I have read that the human animal suffers from something called the optimism bias. This means that we tend to believe that bad things only happen to others. Other people get cancer (thinks the smoker). Other people go broke (thinks the gambler). Other people have terrible accidents (thinks every single driver). Other people die (think the living).
I’ve also read that humans often labour under a ‘belief in a just world’. When I first came across this notion, I thought: That’s nice! That’s something! Then I read a little more, and learned that this phenomenon does not refer to a belief that the world should be just. Rather, it refers to what is essentially a form of superstition, a false attribution, an inaccurate linking of causes to effects—which comes down to this: when something bad happens to someone (that is, to someone else) it’s because they ‘deserve’ it. A ‘belief in a just nature’ is merely an elaboration of this, and was expressed last summer when our east coast burnt to the ground. Many of us smugly claimed (beached safely, on our couches, far, far away), Ha! Mother Nature is roaring in rage!
Likewise, we express a ‘belief in a just nature’ today, when we interpret this global wildfire of illness as being another sign that so-called Mother Nature is avenging us. The canals are running clear in Venice! The hole in the ozone layer is—gone! Indians can see the Himalayas! Goats have reclaimed Wales, roos are hopping through Adelaide, coyotes are strutting their stuff along the Golden Gate! This is the end of the Anthropocene—and the beginning of the post-human era! (We say this gleefully, apparently assuming that—somehow—we’ll be here to see it all unfold: our exceptionalism knows no bounds.)
We do not quibble about the specifics of such knee-jerk pseudo-theories. We do not wonder at how Mother Nature harms anyone—other than herself—when she incinerates millions of plants and animals, or kills off those (the poor, the elderly) who leave the lightest footprints on her rugged earthy back. We ignore, too, how the evidence we use to prove these theories often turns out to be Fake News—that is, evidence of nothing less than the fact we’ll always believe what we want to believe.
Though these two cognitive forces work in quite opposite directions—optimism denies a multiplicity of correct attributions, whereas ‘a belief in a just world’ imposes one false attribution onto everything—they nevertheless coexist quite easily in our minds. And so, when we watch the news reporting on the sick and dead and unemployed, we only see those people, people who are not us, people who will never be us. We watch their catastrophes unfold and we experience something that walks the wobbly line between thought and feeling: we wonder, vaguely, What did they do to deserve that? (Thinking this, we feel better—safer, superior.) We’d admit, if we chose to reflect upon such thought-feelings—such intuitions—that such ways of seeing are unfair, simplistic, cruel, illogical. But superstition is powerful: working at the edge of consciousness, we can hardly help it (and we don’t want to).
Anyhow, as he and I already know from our long life together, delusions have utility. Optimism bias? A ‘belief in a just world’? Yes, we suffer from these distortions—but we survive by them too. How else could we tolerate the insides of our own heads? How else could we tolerate others? And how else could we step out of our homes, if we didn’t each believe ‘it’ll never happen to me’—even as we see it happening to everyone around us?
Things have quietened down into an agitated communal waiting. No longer afraid, or excited, we have begun to blame and complain and—most of all—calculate our losses. Each locked into our own, personally styled Groundhog Day, we increasingly wonder if our government has overreacted to the so-called threat. (For the threat has become little more than a boring rerun on TV, one whose tropes and plots no longer entertain or titillate—and barely even convinced us, in the first place.)
We wonder, For what and for whom has our hypochondriac, agoraphobic caution been enforced? Even the papers are pointing out the troubling fact that the young have been thrown off economic cliffs to save, mostly, the ageing and elderly—that is, the group who holds the most wealth in our society. Boomer bashing has moved from tease to blood sport. Are we doomed to live off their crumbs? No wonder Mother Nature wants them dead—stuffed, as they are, on all that she had to offer, all that they’ve ruined! (We wonder what these furious young will say when they inherit their parents’ wealth. No doubt, by then, they will have found another group to name and shame and blame.)
The analyses—the whys of it all—hardly matter. The reality is this: the have-lots and have-nots have been cleaved further apart than ever. Someone has to pay. Something has to change.
In bed, we exchange predictions about where all of this will lead. (This game, too, has become just another boring repeat.) As evangelical as ever, he declares that socialism will—and must—be born anew. (A claim that always sounds disingenuous, to me, when it comes from the mouths of the overfed wealthy.) I ask him, Are you really happy to have less, so that others can have more? He replies, immediately, Why must I have less, so that others can have more?
Oh yes, it’s as true as ever: delusions have utility. No matter what is going on, we—all of us—lie and lie together.
This text was first published at Arena Online: https://arena.org.au/rewilding-part-iii/
Image credit: https://unsplash.com/@usgs