One of humanity’s ongoing puzzles is, of course, just how to make our desires actually come to pass. To function as social, economic, and political beings, we visualize and often act as though a straight line connects our intentions, their implementation, and the eventual outcome of our actions. Unfortunately, it seems there are almost no straight lines where humans are concerned, particularly when it involves our behavior and its consequences.
I was reminded of that during the celebrations following Osama bin Laden’s assassination. I was riding home on the airport bus. My seatmate was Danielle, a lawyer whose older brother and I turned out to have been classmates. She noticed the picture on my newspaper featuring throngs of mostly young people waving flags and cavorting outside the White House.
“What’s to celebrate?” Danielle exclaimed.
I looked at her, waiting for the punch line she quickly supplied.
“He won,” she said. “Bin Laden won.”
I understood what she meant, but Danielle explained herself anyway:
“Osama bin Laden propounded a version of America’s identity in order to underwrite, recruit, and carry out an assault on the United States and strike a blow at ‘the empire of the Crusaders.’ The result was carnage in America’s two most important cities. We responded with outrage and a seemingly righteous and justified response to the wanton murder of thousands of our citizens. We set out to get the people who had done this to us and ‘defend our way of life.’ It seemed so very simple at the time.
“But check it out ten years later. We’ve squandered multiple trillions of dollars, leaving wreckage—both foreign and domestic—in our wake. Our army is now suffused with brain trauma and stress disorders. We—the victims of Pearl Harbor before we were victims of 9/11 —have, for the first time in our history, adopted preemptive strikes as an official staple of our foreign policy, with no more basis for our aggression than our own often unfounded suspicions. We have adopted kidnapping and torture as staples as well. We have assaulted and forcibly occupied two Muslim nations and have likewise targeted our own domestic Muslims for communal ostracism and distrust. We have killed numerous people who didn’t like us, some people who actually were affiliated with the assault on 9/11, and a whole lot of people who had nothing to do with anything that had ever been done to us—all that with little other than bin Laden’s scalp to show for it. Take a look at us. We are acting like Crusaders. Osama bin Laden has turned America into the America he claimed we were in the first place.
“So, even though we’ve bagged him, the joke’s still on us. Osama proved his point and America lost its character. Doesn’t sound like much of a victory to me.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said as the bus reached my stop. “More like Brer Rabbit and the tar baby.”
The larger backdrop of our conversation resurfaced after I grabbed a cab home:
With this fresh evidence that no straight lines connect intention, action, and consequence, the conundrum remains. How is it that people with seemingly appropriate motives and the best of intentions end up creating anything but what they had in mind? What did they miss when they imagined their undertaking? And how can we approach the situations that face us in ways that give us a better chance of avoiding the damage we inadvertently do to ourselves and others?
I eventually came up with four theorems of social physics:
Nothing turns out as we imagine it. Reality is not so much subjects and objects as it is verbs. Every thing bends between here and there and we have to tailor our processes to allow for constant adjustment. And we have to abandon our attachment to the approach with which we started. Instead, we need to monitor our behavior and steer it as we move along. Once committed to an approach, we often mistakenly close our eyes while it plays itself out and having already convinced ourselves how it will work, we refuse to “reopen” the issue. In real life, however, the issue never closes.
We only get what we do. We don’t get what we think we are doing or what we claim to be doing or what we intend to do. There is a physical reality underlying human affairs and the times and places where our plans and intentions intersect with it determine social reality. At its most basic, life is participatory—its outcomes determined by how we engage in it. Our history is structured by the sequence of very specific, concrete behaviors, not by the perceptions or motives or logic that brought us to them. Actuality always trumps. There is no saving a village by destroying it. Doing bad things to reach good outcomes is an oxymoron.
Everything is approximate. Our conceit of precision misleads us into acting on the assumption we can, should, and must get something exactly right. Such exactitude is impossible because we are always in process and, hence, never located at a fixed set of coordinates, nor embodied in a final product. We must give it our best shot, get as close as we can to whoever or wherever we want to be, then take another shot and another and another. And not assume that will ever be different.
What goes around, comes around. The things we do set the template for what is, in turn, done to us. This interaction is where much of our social energy is generated. We need to ground our understanding in role reversal before we act. What does our behavior look like when we’re taking it rather than dishing it out? Without appreciating that calculation, we condemn ourselves to hypocrisy, vicious circles, and social identity theft. And, ironically, become our own worst enemy.
None of these theorems are silver bullets, but they may be worth consulting the next time we decide to chase Osama into the briar patch.