Weekly Edgework #82 - January 23, 2006

Attention Deficit

People would rather die than think. (Bertrand Russel)

If you make people think they are thinking, they will love you. If you really make people think, they will hate you. (Paul Gaugin)

Paying attention to what is really going on around you is dangerous. That is particularly so if you dare to alert others to what you are seeing. If they begin paying attention they will begin to think. And thinking people are harder to handle than those who don’t think.

In a sense, not paying attention has some benefits for all concerned. On the one hand, it spares many in our society the effort of really thinking. They like to think they are thinking, but are generally afraid of discovering truth, especially if it challenges a prevailing ideology. And those who create and control the myths of our culture like it that way. When the masses remain semi-comatose, responding without thinking to the cues they are given, they are easily manipulated. Should persons arise among them who pay attention and encourage others to really think along with them, they must be silenced in one way or another. Which is one of the reasons the masses are afraid of paying attention. A vicious and predictable cycle.

The history of the world could be written by looking through this view-finder. As long as the masses accept the status quo all generally appears to be well. But when someone begins paying attention, asking questions, digging below the surface – that is to say thinking deeply about what is or what might be – tensions emerge. In this struggle, the “powers that be” usually have an advantage over those questioning the status quo. And they frequently use their power to make sure that any new-found truth is kept from taking root in the masses. Sometimes they are successful for a time, even for centuries, but sooner or later the truth of the matter finds its way into the minds of the majority and cultural controllers are forced to adjust their dogma. But sadly, as soon as the required adjustments are made they again slam the doors closed on any “further tampering” with societal myths. Again, a vicious and predictable cycle.

This dynamic was at work when Copernicus asserted in the 16th century that the earth is not the center of the universe. Seventy years after his death, in 1616, the European church took a stand that denounced Copernicus’ conclusions. When Galileo provided proof of the Copernican worldview by means of observations made through a telescope in 1633, he was found guilty of heresy and imprisoned until his death in 1642. It was 350 years later, in 1992, that Pope John Paul II admitted that errors had been made by theological advisors in the case of Galileo. But even then he did not admit that the church was wrong to convict Galileo on a charge of heresy because of his belief that the earth rotates around the sun.

Always, it seems, when persons challenge the status quo at whatever level with a new idea or vision a conspiracy develops to either bring them back into line or somehow shut them up. That was the case with Joan of Arc, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. In the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorcese illustrates this phenomenon when he has Pilate saying to Jesus, “I understand that you’re no threat to the government militarily. But you are a threat. You want to change people’s hearts. You want them to see beyond their lives of drudgery and obedience. And we can’t have that, now, can we?”

This is also the central metaphor of the movie, The Matrix. Morpheus, who knows the truth about what is going on tries waking up a bunch of people by disconnecting them from the machines that control their minds while extracting electricity from their bodies. Of course this creates conflict with the forces running The Matrix and the battle is on. And it is not a given that Morpheus will be successful in his enterprise. The forces arrayed against those who pay attention and think are always formidable.

The dynamics evident in The Matrix play themselves out in a thousand ways in our culture. For example, the capitalistic system now in place for about two centuries has us convinced that getting more stuff will enhance the quality of our lives. So we hunker down hankering after more stuff and acquiring it. We are even willing to sacrifice fairness, honesty and integrity – even mental and physical health – to get more stuff. We really believe that if everyone fights really hard for his or her share of the pie everyone’s piece will be relatively similar in size in the end. To expose the truth that the system has in fact made the rich richer and the poor poorer on the global front is tantamount to treason. Get back in line, shout the economic architects, and go buy your stuff! But that doesn’t change the fact that 30,000 children in the world die of starvation and related diseases every twenty-four hours. But just don’t think about that!

And unfortunately, The Matrix metaphor plays itself out as well in the context of the contemporary church. I have, for example, recently encountered well-educated persons who insist that I must accept without question and without doubt all five points of doctrine fundamentalists hammered out in the 1920s as being the core of biblical faith. Forget the fact that fundamentalists were fighting an all-out war with social-gospel liberals at the time – a war that would have been as irrelevant in the 19th century as it is in the 21st century. For them all truth was nailed down before the Great Depression began, leaving no room to ask faith and life questions that have to do with the postmodern context in which we live.

Paying attention may be dangerous, but once you catch the bug it is hard to shake it off.