Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments.
If you could teach everyone in the world one concept, what concept would have the biggest positive impact on humanity?
The biggest lesson that everyone has to learn and then be constantly reminded of comes down to this simple concept:
Each of us currently lives on the same planet, but every single one of us lives in a different universe. Both are important.
What this means is that while we share a home and resources, none of us, not even identical twins, have exactly the same experience of things — objects, other people, events in our lives, and so on. My college communications professor gave a great, if simplified, example to demonstrate this.
Two sisters, who married around the same time to men in the same profession, both get flowers from their husbands on the same day, at the same time.
The first sister — we’ll call her Alice — sees the flowers and the notes, and her immediate response is, “Oh, that’s so sweet. See how much he loves me?”
Meanwhile, the other sister, Bea, sees her flowers and the card and immediately spits out, “Goddammit, that son-of-a-bitch cheated on me again.”
The flowers could even be the same arrangement from the same florist — hence part of the same planet — but the women’s perceptions, based on their own experiences, couldn’t be more different.
Here’s the kicker: Maybe Alice’s husband has cheated on her ever since they got married, but it’s in her nature to never suspect that and just trust him. Meanwhile, Bea’s husband has been ever-faithful, but she is just the jealous and suspicious type.
Both women have these personality traits because of their life experiences long before they ever met their husbands, and the reactions really have nothing to do with the men at all.
In essence, we’ve spent our entire lives being programmed to perceive the world in certain ways, and that programming has come from many different sources: Our parents, religion, schools, interactions with siblings and friends, random encounters with various aspects of culture or nature or other unexpected things in life, and so on.
The end result is over 7 billion unique points of view on what the universe is and how it behaves; whether it’s inherently safe or dangerous; whether it’s good or evil. There’s only one object fact we can all agree on no matter what our point of view is, and that’s the other half of the original answer: All of us share a single planet, and have got to learn how to get together on it and share it equitably. There’s enough for everyone, provided that some of us don’t get too greedy.
Will religion ever become obsolete?
It’s a yes and no answer here. Will some religions become obsolete? Absolutely yes. We’ve already seen that in the past, when another religion takes over and erases the former, or all its practitioners stop believing or die out.
I think that in the near future we will see more restrictive religions die out as the more fundamentalist versions of everything become less and less appealing to modern, industrialized nations. To some extent, we’re already seeing that happen now.
So, will specific religions as we know them become obsolete? Almost certainly, yes. But the idea of religion itself will probably live on in the concept that there is a force outside of humanity that had some role in its creation and its consciousness, and through which they can find unity.
It might not be called a “god” per se, but we’ve already seen this with various New Age religions that teach the idea of a universal soul or cosmic consciousness or other woo adjacent subjects.
Why? For the same reason that people still believe in astrology; It provides them some sort of comfort in being able to have some certainty about the world without having to try to understand how things actually work.
Removing that tendency from human beings is probably impossible since it has been built into our instincts since before we were even a species. But maybe we can move toward some sort of singular spirituality beyond religion that unites us all as humans, rather than divides us as tribes.
What benefits does art provide society? Does art hurt society in any way?
Art nourishes the heart and soul of a society in the same way that science feeds the mind and body. It’s a way to communicate with each other as well as to feel the touch of distant and long gone humans over the gaps in time and space.
Art is one of the better ways to be reminded of the lesson in the first question as you discover the unique voice of the artists while still experiencing what you have in common with them.
Art can serve as nothing but pure entertainment and an escape from the sometimes monotonous pace of every day life — and you’ll always notice that the spectacle factor in art picks up during times of trouble. American movie musicals had their first explosion during the Great Depression which lasted all the way through WW II and after, into the beginnings of the cold war.
Modern spectacle began with big-budget special effects features and blockbusters, born in the 1970s with The Exorcist, The Godfather Parts I and II, Jaws, and Star Wars: A New Hope — and they’re all still with us in varying forms.
Art can only hurt society when it works against it or serves to incite hatred against disadvantaged groups — for example, Birth of a Nation in 1915 led directly to a revival of the KKK in the U.S., just as Triumph of the Will contributed to the rise of Hitler.
But those pieces and others like them are more works of propaganda than they are true art, and we can protect ourselves if we know how to spot them.
Is humanity headed in the right or wrong direction?
In the long run, I think we are, if we last that long. Yes, our history has been one of three steps forward and two steps back, but with each generation, I think we do manage to move further which each of our forward steps.
The one great advantage humans have is that they die, and so do old, outdated ideas with them, while the promising ones that help everyone continue onward. It happens at different paces in different countries, of course, but I have a feeling that those gaps are going to eventually close as well.
When I was born, things like women working outside the home just like their husbands, single parent households, and no-shame divorce were becoming the norm — not that a lot of suburban parents didn’t still have the naïve belief that their 2.5 kids would grow up to get a good education at a major university, meet their future spouse there (if not in high school), then he’d get a good job with benefits after graduation, she’d stay home to take care of the babies that they started cranking out, lather, rinse, repeat.
Yes, it was a white picket fence, suburban, heteronormative dream, but it was already becoming impossible before I even made it to middle school. Part of that is infuriating — a lot fewer Gen Xers managed home ownership than their parents’ generation did, and that number just keeps shrinking with each generation.
On the other hand… we have gotten rid of the idea that women should not vote and that they’re the ones who should stay home and take care of the kids and everything else in the house. We’ve gotten rid of the idea that it’s some terrible thing if people chose to never marry or, if they do chose to marry someone of the opposite sex, decide to not have kids.
On the flip side, it’s becoming much more acceptable for same-sex couples to marry, as well as to have children either via adoption or surrogacy or, in some families, multiple children through both methods.
We’ve become a lot more aware of the environment in the last generation and a lot of us are finally starting to do something about it in whatever ways large or small that we can. And a lot more people have become politically involved and even become activists in the same time-span.
At the same time, we’re fighting those three steps back that, since 1981, have destroyed the middle class, led to the most wealthy citizens paying the least in taxes, destroyed our social safety nets, and reduced union membership by American labor has shrunk, relative to the total work force, by over 44% since 1983. (Don’t read the figures 20.1% of the work force vs. 10.1% for the work force and think, “Oh. That’s only 10%!” because that’s not how math works.)
Naturally, we’ve also seen an apparent increase in racism and other bigotry in the US in the last, oh, six years or so — but that’s only because it’s become more obvious who feels that way, and not that their numbers have actually gone up.
The one advantage of this, though, is that it’s setting things up for the next three big steps forward. We just have to make sure we get those in before things can swing back further.
We’ll get there eventually. Just as our technology has improved exponentially ever since the invention of moveable type and the printing press, human society will do the same.
Biological and sociological forces just move a bit slower than technological ones.