The Devastating Consequences of Blind Worship
Living on a boat is a life of constant troubleshooting. There are always at least a dozen things not working on the boat, and often one broken thing leads to several cascading issues. One electrical short can create a nightmare of confounding variables. It reminds me of my years spent repairing computers at Tandy. When a computer system is a mess, what you hope to find is a single issue that clears up many of the problems in one fell swoop. When I’m overwhelmed with a number of things that need fixing, I look for a common cause to sort out first.
A lot of people feel overwhelmed right now, people on both sides of the aisle. Our society feels like a confusing and jumbled mess. I say this as an optimist, as someone who reads a lot of history and sees all the amazing progress we’re making. But I’m also an idealist, which means our progress never comes as quickly as I’d like. I know that we’ll fix almost all of our issues eventually — the arc of history points in this direction — I just believe the quicker we hasten toward that goal, the more suffering and discomfort we’ll alleviate along the way.
Toward this end, what are the handful of primal causes for many of our issues? Can we find an electrical short here or there, or a bug in our programming, that will sweep away a lot of problems all at once? I certainly think this is the case. I think humans are simpler than we often assume. We were designed or evolved (take your pick) for a more primitive time. Drink, Eat, Sleep, Defend, Reproduce. All of our complexities spill out of the interplay of these very simple drives. The problem is that many of the things that used to benefit us in the past cause us a mountain of trouble today.
I write about these causes and effects in my Wayfinding series. This blog post is a preview of an upcoming entry, but writing the piece is proving so useful to me in understanding current events that I want to get the gist of it out now. The gist is this: Blind Worship had enormous advantages in small tribal societies, but it is leading us wildly astray today.
Blind obedience makes sense in small tribes, when you need to coordinate and act as a group. The tribes that adopted or evolved this ability would win out over tribes that were fractured. Sure, there’s a chance the group is led astray and makes a mistake. But the group that’s always bickering, debating, and in-fighting stands very little chance of making a winning move. They have themselves to overcome before they can compete with others. You can think of the tribe with blind worship as a single cell that has roped in its mitochondria and cytoplasm to function as a holistic whole. The tribe without blind obedience is wrangling internally, as external threats plan their next move.
Like most of our primal impulses, what made sense thousands and millions of years ago no longer serves us well today. The legacies of these impulses now waste our time, rile us up, fill us with anxiety and depression, and have us looking to the wrong causes to solve our ills. Blind worship of tribal alphas, both female and male, are a massive problem, one we need to be aware of, discuss, and work to fix.
We need to train ourselves, encourage each other, and teach our kids to not look up to people. We need to learn to look across at one another. Learn from each other, admire the accomplishments of others, celebrate our mutual weaknesses, and do it all from an even pool that more accurately reflects the complexity and messiness of humanity.
Blind Worship is the root cause of many of today’s most disturbing headlines. When we worship celebrities, who are just actors reading lines in front of a camera, it gives them power that they do not know how to wield and that we do not know how to defend against. Would an actor tolerate a stranger molesting him or her? No. But when it’s another actor with a bigger name, someone they look up to, they are often frozen to resist. Would a child tolerate a stranger fondling them? Not as easily as when it’s a priest, who they’ve been told can do no wrong and to look up to and respect.
Culture arises from the interplay and contribution of a million little decisions. Rape culture arises the same way. It’s the inaction of friends when someone says something abusive. It’s a parent being proud of their teenage daughter for winning the affection of a much older politician. It’s the fear we all have to talk about these things with our children, our parents, our religious leaders, our spouses, and each other. My own hesitation to write about this on my blog contributes in some small way to rape culture. Silence is the worst killer, because it’s so innocuous, so difficult to notice, and so easy to add to.
I don’t know if it’s supposed to be derogatory or not, but I’ve been called a Social Justice Warrior in my social media feed a time or two. Social. Justice. Warrior. Three words that all sound awesome. I’ll take it. But sometimes being a social justice warrior can itself contribute to rape culture. When we jump down the throat of someone who is trying to talk about these issues, and saying and doing positive things, but they left a letter out of LGBTQ, or they used the wrong pronoun, we are creating a culture where people are scared to speak up for fear of getting shouted down. And in that silence rape culture thrives. So that’s something to overcome. We need to have this discussion, even as we brace for those looking high and low for some way to be offended.
I know someone who works for a company rife with rape culture. One of the biggest names in the sexual-molestation news right now is associated with the company, and employees are in a tizzy about how to handle the new allegations coming out every day. The few who have spoken up in the company are being hounded for it. People higher up the chain of command do not want to believe the accounts of a dozen victims, and an admitted reason for this doubt is the power the abuser wields. This is how rape culture thrives. It’s clear as day.
Here’s the thing about blind worship and rape culture: We all contribute to it. When we fawn over a celebrity, we add our oohs and aahs to their collective power. The power of that person’s professional and social connections all depends on our blind obedience. It will be almost impossible to do away with this effect, but I don’t even see us trying. Instead, we all do the very wrong things that make the problem worse.
We tell our children to respect adults. Why? We should teach our children to respect themselves. We should teach them to respect those who respect others.
We teach our kids, and we tell ourselves and others, to blindly follow our religious leaders. Why? We should challenge our religious leaders so they can help us unravel the mysteries of our actions and the contradictions of religious texts and human experience. If they are wiser than us, let’s make them prove it. Challenge them. Question them. Do their answers make sense?
We tell ourselves and each other that actors are brilliant. Why? Because they’re good at pretending to be someone else? At reading lines that someone wrote? Yes, their craft is difficult, and we should applaud when it’s done well, but that applause has nothing to do with who they are as a person. That requires digging deeper. The question I have is why we don’t similarly extol the brilliance of doctors, scientists, farmers, and bricklayers. Is it because we aren’t inundated with their faces on our screens? Does blind worship require us to first recognize a person’s visage? What bits of our internal wiring are not prepared for a billion of us to recognize the same face, and all add to their collective worship? Because that piece of crossed wiring is leading us astray.
Trump is president largely because of blind worship. His name was already a brand, and his face became even more recognizable through reality TV and the inordinate amount of coverage his campaign received. This worship is so strong that he can reverse every position that got him elected, and his base does not shift. He’s an actor reading lines. No one cares about the content. We are programmed to follow the alpha male, to not doubt their decisions, because this gave us power as a tribe, the ability to compete with other tribes, to move as a single cell, the way flocks of birds find safety in numbers. It worked so well for millions of years that we remain imprisoned by this impulse today.
Every day, we should work to untangle our blind worship of others. This should be an active pursuit, like the flexing of a little-used muscle. We should elevate ourselves and everyone around us to the same level, as we lower our blind positive esteem of strangers. This does not mean we should not admire those who deserve it, but we should think long and hard about what we admire and why. Do they make the world a better place? Do their actions inspire us? How do they treat others? Do their words and points make sense? And then we should remain vigilant, continue to challenge that person and ourselves, and be open to changing our esteem in a moment.
We know that this works, the changing of culture through the application of a million tiny forces. We changed the culture of cigarette smoking from something cool to a pariah, and we did it partly through smart legislation. We made it illegal to advertise a legal product on TV, in magazines, and at sporting events. That decision, to regulate a legal product, will save millions of lives. Culture can shift, but we need to first recognize where our culture is wrong and what we hope it will become.
Perhaps the most controversial viewpoint that I hold today is that the blind worship of our military leads to senseless slaughter. When we thank everyone for their service, and salute anyone with a uniform, we create a death culture to go along with our rape culture. We create a culture where kids see us perk up at the sight of anyone with an assault weapon. For generations, this has been going on. Is there any wonder why those kids grow up to lust after AR-15s? Is there any surprise that the country with the largest military, a country where not a single politician and very few citizens speak up about our fetishizing of this military, is now the country with the most guns?
We all contribute to this. Soldiers deserve our pity, not our respect. We should feel sad that they exist, that they are necessary. We should recognize that the world can remain safe with far fewer of them. We should want them home, moving into civilian life, getting therapy for what we’ve put them through. Death culture has got to end, and it ends by stopping our blind worship of everyone in uniform. We don’t know them on an individual level, any more than we know actors on a stage or athletes on a field.
How many athletes are forgiven for unspeakable crimes? Spousal battery. Animal fighting. Rape. Assault. Murder. Our worship of celebrity athletes allows them to continue along these destructive paths. It’s only when they seem to disrespect an object of our even greater worship that we criticize them. Everything wrong with blind worship is found in this paradox: a rapist standing with his hand on his heart is a hero; the soldiers on honor guard who killed children overseas is a hero; but the man on his knees, thinking about his fellow citizens killed on the streets, is somehow a villain.
Athletes, actors, elders, priests, soldiers, politicians, millionaires, CEOs, doctors and lawyers, none of them deserve our respect simply for being these things. They earn our respect with every action and word. Just like everyone else. I think this short in our wiring leads to an enormous amount of heartache and societal destruction. A lot of the tribalism and in-grouping and out-grouping arise from this single primal cause. We give too much power over these people who are strangers to us, and that power pervades society like a fog, making it more difficult and dangerous for victims and witnesses to speak up.
It’s easier said than done, right? How do you ask a sports fan to not get goosebumps when he sees a star player on the field or out on the streets? How do you convince someone to not date an actress or an athlete by saying it won’t change their lives, when it most certainly will change their lives? How do you defy your boss when we all know that who you know leads to promotion, wealth, and power? How do you get a believer who wants to avoid going to hell to dare doubt their preacher?
I contend that it happens gradually. We spiraled out of control, and now we need to slowly spiral back down to earth. It comes through a million little decisions and interactions. It begins by breaking the silence and by changing the existing noise to a different channel. If you agree, and these points make sense to you, or you have your own twist or something to add, then I urge you to share this or your own thoughts with everyone you know. I urge you to work every day to look up a little less to people you don’t fully know, and elevate more those whom you do. Those who truly deserve it.
You can start with me. I’m a hack who wrote some bestselling books, but that tells you jack all about who I am. Assume I’m the worst. I’m certainly no better than you. But I do believe in the rightness and logic of my thoughts here, and I think we can make the world a better place by applying them in our daily lives and our interactions with others. Judge these ideas and take them, make them better by adding your ideas, find something to agree with or critique here.
Remember that progress is made through doubt, not surety. Doubt your elders, your priests, your celebrities, your soldiers. Doubt the biases we’ve built up over the years. Teach our children to be skeptics. Try and learn for ourselves how to be skeptical. Let’s reel in these primal impulses that have led us astray and march forward on an even plane of mutual and well-earned respect. There’s a better culture in our future no matter what; I truly believe this. It’s only a question of whether we get there late or early. I say let’s hurry the fuck up.