Some Thoughts in a Time of Crisis

At FOGcon last week, a group of us did a panel rooted in Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed that discussed what kind of economic systems might develop in the future. We did a good job of scratching the surface – given the scope of the discussion, there’s only so much you can do in 75 minutes – and got inspired to do more study in the area of complexity economics.

One of the things that occurred to me during the discussion was how important it is for any group of people starting a project of any size to have solid principles and a vision. I recall that Google used to say its motto was “Don’t be evil.” Given how many tentacles that company has into all our lives, I don’t think something so simplistic is very useful. I know a lot of people who think Google is very evil indeed.

I’m thinking about this a lot right now because of a novel I’m working on (once I finish the revisions for the one that will be coming out from Aqueduct next year). In that story, the people on a generation ship sent off to settle a planet will be grounded in certain principles. I’m still figuring out what those principles are.

While I’m figuring them out, I’m also thinking hard about how to make them both vital and flexible. Because things change, and something that seems like core truth right now may not work well down the road. So at least one of the principles has to be about how to change the core vision.

Take the U.S. Constitution, the core of U.S. principles as a nation. It was, of course, a compromise document to begin with. While all human activity involves compromise – no two people will ever have identical ideas about how to live – there are compromises that should never happen. Allowing slavery is an obvious one.

But there are more complex issues in the Constitution. I’ve always been a strong advocate for the First Amendment to the Constitution, while thinking the Second should fade away. However, Mary Anne Franks, a law professor, makes some good arguments about flaws in the interpretation of the First Amendment, given the hate speech that is running rampant these days. (She is also critical of the Second Amendment.)

It could be that many of the problems the U.S. is looking at today are related to flaws in our Constitution that we have not been able to change.

I’ve also been looking at this in relation to smaller organizations, watching which ones succeed and what ones fracture apart. In many cases, the broken ones structured themselves for “realism” and never developed a core set of principles.

Principles cannot be left to religion. There are many religions, and lots of people are not religious in any way. A society such as ours that includes people of widely diverse religious beliefs needs a set of secular principles as well.

Right now in the U.S. we are struggling with how to adapt to the Covid-19 virus. Our government is in the hands of incompetents who appear to be more worried about the stock market than the health of the citizens.

But it isn’t just that the criminal occupying our White House has sidelined experts and blocked appropriate efforts. Many of our rules about tests for disease and even some very good ones about the rights of research subjects have prevented the kind of work that could have demonstrated that we had a problem much earlier than was acknowledged.

Now individuals are scrambling to figure out their own solutions because our government has failed us.

We need principles that show us how to throw out rules – even very valuable rules – when the stakes are this high.

That’s a tough thing to work out, but I think it’s the direction we need to be going.

Many of our stories are about the individual who breaks all the rules to save the day. Unfortunately, that’s not what happens in real life. Instead, people kowtow to incompetents to keep their jobs – some of them because they think they can do more good that way, some of them because they’re scared.

What actually happens in most crises in the world is that ordinary people come together and handle matters. We need more stories about the way people come together and fewer ones that rely on the myth of the individual hero.

Maybe then we’ll develop the principles, and the society, we need.

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Some Thoughts in a Time of Crisis — 4 Comments

  1. Even in the best system, there’s an element of making-it-up-as-you-go-along. Solid foundational principles help to keep the going-along on track, because otherwise things can skid off the road with astonishing speed.

    • Finding the balance between those two things is hard. One thing I keep noticing — and the current occupant of the White House is an extreme example — is that a person who is either not committed to the core principles or so convinced that the world would be perfect if everyone did things their way often starts the skid. So protecting against toxic humans while still leaving room for creative and innovative ones with scary new ideas is another challenge.

  2. Solid reasoning, as always, Nancy Jane! Yes, more stories about “regular” people finding solutions together would be welcome. That “rogue hero” can just as easily be the “rogue enemy,” as we see with the criminal occupying the White House. New myths needed!