No Villains

The world is full of terrible things that aren’t anybody’s fault. Our nature is such, however, that we try to find the “villain behind it all” every time we look at something inconvenient.

Take traffic, for example. I dislike traffic, and you probably do too. If you’re sitting in traffic, late and hot and frustrated, it can be ever so tempting to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of a very small and specific group. We usually pick a distant, shadowy and nebulous group like “car company executives” and decide that it’s actually their fault that we’re stuck in traffic!

“Those fat cats WANT us to be stuck in traffic! That way we burn more gas and put more strain on our cars, which lines their pockets! Meanwhile, they don’t even drive, they just fly around in helicopters!”

It really is tempting to believe that. When the world has villains, the world makes sense. We can say “if only someone took them down a peg…”

But that’s not the way it is. Traffic is an emergent system, like almost all bad systems. No one designed it or created it, certainly not with the intent of harming millions of people, mwa ha ha. No, traffic just exists because lots and lots of individuals, all on their own, want to go to roughly the same places at roughly the same time. Sorry.

Pick any society-wide problem and there probably isn’t a shadowy cartel behind it. The media is negative, hollow, and agenda-driven. But no one is controlling it; it’s like that because that’s what individuals want to consume. Ask people if they want their entire media network to be nothing but screaming partisans, and they say “no!” But watch what they click on, and it’s screaming partisans every time. There’s no cigar-smoke-filled room with a handful of old men deciding that this is the way it should be. Instead, there are thousands of nine-to-five workers at radio stations and newspapers across the country who go where their audience wants them to.

It’s the same all over. Politics is full of lying snakes because being a lying snake is how you succeed in that world, not because there are elite gatekeepers forcing the noble heroes out. Hollywood is full of reboots because people pay to see reboots. And traffic is just bad.

What this means for you is that there’s no simple fix; there’s probably no fix at all. You can’t fix politics, the media, or traffic by finding the hidden bad guy and overthrowing him. There’s no single kingpin of crime.

When you see a bad system, you just have to decide to be aware of it, and insulate yourself. I would love it if most media was informative, educational, and nuanced – but I would also love it if I could snap my fingers and summon gold bars. Both of those things are about equally likely to happen, so I don’t waste any time wishing for it. Instead, I just opt out. No one forces me to listen to the horrors of the six o’clock news, and no one forces you, either. I don’t even drive to work.

You don’t have to. Build the life you want away from the systems you despise. There’s no villain but your darker impulses dragging you back, and that’s a villain you can defeat.

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