The inverse relationship between knowledge and arrogance.

failed New Guinea discussion

The young, in the stages of development prior to maturity, in complex and specialized i.e. civilized societies like ours, seem to suffer no lack of arrogance. The same cannot be said for their knowledge, especially that of a historical perspective. The more mature they get, if they acquire more knowledge, the less arrogant they tend to be. There is clearly an inverse relationship between knowledge and arrogance. You may dispute this point by examples of “mature” adults who appear to have both knowledge and arrogance in abundance, such as dominant media pundits and college faculty. I would counter by saying, what appears to be knowledge is actually opinion, while agreeing with the arrogance part. While opinions can be the product of knowledge, most dominant media and college campuses are halls of mirrors, or echo chambers, where opinions are popularity rather than knowledge driven.

I have been reading Guns, Germs and Steel: The fates of human societies, by Jared Diamond. He lived with New Guinea tribes for many years and the book is fascinating in its surveying of history, geography, biology, food production and the effects of those factors on human societies. But what stimulated me to start this post is the following passage: “One reason why the organization of human government tends to change from that of a tribe to that of a chiefdom in societies with more than a few hundred members is that the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups. A fact further diffusing potential problems of conflict resolution in tribes is that almost everyone is related to everyone else, by blood or marriage or both. Those ties of relationships binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. In traditional New Guinea society, if a New Guinean happened to encounter an unfamiliar New Guinean while both were away from their respective villages, the two engaged in a long discussion of their relatives, in an attempt to establish some relationship and hence some reason why the two should not attempt to kill each other.

The book is very long, but this tiny passage, especially the part I bolded, indicates a basic truth about human nature which we, with all our written rules and laws, effective policing and the advantages that living in the most powerful nation in history, blithely ignore or deride. In the absence of family and tribal ties or law enforcement, people are generally either vulnerable to others, or aggressive to others. Once there is a functioning government with a monopoly of force, it can be used to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence. This is potentially a big and underappreciated advantage of centralized societies over noncentralized ones. “Anthropologists formerly idealized band and tribal societies as gentle and nonviolent, because visiting anthropologists observed no murder in a band of 25 people in the course of a three-year study. Of course they didn’t: it’s easy to calculate that a band of a dozen adults and a dozen children, subject to the inevitable deaths occurring anyway for the usual reasons other than murder, could not perpetuate itself if in addition one of its dozen adults murdered another adult every three years. Much more extensive long-term information about band and tribal societies reveals that murder is a leading cause of death.”

People who were born into, or came to live in at a very young age, a civilized western society have little emotional appreciation of living under a constant threat of violence or a tyrant. (An exception might be those who live in violent, thinly policed neighborhoods). That sense of security, compounded by the lack of knowledge and perspective, breeds arrogance. Arrogance breeds a proliferation of claims to rights, which get ever more extreme and demanding. The ultimate expression of arrogance being inversely related to knowledge is the cry, “I have a right to feel safe!” Safe from what? Dissenting opinions? Microaggressions? People of a different skin pigmentation? Responsibilities? No, you don’t have a right to feel safe. No one ever has. That right cannot be claimed, because it cannot be enforced, except by suppressing anything that anyone feels unsafe about. Is that what you want?

QWERTY!

Today I installed the Swiftkey virtual keyboard on my android phone. One of the ways I could customize the keyboard was by selecting either the QWERTY or AZERTY layouts (name for the first six keys in the top row). I thought, “I really prefer the AZERTY layout, because of the way I scan and type, but since every physical keyboard I have seen is QWERTY, there must be a good reason for that.” No, not anymore. Here is an excerpt from a book I am reading:

Still another factor is compatibility with vested interests. This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.”

Don’t we feel stupid?

The best cure for P.T.S.D.

What do I know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Quite a lot, but not from the perspective of a sufferer, though PTSD is a subtle beast and how do I know that it is not a root cause of some of my more irritating behaviors? I don’t know, and what’s more, it doesn’t matter. I can, and so can you, modify my behavior by training; we all believe in the power of training our body to do things that previously we could not. In like manner we can train our mind. Lest you are tempted to think, “you aren’t suffering, how can you be so cavalier about training my mind not to suffer?” More to the point, I counter with, “who best to teach another fat person to be slim, the person who remains fat, or the former fat person who is now slim?”

I was an infantry soldier in Vietnam, and was transferred to the medical corps when it was discovered that my college degree was psychology (pretty much worthless, but only I knew that). For 10 months I suffered with, counseled and evaluated the mental fitness (for combat) of the most extreme cases of “combat fatigue”, what we call today ptsd. That term was unknown back in 1969. They were still calling it “shell shock.” My predecessor in this job, more educated in psychology than I was, became drug addicted and shell shocked himself over the stress, and not just of who he was dealing with. I quickly discovered that there were some among my patients who had a very direct way of making their displeasure known, if they didn’t agree with my certifying their mental fitness for return to their units (everyone who I saw wanted out of combat, understandably so). At night, sometimes even in daylight, they would come hunting, with the express purpose of shooting me. Given that everyone was armed, even the quasi medical personnel like me–where we were attacks were frequent–“blowing me away” would not have been difficult. Other than changing my sleeping quarters randomly, posting lookouts and being very alert, there wasn’t much I could do.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was training my mind to accept the realities of my situation and let go of worrying about the “what-ifs”, controlling what I could and deciding to endure what I had to. Deciding was the important point. Perhaps that cast of mind was responsible for my lack of ptsd. I don’t know. But if you are willing to believe you can train your mind, please read on.

This Charles Spurgeon meditation is the best idea I have ever seen for curing post traumatic stress disorder, which is really reliving an unpleasant memory over and over. As Spurgeon says, such memories “may be trained.”

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.” Lamentations 3:21

Memory is frequently the bond slave of despondency. Despairing minds call to remembrance every dark foreboding in the past, and dilate upon every gloomy feature in the present; thus memory, clothed in sackcloth, presents to the mind a cup of mingled gall and wormwood. There is, however, no necessity for this. Wisdom can readily transform memory into an angel of comfort. That same recollection which in its left hand brings so many gloomy omens, may be trained to bear in its right a wealth of hopeful signs. She need not wear a crown of iron, she may encircle her brow with a fillet of gold, all spangled with stars. Thus it was in Jeremiah’s experience: in the previous verse memory had brought him to deep humiliation of soul: “My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me;” and now this same memory restored him to life and comfort. “This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.” Like a two-edged sword, his memory first killed his pride with one edge, and then slew his despair with the other. As a general principle, if we would exercise our memories more wisely, we might, in our very darkest distress, strike a match which would instantaneously kindle the lamp of comfort. There is no need for God to create a new thing upon the earth in order to restore believers to joy; if they would prayerfully rake the ashes of the past, they would find light for the present; and if they would turn to the book of truth and the throne of grace, their candle would soon shine as aforetime. Be it ours to remember the lovingkindness of the Lord, and to rehearse his deeds of grace. Let us open the volume of recollection which is so richly illuminated with memorials of mercy, and we shall soon be happy. Thus memory may be, as Coleridge calls it, “the bosom-spring of joy,” and when the Divine Comforter bends it to his service, it may be chief among earthly comforters.

The greatest enemy of peace of mind is resistance to believing it is possible for you.