Friday, September 02, 2005

Symmetry

I have a friend who's a member of a private mailing list to which I have been subscribed for many years - since I was in my early twenties. He said something on the mailing list recently with which I strongly disagreed, but when I tried to explain why he was wrong, I wasn't able to do it. I'm going to try again now.

The premise is, what if I were mildly omniscient and omnipotent? I could detect someone in the process of inciting mass murder, and I could take them out, right as the words were coming out of their mouth. In that case, my friend theorizes, mass murder would die out, because people would, after some time, realize that promoting mass murder was a good way to get killed, and would stop.

So the problem with this is that it lacks symmetry. That sounds nerdy, but it's true. Imagine this hypothetical benevolent despot, who knows the moment someone begins to propose some kind of mass killing, and kills them instead. What class does he fall into?

That's right, gold star for you. He's a mass murderer too.

The problem with a lot of what we do is that it's motivated by a wish for me to get what I want, as soon as possible. I'll give you an example: I used to be very much involved in mass transit issues in the Bay Area, at least in my own mind. At some point I realized that there was no way in the world that the mass transit situation in the Bay Area was going to genuinely improve in time to be of any use to me - it was possible that perhaps 20 or 40 years in the future, things would be better, but I was going to have to live in a mass-transitless Bay Area for the forseeable future.

At that point, living in the Bay Area stopped being a good idea to me. I moved for a lot of reasons, but I think this is the one that really killed it for me. The value proposition in my living in the Bay Area had as part of it "good mass transit," which I had hoped to make happen, for my benefit and, theoretically, the benefit of others. When that hope died, the value proposition collapsed, for me.

The fact is that I was not a key part of the movement for better mass transit in the Bay Area, and my leaving didn't cripple that movement, or indeed affect it in any way of which I am aware, so all's well that ends well. But my point is that by and large, we are not satisfied working to change the world for the better unless it helps us personally, at the very least in the sense that we get to see the result of our work. This is an oversimplification - our motivations are more complicated than this - but this is, I think, a key part of what motivates us to try to change the world.

So back to mass murder. Mass murder has existed throughout human history. Archaeological evidence suggests that it predates history, actually.

If we want mass murder to stop existing in our world, we need to understand what it is. It is an idea. Do ideas have power? Yes. Nearly a thousand people died horribly the day before yesterday not because of a suicide bombing, but because of the idea of a suicide bombing. If an idea, planted perhaps accidentally or perhaps intentionally, can kill a thousand people, we have to take ideas seriously.

The idea behind mass murder is this: I can make my world a better place, in time for me to actually experience the benefit myself or see it happen, if only I kill all the people who stand in the way of the implementation of my idea. Put more succinctly, killing can bring a good result faster than those lame, inefficient non-killing ways of getting the result.

My friend is a very nice fellow, who I think is genuinely hurt to see all the horror that has been visited upon his fellow man in his lifetime. He's not a bad guy. But he agrees that killing can bring a good result - that a person who disagrees with him in some way that he sees as urgently harmful can legitimately be killed.

Full disclosure - I have this idea too. I don't want to sugar coat it. I knew intellectually that invading Iraq couldn't bring a good result, but I still wanted it to be the case that an Iraq without Saddam Hussein would be a better place than Iraq with him. Maybe it still will be, but I suspect that the death toll when that happy result arrives will be higher than the death toll that would have occurred if he'd just lived out his natural life and died off. Many despotic governments have been transformed by that natural process, without a single shot being fired.

So the point of all this is that it is this idea that needs to die. We can kill it in one of two ways. One is to kill every single person who has it, which means, eventually, suicide. The other is to fight it on its own ground - install a new, very counterintuitive, very difficult to accept idea: that killing is never an appropriate action. That killing never brings a good result. That if someone is pointing a gun to my head, I would rather die than turn it on him.

Try to imagine what our national response to 9/11 would have been if we all had that idea. If we still believed that as a nation we needed to be active in making the world a better place, but if instead of using guns, we actively went out, at the risk of our own lives, and tried to kill that idea.

2 Comments:

Blogger Will Shetterly said...

Good post. Sometimes I want a big sign on my car that says, "If you want to kill people who want to kill, please start with yourself."

Friday, September 02, 2005 10:06:00 PM  
Blogger Ted Lemon said...

Thanks! It was your blog that originally encouraged me to start blogging myself, so I appreciate the encouragement! :')

Saturday, September 03, 2005 1:26:00 AM  

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