The Curious Case of the Thing That Wasn’t There

We’re in danger of losing our world.

An addlepated madman is in charge of the world’s most powerful nation, while the (formerly) most open and progressive nation in Europe has decided to shoot itself in the foot. Countries are rushing to create autonomous death machines while lining up for war with one another. Global warming is now a locked-and-loaded catastrophe that threatens our very existence. In short, everything is unraveling.

How did we get here?

We’re a wise species. It’s how we got our name: homo sapiens, literally “wise (hu)man.” We’re the species that invented writing, space travel, universities and iPhones. We’ve been to the moon and the bottom of the ocean. We wrote Hamlet, the 9th Symphony and Madame Butterfly. We may even conquer death this century.

So how did we become so stupid? The answer may be simple: a belief in things that aren’t there.

Donald Trump rode a wave of populism based in no small part on a belief in the sanctity of the white race, and gripping tales of the minorities threatening it. Vladimir Putin enjoys the acquiescence of the Russian people by tapping into their insecurities, allowing them to project their egos onto his image of the archetypal Russian strongman. Chinese leaders continue to channel memories of western domination to legitimize their militarism.

In short, the world is unraveling because of a belief in things that aren’t true, whether it’s the sanctity of a given skin tone, fears of vulnerability, or a belief in the inherent superiority of your civilization. None of these things are real: they’re ideas, and ones that are easily deflated. Race is a construct. Vladimir Putin is not a strongman: he’s an autocrat whose opponents have a habit of dying in suspicious ways. Britain is leaving the European union because of made-up crap. A misbegotten belief in a God that wants you to vote Republican put Donald Trump in power.

Telling you what you want to hear.

How does a species of wise men and women come to believe in things that aren’t true. And what can we do about it?

The answer is that people have a tendency to believe in things that make them feel good, regardless of any reality associated with said things. Want your God to tell you to get rich and carry guns? You’ll find a way to believe that, even though his son came to earth as a dirt-poor pacifist. Think you’ll feel safer the bigger your military? So do lots of other people. Want a father figure to make you feel stronger than everyone else out there? There are no lack of world leaders willing to step up to that challenge.

Unfortunately, the antidote to a belief in things that aren’t there is neither palatable nor easy to swallow. Educating people out of their ignorance is a long process, and not at all guaranteed to deliver results. Humility is a tough sell; being powerful and bullying others can feel a lot better. Vulnerability is uncomfortable, and not exactly something nations are willing to embrace.

The solution.

As with all socio-political change, turning our backs on these phenomena will happen only if and when brave souls are willing to step up and challenge the societal norms and authority figures that perpetuate things that aren’t there. Then, after a few decades of broad-based public education, societies stand a chance of developing the maturity and self-knowledge to disavow things that simply aren’t true. It happened in the 1950s and ’60s across America. It set the stage for a defeated and angry post-war Germany to emerge as Europe – if not the world’s – current champion of freedom and democracy.

It can happen. It’s uncertain whether it will.