So I’ve been feeling sort of down and out about humanity in general lately. Not to be too depressing, but there’s just this sense of overwhelming disappointment in a lot of ways–as I look at politics, culture, environment, religion, humanity in general. Everyone thinks they’re so right about everything all the time and no one stops to listen to one another. Blame #selfie culture, blame the internet, blame Obama, I don’t know. But we’re all a bunch of egoists at heart.
I should know. I keep a blog detailing all of my self-obsessed thoughts.
But to sort of ease out of this depressive funk, I picked up a book called But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman. He’s a pretty smart guy–and sort of a celebrity client at my last job. So I’ve had this book for awhile. And, you know, I like Klosterman. After all, he wrote the greatest celebrity interview ever written if you’re interested.
But I digress.
This book is basically a series of thinkpieces where he writes about what our present will look like once it’s in the past. How will culture shift, what will we be remembered for–what if, like all the generations before us, we managed to get something totally wrong?
He looks at pop culture, literature, science, politics and pontificates about what people in the coming centuries will think of us. If history repeats itself (as it usually does) then people will probably think we got a few things right and that we most definitely got some things terribly, terribly wrong.
In his introduction (which had me basically fist-pumping in a crowded airport saying yesyesyes) he talks about humanity’s unique ability to believe in their own intelligence.
We’re starting to behave as if we’ve reached the end of human knowledge. And while that notion is undoubtedly false, the sensation of certitude it generates is paralyzing.
And as I sat in said airport, about to hop onto a plane meant to take me somewhere at a speed I take for granted, eating crappy but delicious fries with a sense of freedom I’ve never not had the privilege of expecting, I just thought man, this is a refreshing slice of humble pie.
I have been worn out by…everything this year. Or, to be real specific, this last month especially. Experience after experience, speech after speech, tweet after tweet–it has all made me feel like humans just really suck at being human.
I mean, we’ve been on this planet for–what? A couple hundred thousand years, if you believe in evolution. A few thousand years less if you don’t. And maybe that sounds like a long time until you compare it to the fact that the earth as a whole has been around for, oh, about 5 billion years. Which is very old. And we’ve barely scraped the surface of existing in comparison to almost every other living thing on this planet. Then consider the fact that most people agree modern culture as we know it now didn’t really start taking shape until about the 19th century, and that makes us pretty young.
(That was barely two hundred years ago.)
So here we are, humans who have existed in varying degrees of civility for a few thousand years, taking on modern sensibilities just recently in the 1800s, and somehow…we think we know everything.
And maybe we do. I’m not a scientist but I know real scientists are pretty sure they proved the gravity thing and the existence of the big bang theory. Which is great. But I also know that every era from the history of mankind on has assumed it was pretty knowledgeable, and every era following has had to pull back and say “Well, actually…”
And I’m not just talking about Aristotle or Galileo; I’m not talking about gladiators or slavery. Even just two hundred years ago people were using leeches and bloodletting as a major form of medicine. Women were being institutionalized for hysteria. There was an entire body of study on scientific racism. To this day, there are people still alive who lived in an era that believed segregation was the healthy and right way, or thought hormone therapy cured gayness. Hell, just over fifty years ago people were straight up performing lobotomies.
And what’s the general train of thought that comes after this? “Oh, boy, that’s crazy. I’m so lucky to be alive now where we don’t struggle with all that nonsense.”
That’s a pretty arrogant leap to take.
I get it though. Since the 20th century, there has been a sudden influx of knowledge and peer review and scientific research and tools and we think we’ve done it: we’ve figured it all out. Now, everyone with access to google can know absolutely anything about everything instantly. People even write articles about “Ten Crazy Things People Used to Believe!” And they do this with absolutely no sense of irony–as if it’s all in the past and aren’t we more clever now–never acknowledging the distinct possibility that we in turn could be featured in such a list one day. We seem to think that evolution has somehow plateaued.
Statistically speaking, though, is it really all that likely that we’re right about everything? I mean, we’re still years away from being able to study the effects of cell phones on a child’s brain. People are still playing around with foot zoning and essential oils and chiropractors. Football in many ways is as gruesome and dangerous as gladiator fights. We are a culture that refuses to acknowledge our impact on this earth–as if we’ve earned our right to do what we will because, hey, we know so much. But with so many different opinions, is there really any chance at all that in a few hundred years or a couple thousand years someone won’t look back at us and think “Wow, they really got that wrong”?
I didn’t mean for this to be so depressing. But I absolutely know it is. I mean, I am depressed. We’re killing bees, stripping forests, destroying reefs. There are still debates on climate change and vaccines and whether or not drugs are all that bad for you. It’s exhausting.
And I also must point out that I see the irony here, saying we can’t know everything in such a know-it-all way, demanding action be taken against misinformation by trusting another source of information. But it’s just very interesting to consider the arrogance intrinsic in being human. Every generation in the history of humanity is naturally inclined to think they know everything.
I mean, look at me: one book in and I think I’ve diagnosed America’s problem.
But honestly. It was such an interesting book and it’s something I’ve always thought about. A lot of people get caught up in feeling betrayed when something is proven to be untrue, or something shifts to make room for progress. As if if some thing was once true, it must then always be the same level of true. Be it a religious belief or a political stance, we’re constantly digging our heels in, turning our noses up. We don’t want things to change. We don’t want evidence to shift and shine light on some inherent wrongness. Somehow, we’ve been led to believe that we either know everything ourselves or we trust that someone out there smarter than us does. So if things change, then somehow it invalidates our entire experience. And that’s the real problem with being human: we don’t want to be wrong.
It’s why segregation was legal for so long. Why we pretend the founding fathers owning slaves was okay. Or why we say “Not All Men” or “All Lives Matter” when the narrative turns to disruption. We can’t handle the clapbacks–whether it’s the “oscarssowhite” hashtag or the snowflakes’ obsession with political correctness.
To be honest, I feel hopeless and overwhelmed about 76% of the time. I can’t shake the feeling that humanity is doing a horrible job. The food industry, the fishing industry, the gas industry. Racism, bigotry, general phobias. Melting ice caps, endangered species, misrepresented refugees.
The fact that La La Land got 14 Oscar nominations.
There’s a lot going on in the world that doesn’t make sense. We’re so stuck in our ways and I’m over it. Human history is one giant story of change and development and, usually, betterment. It’s been a story of rising action and now, somehow, we think we’re in the concluding chapter. The final days. The apex of human intelligence. It’s like we’ve somehow decided that that same pattern for betterment–and the same possibility for error–doesn’t apply for us. Why? Because the internetz?
To borrow a political trend, there’s a general furor to make stuff great again instead of moving forward to something greater. We ignore environmental impact studies, we balk at immunization developments, we think red meat and soda are a part of life and the planet just has to deal with it. Change is uncomfortable and, now, somehow, unnecessary. Call me preachy but it seems like progression has become a dirty word.
But what if we’re wrong?
If this were an actual book review, I know I’m way off topic, but I just have to say read it. I mean, Klosterman does not write with the same hysteria I do (I am, after all, a woman). But I thought it was such an interesting, engaging, and provocative read. Because it’s humbling. And as arrogant humans, this ultimate body of know-it-alls, the most self-aggrandizing and smug SOBs there ever were–it’s good to be humbled once in awhile.
Life will go on, the world will continue to revolve around the sun whether or not we’re a part of that. If we don’t mess up too badly, in a few hundred years, someone, somewhere will probably look back at this and won’t think “man, let’s go back to that.”
And that’s okay.
If history has taught us anything it’s that we should be willing to let go and move on. We are so young in our evolutionary process it would be sad to think this is the best humanity can do. So can we just stop pretending we’ve got it all figured out? Because, in the words of one man who will probably not survive the turn of the century, you gotta check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Life is too short to be a know-it-all.
This know-it-all right here who thinks we are all doing it wrong and it’s giving me an ulcer okay.