Monday, April 9, 2018

The potential to make positive messages go viral in dark times

Although this is an old post on Corpus Callosum, I thought it worth highlighting:
As we sift through history, we see that there have been many who would have changed the course of events for the better. Sometimes, the geometry of the Universe permits this; sometimes, it impedes it. History has a lesson for us.  As the Roman empire was crumbling, and the Dark Ages began, there was a great struggle among theologians.  They cast aside Plato, and with him, his beloved tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, and dodecahedron. Worst of all, even the supremely elegant icosahedron was tossed back into the sea. They thought the cross would solve everything.  Alas, they could only think in two dimensions. One of them dared to dissent.  He carried the peculiar name Pelagius.  He promoted the idea that humans are basically good, and that it is through their free choice of actions that they keep themselves good. In contrast, the predominant view at the time was that of St. Augustine, who believed that humans were fundamentally tainted by the original sin, and any good they had, came from the grace of god. The geometry of the Universe was not kind to Pelagius, although ultimately he managed to avoid the worst of fates.  From Wikipedia:
When Alaric sacked Rome in 410, Pelagius fled to Carthage, where he came into further conflict with Augustine. His follower Coelestius was condemned by a church council there. Pelagius then fled to Jerusalem, but Augustine's followers were soon on his trail; Orosius went to Jerusalem to warn St Jerome against him. Pelagius succeeded in clearing himself at a diocesan synod in Jerusalem and a provincial one in Diospolis (Lydda ), though Augustine said that his being cleared at those councils must have been the result of Pelagius lying about his teachings. Augustine's version of Pelagius's teachings about sin and atonement were condemned as heresy at the local Council of Carthage in 417.
Those are the people who told us to put away childish things.  Those are the people who cast aside the icosahedron as a mere trinket.  But it so doing, they brought us the Dark Ages. The online Catholic Encyclopedia contains the following commentary about Pelagius:
Meanwhile the Pelagian ideas had infected a wide area, especially around Carthage, so that Augustine and other bishops were compelled to take a resolute stand against them in sermons and private conversations.
Imagine that, being infected with the notion that humans are fundamentally good.  Is it some kind of virus?
I saw in this passage a reminder that the concept of ideas going "viral" has been with us as a species for a long time - easily predating the current era of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat and a plethora of social media platforms (within the context of which we usually discuss news, ideas, gossip, videos, and such going viral) and undoubtedly going well back to a time when we relied upon the oral tradition as our medium for communication. Clearly, the power structure of the Church of Pelagius' era considered his ideas viral in a negative sense, due to their subverting the prevailing dogma. And yet one could make a case that Pelagius' ideas were viral in a more positive sense, as a potential cure to the oncoming darkness, to the extent that those open to his ideas might see the path to salvation in a much more positive view of themselves and their fellow humans. Under better circumstances, Pelagius' ideas might have been more successful. I am reminded of a scene from the film I Am Legend in which the protagonist Robert Neville discusses Bob Marley with Anna:
He had this idea. It was kind of a virologist idea. He believed that you could cure racism and hate… literally cure it, by injecting music and love into people’s lives. When he was scheduled to perform at a peace rally, a gunman came to his house and shot him down. Two days later he walked out on that stage and sang. When they asked him why – He said, “The people, who were trying to make this world worse… are not taking a day off. How can I? Light up the darkness.”

As a social psychologist and especially as an educator, my work involves injecting something different into people's lives: the intellectual skills needed to think sufficiently critically as consumers (and hopefully producers) of science and as consumers of mass media. The messages I try to make go viral involve actively following the data wherever they may lead us to find closer and closer approximations of the truth, and in doing so setting us free. Even better, each of us has the power to learn these skills and use them. They require effort and discipline, but in time, any one of us can develop expertise in an area that can change others' lives for the better.

We live in troubled times, as events over the past two years have made abundantly clear. It appears at times as if we as a species are staring into the abyss of darkness once more. What ideas, what actions, might go sufficiently viral in order to instead make this world better rather than worse? Who among us will light up the darkness? Will we each do so in our own way?

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