does not have the same deterrent effect. Yes, MAD may stop someone acting willfully and who is concerned about their own life. But people are not rational 24×7, and the means to act lethally on impulse is simply a power greater than the average person is responsible enough to wield.
This is the essential fallacy behind the NRA’s woefully misguided announcement today that the only solution to tragedies like Newtown are to put more guns in schools. That it is the lack of ubiquitous arms that is causing violence. That the solution is MAD.
The NRA is also right that the problem isn’t guns per se. It’s people. But there’s no good fix for “people”. Human nature has an inherent volatility and impulsiveness to it that will not be readily contained.
So I ask again, would you feel safer knowing that every teenager and old lady you meet on the street has the means to end your life, but is deterred by MAD? Or is that madness?