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This week as I watched film of terrorists gleefully destroying ancient art, my heart sank. How many times have people across the globe–people who thought of themselves as revolutionaries or reformers–thrown away knowledge and skills? To me, the greatest waste was the historic destruction of the ancient library at Alexandria, Egypt. What insights were lost in that fire? What knowledge is humankind struggling to learn all over again…and again…and again?
Terrorists and revolutionaries are probably the most indiscriminately destructive, but they certainly aren’t the only people who prefer to “unknow” information. Once in a while, we’re all guilty. No one likes to feel wrong or bested. We don’t like information that tells us we don’t have a clue. Even scientists balk when new discoveries make their previous expertise seem unimportant. The threatened scientists may do their darnedest to discredit those ideas—especially if they don’t like or respect the person or persons who came up with the new information. (Or, if they need the information too much to throw it away, they may find a convenient excuse to avoid honoring the person who did the work—as illustrated in the truth behind the film THE IMITATION GAME.)
Beliefs don’t have to have anything to do with religion or gender identity. We hold beliefs about everything—such as parenting, education, agriculture, or management—the nature of the universe itself. We own our beliefs and we’re willing to defend them. We usually don’t want to know if our particular beliefs are based on faulty understanding. We don’t want to know if we’re just plain wrong. Revolutionaries who want to think that they can improve life by throwing out the wisdom of their predecessors want to think ignorance is sacred bliss.
Now and then, we find ourselves in discussions in which we suddenly realize we won’t consider the other side of the argument simply because we don’t want to. Ignorance isn’t bliss, but it is comfortable. We understand what was. New perspectives require adjustment, thinking, and maturity.
Terrorists are afraid of change. They want to believe change is evil because they can’t control it. The task of working with change is so complicated and requires so much courage, knowledge, cooperation, and tolerance that they’re intimidated. Toddlers are naturally violent because it’s easy. It’s easier to break than to build. It’s easier to forbid free thought than to discuss. It’s easier to crush anyone who is different than it is to try to understand.
The fact is, however, change will happen. If terrorists truly understood history and science, they would know that’s true. But they believe they’re different from other oppressors who eventually failed. They live in a shallow dark hole into which they want to drag the rest of us. As humankind, we can keep starting over, but we will probably end up in the same place. The real triumph lies in managing change to make it positive.
Susan, you articulate this so well. This piece needs a wider audience – how about all of humanity!
Humanity, indeed. The book THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel is the true story of the men who did their best to save precious European artifacts from destruction or theft by the Nazis. In Cambodia, the teachers were the first to be murdered by “reformers.” World history recites a long series of so-called cultural revolutions. The “urge to purge” seems to express a desire for human domination that is, in fact, a sign of degraded civilization. My question is why can’t humanity learn the lesson so that it doesn’t keep repeating?