Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Thoughts: Coronavirus Is NOT America's Biggest Problem

We have a bad situation in America.  No, I'm not talking about Coronavirus per se, I'm talking about the problem that many of us have known about for a while... a problem that Coronavirus has simply laid bare:

I'm talking about, in part, the complete breakdown of trust among different societal factions.  This isn't a result of Coronavirus, it's a problem that Coronavirus is simply exposing more plainly, for all to see.

I've been noticing it more and more, because some people with whom I often agree are suddenly giving advice that I very much disagree with -- and I know exactly WHY they're doing it (and I understand it).

But let's start with what I DO agree with:  Panic is never the correct response to anything.  Emotion clouds judgment.  Panic is a strong emotion, and as such leads to stupid decisions.

It is to your benefit to avoid panic in any stressful situation.

And I'm not speaking theoretically here.  I've lived through my share of serious personal crises, as anyone who's read my sidebar piece (titled: Some of Pretzel's Unique Real-Life Experiences) knows.  I've been mortally wounded and have faced the prospect of my own death.  I've watched loved ones die in front of my eyes.  I've been through other dire situations not discussed in that piece.

I haven't led "an easy life" by any means; I have been pushed to the edge by forces beyond my control, and I have been forced to stare into the abyss, against my will, for long, unbroken moments.

As a result, I like to believe I have a solid sense of perspective on life itself.

So yes, I agree that panic is worse than useless; it is a counterproductive emotion.  Even if I knew for a fact that the Earth was going to collide with the Sun tomorrow, I still would NOT panic.  I would set about trying to enjoy the little time we have left.  I don't do "panic."  Period.

(While writing this, I'm reminded of an old Buddhist parable my father was fond of:  The Monk and the Strawberry -- about living in the present moment and remembering to enjoy it and be thankful, even in the most dire circumstances.)

Anyway, I feel all this is important to mention, because I've seen some people conflating reasonable caution with "panic," and thus belittling anyone who advocates any degree of caution.  But these are not the same thing.

Let me give an analog that is similar, yet an order removed, for clarity:  I live in Hawaii, and we've had our share of "false alarm" tsunami warnings over the years.  In the past 10 years, I can think of at least three.  Each time, the authorities warned us of a potentially-devastating tsunami, due to strike within hours.

Yet each time, basically nothing happened.

Does that mean that nothing will EVER happen?  Of course not.  Tsunamis are real things, and they do SOMETIMES happen.  Therefore, while I never panic over tsunami warnings, I do consult a brief checklist to make sure our supply of canned goods and water is sufficient, and so forth.

Yet I also recognize that the more false alarms there are, the more dangerous the situation becomes.  Not externally, but internally:  Human nature leads us to become increasingly complacent with each additional false alarm.  ("Oh, great, another tsunami warning.  Yeah right!")

The first time you hear a tsunami warning, you are motivated to take action out of fear.

Then nothing happens... so the second time you hear a tsunami warning, you are motivated to take action out of prudence.

Then nothing happens AGAIN... so the third time you hear a tsunami warning, the only thing that keeps you action-oriented is discipline.

To assume every warning is going to end in a false alarm is magical thinking.  Tsunamis exist, therefore the reality is that, EVENTUALLY, one will actually hit -- no matter how many false alarms we have to endure beforehand.

We thus have to treat each tsunami warning THE SAME in terms of taking prudent action, even though the majority of those warnings will be false.

In the absence of fear to motivate us, we must take action purely out of discipline.

It's not unlike trading, in this regard.

We likewise know from history that pandemics are real and -- just like our tsunamis here in Hawaii -- we must likewise realize that one will eventually hit.

To pretend nothing will ever happen is no different than panicking.  They are flip sides of the same "extreme" coin.  The response of "panic" and the response of "complete denial" are, for all practical intents and purposes, THE SAME RESPONSE.

One must find the middle path, where one takes reasonable precautions, yet one does not give into the herd impulse to stampede.

I am laying this all out because many are assuming that COVID-19 is simply "media hype" or similar.  And I can't say I blame them, because the media has brought this upon themselves.

When our volcano here in Hawaii erupted a couple years ago, the national media got MOST of the coverage wrong.  I spent many hours in the comments section at YouTube, correcting reports from CNN, NBC, et al, all of which gave facts that were SO FAR OFF it was mind-numbing.  At one point, a CNN anchor said something to the effect of: "The island is completely overrun with lava!"  As if I would have to dodge lava bombs on my way to the grocery store.

In reality, we could BARELY tell anything was happening where we lived, and even then, only if we drove a few miles to the side of the mountain where we had a clear view of the nighttime glow, which itself was many more miles distant.  The eruption impacted just a tiny portion of Hawaii's land mass, along the order of 1%.  If you drove maybe an eighth of the way across the island (which is a massive 4000+ square miles in size), you couldn't even tell an eruption was happening.  It was business as usual outside the immediate eruption zone.

So I completely understand why some people assume COVID-19 is yet another media panic over nothing.

And because I know the news is a business that is required to sell advertising, which they have learned to do via sensationalism (sensationalism gets our attention, but often accomplishes the opposite of "informing" us), I even allow for the possibility that maybe I'm wrong; maybe it isn't as bad as I suspect.

This is the problem with years of "The Media Who Cried Wolf."  When a real wolf finally DOES show up, nobody believes them anymore.  They shot their credibility years ago, on all the pretend wolves they tried to get us to panic over.

This is part of the breakdown of trust that I'm talking about.

So it's partially a communication problem:  We have no "national channels" that are universally trusted anymore.  (In fact, as a general rule, the less you trust the media, the better off you are.  As noted, this creates a big problem when a real "wolf" finally does show up, but there's not much we can do other than to demand higher standards from our news organizations and hope they can repair the bridges they have burned... but building trust takes time.)

The breakdown is partially political (neither side trusts the other to respond appropriately).

And it's partially a breakdown of trust in even the institutions that are supposed to be neutral.  Our institutions of science and/or higher learning long-ago threw away the cloak of neutrality in exchange for partisanship -- and now many people no longer trust those institutions either.  And quite understandably.  Science still works, but when certain organizations have (quietly) abandoned universal ethics in favor of situation ethics, then science is no longer practiced at those organizations.  Some people start to doubt "science," but really, science itself isn't the problem, the PEOPLE who are not doing honest science are the problem.

So my overarching point is:  We have a near-complete breakdown of trust across multiple facets of society.

And Coronavirus is revealing this to be the massive problem that it is.


So maybe this is what finally ends our decades-long run of prosperity.  Not Coronavirus proper, but a society that, quite simply, can no longer function as a whole.  No organization can function properly without trust.  A marriage without trust is in dire straits.  A business partnership without trust is doomed to fail.

A society without trust -- and thus without the ability to communicate efficiently -- cannot function cohesively.  And a society without cohesion is not a "society" at all.  It's a loose collection of factions, which lacks the bond required to get through the inevitable difficult times.

Loose collections of factions will splinter when faced with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

We've become this weak in part because we are no longer united in a larger vision -- and the larger vision we have abandoned seems to be the quest for truth itself.  Because while you and I may not agree on what, exactly, is correct -- if we are both committed, honestly, to finding the truth, then we are united by that larger vision, despite our individual disagreements.

We've forgotten (or choose to ignore) the reality that there is no "your truth" and "my truth." There is simply THE truth, and to the extent that either of us fails to align with it, then either or both of us are wrong -- and we will pay the price for our folly when we are crushed against objective reality.

Coronavirus isn't going to break society -- we have done that ourselves.  We have done that by valuing partisanship over intellectual honesty.  By valuing personal agenda over truth.  And by behaving as though "the end justifies the means."

The end does not, and cannot ever, justify the means.  A foundation built without a strong commitment to truth is no foundation at all -- because it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.  A foundation without truth will always crumble under pressure.  Because, ultimately, what is "truth"?

Truth is simply what is.

And that which is will always crush that which is not.

If I believe my Styrofoam raft is capable of weathering a massive oceanic storm, that may be "my personal truth," but it either is or is not objectively true.  If it is not objectively true, then my Styrofoam raft will blow apart in the storm, and I will drown.

Truth is simply "reality, as it actually is."

Prior generations knew this.  This wisdom has been learned not over decades, not over centuries, but over millennia.  This is why every decent ancient source of wisdom values TRUTH above and beyond most other things.

Postmodernism, post-truth, etc. have gained much traction in recent years, because we want truth to be the equivalent of "personal opinion," when it simply isn't. It feels good when everyone is deemed to be "right" about whatever it is they believe, no matter how far off they may be. It might feel good to tell everyone they're correct about everything, but it's dangerous, because life is dangerous.

Knowing the truth helps keep us from walking off a cliff.

So it's high time for us to discard those outmoded and dangerous ways of thinking. In this sense, perhaps we should view Coronavirus as an opportunity.  A warning for society that we desperately need to repair trust, across multiple platforms.

We can only repair trust if we commit to honesty in both seeking truth and in conveying that truth to others.  Even when what we have to say it isn't what we "want" to be true.  Even when the truth proves our prior beliefs wrong, or requires us to face personal embarrassment.  Even if the truth isn't what other people want to hear, or requires us to endure mockery.

Because if we don't allow painful truths to crush us now, emotionally, then they will inevitably crush us later -- and not only emotionally, but in actuality.

Are we up to that challenge?

We had better be.

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