We all undoubtedly have memories of doing something stupid and our parents saying something like “if all your friends jumped off a bridge would you do that too?” The point, just because other people are doing something doesn’t mean we should do it too. This is one of the major themes in my latest short story.
Most of us know intellectually that following the crowd and believing what others believe just because it’s popular is not healthy. However, most people are still guilty of this. I know I have been. It is hard being the odd person out. Humans desire to have belonging among other people because we are social creatures so it becomes easier than we like to compromise our beliefs, or at best downplay them. How many kids swear they will never smoke, but do that exact same thing when they are a little older because their friends are doing it?
It is easy to spew platitudes about thinking for ourselves and doing our own thing, but in practice it is far more difficult. This is the inspiration for my latest book The Cursed Forest. There are many odd beliefs circulating lately that I would wager most people who adhere to them don’t really know why they believe it. Look no further than our current political climate. How many people vote simply because there is a “D” or an “R” after a candidate’s name? His desire to fit in, I believe, is the driving factor behind the tribalism in our culture.
How many dangerous ideas spread quickly due to fear of what others might think? Children’s television shows constantly teach “being your own person “but some adults don’t adhere to this logic though. Take a look no further than the atrocities of the 20th century. Sadly, history is replete with examples of group think and allowing or attributing to terrible things. The best way to curb this is to know why we believe what we believe and to resist compromising our believers because an ideology is popular.
There is something I have noticed in Fantasy, and I’m sure many others have too. Certain races not only share universal characteristics, but individual members are indistinguishable from each other. Take a look at orcs, not just in Lord of the Rings, but in other forms of fiction they have appeared in. Their race is depicted as war-like, strong, and destructive. Depending on the story their might be some variations, but that is typically what happens. Elves are stuck up prudes and dwarves are rowdy Scotsmen essentially. Yes, I know, there are plenty of stories that give a more nuanced approach to these races. However, I feel the generalization of specific races may represent our humanness when it comes to people outside of our group who shares our ideology.
On social media I have become a silent observer of conversations. I have concluded that arguing on Twitter or Facebook about important issues is rather pointless. All it does is cause tension, after all has anyone changed their opinion about something due to an argument on Facebook? If the answer is yes, then I doubt the number is very high. I’ve seen Atheists attack religious people based purely on presuppositions and assumptions instead of what the person is trying to say. I’ve seen the opposite where someone assumes things about all irreligious people and create strawman attacks. This has been happening especially amongst Conservatives and Liberals since the last presidential election. I’ve seen Liberals attack Conservatives, especially white rural Conservatives, for being dumb and uninformed, while Conservatives attack Liberals for having a supposed mental disorder. When it comes to these discussions there only listening or reading to respond, not to hear what the other person has to say. Honestly, this is the sort of thing social media breeds since people can hide behind a computing device and not see the hurt they cause others.
In the Lord of the Rings there is very little attempt to understand orcs. They are orcs and serve the Dark Lord, and there is nothing more to it. This viewpoint may work in fiction depending on how it’s utilized, but reality is nuanced. I have my views on faith and politics, same as anyone else, but I need to listen and understand why someone may believe differently. If we do not spend the time doing that, how then will people ever understand one another? How will the chasm between political belief systems ever be bridged if we cannot even agree on the fundamentals of communication and human decency? Is being right of the utmost importance? These questions I must ask myself a lot, we all should.
We all know the saying, “Just because everyone believes it doesn’t make it true.” Most people understand this is truth intellectually. At the same time how many people believe things just because it is popular, or due to authority figures or intellectuals adhere to the same beliefs?
A common phrase I hear “studies say” is used to shut down conversations with supposed intellectual superiority. Someone may know of a study’s findings and suddenly they are armed with absolute knowledge. However, studies always have flaws. Sure, they are they are the best we got to gather information. Studies are useful tools, but they are based on averages and probabilities, not absolute truth. There are almost always exceptions. I have seen and heard countless discussions about what studies say such as “Liberals are more…” or “Conservatives are more…” which might be true based on what the sociologists discovered, but that hardly is supposed to be a justification for blanket statements.
It isn’t just studies that are abused to justify beliefs, so is science in general. Disclaimer, I am not anti-science. I really like it and appreciate it. I simply do not believe using the phrase “most scientists believe…” as evidence in and of itself. That is an appeal to authority fallacy. Show me the proof as to why scientists came to the conclusion they did, do not tell me what they believe. I want to know why.
These are two reasons I’ve seen large amounts of people believe something, and many times the data is warped to the point it becomes untrue. Ideology often gets in the way of facts. We certainly see that in the modern political sphere. Liberals are apt to criticize Conservatives and Conservatives do the same but neither side regularly critiques their own.
It is an easy trap to fall into. It is our duty to sift through truth, even if we must dig deeper. Truth is often masked in ideology and buzz words these days. The result is large crowds of people believing something just because others who think like them believe the same. We see things through the lens of ideology and emotion more often than we use facts. There is a cultural pressure to believe certain things right now, and those who disagree are branded with harsh labels at minimum. Once again, just because a large amount of people believe something, or pressure others to think the same way, doesn’t make it true. That pressure is transitioning to us creative writers. Our job as authors is not to pander, as I’ve said before. We must tell stories that people can learn and relate to, not become popular through forcing certain tropes.