Progress And Nihilism
A lot of soul-searching is happening in light of the Virginia Tech shooting. Many people sighed with relief that the shooter was not a video game player. Many others sighed with relief that he wasn't a Muslim. Everyone is shockingly asking "why?" Far be it from me to know what was the last straw that made him snap. I've known angry people in my life. I've known people fascinated with the truly morbid. None of them snapped. The last I heard, they were all living productive lives. So what made Seung-Hui Cho snap?
While this may be an unpopular position during this time of our unsuccessful prosecution of the war in Iraq and the all-too-obvious fact that the war on terror was hijacked to become a war to grab oil, I will still make the claim that this was a terrorist act. And I will attempt to say why terrorism occurs and why it is the scourge of civilization. While the term "civilization" is often used to distinguish those within one's group from those outside of one's group, I will try to be more precise in defining it. I will say that a civilization is a society that is committed to progress. Where progress is a process of making physical life (not spiritual, but physical) more comfortable. That is progress is the process of improving creature comforts for people so as to relief the suffering and discomfort that is caused to them by the mother nature.
Progress has a certain life-cycle. First, it is born. It is born out of innovative thinking of visionaries or out of aimless wondering of the curious. But it always starts with a new way of seeing the world. That is followed by a period of convincing the general population that this particular piece of progress is a good thing (tm). This is not always successful. Often the new and innovative ideas die at this stage. But those ideas that succeed, attract a following of the competent (often confusingly called "technologically elite") that wish to profit from blessing the world with this new way of living. As they go through the iterative stages of making the new progressive idea more usable and acceptable to the world, the "technological elite" earn enough power in the form of the world gratitude (usually expressed in financial compensation) to join the ranks of the actual elite -- the people who wield actual power over the general population.
Those who don't see the hard work, ingenuity and talent that is involved in creating progress don't see why it happens. All they see is the progress' missionaries' rise in power or affluence. They feel that they are not part of this rising tide (even though they do become benefactors of progress) and as a result they loose hope. For what is hope? It is the belief that future will be better than today. And once the rise of others is clear and is accompanied by realization that one cannot participate in that rise, it becomes very easy to believe that endeavors of one's life do not improve one's condition are not fruitful. Many times this is a fallacy because one's "moment of greatness" simply hasn't come, yet. Alas, sometimes it is, in fact, true. There are those who just coast through life not trying to improve it. Their moment of greatness never comes.
So what is the next step after the hopelessness sets in? Well, inevitably it is nihilism. And that is the last stage in the life-cycle of progress. Those who did not participate in progress' fruition loose hope and become nihilistic. Nihilism is a destructive tendency. As a matter of fact, it can be defined as taking joy in destruction (not necessarily caused by one's hands).
Nihilism takes many forms. Communism is one of the most grandiose nihilistic movements because it wishes to reverse the clock on progress and to re-distribute the wealth created by progress so that those responsible for it get no more benefit than those idly standing by. Large scale terrorism is a smaller scale nihilism. It only wishes to wrest the laurels of progress from the peoples that created it in order to give it to those peoples that did not. Mass murder is an even lesser scale and harder to understand form of nihilism because it is always impossible to predict when it so happens that a single individual passes that threshold of having a glimmer of hope and having none.
It is the wish of everyone involved in the work of bringing progress to fruition that they be recognized for the great benefit that they bring to the world. They are the only ones that separate us from savages. Social scientists and clerics would argue that they contribute a great deal, too. But their work has not changed much in 2000 years. Civilization has improved in that time tremendously though. So what can a civilization do in the face of nihilism? Well, its only choices are to surrender to it or to fight it. Now I can feel the reader's eye rolling up at the word "fight". How can I suggest that destruction be met with something so uncreative as more destruction? I am doing nothing of the kind though.
This fight must be for the minds of those without hope. It must be waged by teaching the world how to become active participants in the work of progress. The primary goal of governments must be not only protecting the civilization from the destructive drive of those who surrendered to the nihilism, but also the educating of those who have a glimpse of hope -- educating them how to create. The missionaries of progress must walk hand-in-hand with those in power so as not to isolate themselves from those who can contribute and who wish to contribute to the work of creation. It is very tempting to argue that it is a basic human right to be left alone. But that won't stem the building tide of nihilism outside of one's castle.
In the end stage of life-cycle of progress is a test of civilization. The test of whether a civilization can fight nihilism without itself becoming more destructive than the nihilists. The civilizations that pass this test get to part-take in the next wave of progress. The ones that fail it, get to be fondly remembered as the "good old days".