Or, using your mind to make the world a better place while avoiding making an ass of yourself on social networking sites.
وَمَا لَهُم بِهِۦ مِنۡ عِلۡمٍۖ إِن يَتَّبِعُونَ إِلَّا ٱلظَّنَّۖ وَإِنَّ ٱلظَّنَّ لَا يُغۡنِى مِنَ ٱلۡحَقِّ شَيۡـًٔ۬ا
And they have no knowledge of that (which they speak of); they follow only assumption, and assumption does not avail to replace the truth at all.
–The Holy Qur’an, 53:28
“لا ضرر ولا ضرار”
“Neither harm nor malice.”
–Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him.
In the past few months I’ve grown increasingly frustrated (and obsessed) with two phenomena in the modern world: social-network activists, and terrorists. I am annoyed by all the rants I see on Facebook that are, too often, uninformed; I am irritated by the unproductive posturing and jousting of Twitter warriors. On a more serious note, I am pained and confused by the news I hear every day of bombings and shootings around the world, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and so many other places. These are attacks in which innocent people are killed by the dozens and even hundreds.
So I’ve decided to kill two birds with one stone and write one basic, introductory piece about intellectual laziness and extremism. Why don’t people just stop and think? Why do terrorists seem to have no regard for innocent life? Why don’t they try to be informed and reasonable, as opposed to ignorant, narrow-minded and dogmatic? As far as I’m concerned, there are two common and sacrosanct pillars in any social contract: that truth is good and should be intelligently pursued; and that innocent life should not be taken—period.
This piece is about gaining knowledge, on any issue. It is not intended as an empirical and exhaustive examination of epistemology, or as a manifesto of thought. That’s beyond my expertise. I’m just an amateur. It’s also about what we can call proper manners. At the very least, I’m hoping for calm, reasoned and principled discourse. Sure, the other guys (i.e. whoever opposes you on an issue) might not (probably will not) go along. The propaganda machines, from both sides, will still try to steamroller over your ‘calm and rational’ speech, and you will be condemned by all factions for not saying what they want. But is it really all that beneficial to do as the other guys do? Is it really productive to adopt an attitude of bloody vengeance and raging escalation? Humans have answered ‘yes’ to both those questions, with few notable exceptions, since the dawn of human history. Today’s world is the result of such folly, and the blood-stained, lie-riddled history books are the testament. Principles must hold some real weight in determining our actions; else they are nothing but platitudes we post on Facebook, to garner some ‘likes’ and feel better about our blind lives of crass indulgence.
I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t like how the world looks now (allow me to elaborate: warfare and massacres left and right, environmental problems, economic crises, trade tensions, corporate espionage coupled with rising fears of cyber-warfare, persistent fanatical scum who love to blow up crowded marketplaces, drone attacks, etc., etc.) then you can contribute to a solution by simply being reasonable.
You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out, in outline, how to reduce the harm you cause and maximize the benefit you bring about. And we don’t always have to agree; reasonable people can disagree on certain issues. We just have to know that disagreement does not mean unpleasantness and violence. And it seems to me only fair to say that if you’re unwilling to be serious about finding out the truth, you should shut up. Battles on Twitter or other sites—consisting of frenzied and only half-accurate referencing of history and fact—only lead to both sides thinking they won; to both sides, in reality, losing.
If you want to further read my thoughts on the issue, see below. If you already have a plan, goodbye and good luck. Just remember, the world hangs in the balance: try not to f*** it all up.
Anyone who wants to carry out real and lasting change for the better must commit to some vital overarching strategies. Energy must be dedicated to rational, productive and unflagging advocacy and action, not screaming and violence. Serious and exhaustive effort to be informed must be put forth. Dogmatism must be avoided at all times and in all issues. The same goes for any kind of extremism in method. (In effect, there is never any justification for radicalism or disregard for human rights; don’t go trying to blow stuff up for “the cause”; no cause worth fighting for sanctions violence against innocents.)
As for facts, they are what they are—and no one should be neutral in a situation where right and wrong are clear. The way in which you champion your side should, however, be humane, informed and rational—and also effective.
Any action taken to fix a “broken” situation must be rational. It’s a no-brainer to avoid causing even more harm. That means don’t jump to conclusions. And don’t hold forth like some kind of expert when you’re really uninformed.
Action should be prefaced with a clear-sighted and neutral parsing of data, a collection of relevant points, and an analysis of the facts of interest that have been accrued. The problem has to be identified, and potential solutions have to be mustered. Then, and only then, can a position be taken, and effective action be initiated.
Issues are not always so simple—different people may disagree about what is relevant, or may disagree in their judgments. But there is such a thing as incontrovertible fact—and there is reality. The radical fringe, with its conspiracy theories and denials of well-known facts, should generally not be given too much pull. Nor should any faction be trusted completely. Multiple sources, all reputable and with a proven track record, should be used. No source is perfect, but some are better and more qualified than others. And when the facts are considered in aggregate, conclusions are often pretty inescapable.
The very attempt to implement unbiased methods and search for the truth will bring forth positive results in any case. It seems to me that most of the trouble comes when we rely on just our stereotypes and prejudices. When that happens, we dismiss as fabrication any information that challenges our beliefs. Facts have no substantive effect on those who baselessly believe, who have gotten an idea into their heads and must, by hook or by crook, have their way. Because they are emotionally invested, brainwashed, or just plain lazy, they rely only on sources that echo their view, and disregard any that oppose them.
What I’m saying, basically, is that ignorance is inexcusable, and that extremism should never be a viable way of dealing with the world. If you aren’t informed, don’t be an armchair activist, a part-time crusader for a cause you really know nothing about. And if you are informed, and find yourself sometimes getting really angry because there’s something wrong and no one’s doing anything about it, just remember that you must never allow anything to unseat your reason and your general goodwill to humanity. Hurting innocents is never a viable option. What does senseless violence build besides piles of blasted rubble?
We must open ourselves up, psychologically, to the facts. We have to consider the possibility that we are wrong, and try as earnestly as possible to discard any biases or prejudices. This will significantly improve the chances of cutting through the prevailing bullshit. Don’t go looking for a predetermined answer; seek out the information and the answer will come to you. It probably will not be simple. It most likely will not be monochromatic. You might wish you had something a little more clear-cut and dichotomous, more along the lines of “my side is always right” and “the other side is a bunch of simpletons and bigots.” But that would not be reality. That would not be right. And in the “real” world (unlike in academic corners), not being right means more than just a poor grade or “points off.” It means people—including you—getting hurt. The stakes are too high to keep on ignoring the facts.
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