Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Making a Difference

Today's blog will read more like pop-philosophy than I typically write. However, I have a couple of ways of looking at the world around me and my place in it that some might find interesting.

It may seem that, in such a large world with so many people, that there is little that any one of us could do that could actually have a real impact on the course of civilization. There are over 6 billion people on the planet right now. How many of them are going to make much of a difference in this world?

All of them.

Not all of their contributions will be good. However, they will all have an effect - and they each have the opportunity to choose whether their effect on those who are near them will be positive or negative.

Think of it this way. You are on an island with two hundred people. Every villager has an opportunity to make an important contribution to the village.

If we were to add another village on the other side of the planet, the original agent's contribution to his village does not dimish one bit. If we were to add a hundred villages, or a thousand, or six billion people all interacting, our capacity to have a positive or negative effect on the communities we belong to does not change.

Sometimes, I imagine the course of civilization as analogous to a large, heavy body moving through space. One of the things that physics teaches me is that, no matter how massive a body may be, and no matter the other forces acting on that body, a body drifting through space cannot resist even the smallest force acting upon it. Every force produces some movement - some acceleration - in the direction that the force is aiming at. Every force has some measure on the movement of that object through space.

That force will continue to have an effect until the end of time. Even when that force ends (even when we die) the effect of each nudge given to that object will still be there, still causing the object from being someplace at least a little different from where it would have otherwise been.

Will it be in a better place, or a worse place, than it would have otherwise been?

I have written before of how this comes with a certain amount of anxiety - a worry that I am not, in fact, pushing society in the direction it should go. This means constantly checking my arguments for soundness. I sincerely do not want to spend all of my effort nudging society 'over there' only to have it be the case that 'over there' is not such a good place to be.

These concerns are all the more real when combined with the idea that every posting has some effect - small, perhaps, but not 'zero' - in the direction that the world community travels.

Words are not the only things that have an effect. Actions have an effect as well. Whenever we act in a particular way we not only create direct effects from our actions, but we endorse a set of principles that suggest that it is okay to be doing that action.

For example, the drunk driver not only risks the possible effects of driving while drunk. He also endorses drunk-driving as a legitimate activity. He is telling others, "I think it is okay to go ahead and drive home, even when you put the lives of others at risk." By saying this to others, he makes it more likely that others will do the same thing. On the other hand, the person who refuses to drive while drunk also sets an example for others.

Even subtle actions that we often do not think about have an influence on the direction that society travels. We help to determine what shows are on television, what books are on the shelves, and what shows up in the news.

Fox News exists in its current form because people choose to have it as a part of their society. These are people who care more about dogma than truth - and Fox News Channel seems quite content to tell people the lies that people want to hear. Yet, this situation exists because a lot of people have decided to use their spare time nudging society in the direction where partisan dogma and lies are called 'news.'

The web sites we choose to visit, the books we choose to read, the music we choose to listen to, the television stations we choose to watch - every one of them is a nudge, however slight, pushing society in the direction of, 'can we have some more.'

There is an argument that says, "my vote does not count because I cannot influence the election.' If we measure the importance of a vote by the percent chance of altering who wins or loses the election, every voter can reliably predict that his vote is not important.

Except, the margin of victory also matters. It does not determine who wins or who loses the election, but it does communicate praise or condemnation. If a particular candidate can with 80% of the vote (in a free and open election), then this is high praise.

These considerations tie in with my major objections to legislation approved of in Congress regarding the treatment of detainees. The two most common objections that I have heard (and two that I have raised myself) rests with the fact that we are destroying safeguards that are meant to prevent us from harming innocent people (showing that we do not really care whether we harm innocent people), and the fact that other countries may decide to do to Americans what we claim we have the right to do to these detainees.

However, the third and most significant problem with this detainee legislation is simply that it promotes a culture in which torture, arbitrary arrest, indefinite imprisonment, and other forms of injustice are acceptable. It is not just a matter of Americans treating others unjustly or them doing the same to Americans. It is a matter of a world in which the unjust treatment of prisoners becomes the worldwide norm - where people cease to object to the torture, abuse, and unjust detainment of prisoners.

I know . . . I know . . . all prisoners are guilty and deserve torture and abuse merely because they are prisoners. I keep forgetting that little fact.

This is how one makes an impact on society - by helping to shape the type of culture that exists. By words and actions, each of us decides what becomes more common, and what becomes less common, in society as a whole. The claim that, "I can't make a difference," is simply false. Every one of our choices - what we watch, what we read, what we do, what we say, and how we vote - makes a difference.

It has a large effect on those who are nearest to us.

Yet, it also has an effect – a real effect – on society as a whole, nudging it a bit towards one set of values or another.

The only question is: What type of difference are we going to make?

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