The supply and demand for sermonizing is a major psychological driver.
Posted Nov 28, 2018
Does any non-human organism have the perfect formula for last-word omnipotence, permanent success, the power to vanquish all foes now and forever more?
Of course not, but then, what do they know? Non-human organisms don’t even have words. We alone have words and can, therefore, claim to possess the last word. With the power of language, we can claim to have arrived at the one right and rightful conclusion, the Truth that can be the basis of absolute faith.
Even if we don't claim to have the last words ourselves, we can point to a nameable source of last words. Think of how people use words like God, Allah, Christ, atman, nirvana, enlightenment, the great spirit, the highest truth, dharma, eudemonia, reality, logos, the Tao, the mandate of heaven, mindfulness, communism, capitalism, nationalism. They all point to infallible, invincible, unassailable last words. People claim to align with these named sources, thereby claiming to represent a last word.
Aligning with it, we gain comfort, calm and confidence, an end to all cognitive dissonance because finally, we’re on the side of what’s good, right, invincible and eternal. When we think we’ve discovered the One True Formula, we’re ready to meet the world and share the formula with others to get the receptive on board and to set others straight, in a word to sermonize.
Having discovered the true meaning of life you feel like sharing it. You can supply it and there’s plenty of demand because self-doubt, cognitive dissonance and ambivalence are a drag. No one wants to feel lost. Everyone wants the formula for walking the path of righteousness, the path of absolute faith.
Aligned with the last word, you realize how benighted other people are. You’re freed from internal conflict; they’re not. They’re a muddle-headed mess. Poor tortured souls, zombie idiots for not climbing on board the truth train with you. They complicate things when really, things are so simple. Once you’ve discovered the One True Way. You once were lost, now you’re found. And they? They choose to remain lost, those vile toads.
Behavioral economics is the promising new synthesis of economic methods with psychological practicalities. Economics is the study of the dynamics of value, how it moves around in large populations of people seeking it. In economics, value is measured in money but much can be gained by considering other currencies. Hence, behavioral economics.
There’s supply and demand for attention, so there’s attentionomics, a burgeoning sub-topic within behavioral economics. There’s supply and demand for status so there’s egonomics or affirmationomics.
Since there’s also supply and demand for sermonizing, let’s consider sermonomics. Set aside what’s sermonized, and consider how this currency works.
Giving a name to some state of last-word certainty doesn’t mean we have to spell out the last word. We can align with it for its power without knowing much about its content. You can declare yourself committed to goodness without spelling out what is good. You can put your faith in mindfulness without defining it.
You can even make a virtue of your inability to spell it out, for example, claiming a humble submission to God who works in mysterious ways as though your deference to the named but unknowable mystery makes your faith all the stronger and truer.
Regardless of what you don’t know about the last word, you gain the psychological benefits from aligning with it. It’s like taking possession of a “get-out-of-fail” free card. Who wouldn’t want one of those?
It’s also a trump card. Sermonizing about your alignment with the absolute, you get to claim the last word, trumping everyone in debate. And it’s a wild-card. You can say whatever you like about what the last word commands. You are thereby freed from all cognitive dissonance, self-doubt, and uncertainty because you are on the side of this vague absolute righteousness. When you get your hand on one of these fake wild-card, trump-card get-out-of-fail-free cards you’re licensed to sermonize loudly and proudly, telling others how to live.
You can rove in packs of like-minded sermonizers. You can crusade and maraud. After all, those who don’t align with you are obstacles to the last word’s manifest destiny being fulfilled. They complicate things. You simplify with your last word.
Classical economics assumes that all people want the currency. There’s demand for money because no one wants to be poor. Likewise, there’s demand for attention and status because the alternative is being an ignored loser.
Sermonomics assumes we want to sermonize to avoid what state? The state of cognitive dissonance. Sermonomics is thus the human scramble to externalize cognitive dissonance, offloading it onto others so you don’t have to bear its burden.
Sermonomics makes sense of the rise of authoritarian movements in the past and present. Such movements name a source of the last word – communism, Christianity, Islam, or today in nationalism, some patriotic perfection we should all align with. It’s the perfection to be pursued at all costs, the ultimate righteous end to be gained by any means necessary, no sin too great in the service of the saintly ultimate.
People flock to it. Those who get in line are issued those get-out-of-fail free, wild-card, trump cards and are thereby licensed to sermonize too. What’s gained as the movement grows is a fake internal homogenization: “We are perfectly aligned and invincible. Our enemies are diverse and confused.” Who wouldn’t want to be among the aligned and invincible?
Today, in the US, there’s a resurgence of white supremacy crusading to make America great again. The movement’s leaders and followers are devoted to abstract absolutes: America, greatness, Christianity, whiteness. The racial homogeneity is just a symptom of last-word homogeneity, a fake homogenization in a world of runaway complications where the diversity of opinions and the cognitive dissonance is growing. The movement claims to be the bastion of absolute alignment with goodness, a saintliness so powerful, no sin is too great in the service of it. The enemy of this One True Way is diversity itself, diversity of culture, race, and opinion.
A last word about last words:
The last word paradox: Words make possible claims of having the last word that, given words, can never be the last. With words, nothing can be claimed that can’t be countered. No one gets the last word.
We humans haven’t escaped the fallibility of non-human organisms. Life has always been a trial and error process. Darwin initiated “one long argument” about evolution, but evolution itself is one long argument.
The dangerous difference between us and other organisms is our capacity to claim last words and to sermonize about them, escalating to mortal, an even global conflict that has the potential to end life as we know it.
May we come to understand sermonomics before it’s too late.