The Humility Gap
Throughout 2020, Americans across the political spectrum vowed not to take the COVID-19 vaccine at various intervals, citing concerns over either Donald Trump’s or Bill Gates’s involvement. Bill Gates recently commented on the alarming increase in the volume of conspiracy theories about the vaccine saying, rather astutely, “It’s hard because it’s not as interesting to click on the truth as it is this oversimplified explanation of why something bad has happened in the world.”
Gates statement is simple yet profound. When something terrible happens, the first question everyone wants answered is why— why do bad things happen to good people? Conspiracies provide answers; incorrect answers but answers nonetheless. They inject meaning into senseless tragedy and provide a framework upon which to build an orchestrated version of unexplainable, chaotic events. Conspiracies strip people of agency by placing blame for individual misfortunes only on external, uncontrollable factors. Conspiracy theories also quickly morph into self-fulfilling prophesies — if you see barriers to entry everywhere, then eventually you stop trying to get in.
The popularity of the prosperity gospel indicates that many religious people are uncomfortable with unexplained suffering as well. If someone falls ill or loses a job it’s simply because they are not in favor with God. This pernicious, perverted version of Christianity drives away those who are most in need of faith in their darkest hours. In The Problem of Pain, Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis remarked that the real problem is not why some pious, humble, believing people suffer, “but why some do not.” Humanity is cursed with the foresight to see its own pain, resulting in mental anguish and suffering. Humans foresee their own death “while desiring permanence.” This is the human condition —and no conspiracy theories will explain away the permanence of suffering and pain. And, in a similar vein, no amount of progressive policies will stop human nature, and self-interest, from prevailing. There are enduring human problems that even well-designed public policy cannot fix.
This is not to say we are powerless in the face of misfortune or that we should stop trying to make our world a better place — but we should become more comfortable with not always knowing why. We must embrace humility. Only humility can help bridge the gap between the penchant for conspiracy and prideful condescension that plagues our modern discourse.
Occam’s Razor is the theory that, of two explanations of an event, the simpler one is more likely to be correct. Conspiracists prefer the complicated explanations. They enjoy no allegiance to a particular political party. Rachel Maddow, at the heigh of Russiagate, once popularized theories about Russia potentially freezing us to death. During the debates, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris declared she wouldn’t take the vaccine if Donald Trump had anything to do with it. And as president, Donald Trump repeatedly expressed reluctance to denounce QAnon, the conspiracy that child sex trafficking rings are perpetrated by the establishment elite, mostly members of the Democratic party and various Hollywood celebrities. Trump’s ongoing campaign asserting that he won the election is, similarly, a stunning show of conspiracy run amuck — because he believes it’s “not fair,” he is focused on concocting an entire narrative to prove that he really won. Trump’s clear message to his supporters: you have no control because the system is rigged.
Critical race theory similarly removes agency from the individuals it purportedly seeks to help. It categorizes individuals as either “oppressed” or “oppressor” based on their skin color and condemns nearly all members of certain racial groups (typically white men) as complicit in oppression. It attempts to strip the “oppressed” of their agency by blaming nearly all struggles on that singular oppression. Critical race theory strips away a fundamental respect for individual people, choosing instead to view everyone as only their identity via immutable characteristics. Nearly all critical race thought expresses a deep discontent with liberalism overall and, as Glenn Loury once wrote, “…no people can be genuinely free so long as they look to others for their deliverance.”
Conspiracy theories are the embodiment of hubris; they offer grand explanations of unexplainable, unfortunate events. Similarly, the condescension of certain progressive ideologues assumes a certain omniscience as well. Throughout the course of the pandemic, progressive members of elite institutions, including public health experts, have turned down their noses at lockdown-skeptics and anti-maskers. And though their condemnation certainly originates from a legitimate concern for public health, progressives tend to over-emphasize their concern for the safety and well-being of the public and use it as a shield when belittling anyone who might disagree with their proposed policy solutions. Phrases like “listen to the science” are now frequently used shame those who believe that science is ever-evolving and not a firm policy position. Such phrases when taken literally are relatively noncontroversial but, as Jonah Goldberg noted in a recent column, the problem is that the same people who say “listen to science” tend “not to mean it literally but figuratively, and worse, intermittently.” Ross Douthat made a similar point in his recent Op-Ed, saying that, to the extent that trust the science simply means that “Dr. Anthony Fauci is a better guide to epidemiological trends than someone the president liked on cable news, then it’s a sound and unobjectionable idea.” But it does not always simply mean that, as evidenced by the reaction from public health experts shortly after George Floyd’s murder this summer. Renowned epidemiologists declared racism to be a public health emergency, saying that the “public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.”
Scientists and trained experts have valuable things to say and their contributions to a better-informed electorate are good for a functioning democracy. There are limits to expertise and knowledge however, and, just as a centrally-planned economy does not work as well as a free market economy due to knowledge gaps, neither does a total reliance on a few epidemiological experts who are not equipped to connect and understand all policy trade-offs within individuals’ everyday lives. There are far too many economic relationships that are dependent on policy decisions, making it impossible for experts in any one field to take them all into account and coordinate them sensibly. Policy-makers in positions of power should acknowledge that their decisions are almost always political in nature because they require the delicate balancing of many competing goods. In their hubris, our policy-makers this year have entirely failed us.
The complexities of life frustrate seemingly simple solutions to policing problems like conspiracy theories and hate speech; realistically, both exist on sliding scales of good and evil. The show Mythic Quest dedicated one entertaining episode to exploring the impracticality of banning hate speech and hate groups. After discovering they have a large neo-Nazi fanbase, one of the executives at the video game company calls an all-hands meeting to strategize how to ban hate groups. The episode ends with the neo-Nazis condemned to play their own nasty game confined to their own server. It’s a great solution, really. Imprisoning the neo-Nazis within an entirely separate sever and allowing them to spew hateful bile in their own environment recognizes the unhappy reality that racism and bigotry will always exist. It is an open acknowledgement of the tragedy of the human condition.
Conspiracy theories, though outlandish, also sometimes include seeds of truth. Critical race theory is based on the concept that POC have been historically oppressed, mistreated and marginalized. That is true. And some Hollywood celebrities, powerful technocrats and politicians do indeed engage in nefarious behavior; the arrest of Jeffrey Epstein and the subsequent revelations around the company he kept indicate some grains of truth within otherwise entirely crazy QAnon theories.
A society that values free speech cannot prevent hate speech from being used on open platforms — it should encourage others to counteract it with better speech. An increasing inability to engage in fruitful conversations with ideological opponents, exacerbated by social media, results in never being challenged in our assumptions. If everyone across the political spectrum embraced a bit more humility, the ongoing culture wars would be waged with slightly less intensity. Condescension and conspiracy are eating away at our ability to communicate and persuade; both are rooted in pride. Reasonable people must try to reclaim the legitimate issues hidden within conspiracy theories and, in turn, delegitimize the conspiracies. Tendencies towards conspiracy are fueled not by ignorance but a feeling of helplessness.
Our political and business leaders, policy makers and experts should stop being so incredibly prideful and admit that they too have limitations in what they are able to predict, understand and explain. They must be prepared to accept constructive criticism from an (ideally) informed electorate and, when faced with unhinged conspiracy theories, attempt to understand the root of the worries and struggles buried within them. There are problems that even the very best public policy cannot fix because humans failings will always challenge even the most well-intentioned programs. Good policies do matter and they require expertise to be effective but they are not the only things that matter. It is difficult to resist succumbing to the Dunning–Kruger effect, but it makes society a worse place when we don’t acknowledge our own failings and limitations. When we begin to accept the discomfiting reality of simply not knowing, we find humility. Humility is the antidote to conspiracy and prideful condescension.
Trained experts contribute incredible things to our society but they cannot know everything. Conspiracies serve as comforting stories about why life is not fair but they are just that — stories, not the truth. The constrained, tragic vision of mankind is freeing in that it acknowledges that the failings of human nature are a constant and cannot be erased. We have a governmental system built to check humanity’s worst instincts and encourage its best ones. A virtuous selfishness, or rational self-interest, includes the pursuit of happiness — reaching prosperity and success at an individual level. Powerful policy makers should think twice before shaming people for that desire. And staunch conspiracy theorists should realize that individual agency, so vital to their pursuit of happiness, is virtually non-existent in the world of conspiracy.
Christians of the C.S. Lewis variety believe that suffering is God’s will and prepares the believer for heaven. Even the nonreligious accept that, to an extent, suffering makes people stronger and that there is value in failure. Perhaps that is the only explanation we will ever understand and perhaps that is the only one we deserve.
Freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; faith requires freedom. Our pursuit of happiness requires us to lead ourselves first, through virtue. A healthy, functioning society requires virtue from the bottom-up and the top-down. For, as Edmund Burke wrote, “what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.” In the United States, we have a system built to balance the expertise of those in power with an individual’s right to keep them in check: a democratic republic. If we all practice more humility, maybe we can keep it.