A Sad Truth About Human Nature

Dear reader, it seems that we are in yet another chapter of the American story when a great many people feel the need to hold up large signboards with statements about their political feelings. Or, to put it another way, protests are in vogue again! What fun! What fond memories this must stir for survivors of the 60s! And yet, your humble author must note that it took the election of a crazed and vulgar elderly orange billionaire (whose every action seems calculated to drag us further into the madness of fools) to prompt this sort of response. Where, one might ask, is this will to act, this fire of spirit, normally? And what shall become of it as time passes?

Your humble author can assure you of the following points: in modern politics mass protests are a sign of a major aberration, sustained protests are rarer still, and action resulting from protests is typically the stuff of fantasy or the fevered dreams of revolutionaries. Protests, as a general rule, do not work — or at least, they do not work if their intent is to inspire politicians to change their minds. And this is due to a simple, fundamental rule of human nature of which, sadly, we must be reminded at regular intervals. And it is:

Most people prefer normality to everything else; the only thing most people look for in tomorrow is that it’s pretty much like today (although perhaps with a new kind of jam, or an extra serving of steak). Consequently as long as a politician does not greatly threaten to make fundamental changes to the lives of the majority, they can usually do as they please.

The Earth itself should shake at such a statement. Birds should fall, dying and in agony, to the ground at its every mention. A great moral outrage should be stirred in the breast of all good people at the mere possibility of such a concept being true. This is the single greatest, most awful indictment of the human race that a soul could possibly contemplate, and yet… there’s a very real chance you’ve already turned back to Netflix, isn’t there? Because you already know this to be true, and you are jaded to its import. And yet, dear reader, your author’s heart shudders for the casual gormless banality, the massively evil potential, and in some cases just the outrageous stupidity of inaction resulting from the seduction of the normal life.

Normality is familiar. Normality is comfortable. Normality is understood; we know where we are with normal, and normal knows where it is with us. Most of us can happily run in our grooves, with minor breaks to visit a normal resort or a normal theme park, for our entire lives. Usually the only thing that drags us out of the rut of normality is a serious problem that must be addressed, or a major opportunity we wish to act on. But most of the time, people will prefer normality to change — even if normal is awful, even if normal is degrading — because making an effort is so much more difficult to contemplate.

Consider this: The only survival characteristics of the human race are ingenuity and the ability to combine our efforts to solve problems. But effort is costly, in terms of money, time, and energy. Effort is also frequently an exercise in uncertainty, which magnifies the perception of its previously mentioned qualities. Therefore typically only serious problems are judged worthy of effort; it’s often perceived to be just as easy to make due with minor razorblades in the cotton candy of life as it is to act to remove them.

And even when one makes an effort, the resulting action must have a tangible impact in order to be judged effective, and thus worthy of sustained effort. And even in such best-case scenarios, an attrition rate among participants must be expected, as illness, boredom, or other priorities set in. This is the old joke about jobs, of course — it’s called a job because they have to pay you to do it! Most political actions do not result in payment, and thus lack an immediate, tangible incentive. And most political actions lack an immediate response, and thus fail the test of an immediate and satisfying impact. And so most calls to political action fail to drag their intended audience away from their normal lives for any great stretch of time.

And thus it is, that most protests represent a flash in the pan — a brief spark, possibly generating smoke and maybe a little fire, but changing very little in any real sense. Thus it was was for Bush, thus it was for Obama, and thus it shall be for Trump, barring any major outrages (admittedly, he is doing his very best to generate national outrages). Because, and here’s the real kick in the pantaloons, there are very few political problems that actually affect the majority of the population, and thus there are pathetically few real-world problems that will convince the average person to break out of their shell of normality long enough to fix them.

The really nasty question, the one that keeps serious social justice thinkers up at night is: “Why should I, the average American, make an effort to protect the rights and privileges of people who are not me?” Because, you see, if someone is not you, than any impact to their life is unlikely to affect your normal day-to-day existence. You can get on perfectly well without most people; that’s an awful thing to say, but it’s quite true. Will your TV stop working if transgender people can’t use the bathroom? Will Starbucks stop selling that drink you like if racial profiling becomes the law of the land? Will your mortgage interest rate go up if Syrian refugees are turned back at the border? Of course not. And as such your ability to empathize, your capacity to care, and your endurance are going to be limited for any sort of action which primarily affects others.

This is the conundrum faced by social and political crusaders throughout the ages, people who desire and require group action to make their goals manifest: achieving their desired outcome requires shaking people out of the soft embrace of their normal lives, and into a new normal that includes some form of useful action. Some of these incendiary souls have come up with more creative solutions than others, of course. But, dear reader, it is my sad duty to inform you that any effort you make that does not speak to the selfish desires of your intended audience will never, ever, produce the result you seek. It is only when the vast majority are oppressed (or think they are oppressed) on a daily and intolerable basis, or are offered some great prize, that anything other than a minor shift in political reality will take place.

And so it is that your humble author (in his temerity) offers the following advice: If you wish to convince your friends and neighbors to engage in actions that do not offer direct and immediate benefits to themselves, your only course of action must be to assure them in no uncertain terms that the sky itself will fall should they not act... that, or offers them the moon on a platter for their efforts. If this sounds like a defense of propaganda, it surely is. If your political soul balks at the use of such techniques, it surely should. But, alas, it does seem to be the only method that reliably works. To convince most men to your cause, you must inspire their least noble impulses. If you can convince them that their normal is in jeopardy, they are yours.

Your author is, as always, so terribly sorry.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.