This is my favorite page on Wikipedia.
It’s a called List of Cognitive Biases, and besides showing what a nerd I am, it basically maps out all the ways in which our brain, on a daily basis, screws up how we perceive the world. These aren’t vague ideas, or suggestions – for the most part, they’re laboratory-tested, easily repeatable things that all of our brains do wrong. Some of them are familiar: the Gambler’s Fallacy (“If I just got three heads in a row, the next flip MUST be tails!”); Hindsight Bias (“Oh, yeah, I KNEW she was going to do that.”); and, getting into sinister territory, the Just-World Hypothesis (“Wow, look at that prisoner. He must’ve done something AWFUL! Fuck him.”).
There are well over a hundred of these biases, just listed on the one Wikipedia page; and, as amazing as it is to go through that page and just “click!” “Oh, I do that!” “click!” “Oh my God, that too!” it’s still a tiny amount. We’re juuuuuust starting to understand ourselves. Philosophers posited the atom in India and Greece in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, and the physical world has been studied for as long as we’ve been a species, if not longer. But the social survey didn’t exist until around the 1000’s; many people consider the 14th-century Arab Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun as the first sociologist; and the term sociology wasn’t even defined until 1780, in an unpublished manuscript by French essayist Emmanuel-Joseph Saiyes.
Our very own Sigismund Schlomo Freud didn’t start hypothesizing about what makes individual human beings tick until the late 1800s, and the first social psychology experiment, fusing the social with the psychological, wasn’t published until 1898, when Nathan Triplett wrote down his findings of Social Facilitation, the idea that people do better on simple tasks with other people around. The machine gun, the telephone, the automobile and aspirin are all older than the scientific field of social psychology.
That being said, we humans waste no time applying what we learn – in the hard sciences. Plutonium was first discovered in 1934, and first synthesized in a lab in 1940. In 1945, a billion dollars later, it was used twice to kill 330,000 Japanese men, women and children.
We like hard sciences. They’re clean and neat. It’s easy to see how, if we don’t use an atom to wipe out some people across an ocean, they’ll use it to wipe us out. It’s relatively easy, once somebody makes a computer, to make a smaller, lighter, faster computer. You just use the first computer to design the second one, and invest your time and money and labor; boom, better computer. Since the Industrial Revolution, we’ve had a lot of great role models for this kind of thing.
But we don’t like to be studied. Maybe it makes us feel vulnerable. Our role models in understanding and controlling people using social psychology are all bad. Macchiavelli has a bum rap. Hitler, Stalin and every cult leader since the dawn of time have earned their bad raps a million times over.
Think about that… control. To control a situation scientifically, or even politically, is good. “I got our water pollution problem under control.” “The riots are under control.” “You’ve really got the town pee wee soccer team under control.” All good things. We like control.
But the nuclear bomb of the 21st century is people, and we don’t want to properly control ourselves. Israel / Palestine is just one of the many challenges we’ll have to face. We’re entering a world with not enough food or water; a planet that’s warming so fast, some of our big cities are going to drown; a post-Cold War, post-Pax Americana era where several superpowers share the stage and nobody really knows what will happen next. On September 11th, 2001, we didn’t merely see two planes crashing into two buildings; we saw two societies, from vastly different perspectives, crashing and burning and becoming worse together. We saw unresolved problems resolving themselves through violence, which, given how tribal we are, is our default setting.
“Then came a Pharoah in Egypt who knew not Joseph.” Our own bible provides ample history lessons on the fickleness and frailty of human society. We went to Egypt to search for food. Our patriarch, Joseph, advised the Pharoah and interpreted his dreams. Our people ate, labored, multiplied, and became numerous.
And then came a Pharoah for whom our numbers scared him – that is to say, a very ordinary human being. He saw foreigners in his midst, and he used us for slave labor. It took two hundred years, the intrigue of a few family members, a burning bush and ten massive plagues to extract ourselves from the war of tribe over tribe. All we wanted was to leave, and we remember God’s deliverance; but we forget how easy it is to do evil, how natural it is to want to control something that threatens your turf.
We look across the wall we’ve built, to our subordinate, fast-multiplying, threatening class of brown people in the West Bank, and we fear them. We fear their “lack of civilization,” we fear their “savagery,” we fear their numbers. Even when we talk about forming one secular state with no preference for one religion, one people or another, we fear their numbers.
Of course any number of arguments will separate biblical Jews from modern-day Palestinians, the story of Passover from the saga of the modern-day Middle East conflict. But the people do not change. People are not really genetically different from each other, not in any way that matters to group behavior. Which leaves circumstance as our only rationale for acting as we do. Circumstance and our own brains, so well-adapted to the reality of Great Ape warfare that is our inheritance.
Israel is supposed to be a light unto the nations, and there is still time. But we need to trust what we’ve learned about ourselves. We cannot fear that by applying the Contact Hypothesis, which lays down conditions for cooperation between former adversaries, that we will be turning into little Hitlers and Stalins; we cannot fear that self-control is evil. We have to trust our eyes and our brains which God has given us, and apply the wisdom with which God has graced us. When the Contact Hypothesis says that both sides need to be interdependent, not in a mutually predatory relationship; when it says that both sides must be treated as equal by a superior authority, as opposed to one with a state and one without; when it says both sides must work together towards a common goal, this is something which cannot have preconditions. It is our last, best and only hope to make the Holy Land holy, and not a raging contradiction of holy speech with profane action.
We must take that final step and liberate ourselves, from our own psychological limitations. We are Chosen to be better than the basest human instincts, and we must take that challenge seriously. This Pesach, may we resolve to liberate those who are oppressed, and to understand that that is everybody. Liberation today requires that we read our owners’ manual for our minds, and reconfigure ourselves to succeed where earlier generations have failed.
This is my favorite page on Wikipedia.