By Roland Watson
December 25, 2013

"He felt the mass of mankind mighty in its numbers. They swarmed numerous like locusts, industrious like ants, thoughtless like a natural force, pushing on blind and orderly and absorbed, impervious to sentiment, to logic, to terror...What if nothing could move them?"

The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad.

In a project like the University of Life, there is a fundamental, but hidden, question. How do you - is it even possible to - engage people in complex ideas?

Two of my greatest reading experiences have been James Joyce's Ulysses, and Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. Both are recognized as being extremely original - high points in the almost three thousand year history of literature. Nonetheless, nowadays at least, very few people read them.

Are people now so superficial and self-absorbed that any attempt to provide a comprehensive education about life is doomed to fail? At least in Joyce and Russell's day (they were born ten years apart), people had not been so dominated by video entertainment that they retained a sincere interest to learn about life's deepest questions. Now, any such interest has been overwhelmed by the corporate demand that we obsess over a never-ending pipeline of media product clones, with the current faces headlined by Miley Cyrus.

Prevalence of terror

The reason the question is important is because there is a need for this type of education. The world has so many problems, one after another, and they are only getting worse. If we don't take the time to understand what is really happening, there is no hope - at all - that we will be able to end the problems.

For example, all around the world, many people are being terrorized. It is not only poverty and ignorance that are endemic. We are living in fear.

Terror in the modern world takes many forms. There is classic terrorism, now mainly the province of extremist Muslim gangs, and which shows no sign of abating, although this is not because there has been an inadequate military response. Rather, the salient factor is that moderate Muslims, who constitute the majority, refuse to denounce the extremists. They too are afraid.

Similarly, there is a general, low-level of fear now in the United States, because of the never-ending series of mass shootings. Any society where mass murder becomes commonplace is in serious trouble, if not gravely ill, but Americans are doing their best to ignore this basic point. (Thank you Miley for the distraction!)

As another example, everyone who lives in a dictatorship, political or religious, is also living in fear. This encompasses China, it's neighbors Burma and North Korea, much of the Islamic world, and many other countries. (For Islam, moderate Muslims also do not oppose the extremists because their religious theocrats don't either.)

Then there is the natural ecology. While we - falsely - fail to ascribe feelings to other species, they clearly have them, starting with fear. It may not be experienced in a cognitive fashion that we would understand, but other species are certainly being terrorized - by us - as we devastate the environment and kill them in astronomical numbers.

Now, none of this is unknown. It is all well documented. This begs the question: If we aren't going to stand up in large numbers for nature - the supporting structure that keeps us alive - won't we at least fight back against our own terrorists?

The human bait ball

In the natural world, in oceans, small fish species such as sardines and herring group together in tight schools when they are attacked by predators, including tuna, dolphins, sharks, whales and sea birds. They do this because they think - it's instinctual for these species - that this increases their chances of survival. What they don't realize though is that by grouping like this they actually raise the probability that they - as individuals - will die, since their behavior generates a much tighter target on which the predators can focus. Indeed, a humpback whale can open its mouth so wide that it ingests a large portion of such a school. It would be much better for the fish if they separated and swam to deeper waters. This way the predators would be confused, and have a smaller target. Many more fish would survive.

What the fish are doing is grouping together, but not working together. Even though they form a body, they are thinking only of themselves. The result is that they create what we call a "bait ball," making it as easy as possible for the predators to kill them.

Humanity, in its approach to its own threats, is doing exactly the same thing. But, perhaps other than in cities, our characteristic of being a bait ball is not derived from close proximity. Rather, it results from our similarly purely selfish focus.

A mass murderer is the equivalent of a sea bird or tuna attacking the human bait ball. A suicide bomber rises to the level of a dolphin or a shark. And, a dictatorship has the proportions of a whale, or even - for national societies - a group of whales.

As an activist, I know that if the people of China, or Burma or North Korea, would rise up, they would defeat their dictators, once and for all. Moderate Muslims would defeat not only the extremists, but the theocrats as well. The U.S. would return to an age where mass murder was an aberration, not the norm. And, the natural world would be saved.

It is extremely disconcerting therefore to see so few successes in the face of so many failures; and to see activist colleagues arrested, and killed, while the dictators live with impunity. We delude ourselves into thinking that because we personally have reduced our selfishness, and are working to fight the dictators and terrorists, that we are making a positive difference. And, while within very narrow bounds this may be true - a few lives and habitats are saved - overall we are having essentially zero effect.

The only other people that we connect to are close relatives and friends. This is why social movements and even revolutions almost never succeed. We simply do not care enough about other humans, much less nature. We only rise to the occasion, and then rarely, when the direct personal interests of many individuals are threatened.

Said another way, humanity is a thoughtless force, and as an addendum to Conrad's quote, by having this collective nature we have allowed power-mad individuals to become our dictators, who rule over us with fear, and who for the moment, with us acting like a human bait ball, themselves have nothing to worry about.


This is why everything starts with education. Becoming an activist is predicated on being educated, as does having a society of activists, working together to successfully defeat the dictators. Where we are now and where we need to go is clear, as is the road there. However, getting everyone to start walking down it is a different story.

Perhaps the greatest problem of all is that we don't protect our children when they are young, while their brains are growing rapidly. For proper brain development, children need education. But, what they are getting now is brainwashing. Childhood exposure to pop and movie stars, extremist mullahs, even people who think that everyone should have a gun and carry it at all times, programs their brains in many negative ways. This leads them to believe in a variety of things that are patently false. Further, these beliefs are hard-wired into their brains. They can only be reversed if the children are educated such that new neural circuits are formed. But, given the effects of the brainwashing, as they grow into adults they refuse the education. Instead, they evolve into true believers. Even though there is no concrete evidence for what they believe - it requires faith - they are right, and everyone else is wrong.

Even more, the overall effect is to degrade one's capability and mental prowess. Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana couldn't have been more on point when he sang, "I feel stupid, and contagious. Here we are now, entertain us!"

At present, while we do group in ways that are analogous to extremely industrious ants, we actually lack their collective motivation. We are unable to connect, in a way that we set, and then work to achieve, overall social goals, including by reducing our personal selfishness along the way. Because of this, and globalization notwithstanding, nothing significant has changed. There is no New World Order, no End of History.

How can we get people to be as interested in education as much as entertainment, in reading as much as listening and watching, and in others as much as themselves? I'm not sure, and welcome any suggestions that you might have. But, I do know that we will never really progress, until on a mass scale we accomplish this personal transformation.