I have a confession to make. This post has existed as an unpublished "draft" for about three weeks. I know. This isn't exactly earth-shattering information. But, it seems important to note, because my delay in finishing and publishing this post is due to a reason I'm not terribly accustomed to. I'm exhausted.
Let me explain.
The original date on this post was to be October 2. I had finished grading for my classes; I had taken care of research obligations (as much as they can be taken care of), and all other busywork was good and back-burnered. Unfortunately, I woke up on October 2, opened my laptop, and saw what everyone else saw. Then, I said what I'm sure everyone else said: "Come on. Not again."
In case you somehow don't know what happened, or have (understandably) had to hide from the full scope of the horror from that day, the details are [checks thesaurus.com to make sure he has an appropriate word] horrific. Stephen Paddock took several automatic rifles to the a suite on the 32nd of the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and rained bullets down on a crowd gathered for a country music concert across the street. After the smoke had cleared, the victims had trampled one another, and Paddock ate a bullet of his own, 58 people were dead and almost 600 were wounded.
But I'm not here to waste my time to talk about Paddock or what he did; I only hope that if there is a Hell, he gets a front row seat to its matinee show. No, this entry isn't about the shooting itself. It's about a thought I had in response to it. It's a bit weird, a bit backward, a bit silly; but it made me feel better. And, in the spirit of the blog I've come to maintain here, it might have implications about how we go about persuading others to realize they aren't locked on a path once they choose it.
And it starts with a guy who once gave a robot an existential feeling of dread because its only job was to pass the butter.
Earlier, I mentioned that one of the things that slowed my publication (and changed the nature) of this post was exhaustion. I don't mean that I'm exhausted in the traditional sense. I still take on far more work than I should, and against the better judgment of (and advice from) people much smarter than me. I mean I've become exhausted from the constant threat of impending doom that has hung over everything since November. Civil rights restricted. Re-energized white nationalists. Outright lies accepted as truth. Science treated as superstition. A man with the impulse control of a cocaine-addicted Labrador retriever hovering over the nuclear codes. You get the idea.
For me, the Mandalay Bay shooting was the straw that temporarily broke the camel's back. I've never really reached a breaking point with those sorts of things, but the "pop, pop, pop" of the gunfire and the people streaming through the streets of Vegas put me over the edge. I needed a mental break, if only temporarily.
After spectacularly failing at trying to distract myself by writing a chapter for my book (due out sometime in 2238, order your copy today!), I decided to binge a show that I had previously written off as stupid and nonsensical but had recently been re-introduced to. I dove into the beautiful, horrible, impossible, crushing, hopeful world of Rick and Morty.
Rick and Morty is an animated show about a scientifically inclined grandfather (Rick) and his dim, but well-meaning grandson (Morty). Rick typically recruits Morty to come along with him on adventures throughout universes (yes, universes... I'll get to that) where Morty usually wants to do some good, but Rick usually wants to advance his own sociopathic agenda, which can range from selling guns to fund an afternoon at an arcade to replacing his son-in-law in a grand scheme to get a limited edition sauce for his McNuggets.
I'm not an expert on theoretical astrophysics , but I'll try to explain the general premise of the world Rick and Morty live in, around, and through. Rick and Morty is based on the idea that there are infinite possible universes, and we just live in one of those possibilities. There's another universe where you are a famous movie star. There's another where the Vegas shooting didn't occur. There's still another where I'm finally, actually over six feet tall. Sorry, sore spot. Being 5'10" is difficult.
Anyway, because there are infinite universes, everything that could possibly happen has happened and will happen again. In the show, Rick has invented a portal gun that allows him and Morty to travel between these universes and experience all these things (assuming they go to the correct universe). So they could presumably see you in a movie, never experience the Vegas shooting, or meet six-foot-tall Kurt [sheds tear silently].
Everyone follow so far? Good. Because it's about to get dark. Strap in.
According to the show's philosophy (which itself is based on a real branch of theoretical physics), if there are infinite possibilities of all events, and everything already has happened and/or will happen again, then everything is random; nobody exists on purpose. There is no here and now; nobody belongs anywhere. Worse, even if there was a "here" and "now," the events that take place are ultimately meaningless. This is illustrated in a pretty traumatizing series of events where Rick and Morty travel to a universe that is exactly like their own, with one small difference--in the new universe, the two of them had just died in an explosion. Because of this, the traveling Rick and Morty could simply bury their own bodies and take their place in that universe. Nothing changes, except that Rick and Morty get to live and work a few feet from their own dead bodies.
The show is thought-provoking and really funny, I promise. Despite the possibility of burying oneself and the potential for all actions to be meaningless when we have no control.
If you've made it this far, you should be proud of yourself. We're done with theoretical physics and soul-crushing infinities. I'm getting to the positivity that comes from all this.
That said, if you need a glass of wine, I understand. Go ahead and get one. Maybe two. I'll wait.
Behind the randomness, the infinity, and the nihilism, I can't help but take heart in the idea that there are infinite possibilities where everything that could happen will. In watching Rick and Morty and thinking about how the massacre in Vegas could have played out differently, I got to thinking about my own "disaster events" for lack of a better term. Strange though it might be, it was comforting to me to think that regardless of certain patterns of my own making, there are infinite outcomes where things go well and I don't blow myself up along with a sociopathic grandfather, so to speak. I'm really stretching the Rick and Morty metaphor now. But all this is to say that there is some comfort in the idea that one can re-navigate events and change the path he/she ended up on (with the use of a portal gun, of course).
I mentioned earlier that all this philosophy and existential theorizing had some point with respect to strategic persuasion. I am, after all, supposed to be an expert on persuasion and social influence. Well, although we don't have a portal gun at our disposal, we can construct and distribute alternative realities in the form of persuasive narratives that resonate with audiences. In my line of work--countering and preventing violent extremism--these "alternative narratives" can be useful for reducing support for terrorism (one very poor trajectory).
We'll tackle that in Part 2 of this post, though. Learning that there may be other universes where you are already dead seems like enough for one day. We'll get into terrorism next time.
Until then, finish that wine. And maybe go look at some puppies I've posted on other parts of my site. You earned it.