Many primitive societies believe that maleficient spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes – cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficient human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.
A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers – but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” – you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.
English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.
I have a friend who I’ll label “R” for purposes of this essay. I had a twitter exchange with him in which I said something about anthropogenic global warming being the “dogma of the day”. But this essay is not about AGW, except possibly indirectly. It actually starts with what he gave as his reasons for believing that human beings have screwed up the planet’s climate. At twitter length, this was the recent spate of really bad weather – deep winter all over the Northern Hemisphere, the record storms and floods in Australia, and a couple of other particulars I’ll omit because they’re identifying of him. It was evident that he found these developments quite threatening.
Unlike R, I read a lot of history and thus know a fair bit about how weather impact has been perceived by humans over time. It is a fact that the 20th century was an abnormally lucky hundred years, meteorologically speaking. The facts I managed to jam into tweets included (a) the superstorm that flooded 300 square miles of the Central Valley in California in the 1860s, (b) rainfall levels we’d consider drought conditions were normal in the U.S. Midwest before about 1905, and (c) storms of a violence we’d find hard to believe were commonly reported in the 1800s. I had specifically in mind something I learned from the book Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, which relays eyewitness accounts of thunderstorms so intense that travelers had to steeple their hands over their noses in order to breathe air instead of water; but a sense that storms of really theatrical violence were once common comes through in many other histories.
We had a quiet century geophysically as well – no earthquakes even nearly as bad as the New Madrid event of 1812, which broke windows as far north as Montreal. And no solar storms to compare with the Carrington Event of 1859, which seriously damaged the then-nascent telegraph infrastructure and if it recurred today would knock out power and telecomms so badly that we’d be years recovering and casualties would number in the hundreds of thousands, possibly the millions.
(I’m concentrating on 19th-century reports because those tended to be well-documented, but earlier records tell us it was the 20th century calm that was unusual, not the 19th-century violence.)
The awkward truth is that there are very large forces in play in the biosphere, and when they wander out of the ranges we’re adapted to, we suffer and die a lot and there really isn’t a great deal we can do about it; we don’t operate at the required energy scales. For that matter, I can think of several astronomical catastrophes that could be lurking just outside our light-cone only to wipe out all multicellular life on Earth next week. Reality is like that.
But none of this would fit in a tweet, so what I said in summary was that this may be the new normal – or, rather, the old normal returning. Humans didn’t do it.
What I got back was a torrent of political abuse that nearly singed my eyebrows. But it wasn’t the vehemence that perplexed me, it was the non-sequitur quality of it.
R is a bright, funny guy, and I love him dearly. But like many geeks, he has some of the traits of a high-functioning autist (and, in his case, I’ve met a couple of relatives who are straight-up autistic). He has an IQ well into the genius range, but doesn’t handle novelty well. This makes it difficult for him to, for example, learn new software tools – if he gets frustrated initially, he will often form a negative judgment that blocks him from learning more, and get so emotionally stuck on that judgment that it takes dynamite or clever ju-jitsu to pry him loose of it.
So this reaction wasn’t entirely surprising to me. One of my recurring roles in R’s life is to introduce novelty into it. This happens naturally because I’m strongly novelty-seeking, and when I trip over something that delights me he tends to hear about it. It also means that I’m used to occasionally transgressing the limits of his rather conservative temperament and having him blow up at me about it. All in a day’s friendship, really, and it generally passes.
This time, though, the reaction seemed extreme even for him – finishing with an almost literal fingers in the ears and “La-la-la-la! I can’t hear you!”. It gave me pause. And I started to think about it.
The most puzzling thing about the whole exchange was his insistence on interpreting my talk about the weather as a political move. I report the Central Valley superstorm of 1861-62 and R’s response is “When did you turn into Rush Limbaugh?” Uh, WTF, over?
It took me a while to model the frame of mind that produced this, but when I managed to I had an insight. Which is why I’m writing this essay. I think, now, what I actually threatened was R’s belief that he, or somebody, could do something emotionally satisfying about the bad weather. Fix it, or prevent it from recurring, or at least punish the bastards who did it.
Supernaturalizing the causes of large-scale misfortunes has become a difficult strategy to sustain for anyone with more exposure to modern scientific knowledge than a cinderblock. Politicizing them into someone’s bad juju, however…that’s easy. And, perhaps, more attractive than ever before – because the alternative is to feel powerless, and that is painful.
Science and the increase in our control over our immediate environment at the small scale may, in fact, be driving us back towards a sort of sorcerism by making the feeling of powerlessness more painful. We are children of humanism and the Enlightenment; terror of the storm and dark is something we associate with the bad old days of angry gods. We should be beyond that now…shouldn’t we?
Thus, the politicization of every bad thing that happens. And people like R, for whom “When did you turn into Rush Limbaugh?” becomes a sort of aversive charm to ward off fear of the Central Valley superstorm and its like.
Yes, we need a word for this, too. Not “sorcerism”; “politicism”, perhaps. The insistence on locating for every large-scale problem a human cause that can be addressed through politics and a set of serviceable villains to punish. Also, the insistence that anyone who rejects the politically fashionable explanation must be in league with the evil sorcerers.
Unfortunately, reality isn’t like that. If a supernova goes off within eight parsecs of us and strips off the Earth’s ozone layer it won’t have been Halliburton or the International Communist Conspiracy that did it. And if the Central Valley superstorm does repeat on us – well, statistically that looked pretty likely at a mean interval of about 150 years; welcome to your new normal, and hunting for the evil carbon-or-whatever emitters that did it is highly unlikely to do any more than supplying you with a scapegoat to ease your hurt feelings.
Finally…feeling powerless may suck, but on the whole it’s preferable to sorcerer hunts. People get killed in sorcerer hunts, almost always people who are innocent. One reason I’m not a politicist is that I don’t want to be any part of a howling mob. It’s a form of self-restraint I recommend to others.