oxymorons and the science of being human

2020 is turning out to be the Year of the Oxymoron:

Flattening the Curve.
Social Distancing.
The New Normal.
Fake News.
Social Media.
Supreme Court Justice.
Artificial Intelligence.
Political Discourse.

If I were a Hollywood studio exec, I’d say this would be the time to re-release Romancing the Stone.

But in all seriosity: One oxymoron in particular deserves our attention.

We asked people to engage in disengagement, coining the oxymoronic phrase social distancing.

The compliance has been remarkable.

I’m not sure why we are surprised by the destruction of other people’s property, violent speech, and other threatening and egocentric behaviors.

Most of the appeals to science were appeals to technology, and very little attention was paid to the science of human behavior. We are social creatures, and we were being asked to violate our nature in the pursuit of some greater good (putting aside the question of whether science suggested that the good in question was achievable or even beneficial). I’m not sure why we expected that to come off without some serious repercussions.

To quote C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

I know there were appeals to altruism in the lockdown (“do it for your neighbor” or “we’re all in this together” or even “you’re not pro-life if you don’t comply”). Instead of appealing to people’s reason, however, or their better instincts, in many situations a play was made to activate a sense of shame in those who asked for a rational discussion. I think that’s a trend that, if not put in check, does not bode well for the future of social change.

“There is a great temptation to say, ‘But there is so much suffering in the world! — let’s suspend the question of truth for a while. First let’s get on with the great social tasks of liberation; then, one day, we will indulge in the luxury of the question of truth.’ In fact, however, if we postpone the question of truth and declare it to be unimportant, we are emasculating man, depriving him of the very core of his human dignity. If there is no truth, everything is a matter of indifference. Then social order swiftly becomes compulsion, and participation becomes violation.” (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One)

 

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