April 3, 2011

Burning books, instinctual acrimony

I've been mulling two ideas over in the past couple of weeks while I try to dig myself out of a documentation hole at work. They're tied in a very interesting way. One is learned behavior. I've been thinking about the fondness with which I regard my childhood attending church, especially during the Easter season, the chaotic weather, the funerals and weddings, the strange way the air holds the smell of mold, of mud. It makes me think of shovels, graves, flowers, incense, of stained tile and old statues, suits and perfume and soft hugs, my family, particularly those long dead. This pleasantness is derived from memories that are as melancholy and terrifying as they are happy. It's a sloppy mess. It's inextricably tied in my mind to the church, to my Easters there, and despite the fact that I am no longer a practicing Catholic, I still have the desire, every season, to dress my best and stand among the other twice-a-year Catholics on Easter.

The other idea is our instinctual impulse to unconsciously act, usually to protect our body from harm. Yanking your hand from a hot stove is the classic example, but Sean Burnett snagging two out of three shots up the middle yesterday when the Nats beat the Braves is a far more interesting example. There's no way he can consciously process the act of catching that ball at that speed, but with a mixture of luck, training and instinct, he's able to make an incredible out and save the Nats from having a long, painful ninth.

Both of these elements are bolstered by the often unconscious absorption of sensory information. Our brain, categorically, does the work for us, making associations in the moment, which are, naturally, emphasized with repetition. I think the extent to which we are aware of these cognitive factors determines largely how we react to new ideas, new situations. I'm generalizing. Bear with me.

Terry Jones burned a Koran over the weekend. People across the world reacted. Some rioted, murdered innocent people. Our media pundits gave Jones the catbird seat, hoping to skewer the man with a holy pike misnamed Tolerance. Jones stuck to his weird justification of the act. Everyone thinks he's a real dick.

PZ Myers summed up the situation up pretty well when this nonsense first started in the fall:
So I'm looking at this recent episode with Terry Jones — a fellow I don't like at all, and I think he's a fanatical goofball — and I see that the serious problem here isn't Jones at all…it's all the lunatics who are insisting that burning the Koran is a major international catastrophe.
It's just a frackin' book, people.
I don't want to descend into the civility argument because it's irrelevant. Civility is a guise. Expect people to be uncivil and you'll be better off. Gregarious individuals know how to work through it. Most people don't know how, won't accept that knowing how is a prerequisite for true communication. The internet is a mean, intolerant place where people argue constantly. I think it's for the best.

We let ideas get the best of us, to define the core of our being. It's laziness. We let our training, our learned behavior unconsciously dictate our reactions. Our nerve endings as a society are sore and swollen, ready to lash out, to react, to epitomize our faction stereotypes in the name of Opposition.

The strangest thing of all is that the violent outrage stems from the physical act of defacing the Koran (or drawing cartoons), and not the knowledge that billions of people across the world do not respect the idea that the Koran is holy or deserves special protection. That's what really bothers me. The ideologically devout - and I want to stress here that I'm not just talking about religion - cognitively, verbally immolate ideas they dislike by the very act of accepting one ideology at the exclusion of all others. Every faith, every concept of reality is claimed by zealots to be the only one.

If that is true, I wonder what the difference is then, between burning the Koran and dismissing the Koran as untrue, considering it no more than a cultural product. Are acts like these reminders of the quintessential weakness of being a proponent of one particular ideological worldview? On one hand we want to say that people identify too deeply with ideas and not material reality, but then they only react to material acts of blasphemy and ignore the reality that the vast majority of the world thinks they're completely wrong.