On Knowledge and Territory — The Fight for Uncommon Sense

MonkThere was an earlier time when our struggles were more physically defined. Territory meant security, prosperity, and increased our chances of procreation –and so it was only natural to fight for it. This time may be over in the sense that we do not (usually) bite and kick over patches of ground, but in a larger sense, it is not over at all. In fact, our struggle for territory is still very real. What has changed is our perception of territory.

As we continue towards an ever more abstracted sense of reality, the value of certain intangibles is on the rise. Cyberspace houses some of the most valuable assets of our time. Even currency has shifted into the abstract, defined by an agreed upon worth rather than by any actual worth such as the weight or quality of a precious stone. While it may seem, at times, that we have moved past our more primal struggles, a quick look behind the many-layered curtain will show a very insecure, anxious, and power-hungry animal in desperate yearning for ‘higher-ground’.

Unlike the physical turf that the old animal yearned for, though, this animal yearns for something else –the territory of knowledge, of information. A large plot of well situated physical land at one time meant water, food, military advantage, mates, and the security of community. Knowledge, when shared, provides a similar access to such luxuries. Conforming to the ideas or beliefs of a community secures said community’s ‘blessing’, which came int he practical form of physical security. In earlier history, it was practical to conform to religious ideas, because it meant that you became a part of a larger group (there are even some studies on an evolutionary tendency toward believing in God, which I will sometime address in a later post). Larger numbers meant more power, which could be wielded either to deter any potential threats or increase the chances of thwarting any attacks on the community. Standing out in these communities was risky. Even if your ideas were brilliant, exposing any difference in your worldview could have resulted in exile or ridicule and the loss of the ‘territorial’ advantage.

While this sense of exile and ridicule is still very much at work today (school yards, workplaces, subcultures), there is also a strong push to express difference. Instead of puffing out our chests and running at our peers with sticks and stones in order to secure higher ground, we seek an intellectual higher ground, a mental advantage. We yearn, all of us, for an ‘uncommon sense’ of things, because it means that we have a leg up over our neighbors. We can think of it as settlers pushing against the frontier.

There was a certain bravery associated with, as an example, settling the still-wild Apache nation. There were men and women who pushed forward in spite of danger for the good of progress, mapping out the land and prodding at the borders. Today, we similarly desire to be settlers on the abstract frontier. We love the feeling that what we know is more advanced than what those behind us know. This abstracted frontier is where the great thinkers of our time make their homes, and we all want to live with them. The problem is that we can’t. We just aren’t smart enough. Just as some groups of primates lacked the strength and tools to beat out others, there are people who lack the mental capacity or circumstantial means to settle in such a space. This does not stop them from trying, though, which creates for some very annoying situations.

In an earlier article, The Perfect Individual, I talk about how being in possession of a good idea will cause the group of context to absorb and disperse that idea, ultimately deconstructing the individuality of the original owner. In the article I claimed that good ideas were only so dispersed, and that bad ideas were rejected by the masses. This was a terribly absurd claim. The masses, if history has shown us anything, are not always good at making such a distinction. Bad ideas, if presented in a way that they seem good or new or acceptably strange, are just as easily absorbed by the larger group.

Because people want to be different and possess this uncommon sense of things, we veer toward novelty like bugs toward a lamp in the night. We read things like ‘The Secret,’ and run around telling everyone we know that we have uncovered the keys to happiness. Pseudosciences prey upon this quality of human beings, as do many religious entities. All they must do to sell their product or service is use some big words that make them seem legitimate enough to (ridiculous) people that they come running out of the woodwork, desperate to possess this new uncommon sense of things.

How often do we encounter such claims as:

“If you rub this crystal over your head chakra, you will have better bowel movements,”

“Did you know that company X has actually found the cure for cancer and aids, but they won’t make the information public because there is no profit in it?”

“(in a condescending tone)Have you ever even seen the footage of 9/11? Obviously it was George Bush.”

And I could easily go on.

We see this phenomenon in the music industry as well. People love to feel as though they have stumbled upon some unknown artist, and are quick to denounce the artist once enough people become fans. These are the people who say that they knew ‘so-and-so’ before they were popular sell-outs and that their music was better back then. I can’t count the number of people who I know that love to tell everyone that they knew about Jack Johnson way before he was big news. Who cares? Well, sadly, it seems we all do.

The world is huge and interconnected. It is easy to feel lost or insignificant. So, we jump at any chance to rise above the pack which has a natural tendency towards homogeneity. Sometimes, in the case of truly great minds, this is done to the benefit of all mankind. Other times, as is most often the case, it is just a really sad thing to see and makes for some very infuriating discussions. But what do we do, if anything, about it? How do we stifle our primal need for territory? Should we even stifle it? Or is it precisely this ongoing struggle that fuels our progress? How do we recognize the quality of a truly valid meme or cultural idea? How do we teach real skepticism to a bunch of self-proclaimed, misguided skeptics?