“The leopard doesn’t change its shorts”

What with one thing and another recently, it seems to me that society’s collective blood pressure is reaching a critical point. Aside from the white supremacy, political absurdity at home and abroad, online ragestorms from a variety of sources, &c, I see microcosms of hate, fear, and intolerance play out on the individual level. I am left shocked, astounded, miserable, depressed, desperate. A small and old part of my psyche feels vindicated that people are indeed gratuitously, unashamedly horrible after all.

Most of me doesn’t want to believe that. By and large, I think that people are fundamentally capable and willing to do good things, and that these good things outweigh the bad. At least, they try to. But in the modern world of social media, negativity spreads much faster than its more desirable counterpart. I am left asking: why do these things add up so fast? How have we raised each others’ hackles to the point of cardiac arrest? What is our collective failing, and what collective good can help us fix this?

My answers stem, of course, from my personal philosophy. At my core, I think that there is a limited set of core beliefs which people hold. These beliefs dictate how we respond to threats, society, happiness, and other people. They might very well be contradictory, factually incorrect, or incomplete. But here is the key part: beliefs affect our response to the world, and the world likewise affects what we believe. Beliefs are what make us who we are, and whether we allow them to change a lot or a little makes the difference to our lives. One of my beliefs is that we must be conscientious arbiters of how strongly we let our beliefs change. Beliefs are supposed to change, but it is our responsibility to filter out the noise of our experiences so that we can effectively adapt. Belief without change is faith, but with too rapid change it is mere reaction.

Not only do I think that consciously re-evaluating beliefs is good for us, I understand that the outside world has an effect upon how easy it is for us to change our beliefs. In many ways this draws me to seek out contradictions to my beliefs, but it has another important effect, which at last leads me to my point: I must always allow other people to change their beliefs, too. Too much effort is made to shame racists who are reforming. Too many words have been wasted on politicians who are actually trying to change their minds away from intellectually bankrupt ideologies. Too many ideologues are mired in their rhetoric because others insist they haven’t, nay cannot change. We should all take more responsibility for positively encouraging others to curate and examine their collection of beliefs.

I shall forever remember a speech at my wedding, where the audience was encouraged to recognize the way that small negative interactions accumulate.

these bonds [of love] are not unbreakable; love doesn’t necessarily conquer all, as the great romantics might suggest. But rather, every tiny aggression or barbed remark, every insult, every argument, and every indifference we suffer from those we care about, erodes those bonds. In a wider sense, every tiny human tragedy chips away at that ability to empathise with one-another; at the sense of our common humanity. You don’t have to look far today to see just how strained our collective understanding has become.

At a time I was expecting to feel overjoyed, I was utterly humbled, and that day I allowed my beliefs to change. These words ring especially true in the age of the internet, where we have artificially created barriers to examining our own beliefs (hello, Reddit) while paradoxically lowering the barriers to harassment (what’s up, Twitter), thus preventing others from effectively curating theirs. This self-imposed tribalism prevents our human brains from acting as they evolved to: to learn, adapt, refine our models of belief. We are neural networks with over-specified training data, and we are incrementally forcing each other back into our old tired patterns. No wonder our collective pulse is steadily rising.

A human is the sum of their gradual changes of heart, and the best humans have learned how to change their hearts effectively. But the key part is that they have been allowed to do so by those who surround them – their surroundings have helped them to become, gradually, great people. In doing so, they return the favor to those around them. Just by allowing others to change their beliefs, we exemplify the best of our species. You can do that, too.

If we can’t solve these self-imposed problems, I await the heart attack with a healthy dose of trepidation… and a pinch of schadenfreude.


About stoove

A physicist, researcher, and gamesman. Likes to think about the mathematics and mechanics behind all sorts of different things, and writing up the thoughts for you to read. A competent programmer, enjoys public speaking and mechanical keyboards. Has opinions which might even change from time to time.
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