The results are in
A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.
– Agent Kay, Men in Black
There’s very little that I would say I’m convinced of. I suppose that makes me a skeptic (though I must admit that I don’t fully trust that word). However, if there’s one thing that I’m now more convinced of than ever before it’s this: People – large groups of individual persons who, for some reason, we trust to collectively make or examine important decisions – suck at everything.
Perhaps that’s just the bitter taste of yesterday’s election results talking, though I seriously doubt it. I’ve been butting up against that conclusion in various forms for quite some time now. I can no longer help but feel that everywhere I look I see a public trusting itself to make decisions together that many of its individuals can barely make effectively on their own – as if by increasing the number of minds involved in a problem we’ll make matters less vague and beholden to chance instead of more so.
I think that Churchill was right when he said (or at least repeated) that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” More right than he probably knew. I say this because I believe that while a democratic system is the best form of government that humans can hope for, this is only so because all of the various forms of government are inherently defective. Democracy just happens to be the least so, and is the system that works best within the framework of human society to promote the general values that most of us now see as important – things like equality and freedom of thought.
There is a tremendous volume of literature explaining the reasons why this is, and I have no intention of delving too deeply into any of those reasons now (though I probably will in the future); but I do want to point out that while there appears to be a consensus in this country that “freedom” is good, there are so many varying specific views about what “freedom” actually is that the consensus itself is irrelevant. Freedom to you may include a right to health care, but to someone else that’s called tyranny.
For about 98% of human history, people organized themselves in relatively small groups whose basic purpose for existing was to protect the gene pool from dying out. They, of course, didn’t think about it quite that way; but the fact remains that humans evolved to navigate social groups of no more than about 150 people. I think that this is more important than most of us realize.
Tribal units are able to make decisions for the tribe that are, while certainly never unanimous, at least mostly understood by the group because every person in the tribe is able to maintain a social connection with everyone else. The lines of communication are truly open and work both ways in small groups; and there can thus be an understanding of a common purpose that I don’t believe can ever exist in a group even as large as a small town, and certainly never as large as a state or nation. Thus, when I hear someone speak about what the “American People” want I am forced to shake my head in frustration and often (much to my girlfriend’s displeasure) yell at the person on the television or radio who said it. The American People don’t want anything, they can’t want anything – not collectively anyway. They’re too big a group for “want” to even have meaning.
I tend to think that this is a point of view that gets overlooked in our media heavy, sound-bite laden culture. Many people seem to feel that they can capture a thought and transmit it succinctly in a manner that everyone can understand. In everything from politics to religion and advertising to economics there seems to be a view that, with study, the collective can be basically understood and communicated with; and that through identifying “trends” determinations can be made that will have some real and predetermined benefit. I must admit that I’m having a more and more difficult time accepting that this is actually the case.
Where advertisers see market trends I see chaos, and where religious institutions see truth I see only conflict. This may be a pessimistic way of looking at the world, but I believe in starting with a simple position and working out from there. And the simplest position I can see at the moment is not that People can be understood but sometimes just don’t know what they want (as some recent political pundits seem to want to infer – hopey, changey?), but rather that large groups of persons can never have their desires made clear to us in a truly meaningful way.
There is probably plenty of evidence that one can bring forth to dispute my claim that it’s pointless to try and truly understand large groups of people, and I must admit I would love to hear about it. However, I find it hard to fathom that the general point I’m trying to make is inherently false. Large groups of People, because they cannot all remain socially connected, cannot make useful decisions together on a consistent basis. And thus People suck at everything – even, as it turns out, democracy.
- Stone Age tribes going to the polls (blogs.berkeley.edu)
- John Perkins: Disappointed in the Elections? Or not? Think Again! (huffingtonpost.com)