“Not everything that can be faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
James Baldwin. I am not Your Negro.
“In the 300 years of the crucifixion of Christ to the conversion of Emperor Constantine, polytheistic Roman emperors initiated no more than four general persecutions of Christians. Local administrators and governors incited some anti-Christian violence of their own. Still, if we combine all the victims of all these persecutions, it turns out that in these three centuries the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course, of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions, to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.
“Hans: As Gandhi said... An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.
Billy: No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left? No, it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye. How's the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left? All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong. It’s just that no one has the guts to come out and say it.”
Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell. Seven Psychopaths.
We humans do have a sixth sense but, despite popular belief, it’s not ESP (Extra Sensory Perception). In fact, I would argue that ESP is simply a small subset of our broader instinct. Our true sixth sense is our sense of fiction, our innate ability to weave narratives at every opportunity, our penchant for asking “what if” at every turn, our willingness to create or participate in stories that may or may not be rooted in the physical world around us. We’re the only species capable of keeping thousands of such complex scenarios in our mind, each a fiction that we personally or collectively believe in. Other species are capable of rudimentary deception (chimps can “lie” about where they hid a banana, for example) but we're the only species who absolutely wallows in fiction in practically every part of our lives – so much so that we’re surrounded by it at almost every moment, often without even consciously recognizing it.
That fiction may be Harry Potter or Game of Thrones but those are obvious examples and momentary diversions. The more common stories are the ones we live in all day and night – our common beliefs. The best analysis of this phenomenon I’ve ever seen is from Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. We believe in soccer and basketball teams: concepts that have no basis in physical reality but are nonetheless “religiously” pursued by millions of people. Think about it: what exactly is the definition of the NFL team, The Oakland Raiders? It’s a moniker we apply to a group of men and watch every Sunday on television. The members of the team change every year, the team manager changes once every few years, the owners change once a decade or so, the team jersey and insignia are redesigned whenever ratings sag, the rules they follow are not only arbitrary but can also be changed by a committee at their whim, even the city they are supposed to represent changes on an infrequent basis. Remember The Los Angeles Raiders? Yup. Same team – for a few years. So what exactly is The Oakland Raiders or the NBA, for that matter?
What exactly do we mean when we say “I love the Oakland Raiders?” You can make the same declaration about roses, about Mt. Fuji, about cocker spaniels, and about the moon – with one big difference. The latter are all physical objects that have a fixed definition that could be recognized, if not verbalized, by even an animal. Pretty much everything else we ever talk about or believe in is made up, a fiction, a story that we tell ourselves and others. Including the Oakland Raiders. And religion and society and government and currencies and borders and corporations and brands. Everything on this new list is just a figment of our collective imagination – something that homo sapiens dreamed up. It’s amazing to think about the world around us through this lens; it frees us of many of the prejudices that we take for granted. I call us homo theatricales – we not only make up the stories, we also star in the shows.
Now let’s turn the same lens to a different scene. What does it mean for hooligans in Britain to kill each other over a Manchester United game or for terrorists from the Middle East to kill Christians for their beliefs or for a gunman to take up an AK-47 and walk into a crowded square because IRA? Every single one of those constructs, those sets of beliefs, is a figment of our imagination. If you don’t believe me, let’s look at countries. Think about the “line in the sand” that separates our modern nations. Step over this line through the accident of birth and, suddenly, villages that are separated by a mere five miles are mortal enemies. The proverbial “line in the sand” is just one example of such a fiction. Not a physical line in the sand, mind you. It's just a line somebody drew on a piece of paper about a hundred years ago, roughly speaking, for most countries. But it’s good enough for us to kill each other over.
Most of what we believe in - nations, corporations, religions, gold as a valuable metal, money as a piece of paper that has real value - these are all fictions we have created for ourselves as a species. It is what sustains us, it is what distinguishes us. It is, unfortunately, also what separates us – what turns us into competing bands.
So, I have to ask: if we all agree there is really no line in the sand separating, say, Israel and Lebanon, if we agree that such an imaginary line shouldn't mean the inhabitants on one side are “Arabs” and the guys on the other side are “Jews”, forever and ever - and, oh by the way, we just made up that line a hundred years ago; if we agree that a piece of paper, even when adorned with fancy colors and markings, a unit of currency, does not really have any intrinsic value of its own that would lead you to hand over a car or a jacket over for, that its only value is an index into a database of international monetary exchange rates - so we know that a dollar is worth 1.24762 Euros - even though both are nothing but pieces of brightly colored paper backed by a “promise”, a fiction that exists nowhere but in our collective consciousness; if we understand all this, then why are we so adamant that our side is right - when all the rules are imaginary? Why are we convinced that Catholics are right and Muslims are wrong, or vice versa? The very concepts and teachings of both religions are nothing but the collective beliefs of a group of people. Nothing more and nothing less. Why are we so adamant that North and South Korea are enemies, when neither of those countries - those ideologies - even existed a hundred years ago? They exist nowhere but on paper and in our minds.
Almost everything we get worked up about these days - nationalities, religions, sports teams, financial markets - are nothing but figments of our collective imagination. If you think of it that way, it's much easier to let go of the dogma, the irrational belief that my side is right and your side is wrong - and I don't care which side of the argument you're on, nor do I care which argument we're talking about.
If you think of it this way, furthermore, our sixth sense being our ability to spin yarns and create fictional scenarios in which we live - be they at the personal level, at the corporate level, or at the international level - then the idea of the sixth sense being ESP also starts to make sense. Extra Sensory Perception is nothing but us spinning yarns, making up stories about things, belief in an extra-sensory experience that simply does not exist. I claim every case of reported ESP is nothing but someone creating - or following - a fictional narrative. That doesn't mean they're lying. In their minds, they believe everything they are seeing. Our confirmation biases are too strong for that to not happen.
The lesson? Question your beliefs. Don’t follow them blindly. They are often nothing but fictions, stories that we have weaved for ourselves. As a species, we're damn good at doing that.
That democrats are assholes or that republicans are idiots, that moving a couple of kilometers across a border dramatically changes people’s belief systems and outlook on life, that Manchester United is better than Real Madrid because Ronaldo - these are all fictions in our heads. I don't even know if that last sentence made any sense because I don't follow soccer. I just know Ronaldo is the name of a character in that universe, that narrative - and the other two are “teams” that may or may not be rivals.
The next time you get all worked up about something, anything, ask yourself: Could I explain this to a member of another species – any species. Ask any passing elephant or gorilla if they are citizens of Namibia or Botswana and you will see my point. Or try to give a ten dollar bill to a chimpanzee for his bananas. Good luck. We are the only species that believes these things. They are figments of our imagination - and, as such, malleable. If we only allow ourselves to be a bit more flexible on our “beliefs”.
So what does it mean to get all bent out of shape over an imaginary line in the sand? Or a religion for that matter?
These are all fictions. We are all the same. Get over yourself.