Decisions. We all have to make them, and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about it. And, as time will cruelly prove, we never know if these are the right choices until after we’ve already acted.
In order to make decisions, we weigh the predicted possible positive outcomes with the predicted possible negative outcomes. And therein lies the problem — we are all fallible; we make mistakes. But there are a couple of things we can do about them.
We are all familiar (even if the only image that comes to mind is a lightning bolt striking a kite) with a man by the name of Benjamin Franklin. Now, Ben was a vegetarian, but before you animal rights activists get all excited, he wasn’t a very good one. He failed after a short time. But at some point before he finally gave in to the delicious bloodiness of meat, he was on a long voyage that left him without an abundance of veggies. Though starving, Benjamin made good on the promise to himself. That is, until he saw a fish that had been caught and sliced open. Inside this fish was another fish. So, Ben thought to himself, “If a fish can eat a fish, why can’t I eat a fish?” And so he did.
The important lesson here isn’t that vegetarianism is impractical on long voyages (although that’s the second most important) — it’s that men are fallible. And with the brilliance of our human minds comes a great flaw: We are smart enough to justify just about anything to ourselves. We can come up with reasons for any of our actions, from homicide, genocide and torture to simply not doing our assigned readings (schoolocide).
Famous experiments in the field of psychology (the Asch Conformity experiment, the Stanford Prison experiment and the Milgram experiment) very clearly show that although we’d like to think we aren’t capable of extreme violence or conformity, we are. And although we’re shocked when we hear of horrendous crimes against humanity, like the Holocaust and other genocides over the course of history, we should recall one important fact: We are no different. We are all capable of these extremes if placed under the right circumstances. We are such a social species that we fear going against what society tells us perhaps more than anything else.
How did the soldiers in the Holocaust justify their actions? They said they were just following orders given to them from above. They killed, they tortured, they watched as hundreds of thousands were dying around them. How did those at the top justify their orders? Well, they, of course, weren’t responsible — they weren’t personally carrying out the massacre. Similarly, as long as we’re not to blame, we can maintain a pretty damn awesome self-image.
Decisions — we never know how they’ll pan out, and that’s just the nature of the world we live in. But we can do our best to weigh our options, and be aware that excuses only go so far, while our fallibility is unceasing.
As captain of the UCSB men’s swimming and diving team, I’ve made a couple of mistakes that I regret. And although I know I’ve done all I can to make the team the best it can be, like everyone in positions of influence, I have a greater responsibility to recognize my flaws. People listen to those in seats of power, but even when you’re not at the top, be reminded that there are people looking up to you — younger siblings, underclassmen, peers who admire you. We are all in positions of unique power, and influence is what drives our society. Let’s start being positive about it.
Daily Nexus columnist Kevin Ferguson wonders how Hannibal the Fish justified his cannibalism.