The Problem of Power

By Thane on Sun 31 July 2016

How exactly do ideologies and frameworks of thinking propagate through society? It may seem like an odd question at first, but I've had this theory for a few years now that they tend to propagate along the lines carved out for them by power and social influence.

Let's Start with Religion

For example, how exactly did Christianity or Islam spread to encompass 31.5% and 23.2% of the whole world's population by 2010, respectively? Was it purely on the merit of the soundness of their philosophies? Was it based on cold, hard facts and logic? I somehow don't think so. More likely, I think, is the possibility that they spread by way of power and influence. Specifically, looking into some of the history of Christianity, as well as the history of Islam, it seems as though they were spread by way of, or indirectly as a result of, violence. At least initially they were, until they became so much a way of life for so many people that spreading these religions' frameworks of thinking and feeling to their children was easy.

 
How long is this Wikipedia article on Christianity? We sure do like to write a lot about these ideas.
Equally as long as this Wikipedia article on Islam? We sure do like to write about these ideas too.

A Hint from Social Media

Let's zoom back to the present. Look at the Twitter accounts of Elon Musk, Donald Trump, Barack Obama, just to name a few - how many millions of followers do each of them have? What kind of platform does this give them to share their ideas? Did people follow them on Twitter because they had good ideas, or because they were already influential?

 

This is one of the most powerful, and simultaneously deceptive properties of social media: it gives people a voice. I've tried searching for up-to-date statistics on how many followers the average Twitter user has, but all I could come up with, and the primary source of this number for most articles on the internet, was this heavily out-of-date article from The Telegraph which states that the number is 208 (back in 2012).

So yes, social media does give people a voice, but it certainly doesn't democratise people's thinking. It seems a little redundant to say it, but I think it's worth pointing out that influential people have far more reach than the average person when it comes to broadcasting their thinking. This is by no means a failing on the part of social media - technology is just a tool, like a spade. We are the ones who wield it, and so our use of it has a tendency to follow our natural human tendencies. The particular tendency in question here, of course, is our innate, instinctive, subconscious drive towards allocating and deallocating power/influence to/from others.

The Media, Government and Big Corporate

Noam Chomsky has written extensively on the topic of power (and its various forms of abuse) in society. He's written and spoken extensively on the role of the media, governments and big corporations in filtering ideas and thinking in such a way that shields the population from issues that would be important to them, while furthering the interests of an elite minority. The controlling individuals in these various, highly influential groups of people have a tremendous amount of reach when it comes to broadcasting their thinking (or, rather, their desires for how everybody else should think).

What's even scarier is the active and deliberate action on the part of various governments and corporations to invade people's privacy in order to improve the feedback mechanism for the ways in which they want to broadcast their thinking.

 
Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Noam Chomsky - A Conversation on Privacy
Take some time out to watch this conversation all the way through. It's definitely worthwhile.

The Role of Critical Thinking

I'm not at all ruling out the possibility that some people critically evaluate the content of someone else's ideas and make up their minds based on a more "objective" view of the quality of the ideas themselves, but this doesn't seem to be the norm in society. To quote Kierkegaard:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion - and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

What About the Good Ideas?

Alright then - so what? So what if the power to broadcast ideas is left in the hands of very few people? It should be patently obvious by now to anyone who's been awake and paying attention to world events over the past decade that, just because someone is influential, does not necessarily mean that their ideas are good or healthy for society.

This brings us to the challenge of finding the good ideas - the ones that will help us grow as individuals, meet our needs, live sustainably together as a society, or whatever you would consider to be "good". To quote an excellent recent article by Mark Manson:

Instead, I am attempting to go back to learning about the world only through long-form journalism that has been thoroughly researched and vetted before being published. I'm exercising the muscles in my brain responsible for focus, depth, and concentration. I'm stretching out my logic, trying to challenge my own beliefs and always holding on to a healthy amount of doubt.

Is this far less convenient and way more time consuming? Yes, it is. Does it make me feel like a cranky old man to all my friends? Yeah, it does.

Whose Ideas Win?

If we take Kierkegaard's observation seriously, and acknowledge this dynamic of various minorities birthing ideas, which eventually and only sometimes, under the right conditions, seem to propagate to the masses by way of channels of power and influence, whose ideas will win in the end?

I personally don't see an end to this struggle. As society evolves and changes, no matter how much technology helps to facilitate an increased rate of allocation or deallocation of power to/from deserving/undeserving individuals, I think there'll always be a tension between the ideas of the minority and those of the majority.

The minority will struggle and suffer to gain the attention of, and deflect the violence inflicted by, the majority, while the majority will struggle and suffer in their complacency, their laziness and apathy, and at the hands of the powerful elites who would take advantage of them. Round and round we'll go, and hopefully we'll head in a direction that doesn't involve us nuking ourselves out of existence.

This most certainly does not mean that we should just throw in the towel - on the contrary, I think this means that we all need to acknowledge and accept our places and roles in this grand carousel, and endure the suffering we're dealt as a result. The best way out is through, right?

What do you think?

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