Human history is NOT a zero-sum game.
Something that I’ve noticed particularly among my own generation is a tendency to think about aspects of human history in zero-sum terms from an ideological perspective. For example, assuming a person advocates for imperialistic colonization simply because he or she may be expressing some admiration for a specific head of state or a modern monarch. Another example would be assuming someone’s political ideology from one statement or admission regardless of how well acquainted you are with the person. This is fallacious because it ignores individual circumstances and stems from a pathological attitude towards how the world “should” be.
Understand that there is a distinction to be made between individual people and the culture or institution into which a person was born and the faults of a specific culture or institution does not rest solely on one individual. There are things we can learn from any human being from any past time period from the military tactic of George Washington to the political machinations of Adolf Hitler. The founders of the United States of America have plenty to teach students today from their courage in rebelling against the standing empire of the time to their political blind spots regarding institutionalized slavery in America. Human beings are complicated and human societies are complicated. Building a society cannot be done within one human life-time. The story of humanity is an amalgamation of all of our individual stories each as complicated as the next, each contributing something, and each with its own personalized agenda. A society is simply the building blocks that our fore-fathers and ancestors left behind.
Expressing anger towards Queen Elizabeth II for the negative consequences of imperialism and colonization makes as much sense as blaming the United States for the entire transatlantic slave trade.
Human history is a lot more complicated than the neat boxes that humans like to make for ourselves. Sometimes there is not one person we can blame for a particular social ill. Something what would be considered a social ill in one time period may not be considered such in another time period. Sometimes there are grey areas concerning ethics and morals. We can never point to one action by one person can condemn everything else that person ever did.
I think the best way to approach human history is apolitically and amorally. I don’t like to judge past humans for their actions (especially if we’re talking about a time centuries before my own) because our place of birth and upbringing play a significant role in the person be grow up to be. Many people like to believe themselves to be a good person regardless of what time period they had been born into, but the key question is how one defines “good.” Judging the past with a subconscious superiority complex is utopian thinking. Utopias are fallacious (and impossible).
This “black & white” thinking may be attributed to the rise of digital communications and social media where short writing and short attention spans usually dominate spaces due to the incentive towards emotional appeals and click statistics, exemplified by character limits for text postings. If I could name a single issue with digital discourse it would be lack of context. Most communication between human beings is non-verbal which means facial expressions and body language play a significant role in how we communicate with each other. From my experience, there is no way the full spectrum of non-verbal body language can be translated through digital channels.
One could also argue that the degradation of American news media goes as far back as the presidential election of 1960 with the first televised presidential debates but I digress.
Perhaps the digital media ecosystem created by internet connectivity has done more harm than good with the ease at which we can communicate across distances. When all you see in an argument is words on a screen or a cartoonish avatar, it subconsciously diminishes the humanity of the other person in your mind and the negative emotions are less tempered by civic decency. Unfortunately I cannot see a way to go back to pre-internet discourse. In a span of just twenty years we have developed lifestyles revolving almost entirely around this new digital infrastructure (whether we’re aware of it or not) and, short of a widespread collapse of our modern technology, I cannot see a situation where the genie goes back into the bottle. There is already a generation of Americans who have spent their entire childhood plugged into the world wide web (from tablets for toddlers to mobile phones in their adolescence).
Communications—everything from roads, to rivers, to writing and the Internet—enable groups of humans to share a consensus around the solutions to the five group problems. In short, communications allow a group to coordinate, and new communications technologies allow bigger groups to coordinate. The flip side of this is that communications technologies are disruptive. In laying the foundations for a larger scale of group coordination, they disrupt the balance of consensus. New methods of communication allow new voices—whether internal or external to the group, or both—to enter the group’s consciousness. New people—new to the group—do things differently. Suddenly, the consensus on how to solve the five problems breaks down, and the group begins to lose cohesion.Mike Martin, How the Long History of Human Violence Explains Why the Internet Causes so much Chaos, (Time, 2019).
Modern computing communications and our new digital media ecosystem may be causing another shift in consensus for humans on an unprecedented scale much like the invention of the printing press in the 15th century led to the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment period (which would lead to the 18th century revolutions that would help to shape the upcoming societies on the then-“New World”). Internet connections and the world wide web are the new printing press and, if history is any guide, the 21st century will be very tumultuous in the wake of the social upsets our new printing press is causing. Old ideological pathologies are resurfacing and finding refuge in secluded parts of digital media and the fractional nature of the ecosystem is balkanizing the discourse, cutting us off from the critical cross-examinations necessary for consensus and social cohesion.
What’s the solution?
I see only one solution to this fractionalization of discourse and it does not look promising. It requires increased self-awareness of individuals to recognize their media consumption as well as individual initiative to take more efforts upon themselves in reaching out beyond their innate biases and proclivities to make contact with their political opponents and ideological opposites. Government regulations or even self-regulations can help to better connect our media environments to coalesce people but it is ultimately on the individual to make the effort themselves in the long-term. Making an effort to seek out as many sources of information as possible – cross-checking, cross-examining, analyzing, and fact-checking for ourselves; reading as many books, newspapers, journal articles, anything we can get our hands on – that increased awareness for human history, human societies, and simply each other will go a long way toward progressing humans to a stronger understanding of each other. As in any strong personal relationship, communication and understanding is the key to strengthening our civic ties to each other. It’s not white people versus black people, white people versus latinos, Americans versus Mexicans or Canadians, North Americans versus Europeans, working class versus bourgeoisie, rich versus poor, or any other manufactured social division. If we all made an effort to bypass all of these superficial barriers, I believe there is nothing the human race cannot accomplish. By recognizing humanity more and working to actively bypass our tribal tendencies, we can literally unite our species into one planetary civilization and once again reach for the stars.
If you would like to receive my writing directly in your e-mail, you can subscribe to my Substack.