Familiarity breeds idealism

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An object or idea that appears familiar yet is not an objectively defined subject is often given more attention — albeit, perhaps only for a brief period of time — than the supposed absolutes. A buoy which appears to be a seal might attract more onlookers than an actual seal, if its true identity remains a mystery for a few inexperienced sea-goers. Likewise, people speculate about the future as if observation would make an unseen thing visible, or give random data meaning, without realizing that they are robbing themselves of the present sights.

Mysticism, rather than fact, intrigues. It’s easier to comprehend, because no rigorous tests are there to fence it in. Organized mysticism, commonly berated as conspiracy and commonly excused as religious or political affiliation, attracts attention like the tail of a Cantil Viper, which — bearing resemblance to a worm — lures ignorant prey for consumption.

Taylor’s cantil viper (reptiles.org)
Taylor’s cantil viper (reptiles.org)

I grew up loving myth and misunderstanding history, unless it was given relevance via civics or interest via passionate retelling. Admittedly, I’ve always had a strong preference toward discerning the myth from the history. Parts of the past were so vastly removed from my experience that reading about past events was my fairytales. Nonfiction has been a refuge for me for as long as I can remember. After all, people are just as strange, and advances just as magical or alarming — or both — as any work of fantasy.

Between the first and second grade, I spent an entire summer reading and rereading Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (unabridged, which took considerable effort as I shifted between the book itself, a dictionary, and my poor mother). All the fiction therein spoke to the ideas with which my young, rapidly developing brain still toyed, and it was then that I became addicted to the idea of application. If it could be applied, it was true. And if it was true, it could be applied.

So I decided to start reading from the “truth” section of the library, thinking that I’d cut to the chase and abbreviate my search for little shortcuts. I didn’t know how to make friends, and I didn’t know much about the world around me. While no elementary school child consciously seeks out methods to streamline their life, everyone is searching for a sense of belonging. And I was no exception.

Politics, in the age of social media overload, have become a way of belonging to a certain club. Feeling the Bern? Saving the world from racism with #BlackLivesMatter? Rebelling against the system with the 99 Percent? It’s hard to keep it all straight without falling into the space between fact and fantasy.

Idealism often finds its root in a failure to discern the application of truth from a false conclusion that something is true simply because it can be applied. When scientists seek out facts to better suit their theories, we hope someone calls them out on it. When we begin to agree with everything that falls on the political spectrum with which we personally align, we fall prey to the lurking idealism we mistake for advocacy.

If you say any phrase often enough, it begins to sound a lot saner than its content. On the contrary, unfamiliar terms and ideas are easier to demonize with less exposure. But like Jessica Rabbit, they aren’t bad, they’re just drawn that way.

Certain ideas in Western society, certain dogmas in our culture and popular religion, need to be exposed as mythological. Many conservatives I know discount the idea of a minimum wage over $13 per hour without comparing it to the cost of living, and many liberals I know look down on people who drive trucks and go on hunting trips without considering the actual population of animals in rural areas of the United States. I’ve been judgmental on both sides, not for valid and factual reasons but for clinging to the ideals of my youth. People would like to think that we make decisions based on rational thought, but we make most decisions based on how we feel about our supposedly “rational” thought.

It feels better to be on one side of all the issues, I noticed, because it means you have a group of people who hold the same beliefs rallying around you in support of “your” ideas. Quite frankly, none of the ideas I’ve developed were mine at all. I borrowed, stole, plagiarized and revamped most of my ideas about relationships, leadership, work, education, government, family, cleanliness, practicality, expression, commitment, et cetera, from the people I’ve admired and the society I’ve grown up within. Whenever I’ve drifted from that, it is quickly apparent that I’m in uncharted waters.

One of our contributors, Jeff Worman, had a front row seat to global warming when he spent about four months in Antarctica. In the photo above he is atop Castle Rock with volcanic Mount Erebus in the background, near McMurdo Station, Ross Island, on the Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Jeff Worman)
One of our contributors, Jeff Worman, had a front row seat to global warming when he spent about four months in Antarctica. In the photo above he is atop Castle Rock with volcanic Mount Erebus in the background, near McMurdo Station, Ross Island, on the Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Jeff Worman)

I have two cousins who don’t believe in Global Warming. One graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering, and the other has his Masters and works with nuclear scientists. Do I think Bernie Sanders and 99.9 percent of Hollywood insiders somehow have a deeper grasp on the scientific data than they do? No. I don’t think they’re necessarily wrong. I think they both are holding out for the proof that we can truly determine a longstanding trend of Climate Change connected to very specific human activity.

However, I also think that’s a bit like the social scientists who try to strategically find the specific causes of birth defects in Cocaine-exposed babies as opposed to Methamphetamine-exposed babies. (See the Brown Study for an example of that.)

It’s impossible, in my mind, because most drug addicts aren’t exactly monogamous with their substance use, and genetics are complex. What we do know is that it’s better to take vitamins than smoke crack while you’re pregnant, just as we know less pollution is better than more pollution. Personally, I like the idea of paying attention to quantifiable data on weather patterns, and NASA reports a consistently rising sea level, as well as a global temperature increase of 0.23 degrees Fahrenheit between 2014 and 2015, while rising almost 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit between 2015 and 2016. (Ignoring facts is fun, but did you know Melanoma rates are actually higher in Washington and Oregon than in some sunnier states where people can’t afford to “ignore” the sun?)

Yet, at the end of the day, we need to acknowledge that everyone evaluates facts differently, and that we could well discover a group of people bending facts to fit theories, both in the higher ranks of power and in our ordinary selves.

Will your conservative friends think you’re a wimp for endorsing a harsher stance on gun control? Maybe. Will your liberal friends think you’re the devil for offhandedly rattling off a racially insensitive joke? Maybe. Will your religious friends secretly find your “Merry F***ing Christmas” sweater offensive? Maybe. Will your secular friends tease you for giving up alcohol during Lent? Maybe. Will you all be victims of idealism over factual analysis at some point? Most definitely.

Top photo: Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado (Tim Forkes)