Why do people do things that they know are not good for them?
I'm not talking about altruism, where you sacrifice something in order to benefit others. I'm talking about doing something that you've been told, over and over, will be destructive to you or your interests and beneficial to no one.
The most obvious examples are the socially acceptable addictions. We Mormons often feel smug about how we don't get hooked on coffee, tea, alcohol, tobacco, or drugs -- but we have our own permissible addictions.
I've spent years of my life playing computer games that blew away time I could have spent creating something. I'm not just talking about the big games that take hours to finish. I'm talking about the nuisance games that you can pop up and play in five minutes. Hearts, four kinds of Solitaire, backgammon, Minesweeper -- they take five minutes but if you play them forty-eight times in a row that's a half a day's work.
I once played Tetris so long at a stretch that I'd start to hallucinate the little clumps of squares. I've given speeches or taught classes while seeing those pieces drifting downward in front of the people I was talking to. When you find yourself mentally rotating nonexistent shapes to make them fit into nothing, you know that you're flirting with self-induced insanity.
Once you're addicted, the compulsion to indulge in self-destructive behavior is well understood. The question is, why do we ever start doing something that we have been told over and over will hurt us?
My wife, Kristine, was talking to her seminary class about this the other morning. The kids mentioned smoking as one of the self-destructive things that kids their age start doing. It's not as if any kid in high school has not been told, over and over, how dangerous and stupid smoking is. But they do it anyway.
Why? One reason is that the negative consequences are so remote. To a teenager, getting lung cancer at age fifty sounds so far-off that they think, I'll quit smoking long before I get that old.
What if, Kristine suggested, the consequences were immediate? What if, when you smoked a pack of cigarettes, a body part fell off? The tip of your ear. A clump of hair. The end of a toe or finger. Would that stop people from smoking?
Some people, sure. But you know that there'd be a bunch of fools who would be so eager to prove they were cool and didn't care and weren't going to do what anybody told them, that they'd cut off some of those body parts just so people would think they were smoking!
When she said this, the kids laughed -- nobody would be that dumb, right? But then one of the students -- Michael Casey -- said, "Of course they'd do it. Yesterday was 4/20, the day when you're supposed to smoke pot, and there were kids at school who pretended they were high, when we all knew perfectly well that they hadn't smoked anything."
I don't know about you, but my wife and I had never heard of 4/20. Wikipedia, that fount of unreliable knowledge, informed us that it began with some kids in San Rafael, California, back in 1971 who met after school -- at 4:20 p.m. -- to search for a patch of cannubis that supposedly was growing somewhere near school. They never found it, but they smoked plenty of pot during the search. They began to call themselves the 4:20 group, and from there 4:20 became 4/20 and so on April 20th true believers in the legalization of pot (otherwise known as "slackers") celebrate by getting wasted.
Except in a Bible belt high school, where they only pretend to be wasted. It's so important to have people think they're breaking the law and doing something stupid that they fake it.
So then Kristine said, "What if it worked the opposite way? What if every time you did something good, a doughnut would fall from the sky?"
There was some enthusiasm for this idea. In fact, a couple of the kids immediately figured out a way to scam the system. You get your doughnut, and then give half of it to somebody else. That's a good deed, right? So ... you get another doughnut.
Eating greasy, sugary desserts -- the Mormon addiction. The drug of choice in the Jell-O belt -- Utah, Idaho, and Arizona.
But the kids also recognized that if you got magic doughnuts every time you did something good -- as interpreted by authority figures -- then how long would it take before the nice guys at school were called things like "doughnut boy," and anybody who ate a doughnut would get ridiculed. The social-pariah words "nerd" and "geek" would be replaced by "doughnut-eater" and "Krispy Kreme."
Now, very few of you are in high school. Though, truth to tell, it's sometimes hard to distinguish the operations of most business offices from the social patterns of the average American middle school.
Why is it that, to many adolescents, at least, being visibly self-destructive actually confers social benefits? Why are so many teenage girls drawn to the guys who smoke, who drive too fast, who do drugs, and who treat them callously or even brutally?
The answer is simple enough: They're baboons and chimps.
No, I'm not kidding. Whether you're a believer in evolution or not, the fact is that we share 97% of our DNA with chimpanzees. And baboons, though they're farther from us genetically, being monkeys and not apes, have created social patterns that are so useful they have been able to adapt to every climate on earth except arctic tundra -- the second-most successful primate species after us.
Like it or not, we are primates, and the impulses that drive primate behavior are present in us as well. An astonishing amount of human behavior is identical to the patterns shown by chimps and baboons -- the only difference is that we're better at talking about it and making excuses.
Any businessman who forgets that he's selling his product to baboons is going to be out of business pretty quickly.
For convenience, let me oversimplify the science and divide primate behavior into two groups -- chimps and baboons.
Chimps organize according to the alpha-male pattern. The troop is dominated by one male -- the biggest one, who beats up any other male who dares to challenge him.
The alpha male is grimly determined to be the only male who gets to mate with the females in the troop. And the females mostly go along with him. The reason this behavior pattern persists is obvious: The strongest male is more likely to make male babies that are strong.
And since the females who cling to him most closely are the ones most likely to get those alpha-male genes, then females who stick with the most brutal and powerful and promiscuous male are also more likely to have strong healthy babies and pass along their genes.
How does the alpha male win his place? He begins by displaying -- making noises and pulling up bushes and beating the ground and his chest and otherwise trying to impress everybody by acting dangerous and destructive. Two males will go at it for a while. If one of them gets scared and backs down, the challenge is over. But if they both continue to believe they can beat the other, then the real violence begins. Chimps are strong, and when they're angry enough, they kill.
Already I think you're recognizing some patterns of human behavior here. You want to display how tough you are? In high school you smoke. You pierce yourself in absurd and painful places, or that cause you to have a serious speech impediment. You shoplift to show how bold and brave you are. It's all display. And here's the thing -- with a certain kind of female, it absolutely works.
But the alpha male is not the whole story. Because there's more than one troop of chimps in the forest, you want to be able to beat the other troops when they come to war against you -- and if you have only one strong male in your group, you'll lose.
The troop needs social mechanisms that'll hold on to other males so they'll be there to fight for the troop during wartime. Primates have plenty of ways for the adolescent males to vent their sexual frustration; I don't need to enumerate the non-reproductive activities that keep them from going insane with lust.
But it's not all empty self-gratification or mutual gratification that keeps the males around. The loser chimps recognize that the Alpha can't be watching all the females all the time, and the females can't all be right next to him -- not if they're going to eat and watch their babies. So the loser chimps who know they can't fight the Alpha pursue a different strategy.
The Alpha tolerates a certain amount of philandering by females who are just starting or ending estrus, when they are least likely to conceive. But the loser males know the same thing, so it's only the adolescent males who fall for the sucker bait.
Instead, the smart loser males stalk the females who are closer to maximum reproductive viability. When they see their opportunity -- the Alpha is distracted, the viable female is isolated -- they run in, grab her, and head for a safe hiding place, where they mate with her by force for several days.
Thus it isn't just the alpha male who passes on his genes -- it's also the stalker and the rapist. And it isn't just the clingy females who reproduce, it's the small, easily dominated ones, who wander off without a chaperone.
If you recognize familiar patterns of human behavior, that's not surprising. But do notice that much of this primate behavior we now classify as crime. That's because in civilized society we don't follow chimpanzee rules -- even though the impulse toward chimp behavior continues to surface in many individuals.
We humans have no shortage of stalkers, kidnappers, rapists, and highly controlling males who never let their females out of their sight. But we regard this behavior as uncivilized, barbaric, indecent. That's because we learned some of the things that baboons have learned.
Baboons often form troops that are far larger than chimpanzee troops. This allows them to defend the troop more successfully, not just against other baboons, but also against even more dangerous predators, like hyenas, cheetahs, even lions.
Baboons can build larger troops because they have taken the first steps toward civilization. In fact, that's what civilization means -- large groups living together. The city.
If you're watching baboons through binoculars -- and for many years, that's what primatologists did -- you see behavior that resembles chimp behavior. There are males displaying and chasing other males around. But when you get up close enough to keep track of the individuals and watch the minutiae of social interaction, you find something very different.
First, the troop really consists of its females. That's because most males enter the troop from the outside -- and then, after about five years, when any daughters they might have fathered are reaching reproductive age, they leave. It's the females who stay.
So you're a new male. You want to mate with this nice new batch of females. So you do what primates do -- you display, you show off how dangerous you are.
But it doesn't work. The females run away -- they aren't interested in you. And the other males don't want to fight you. It's not that they can't fight -- they'll fight savagely to defend the troop against predators or rival troops of baboons. But if you're a displaying male, they won't bother fighting you because there's no point. They don't want to hurt you, they don't want you to hurt them.
The males who have been in the troop for a while have become familiar to all the females. Instead of displaying, which causes the females to run away, the familiar males have cozied up to the females. More to the point, they've made friends with their babies and play with them.
So the new male, hoping to be Alpha, is displaying, trying to pick a fight with you, the insider male. What do you do? You run to a female who has let you get to know her babies. You pick up a baby who likes you. The baby is perfectly happy with you. Then here comes the new guy who's doing all this hooting and dangerous, violent display, and it scares the baby.
The baby cries and screams in terror. All the females and males in the troop respond immediately -- and beat the crap out of the displaying newcomer.
Pretty soon, he catches on and stops displaying. Gradually, he makes friends with females and their babies. He becomes an insider. He is able to mate because the females now accept him as one of the troop.
So the baboon troop holds on to a lot more males. With no long-term Alpha, it's the top female who rules -- and the female hierarchy never, never changes. High-status females may hate each other, may play nasty tricks on each other, but the troop holds together. It keeps its males, but the females, far from being subservient, pretty much get their way.
Am I describing your office? Your family? Your middle school? Your ward?
The more I read about the science of primate behavior, the more I find that many of the most common human behaviors -- even our crimes -- are well within the norms of primate behavior.
Chimps have bigger brains and are better tool-users than baboons. They have better memories and they're stronger and they live longer. They're the primate that is closest to us. But they survive in much smaller numbers and in far fewer locales than baboons. Why?
Because most baboon troops have a better pattern of social organization.
This is a lesson that humans need to remember. We have a great variety of social patterns in human society. We have become so civilized that we can live in huge cities and band together in supercommunities that include hundreds of millions of people. But not all patterns of organization are as good as other patterns. It matters a great deal what rules you follow in organizing a society.
I'm not talking about laws -- though laws usually follow or at least respect the underlying rules.
If you've read Jared Diamond's seminal work Guns, Germs, and Steel, then you understand that patterns of social organization don't explain why some peoples form large, dominant empires and others don't. But even within a region that forms a powerful empires, that is no guarantee that any particular culture there will persist -- or have cultural influence beyond its borders.
If you've read Thomas Sowell's many works comparing the effectiveness of various cultures -- most notably Conquests and Cultures: An International History -- you also know that culture is more powerful than genes in determining which human communities prevail, persist, and spread beyond areas of conquest or colonization.
Chinese culture was so effective in creating prosperity and maintaining a large, stable population that for thousands of years, even when they were defeated by invading barbarians, they quickly absorbed their conquerors and made them Chinese. Except for those in the path of the invaders, it barely affected the lives of ordinary Chinese people. And Chinese culture spread far beyond the regions that were under Chinese rule.
Only when the Communist ideologues took over the Chinese Empire and systematically dismantled one of the most successful longterm cultures ever created did the pattern lapse -- and one can argue that even the Communists are slowly, gradually becoming Chinese.
Egypt had a culture that lasted even longer, despite being conquered by Hyksos, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Only Christianity made serious, lasting cultural inroads (the Egyptian language survives as a living tongue only among diehard Christians there). Then came Islam, which insisted that the Quran could only be studied in the original Arabic. Now the Egyptian people consider themselves Arab.
We can get the idea that species are all about their genes -- that living creatures are just what DNA makes to reproduce itself. And in a way, that's true. But it's no accident that most animal species organize themselves into something like a society. Even the loneliest animals have to organize well enough that they have a chance of meeting members of the opposite sex and reproducing -- or the genes die out.
It is fair to say that most primates have bet their genes on complicated societies. And we humans have made the most radical wager of all: We have moved our strategy for survival almost entirely away from the genes and into the community.
If a human community thrives, then so will the genes of its members. If it has a culture that enhances the survival, spread, and longevity of the community, then it is that culture that provides an evolutionary advantage. Therefore the genetic traits that promote the individual's cooperation with and participation in the community's culture will be the genes that best enhance his genes' ability to survive into the next generation and beyond.
The genes that promote socially useful behavior in large communities have had five or six thousand years to become more prevalent in our species -- but the old genes have not disappeared. (Pro-social, rule-keeping behavior benefits the whole community -- but genes that promote Alpha and Opportunistic male behaviors, and the female traits that support them, can provide individual advantages, provided that most individuals keep the rules.)
In America, we bring together masses of people with little or no genetic connection and make Americans out of them -- people who share a culture that has been radically successful. No other culture in history has been so widely imitated and had such influence around the world, and the Pax Americana has made it possible for any society on earth to participate in our prosperity.
We have done many things that we now understand were mistakes -- but when people condemn American mistakes, it is good to ask them the unanswerable question: Which empire in all of history has ruled with a lighter hand, tolerated more diversity and open opposition, and shared more fully, even with former enemies, the fruits of its victories, than America?
Even now, we ask no other nation to sacrifice as much as we ourselves sacrifice to maintain, militarily when necessary, the world order that provides the greatest worldwide prosperity -- and, not coincidentally, the largest worldwide population -- ever known.
The greatness of a society does not arise from their monuments or superhighways or empires or the internet. Great nations persist through time and space only when and if they develop patterns of culture that meet the basic needs of the baboon and the chimp that lives inside all human beings and then, beyond that, make people happier than competing cultures.
1. A community has to provide reproductive opportunity for the maximum number of its members. In other words, the sex drive of the individual must have a reasonable chance of being satisfied as long as it persists. Reproductive opportunity requires large numbers of people of mating age made available to each other. Governments ignore this at their peril.
(The abortion practices of China have left them with a 60:40 ratio of males to females. That's one-third of all males with no reasonable prospect of reproduction. Anybody who thinks the inner baboons will stand for that doesn't know human nature. The whole world is in danger from those men whose genetic desperation must somehow be mollified or turned outward if the Chinese government is to survive.)
2. A community has to provide reproductive success to as many of its members as possible. Reproductive success, for a long-lived species like ours, is measured by the grandparent test. You not only have children who thrive to adulthood, but you see those children mate and have children of their own.
Reproductive success requires:
1. Prosperity: plenty to eat, protection from the elements.
2. Safety: protection from physical dangers inside and outside the society.
3. Confirmation: males must have reason to believe that they have actually reproduced -- that their genes have been passed on.
(This is why the argument that abortion is solely the woman's decision is absurd, in practical, society-wide terms: The need to reproduce, and know that one has reproduced, is exactly as strong in males as in females, and a society will not last long that leaves men reproductively helpless.)
In summary, then, Reproductive Success requires a strong economy, public safety, and paternal certainty.
Let's agree that any culture that does these things well (i.e., to the satisfaction of its members) is a Good Culture.
It's in the best reproductive interest of the members of a Good Culture that the culture survive and continue to provide its benefits, generation after generation. So a Good Culture also has to be a Strong Culture -- one that can endure over time.
A Strong Culture must be able to:
1. Defend itself against outside enemies.
2. Propagate itself across generations: The children must be educated in the values of the culture that made it Good and Strong and become believers and participants, so it can continue to be both.
3. Command such strong allegiance from its members that they are willing to sacrifice some of their individual desires or even of their compelling interests in order to promote the survival of the culture as a whole.
4. Know itself -- a Strong Culture must have a community of people that identify themselves as its true believers in and defenders.
There is no perfect society, but America came closer than any other known to history. Yet in the 1960s, we began to dismantle it, piece by piece. And today, we have taken a remarkably Good, Strong culture and so deeply damaged it that its ability to survive or to be worth upholding is in serious doubt.
That a community called "The United States of America" will persist for some time is likely, though not guaranteed. But the Goodness of the culture has already been so damaged that it can barely be said to exist. And the Strength of the Culture is eating itself up from within.
How did this happen? It's simple enough: We changed our stories.
That's right. I, a professional storyteller, am telling you that storytelling is the glue, along with ritual, that holds a culture together. Maybe I'm just one more example of the universal human trait that whatever we spend a lot of time and effort on, we come to think of as the most important thing in life.
(That's one of the reasons it's so destructive of families when either or both of the parents spend most of their time and work on a career instead of on home and family.)
But mostly I do only one kind of storytelling: fiction. There are many other kinds. In fact, storytelling is the primary human activity whenever we're together in groups.
Gossip -- telling stories about people that we know or know of -- and why they do what they do.
Biography -- telling really detailed stories about people alive or dead, and why they did what they did.
History -- telling stories about human communities and their leaders, and why they did what they did.
Science -- telling stories about nature and why it does what it does.
Politics -- telling stories about what you're going to do, and why it's not your fault that it didn't work the way you said.
News -- telling whatever story the leaders gave you and pretending that it's true. Oh, wait -- I think I'm telling a different kind of story, called:
Criticism -- telling stories about other people's stories.
There are also rituals that bind a community together -- rites of passage, experiences we all share. Watching movies or television is a Ritual; the content of what we watch is Story. We have rituals like graduations, marriages, passing through airport security, sitting in classrooms, playing sports and games. But we also tell stories about all our rituals -- what they mean. Why they matter.
The stories and rituals of a culture define the culture to its members and to outsiders. The self-definition of a culture is the single most powerful tool in passing the culture on to the next generation and constantly buttressing the allegiance of its members.
A Strong Culture must have powerful stories explaining why it is a Good Culture -- or it will die. Even the best culture can destroy itself if those who hate the culture are successful in getting its members to believe stories that discourage them from having enough allegiance to make sacrifices for it, like:
1. Paying taxes and other costs in property or service.
2. Obeying laws even when they don't fit in with your desires of the moment.
3. Letting the culture educate your children in its values.
4. Sending your children off to fight in wars to defend the culture from its rivals, or going yourself to fight and risk death and injury.
5. Tolerating people and events that the culture insists its members have to tolerate -- including such obnoxious groups as the rich and powerful, the poor and untidy, the foreign and odd, and all others who deviate from the norm in ways that the culture has determined to allow.
6. Confining your sexual and reproductive actions to the boundaries set by the culture.
7. Making the effort to become educated enough in the culture to participate in its propagation.
8. Conforming with the outward values of the culture even when you disagree with them, in order to help maintain the illusion of unity.
These sacrifices are hard, every one of them. That's why it's essential, for the survival of a Good Culture, that it constantly propagate stories that support the willingness to sacrifice. (Propagate shares its root with propaganda -- propaganda is only evil when it promotes an evil culture; it is essential to promoting a good culture as well.)
That's why there is no such thing as a thriving culture that does not have the story "Dulce et Decorum est pro patria mori": "Sweet and proper it is to die for your country." A culture that no one is willing to die for will soon cease to exist, having been supplanted by a culture that does have members willing to die for it.
(Today, our supposed elites no longer volunteer for military service; instead, our military draws its recruits from the more conservative flyover country. Ignorable America. Yet, oddly enough, when I meet with captains and majors and colonels I am constantly struck by the fact that if you want open-minded, deep-thinking, self-critical intellectuals in America today, they'll most likely be wearing uniforms.)
In the 1960s, we started listening to stories that struck at the very heart of our Good, Strong Culture. These destructive stories fall into several groups:
1. The old morality is stupid. You can't stop kids from having sex. Sexual fidelity is old-fashioned and selfish. It will liberate women to let men have sex with them without demanding any kind of commitment from them. Fetuses are not persons and you can kill them without conscience. Men have no right to have opinions about abortion. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Marriage should last only as long as you're enjoying it and it's nobody's fault if it ends. Everybody lies about sex.
2. Amerika isn't really a good culture. We mistreat other countries. We mistreat the poor. When we're in conflict with other countries it's our fault. Of course they hate us -- we deserve their hatred. Their cultures are just as good as our culture -- in fact, they're better. Anybody who wants to be a soldier to fight for Amerika is a crypto-fascist, a violent dangerous person. Good people don't want to be soldiers because soldiers are just killers with permission.
3. God is dead. People who believe in God are ignorant or stupid or, at the very best, deceived. Conservative Jews and Christians who try to promote their values are forcing their religion on other people. Political decisions should all be made without regard to the desires and opinions of religious people.
4. People who don't have the same political beliefs as me are evil or stupid. They should be fired from their jobs. The law should be whatever I want it to be, and laws I don't like should be struck down in any way possible. Speakers, writers, and demonstrators on their side are a public danger and must be stopped, but speakers, writers, and demonstrators on my side are exercising their sacred rights. (Please note -- it's easy to see how this paragraph describes your opponents, but you're not getting the point if you don't also look at the same attitudes when they show up within your own ideological camp.)
5. My side should have complete control of the education of everybody else's children. School is only a meal ticket; all education is vocational training.
6. If you don't give unlimited overtime to the company that hired you, then you're not serious about your career. If you put your family first, you're not a team player. The only law in business is do what works, as long as you can get away with it. The answer to all doubts is: It's business.
7. Forget about the time when the "American dream" was to be independent and self-reliant. Now it's to have all the same stuff other people have and to be guaranteed that you'll have the same rewards as people who are luckier or harder working or smarter than you.
Do these stories sound familiar? They should -- and because so many people believe them, we have the horrible social chaos that surrounds us. Millions of fatherless children, unwed mothers, broken homes, delayed marriages -- in other words: Visible widespread reproductive failure. The inner chimp and the inner baboon are getting frightened and angry, even if they don't understand why.
If you really believe that all the old American stories were evil and worthless (even though they led to America's world dominance, economically, militarily, and culturally), then of course you should try to replace that culture with a better one. But it's a good idea, before striking down the old stories, to be sure you have new stories that will create a culture at least as Good and at least as Strong as the one you're tearing down.
What about me? I write fiction.
That's like politics or advertising, only we fiction writers admit from the start that we make it all up.
Yet fictional storytelling is one of the strongest, most important parts of culture formation and maintenance. Fiction creates the public moral universe.
Fictional stories are still about what they've always been about -- "hunger, love, and death." Or call it "reproduction, community, and identity."
In our made-up stories, we fiction writers tell you, usually without actually saying so, what matters. Which actions and motives make a person noble and good, or despicable and bad. In other words, how an admirable person in the culture we're advocating should behave, and why.
We tell you why people do the strange things they do. We show you how love works and how it fails, what it means to belong to a community or be rejected by it. We show you what causes pain and which pains are worth suffering if the cause it right. We show you heroes who judge themselves harshly when they don't measure up to their own high standards.
And in the past fifty years, I've watched an increasing number of fiction writers turn away from the old values and use their fiction to advocate the ineffective or destructive replacement values.
When Clark Gable took off his shirt in It Happened One Night and showed that he had been barechested under it, he killed the undershirt industry overnight. No man could wear one of those strappy undershirts after that.
That was mere fashion. But Philadelphia Story showed us some of our favorite actors demonstrating that if you don't forgive a man for committing adultery, then you're the evil one; that if you uphold Christian values or even good manners, then you're ridiculous. Basically, we live today in the world that results from believing the moral exemplars of Philadelphia Story. That movie didn't create it all by itself, but it laid groundwork for it.
From most movies, television, and novels today we -- and our children -- learn that the default decision is to have sex with people we barely know, as a kind of way of saying hello. That the only reason not to have sex is that your passions are not yet intense enough; that the only men who don't have sex are geeks, and no admirable woman says, as her reason for refusing to have sex with an attractive man, that she only wants to give sexual access to a male who will enter into a faithful monogamous marriage.
Fortunately, it's not all Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City. Movies, TV shows, and books are still being produced that promote a culture good and strong. They aren't always decorous, but they value what is valuable. Some are BBC productions based on old literature, like Lark Rise to Candleford, the recent Emma, and Cranford. But some of the great television is made in America today, like The Good Wife, The Mentalist, Lie to Me, Medium -- Medium in particular, which shows a good family facing problems together. And Temple Grandin, the best movie of this year, though it was released on HBO and you can't get the DVD until the end of summer.
Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings made powerful books and then powerful movies, with heroes worth absorbing into the public memory. And there are films that try to provide an antidote to the prevailing culture by showing the results of the poison and pointing to a better way: He's Just Not That Into You, for instance, or Dan in Real Life, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the brilliant Spanglish, Seventeen Again, even Up in the Air.
Hollywood and New York have evidence, if they care to notice it, that there is still a substantial audience for the kind of story that supports a Culture Strong and Good. And when you write a story that says a society based on the old proven values is worth fighting for, worth giving up your life for, it can still find a huge audience.
But we stand at the cusp. The people who are trying to remake America according to their theories refuse to see that the result of their replacement stories has been and continues to be devastation. They always assume that the destruction caused by their changes in the culture can only be alleviated by implementing those changes even more fully. And an astonishing number of writers ignore the obvious, proven destruction and continue to write as if these replacement stories actually worked.
But no matter how popular and fashionable the destructive replacement stories are, the culture itself does not forget that its members consist of semi-tamed chimps and baboons. The culture's job is to suppress destructive chimp behavior; when the culture stops doing it, the chimps don't put on suits and become Planet of the Apes. Humans become beasts, and we end up ruled by the worst among us.
Civilized people see, at some level, that the cool destructive stories put their ability to have grandchildren at risk. As monogamy collapses, as marriage becomes an afterthought to reproduction, as young people delay marriage, as men are pushed or drawn out of any meaningful role in more and more households, as philandering Alpha males and opportunistic Loser males face no penalty for their actions and are encouraged in some of them, the role of women becomes less and less secure, children lose faith in everything, and the net national happiness plummets.
The old rules promoted sexual fidelity and universal lifetime monogamy, rearing children in stable families headed by role model fathers and mothers. The fact that no marriage was perfect does not change the fact that the model was worth aspiring to and measuring ourselves against. The replacement rules do the opposite. Who is happier?
The inevitable effect of the replacement rules is drastically decreased allegiance to the society. When the people who pay the tax bills and who maintain the stable families see the surrounding culture as hostile to their interests, they become less and less willing to sacrifice for the good of the whole. They not only don't want to send their children off to war, they don't even want to send them to college, because they know that the professors at most colleges regard their religion and their lifestyle as something to be despised and disposed of.
A Strong, Good Culture can tolerate a certain amount of deviance -- as long as it is marked as deviant behavior. A few rapacious businessmen, a few adulterous Alpha males, a few secret alcoholics, a few atheists on the faculty -- these don't damage the Stories of the Strong, Good Culture, in part because they prove the culture's self-story of tolerance.
But when the deviancy from the norms becomes the norm, and the people who keep to the rules of stability, decency, fairness, fidelity, loyalty, faith, honor, generosity, courage, respect, conformity, and consistency are depicted as deviant in the replacement stories, then you're looking at a society that has decided to die.
It cannot last, because when you declare that selfishness and faithlessness are virtues, then public trust by definition disappears. The community is shattered and it's every man for himself.
The chimps and baboons know when the troop is no longer worth sustaining -- when the males can no longer protect the women and children, when reproductive opportunity and success are less and less likely, when the culture no longer supports the grandparent test.
Nations sink into despair or dissolve entirely, and society re-forms itself in small groups surrounding Alpha males -- the lowest form of society. Tribalism. Balkanization. It's the genocides of Rwanda and Bosnia. It's the suicide bombers. It's the gangs in the city turning into gangs in suburbia.
It's the society that picks a scapegoat and torments her until she kills herself. Do you think that one high school was evil? Think again. It's what happens when there are no more rules of honor and decency and empathy to restrain selfishness and xenophobia and hate. It's the inevitable result of the stories promoted by the would-be replacement culture -- the culture that celebrates the destruction of all the stories that kept the chimps under control and satisfied.
It is social auto-immune disease, where the powerful institutions of authority are turned against the remaining healthy tissue; when it becomes too weak, the whole organism dies.
It has happened over and over again in history, in many different ways. Always, though, when a culture stops fulfilling the promises of civilization, the chimps stop accepting any limits on their behavior. All communities are fictions anyway -- we all agree to pretend we're alike because doing so confers powerful advantages. When the advantages are thrown away, then so is the pretense.
I've told you a lot of stories tonight. I think they're true. I think that for America to survive as a Culture Strong and Good, we must stop telling the stories that are destroying both our Strength and our Goodness, and work to combine the best parts of what's old and what's new into stories that will remake us, into not only a society that can last, but also one which should last.
The stakes are so high that it's worth making the attempt, even if it turns out that it's already too late to keep this culture from self-destruction. Even then, there would still be the hope of building something Good and Strong among the ashes.
Why do people do things that they know are not good for them? Because somebody has told them a lot of stories that sound good, but which are not true. Or because they prefer to go about their own business, thinking that the culture will take care of itself, without any particular attention or sacrifice from them.
America needs better stories, and it needs people who will hear them, believe them, and act on them. You are members of the culture; you act and speak within your homes, jobs, and the many communities you belong to.
I think of my friend, Rick Fenton, a corporate accountant in Greensboro. A year ago, before any Tea Parties, he decided it was not enough to think that our civilization was wrecking itself. He and his family came here to DC, having got the appropriate permission, and held a small demonstration on the mall. Just a handful of people, for just a few hours. Telling a better story; standing up for values that the intellectual elite ridicules and despises. They got no press attention. But their friends knew what they had done, and most admired their courage and determination, and were themselves emboldened by it.
A lot of other people have felt the same impulse in the months since then, and have also spoken up -- people who used to silently let the culture change around them. I don't agree with everything these groups advocate, but I agree with the courage to act, the determination to tell a different story and make a different culture.
I think of the lonely voice of Winston Churchill, telling the story of calamity to come, in a time when nobody wanted to hear the warning, when they thought they could have a peaceful civilization just by giving the monsters what they wanted. That never works, but it took a long time for anyone to hear him. When they finally did, it turned out, barely, not to be too late. But if he had not spoken, when the cost of speaking seemed to be the destruction of his career, then there would have been no story to turn to in order to stand firm in defense of civilization.
You're not Winston Churchill? You're no hero, no leader?
Well, why aren't you? Winston Churchill was only Winston Churchill because he decided to speak, to act. In the world you move in, among the people you know and work with, why aren't you?
Copyright © 2010 Orson Scott Card
Text of a speech given to BYU Management Society - DC Chapter - Banquet 24 April 2010
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