Uncertainty is everywhere and growing fast. That makes many people uncomfortable at best, violent at worst. Most seek certainty in what they perceive as a set of beliefs that they equate with reality. When conditions appear uncertain or change quickly, certain people conclude that someone is messing with their reality. They expect to live in a stable world where they have a secure and comfortable place. That is increasingly not the case for many people. Too often they seek revenge and in their ideological blindness choose the wrong target.
Ideologies are belief systems that assert the righteousness of the present order of things— those in charge espouse them most. Utopias assert the righteousness of an order of things that does not exist but some believe would be much better than the present order (or chaos) in which they now struggle. That can get complicated, especially when perceptions confuse the nature of present conditions and/or the source of difficult changes. In either case, righteous certainty is at the core, which is why neither is very good at responding to real-world change.
For this discussion I will use the term ideology for any rigid belief system, whether a theory of how things ought to be or how righteous they are. To adhere to a rigid ideology may be the least effective response when conditions are changing, especially when we feel that we are losing out and others are winning.
Politics of Order and Change
Those who hold rigidly to an ideology may be doing so for purely practical reasons. Politicians fit well into that mold. That is why the Trumpian power dynamic is destroying any semblance of the traditional values of the Republican Party. Senators and representatives who had initially opposed the Fake President now fear that if they don’t toe the ideological line they will be “primarieed” and out of their cushy jobs.
Progressives and Democrats can fall into similar traps. Bernie Sanders sticks to his “democratic socialism” ideology because he believes in it, though he seems willing to compromise to some degree. On the other hand, the Democratic leadership, with its vaguely liberal ideology, is afraid to eliminate the highly anti-democratic filibuster in order to pass “progressive” legislation. They seem to fear taking actions without approval of at least some of the increasingly rogue Republicans. Manchin’s manipulations seem entirely ungrounded in any principle or program other than his own political ambitions. He can switch ideological rationalizations at the drop of a hat.
Now, consider the public. Most folks support the particulars of progressive programs, such as raising taxes on the excessively rich, whose tax obligations have shrunk greatly over recent decades and who cheat in quasi-legal ways. But if you frame such programs meant to serve the public instead of the corporate interests, in “leftist” ideological slogans, most citizens won’t go along. The same goes for Medicare for all, COVID-relief programs, the infrastructure programs, the minimum wage, pregnancy and family leave, and a whole lot of benefits of modern government that Europeans enjoy but the American ideology of extreme individualism prevents. Ideology muddles reality.
The Value of Creativity
I don’t know what conservatism is any more. Once upon a time, it meant respect for constitutional principles, fairness, respect for institutions, and personal responsibility. Politicians who found their lives threatened by the January 6, 2021 violent insurrectionist assault on the nation’s Capital callously excuse those who would have taken down the constitutional election process that formalized the results of the 2020 presidential election. They seem to have fallen for the very ideology that attempted to destroy the very institution that they embody.
Traditional conservatives stood with the constitutional order of political succession, not with a riotous mob of conspiracy theorists and authoritarian white nationalists who look too much like the fascists of the 1930s for any true patriot’s comfort. There was nothing creative or productive about the ham-handed destruction they gleefully imposed on the citadel of American democracy. They were all about their rigid ideology of hate.
In contrast, what Rebecca Solnit proposes “Hope in the Dark,” which implies recognizing that social reality is a work in progress and that the legacy of human evolution rests in our ability to creatively compromise and cooperate in everyone’s interests, while recognizing that the despair of others comes from something real and we should honor that. Those insurrectionists live in despair too; we need to understand why.
The racists who find “Black Lives Matter” so offensive explicitly deny the despair of Black Americans who have suffered the violence of police and ‘white citizens’ for hundreds of years. From slave ships, plantations, and the second amendment validated gangs of escaped-slave hunters of old to modern police killings and mass incarceration, the torture and killing of Black Americans has not stopped. The formal progress of civil rights legislation has made a little difference but not nearly enough.
Black Lives Matter, the Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thurnborg’s school strike for climate action, Occupy, Indivisible, and countless other recent movements for positive change in the social, economic, political, and ecological order of things, all resonate with an important discovery about creativity and goal-seeking.
Evidence that Uncertainty is Freedom to Create
Some artificial intelligence (AI) researchers discovered that when they programmed computer-simulated robots to seek a goal in two different ways, their expectations were shattered. They designed one algorithm have to the robot choose actions based on whether the action was likely to move them closer to an objective goal. They designed the second algorithm to have the robot make decisions based on how novel the choice appeared, given all the parameters involved. Surprise: the creative robot (that sought novelty rather than an explicit objective) always achieved the goal faster.
While I definitely do not support a continued trajectory of automating human behavior by replacing it with robots driven by artificial intelligence, I am willing to learn from any experiment. In this case, a crude experiment indicated that we ought to reaffirm the place of creativity in human affairs. Ideologies and utopias are rigid conceptual constructions that ultimately cannot anticipate the future very well. Only creativity, exploration, and engaging openly with others can adapt effectively to the uncertain conditions of life in the near future.