By Robert A. Vella
Last week, I had a very interesting conversation with a visiting relative. We discussed a wide range of topics, and I greatly appreciated his perspective as a late Gen Xer who resides in a culturally distinct region from my own. One of the topics we delved into was the human psychology behind the escalating public distrust of our social institutions.
When I conveyed my concerns about civil society breaking down from the rise of narcissism, hubris, and uninformed subjective opinion amongst the populace, he said something I didn’t expect:
“It’s like devolution.”
He went on to suggest that this apparent return to our primitive past, where intellectualism and humility were denigrated as feeble and effeminate, is at least partially due to modern consumer technology. Specifically, he cited how cellphones and other electronic devices are alleviating people of the everyday activities which help keep our minds sharp and counter our inclination towards laziness.
It was an insightful observation which is receiving a lot of sociological study these days; and, that it came from a younger person whose life is immersed in such technology, is even more impressive.
Our conversation continued as we explored the psychological aspects of this phenomenon.
I asked him, as a layperson, if he would disregard the informed opinion of a doctor regarding surgery or challenge an aircraft pilot while performing flight duties. He replied that he would only if it was meaningful and necessary. Then, I asked him if it was only a difference of opinion. He hesitated for a moment in contemplation unsure about his response. I offered an example of a person I know who adamantly answered “yes” to my question. He seemed surprised that anyone could be so brazen. I explained that this person dropped out of the education system before high school and grew up in a secluded, culturally restricted community.
I’m relating this conversation today not because we should never question accepted knowledge or professional expertise – far from it. All humans are fallible and all people make mistakes no matter their education, training, experience, and character. I am relating it because we are at a pivotal point in time when our very future depends on what we do in the here and now.
Why is this spread of narcissism and hubris happening? Why are we so obsessed with our own opinions particularly those which are demonstrably uninformed? Is it due to intellectual devolution as suggested by my family member? What compels us towards the mentality of I believe it, therefore it must be true? What makes us prioritize our philosophical beliefs over empirical knowledge? Don’t facts matter anymore? Are our worsening culture wars blinding us to our shared humanity? Can we not see, or do we not care about the purposeful and disingenuous agendas of extreme ideologies? Where there is truth, must it always be destroyed? When we argue about everything, how can we accomplish anything?