In his now famous essay, Al Qaeda’s Fantasy Ideology, Harris first discussed the role fantasy plays in individuals and societies, and any reference I’ve made to the fantasy-based nature of the BDS “movement” over the years is entirely based on his insights.
If that was all he ever wrote on the subject, dayenu (it would have been enough). But like the philosophers he most admires (Socrates and Kant), Harris follows this insight wherever it leads which has caused him to postulate whole, new storylines for how the world we now live in came to be.
In both Civilization and Its Enemies and Harris’ second book, The Suicide of Reason, the author identifies how belief in something that may or may not exist does not always lead to destruction. For without such beliefs, the very civilization we live in (one that today values reason, compromise, argument¸ tolerance and moderation) could never have come into being.
After all, a society based on reason cannot have been created through reason alone since that would presume the thing being created already existed, which leads to the classical logical problem of infinite regress (more commonly phrased as “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”).
Instead, Harris sees a succession of societies that – for a variety of unknown reasons – made the conscious decision to live unlike any society had chosen to live before. Within this framework, even outlier societies such as Sparta (one of history’s weirdest cultures), makes some sense. For while a proto-nation that chose to raise its children in military barracks rather than the family home seems both cruel and bizarre, it helped to break the stranglehold over social organization of the family-based clan or tribe (the spontaneous organizational structure of societies in pre-history),
It’s notable that the creation of such an unusual culture came about through myth, the common myth of an ancient lawgiver who informed a people that they were now to live unlike anyone has ever lived previously. You see similar myth-led societal revolutions in placed like Rome (which created a cosmopolitan society where hatred of kings was inbred). Moses is another example of a lawgiver who instructed his followers to build a society unlike any that had ever existed in the past.
Through a series of myth-induced societal transformations, new options were introduced to the world (from Moses’ ethical monotheism, to the Greek’s democracy, to the Roman’s cosmopolitanism). And lest you think such story-driven changes are simply relics from a superstitious past, the first practical attempt to implement a society based entirely on reason emerged not from the pens of philosophers, but through the guns of French revolutionaries who turned reason into a Goddess to be worshiped like a pagan idol.
And so the society we live in today is not the result of logical evolution (a self-flattering myth of our own which casts us as superior to all those who came before us), but rather emerged through a strange set of accidents and experiments whose original purpose are long forgotten.
Harris helps us understand the peculiarity of our own culture in this essay which uses pop culture (in this case, reference to reality TV) to illustrate the artificiality of a world we today take for granted. In it, he described a TV show where two “tribes” are dropped onto an island: one of which is completely unarmed and the other armed to the teeth. And viewers are invited to tune into the game each week to see the unarmed tribe (supported by various intellectuals parachuted in to help them out) try to convince the armed tribe to unquestionably do whatever the unarmed islanders ask of them.
If such an exercise seems ludicrous and doomed to failure, consider the society we live in where the people with the guns (the military) take orders from an unarmed civilian leadership they could easily overthrow in an afternoon. And consider what it took to not just create such a counter-intuitive society, but to create citizens who don’t just accept it but take it for granted.
Such transformation requires an important component: forgetfulness. Specifically, we must forget the normality of law of the jungle so we can raise our children to think that our abnormal, artificial world (one where the armed/strong serve and protect the unarmed/weak) represents the “normal” way to live.
But if forgetfulness is an asset with regard to the pact we create between generations to live by the rules of our existing, artificial society (rather than the more normal law of the jungle), we stand the risk of forgetting that the law of the jungle exists at all.
Just as a generation raised to never know hunger or discomfort can easily mistake desires for needs or a day of voluntary fasting for starvation, so too forgetfulness can cause us to recoil and reject the existence of anything that conflicts with our comfortable world view. And this very forgetfulness can become a threat to our way of life when mankind’s oldest enemy, one that has never left us regardless of how far civilization advances, rears its head.
Next time, we will meet that enemy.