Why has the world gone crazy? - A model for social influence
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
Have you ever wondered what it is that drives people's behavior? While this can be a complicated question, I believe that on a broad social level history can provide a pretty compelling answer- IDEAS. It was ideas that people had that led to the deaths of tens of millions in communist China. It was ideas that led to the Spanish inquisition, slavery, etc. On the other hand, it was ideas that led to women's suffrage, the spread of basic human rights and the notion that "all men are created equal". I fully realize that ideas don't appear out of the ether. Nature and raw circumstance certainly have an influence, but it seems that what drives history more than any other force, are the ideas that exist in the minds and hearts of the masses, because those ideas translate into behavior.
It's rightly said that politics is downstream from culture. But what drives culture more than the ideas in the heads and hearts of the masses? Ultimately, the battle for society is a battle for the hearts and minds of the masses and, perhaps more critically, the institutions that control the movement of ideas to the masses. Understanding the landscape of the battlefield is critical if one wants to actually influence society. Political and policy battles certainly matter, but those battles are a forgone conclusion based on the culture you are in. In order for actual social change to take place, change must take place in the hearts and minds of those with the power. The ultimate power resides in the masses in democratic societies. However, if history teaches us anything it is that "The masses" are extremely prone to being led off cliffs like mindless herd animals. To quote a movie from my youth "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it." So if politics are controlled by the culture of the masses, who controls that? As I reflected on this, I came up with the following model that I believe outlines the real battlefield of society.
The ideas in the head of your average person come from influencers. This class of people are focused on engagement with people. Unlike the intellectual class whose focus is on the ideas themselves, the influencer class is about the interface and expression of ideas with the masses. For example, a teacher propagates the ideas of the intellectual class via the textbooks and curriculum. A local pastor propagates the ideas of the authors and theologians he reads. Even a group of teenagers dress and use mannerisms in a particular way based on their interface with the celebrities they find appealing. It should be kept in mind that the ideas in the hearts and minds of the masses only sometimes get there via explicit teaching. Instead, ideas normally get to them through experiences, art, music, or other more subtle methods of influence facilitated by institutions like schools, clubs, media, sports teams, professional associations, etc.
While influencers may be the masters of propagating ideas into the hearts and minds of the masses, they are not the originators or developers of ideas. However, they usually are true believers in ideas developed by people in what I will call "The Intellectual Class". This group are those whose primary focus is on the exploration and development of ideas. While not confined to the academy, academia is the primary institution of the intellectual class. In our modern society, essentially all members of the influencer class passed through the academy as students of the intellectual class during the age when they were the most ripe for influence, their late teens and early 20s. We should not underestimate the immense power of this group.
Ultimately, if one looks at intellectuals as a group, they will find that most of the intellectuals are not creating fundamentally novel ideas. Generally, they are taking the ideas of "foundational thinkers" and playing with those pre-existing ideas like scientists playing with different chemicals. Hence, in order to really understand the intellectuals you need to understand the ingredients behind the ideas they are pushing. What is fascinating about this is that the list of foundational thinkers is surprisingly small. Just as massive numbers of chemical compounds come from the same small group of elements, most ideas in human history have common roots in the major figures in religion and philosophy. Understanding these fundamental ideas can help one know if a thinker is playing with sugar or gunpowder and thus can accurately predict how certain ideas will likely play out.
So why does any of this matter? It matters because ideas, like chemistry, have the ability to take you to the moon or suck the air from your lungs in a gas chamber. Understanding fundamental ideas and how they have operated in the many human experiments in the past is the key to wisdom. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, a wise person realizes that if they want to influence society, they need to ensure people who share their ideas and values occupy the institutions that house and reinforce the intellectual and influencer class. Academia, religious institutions, family, local schools, media, art, etc. are the institutional conduits for the propagation of ideas into the minds and hearts of people. If those are lost then all is lost. Sadly, in the West, our institutions, which once were rooted in the classically liberal ideologies of the enlightenment, are becoming more and more dominated by those who ascribe to the foundational ideas of leftist ideology (I.E Social Constructivism, Moral Relativism, Equity over Equality, Intersectionality, Collective Guilt etc., etc.). Many good hearted people either don't understand or simply ignore the dangerous ideological roots of our current social direction. Unless we can retake those institutions, any political battles will be short lived. We must keep our eye on what really matters if we want healthy social ideas and values to prevail.