Aliens, Power, and Humility, or How do we talk to each other?
By Mark Williams, Ph.D.
Professor of Rhetoric, California State University, Sacramento
(from the regular Column: “Meaningful-Faith: Words, the Word, and a Life of Substance”)
If you have not been following the extraterrestrial news, allow me to bring you up to date. The task won’t take long.
The television news magazine 60 Minutes ran a recent piece (May 16) highlighting the fact that weird things are flying around out there, especially just off the U.S. coasts. Lots of weird things. Pilots—trained military pilots whom we routinely trust to zip around in the air carrying tools that could destroy any moderately sized American town in about eight minutes—see these weird things regularly. We have radar accounts of their weird movements, video of their weird exploits, pilots’ and navigators’ eyewitness accounts of their weird behavior. These all appear to corroborate each other. A few days ago there was a report issued by the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence that revealed hitherto unpublished information about these weird things.
Now, with that bit of information in front of us: So what? How do you figure out whether any of this means anything to you?
My guess is that you are not panicking. But what if the National Intelligence Director had held his press conference and come out and said, “Well, actually, aliens. We have had cautious contact with them and, you know, apart from the misunderstanding at Chernobyl and one small incident that introduced a few invasive species in eastern Australia, they seem pretty nice so far.”
Now, just to be clear, I think the chance of aliens is about equal to me waking up tomorrow with a profound understanding of blockchain currencies and quantum physics. But moments like these give us an excuse to talk about the sort of bigger questions most of us routinely avoid. What if we found out that we were being visited by technologically advanced life from a distant planet? Or human time travelers from the distant future? What would stay the same in my life? What would change? What matters to me about this moment I live in? What should matter about this moment I live in? And how am I supposed to answer those questions?
Though we regularly ignore them, here’s the truth: these bigger questions are actually the key to understanding our smaller choices about how we spend our free time and whether it’s worth it to buy organic bananas. The way we talk about the Big Questions is the key to seeing what we consider meaningful.
The most common ways to address a Big Question like “How am I supposed to answer the Big Questions?” are surprisingly straightforward. There are basically two options: power or humility.
In the world of power, I decide to make the rules and—most importantly—the definitions about what is good and bad and valuable and worthless. I know I probably won’t be able to do this alone, so I join forces with some political party or religious faction or internet conspiracy or academic paradigm or office clique or social cabal that seems to be working, more-or-less, toward what I would do if I had all the power in the world. As our group gains power, we make the rules and definitions. I don’t get everything I want, but I get a lot of what I want, and what I want is really what matters to me.
As a bonus, I get two special feelings. First I get to feel contentedly sentimental about being part of something larger than myself. I make contributions and maybe even sacrifices to advance the cause. Yea, us! Of course, being part of something bigger than yourself is always a deeply satisfying feeling. Just ask Thanos in the Avengers. Or Winston in 1984. I mean, it took Winston awhile, but he got there.
But it isn’t just the warm feeling of being part of The Group. I also get a bonus feeling: the thrill of being righteously enraged at other groups (Lousy Liberals! Crazy Conservatives! Stupid Alt-Right! Stupid Antifa! Stupid Capitalists! Stupid Environmentalists! Stupid Traditional Catholics! Stupid Atheists! Stupid Consumers! Stupid Vegans! Stupid Everybody-But-Us!) who will not let me have what I want. This is why it is so important that we (not they) have the power to make the rules and definitions. So we will win and get what we want.
And if power is the way we approach the Big Questions, it is hard to see how anyone is going to learn anything in our conversations. If I know that your one goal is to win—which is always the goal of power—then I’m less likely to think about what you say, and I am a lot more likely to wonder why you said that. What is your hidden motive? I will wonder how saying that will help you win. And that is lethal to honest discourse.
Let’s just be honest: that’s lethal to thinking clearly about anything and it is one of the key reasons committees routinely produce notoriously bad decisions.
But power is not the only option. We might instead think of talking not as a power play, but as a way to explore things that neither of us understand fully. We might choose the humility and patience of listening to another perspective and seeing if that makes sense. We might have a view of the world where I am trying to understand definitions others have made rather than make my own.
Aliens? Probably not. But Big Questions? Those don’t ever go away, and we would probably be wiser to approach them with humility rather than a hidden agenda.