On being unreasonable

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman

It is not often that you’ll find me in agreement with David Icke, especially when it comes to the role of lizards in political life, but he did write a book whose title I often wish I’d thought of first: It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This. For most people, the way the world is now is simply inevitable. Things could never have turned out differently. What they grew up with is normal, and anything else is just weird.

This isn’t a bad thing, in the main. It allows (most) people to adapt successfully to the society into which they are born. They learn and internalise the set of customs and practices which are normal in that society, which will usually be the customs and practices that will help them survive in that particular environment. This gives human beings their remarkable adaptability: they can survive in jungles and in deserts, in mountains and in swamps, and even in Los Angeles. We’re right up there with rats, cockroaches, and the hooded crow.

But this only works when your environment is reasonably stable. It’s not much use being an ace buffalo-hunter when someone else has exterminated all the buffalo. And that has been the experience of many, many indigenous people when industrial civilisation showed up in their country, including the English when the first Industrial Revolution happened, or rather was imposed on them. If you want to get some idea of what that was like, I can recommend Kirkpatrick Sale’s book Rebels Against the Future (Addison-Wesley, 1994).

Pre-industrial empires certainly conquered subject peoples throughout history, but from the point of view of ordinary people nothing much usually changed in day-to-day life. Last year you paid your taxes to King X, and now you pay them to King Y. Occasionally a population might be relocated wholesale, as the Assyrians (and Stalin) were wont to do, but for most empires this was too much hassle. If you were a rice farmer, you carried on growing rice.

Because of this basic continuity, there was relatively little appetite for radical change. Take the institution of chattel slavery under the Greeks and Romans. Everyone agreed that being a slave was a rough deal, but nobody really thought slavery should be abolished, apart from the slaves, and even they were often freed under the Roman system. But freed slaves didn’t campaign for all other slaves to be freed likewise. Often they went on to own slaves themselves. After all, slaves were the household appliances of the classical world.

We like to sit in judgement on others, particularly those in the past. It’s been said elsewhere, however, that this is not always the best idea, especially when we ourselves will be subject to the judgement of others.I rather think there are many things that we do in our society that will seem to future generations every bit as reprehensible as chattel slavery now seems to us. Our household appliances may not be slaves, but they are prodigal users of energy, water, and other resources. Our attitude to other living beings is, on the whole, crudely exploitative. Future generations will find much to revile. Of necessity, there will be many things they will do differently.

There is always scope, however, for doing things differently ourselves right now. We don’t have to wait for history to roll onwards. Indeed, as Shaw points out, history only does roll onwards because people choose to do things differently. Humanity is an abstraction; but you – the person sitting in your chair – are not. The reasonable thing to do is always what everyone else is doing. To choose to do something else is unreasonable, eccentric, sometimes even criminal. It may also be right and necessary.

Now the notion of unreasonableness that Shaw is talking about is slightly different from mine. For Shaw, the “unreasonable man” is a heroic figure, someone like Galileo, who takes some kind of exemplary stand and thereby changes the world. What I am advocating for here is something less dramatic, humdrum even – certainly lower-risk – namely having the courage to take a different path from everyone else. And that courage may turn out to be easier to come by than you think. I wouldn’t normally jump from the third floor of a building in cold blood, but if the building was on fire I very well might. And most of the decisions we make in life have much lower stakes than that, even for the likes of Red Adair.

The unreasonable option is not always right just because it is unreasonable. All I am arguing here is that we need to keep it on the menu of choices we make. In many areas of life this is already being acted on; think of the many workers in ill-paid jobs who have chosen to stop doing them, because they can see that there is no worthwhile future in continuing to do them. As the saying goes, if you’re in a hole, stop digging.

I have no idea if the current wave of environmental protests is going to achieve anything. But it is a fine example of unreasonableness in action, and if there is to be useful change, it will come from the unreasonable ones, the non-conformists, the awkward squad. Of course, I don’t presume to tell you what to think or do (actually, there’s no “of course” about it, as most Internet content is trying to tell you what to think or do). I don’t personally know you or your situation.

What I would urge you to do, though, is to be unreasonable. How many of the things you do in life are your own choice and how many are just the things everyone does? And your beliefs about the world: how many have you absorbed from your surroundings, and how many have you arrived at yourself by reflection and enquiry? The unexamined life may or may not be worth living, but at this juncture it strikes me as pretty dangerous. Progress, after all, is simply continued movement forwards, and while that might be reasonable it might also take you over the edge of a cliff if you’re not paying attention.

Mind how you go.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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