Historian Yuval Noah Harari has written a book about human beings past, present, and future which I encourage everyone to talk a look at: Sapiens. This book caught my eye because of his idea that 2 things distinguish us from the rest of the animal world: 1) Our ability to believe, collectively, in fictions, and 2) Our capacity for cognitive dissonance: to hold conflicting ideas next to each other and still function(for a while, at least).
Both these ideas are relevant to how ideologies work. Harari’s example of the most successful fiction human beings have ever believed in is simple: the idea of money. Money has no value on its’ own, but humanity has agreed to believe in it. The power of shared belief is truly amazing, and any ideology - religious, political, economic - knows this and fights fiercely every day to “control the narrative”. What will be our politics? What wars should we fight? Should we embrace God or reject God?
In this TED video, Harari points out that the human capacity to both cooperate in large numbers, and to be flexible about that cooperation, has made us rulers of the planet. Ants and bees can do things in a large, organized fashion, but not flexibly. Chimpanzees can be flexible, but really only cooperate with those they intimately know. Cooperation is great as far as it goes, but where, exactly is it going? Nazi concentration camps involved cooperation. Tibetan Buddhist retreats ending in death required cooperation too.
You’ll see at the end of this talk, when he’s being interviewed, that one option for our future is the dystopian nightmare of dividing the world into the privileged rich and the useless rest of us. Not a pretty thought, but possible given our capacity to share any belief we wish to share, and to treat it as reality. Here’s the 17 minute video: