We seem to be living in a new age of conformity. Everyone must conform. Plurality of opinion is increasingly disallowed. The mass media plug one particular orthodoxy, and nothing else. Everyone is being ‘nudged’ or bullied into conformity.
Three particular conformities spring to mind. Firstly, all must believe that smoking causes lung cancer, and quite possibly every other disease known to man, and so all smokers must be made to quit smoking. Secondly, all must believe that carbon dioxide emissions from human industry are causing the planet to warm, and so humans must be made to reduce their carbon emissions, and industrial civilisation closed down. Thirdly, all must believe that the future of Europe lies in a European Union which replaces its unstable, fractious states with a single central authority, and we must all be Europeans before we are French or German or Spanish.
These are all new conformities. They didn’t exist 50 years ago, or in some cases 10 years ago. Not long ago it was possible to dissent from all these views. But no longer. If you disagree you are in league with evil Tobacco Companies, or in denial, or you are a petty nationalist of some sort.
Where does such an urge to conformity arise? What is it that makes plurality of opinion normal and acceptable at one time (as it was not 20 years ago), and intolerable and unacceptable a few years later?
I’d like to suggest that plurality of opinion on any matter grows out ignorance or uncertainty about it. The less that we know about, say, the planet Mars, the greater the plurality of opinions about what it might be like. Some might believe that it is uninhabited, others that it is inhabited. Some might believe it is warm, and some that it is cold. Some might believe it is criss-crossed by numerous canals, some that it is a waterless desert. It’s only as we have learned more about Mars that this plurality of opinion has dwindled: it’s begun to be clear to almost everyone that Mars is cold, dry, and uninhabited (although some may disagree). So when we move from ignorance to knowledge, we move from uncertainty to certainty, and from plurality of opinion to uniformity of opinion.
And we much prefer knowledge to ignorance, and serene certainty to gnawing uncertainty, and so we also prefer uniformity of opinion to plurality of opinion. And so in a time of great ignorance and uncertainty, powerful attempts are made to restore a uniformity of opinion (and therefore a sense of certainty) in the face of mounting plurality. Ignorance and uncertainty become intolerable, and an attempt is made to restore an orderly uniformity.
And it might be said that, with all the examples of new conformism just listed, all are the subject of profound ignorance and uncertainty.
Nobody knows, for example, what causes cancer or lung cancer (or even heart disease and countless other maladies). But uncertainty about such matters of life and death is intolerable – particularly when we think we know the causes of diseases like malaria and typhoid -. And so rather than endure the intolerable uncertainty of not knowing, some of us replace that uncertainty with a new certainty: cancer (and most other disease) is caused by smoking cigarettes. And this new certainty restores our sense of serene certainty and perfect knowledge.
The same also applies with the Earth’s climate. Fifty years ago we had the certainty of the cycles of summer and autumn and winter and spring. But, with new computer models of climate, those old certainties have been swept away, and we now find ourselves in a dynamic, unstable terrestrial atmosphere which might suddenly overheat (or freeze). We have entered a terrifying new world of uncertainty where uncertainty never existed before. And, as ever, we set out to restore the loss sense of certainty and the uniformity of opinion that goes with it. All must conform to a new doctrine of global warming, even if this happens to be a worst-case scenario. It’s a matter of life and death.
And also Europe. After a century in which the whole of Europe was torn apart by not just one, but two, wars which encompassed the whole world, and during which the power of weaponry to inflict injury multiplied enormously, we find ourselves living in a profoundly unstable and uncertain world. And this is why we have the EU, which is intended to replace awful uncertainty and instability with certainty and stability. And it’s also why all must conform to this new political doctrine. Because, as with the others, this also is a matter of life and death.
And in every case, these new certainties to which all must subscribe, and all conform, don’t actually provide any certainty at all. They provide the appearance of certainty and order. We haven’t actually learned anything which justifies such certainty. We don’t know what causes cancer. We don’t know how the climate works. And we don’t understand political society either. With our new conformity, we are simply papering over the cracks, and pretending to know what we actually don’t know. But for many of us, it seems, even the appearance of certainty and knowledge, the pretence of certainty, is better than the awful and unendurable abyss of uncertainty and ignorance.
And we might say, in advance of anything, that all these false new certainties, created simply to restore our sense of well-being, will inevitably all be swept away. Because they’re all wrong. They’re all mistaken. And this truth will emerge sooner or later.
It may of course be that we will actually acquire genuine new knowledge. We may (and indeed probably will) understand the true causes of cancer, and become able to cure it or prevent it. And we may also gain a deeper understanding of the terrestrial climate, and be able to judge much more accurately whether we are in real danger of warming or cooling. And we may also learn a bit more about political societies and how they work. And in this way ignorance will be replaced by knowledge, uncertainty by certainty, and plurality of opinion by a true conformity of opinion rather than a false and fabricated uniformity.
But most likely, no sooner than we have learned about cancer and climate and community, we will find ourselves overtaken by new uncertainties, new bottomless pits of terrifying ignorance.
In fact, it might even be suggested that, the more we learn about anything, the more we learn how little we actually know about anything. If the world seems a terrifying place right now, it might be far more terrifyingly uncertain in 100 years time, when many more old certainties have been swept away.
We need to learn to live with uncertainty and ignorance and plurality. We need to be able to say, “We don’t know, and we don’t understand, and it’s anybody’s guess how it all works, but that’s no reason to be terrified of everything, and still less of a reason to try to replace real uncertainty with false certainty.”
But for most people right now, that seems to be an intolerable option. They can’t bear uncertainty. It scares the wits out of them. And they’ll do anything to replace nagging, gnawing, uncomfortable uncertainty with soothing, warm certainty, even if the certainty is illusory.