Although I think there are times when looking at the shit side of everything has its uses, they are few and far between. Nowadays, people seem so keen to express their particular version of the old hell in a handbasket sentiment. Everyday catastrophes. I think this connects a lot with the ‘attention seeking‘ topic, but I think it’s so prevalent that I want to give it its own page. Climate change, war, economic misery. Look around, take your pick, plenty of possible Armageddons are waiting to be called upon. With them, anyone can generate a hornets nest of fear and doubt.
Before I go further, I’ve got absolutely no problems admitting that humans are generally dirty, selfish, troublesome animals. There are very real problems in the world. Some of them are very scary. I recognize that there are things that need to be better about the world, but I’m reluctant to make any of them the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenarios that seem more and more common these days.
One that I hear is that ‘humanity is a cancer’. It has other versions: human civilization is a cancer, modern society is a tumor, humans are destroying the planet, etc. And the real danger of this simile is that it does make very good sense. Cancer is a group of cells that grow uncontrollably and, left unchecked, will eventually kill the organism. Most human societies and economies are designed to grow endlessly and, left unchecked, will probably kill itself. There are loads of problems with such melodrama. (And yes, I am for more organic, harmonious economies and civilizations.)
The thing is that I’m a solutions guy. I want to know how to make things better, not worse. And one thing that I KNOW is that how we structure our problems linguistically will have a huge impact on the solutions (if any) that are available. The problem I have with ‘the cancer’ metaphor? Well, as of yet, there’s no cure for cancer. Sure there are remissions, or its cut out, or even the rare ‘miracle’, but there are no good solutions to getting over cancer. There is no surefire way to handle it. I think there are more productive ways to frame our problems.
So when I hear from a seemingly positive person that we are a cancer on the planet, I get a little ruffled b/c whether or not she knows it, she’s just told me that our problems are incurable. Sure, we can hope to cut it out or pray for that Hail Mary touchdown in the final second, but I’d rather not have solutions dependent on a miracle. When people make such sensationalist claims, I really don’t think they’ve thought it out that far. I really think they just like the way they feel to have such a powerful metaphor to throw around.
My take? And it’s not really mine. I read it somewhere. Or heard it somewhere. Human civilization can be likened to the life of a single human being. And we are still very, very young. Our problems and self-destructive habits can be compared to those of an angst-ridden teenager. Sure, we might kill ourselves before we pass through this self-hating stage in our lives, but there’s also the very real possibility of a long life of learning to do things better and better.
In reality, we are not some pimply teenager nor are we some malignant tumor. They are both ways of framing our current situation, and the frame we give it will determine the structure and nature of the solutions to the problem. Neither one of these metaphors is true, but which do you think is more useful?
In my opinion, this X is Y formula exemplifies absolutist thinking…Men are misogynists. Feminists are radical. Arabs are terrorists. Mexicans are lazy. This always happens to me!
Consciously, we know that these statements are not always true, but I think there’s a danger in not allowing ourselves some wiggle room. If we think in absolutes, when faced with evidence that contradicts are absolute, we can either ignore the evidence, rationalize away the evidence, or reevaluate our thinking. And paint me cynical, but I think it’s far more likely that people will resort to the first two choices.
What’s wrong with qualifiers?