Friday, August 16, 2013

The War on Complacency

If we're really concerned about our ongoing survival on this planet as a species, there's something we have to do. We need to get people - large masses of people - to pay attention to what's going on; to really pay attention to important things, be informed and engaged and actively, critically thinking about our collective situation.

This is not going to be easy, for two reasons. This first is simple: people are kept too busy to think about anything.  They don't have the time, and by the time they have time, they don't have the energy. Participating in society as it is commonly practiced is a lot of work. We're so busy, in fact, that we've entirely lost the knack of paying attention.

We don't see what's actually in front of us. We see what we expect to see.

We don't hear what people say. We hear what we expect them to say - think about how startled you can be when someone says something 'out of character' or 'not like him!'

We go through life on auto-pilot, so focused on what we have to do that we don't take any notice of what's going on around us. That's part of the second problem, which is compounded by the fact that it's very difficult to figure out what we're really supposed to pay attention to: we're bombarded by messaging, commercial and otherwise, 24 hours a day.

Figuring out which bits of that deluge is important - much less true - is an overwhelming task; it's easy to 'opt out' and pretend you're treating it all as meaningless back ground noise.  The thing is, we're more susceptible to that back ground noise than we'd like to admit. We pay a price in terms of our energy and emotional resilience; we pay a price in terms of having our opinions shaped for us.

If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is a hoax, you are likely to believe that climate change is a hoax. If all the voices you hear tell you that climate change is indisputable scientific fact, you are likely to believe that climate change is indisputable scientific fact.

If we don't hear any voices asking questions or expressing doubt (in either direction), we are less likely to ask questions or express doubt ourselves. If it appears like everyone else is going with the flow, we're much more likely to go with the flow too. This is a proven pervasive - not necessarily universal! - tendency in human beings.

I wonder if we can change that tendency and encourage more independent thinking. One way to do this - a valuable weapon in our war on complacency - is to ask people questions. Every day people - the people you work with, or run into at the coffee shop, or while waiting in line. Your family and friends. Go ahead and be curious. Ask them what they think about whatever - the topic doesn't have to be political or controversial, although ultimately, all things are both - and listen to what they have to say.

A lot of times you'll get people who say "I never thought about it..." but now you've started them thinking about it, and chances are they won't stop. We need little nudges and reminders to think about things outside of our ordinary, every day existence. We need reminders that the world is bigger than our own neighborhood. Most of all, we need reminders that there are as many ways to see the world as there are people, and the more different perspectives we're aware of, the better, wiser decisions we'll be able to make ourselves.

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