In the interest of all things summer-like and relaxed, my editorial radar seems to have sprouted a pair of Tevas, poured itself a cold drink, and wandered off in search of some shade. There are serious news stories galore, but the only things that seem to be catching its indolent eye are the columns of odd events that all the major news outlets run.
And the trend I’ve been noticing has got me thinking. Are we really getting dumber? Have the predictions of a pop-media saturated, non-literate, synapse-challenged civilization finally come true? I’m leaning heavily toward the yes side, because if the people in these news stories are any indication, our brains are turning to mush.
we’re not talking about education here. Whether you graduated from grade 8 or spent 8 years in med school, there’s still the factor of common sense; of the average adult having (somewhere along the line) picked up the basic ability to evaluate a situation and make a rational decision. And That’s the skill that seems to be so sadly lacking these days.
Take this trio in Gainesville, Georgia. They decided to steal some copper pipes and wiring–presumably to sell the metal and get some cash. Now, people may have a lot of reasons to attempt a robbery, but how dumb do you have to be to try stealing from a police K-9 training facility? Signs on the building made it clear: ?Caution!!! Gainesville Police Department K-9 training facility – Keep Out? (1). Even assuming that this bunch had received only the most basic public-school education, it doesn’t take much to figure out the words ?K-9? and ?Police.?
They inched even closer to a Darwin award when they reacted to the arrival of a group of K-9 officers and their pooches: they tried to outrun the dogs. As one Hall County sheriff’s sergeant put it, ?For anyone to try to run from a whole unit of canines, it’s just a no-win situation.? No kidding.
Another crisis in common sense happened when a man initiated a fight with three other men–all because he assumed that the sign language gestures of one of them were an insult (2).
For the moment, let’s assume that the man who started the fight, an Alaska resident, had absolutely no idea what sign language is. That he had, in his 26 years of living, never once seen it used on TV, heard anyone mention it, or seen one of the estimated half a million Americans who regularly use it. He has, in the year 2007, with as many as 4 out of every 1,000 people in the United States being functionally deaf, absolutely no clue what sign language is.
It still makes one wonder: if You’re driving alone in your car, and you assume that someone has made an insulting gesture at you, why oh why would you cut off that vehicle and challenge the three men in it to a fight? When police arrived, they found the man injured and bleeding heavily. Uh-huh.
The story gets even more bizarre, but the question remains: what has happened to plain old common sense?
It’s generally assumed that modern humans are an awful lot brighter than, say, our Neolithic ancestors were. But I think common sense–our basic smarts–are closely tied to the instinct for survival, and It’s a little worrisome to think that a Neolithic man would probably come out the winner in this contest. After all, if a prehistoric fellow was out alone and spotted three other males that he perceived as a threat, I somehow can’t imagine that he’d run up to them, toss a couple of pre-modern insults their way, and challenge them to a dust-up.
This last one has so many variations that happen so often, It’s almost become a cliché. At a Walgreens in Niagara Falls, a young man decided to steal a carton of cigarettes. Before running away with the goods, though, he handed the cashier his driver’s licence as proof of age. All well and good–but then, just in case she didn’t catch the name on the licence as she typed his birth date into the computer, he left his ID behind. At last report, the police hadn’t found him at home; I’m betting they’ll pay another visit.
So is this phenomenon limited to witless criminals and hot-headed pickup truck drivers in Alaska? I say no.
Take a drive on any major highway in Canada (Ontario’s 400-series springs to mind). Anybody with a few years? driving experience has seen mangled wreckage and the attendant ambulance crews at work. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to figure out that the faster you go and the closer you are to another hunk of speeding metal, the greater your chances for death or injury. Yet in the past two weeks, there has been a mounting body count on the 400 highway alone. Excessive speed, street racing, unsafe lane changes–and every day, the wreckage is cleared and thousand of careless drivers do the same things all over again.
Instinct for survival? Common sense? All sadly absent (at one recent fatal crash, people got tired of sitting in traffic and made the brilliant decision to exit by driving the wrong way down a curving highway on-ramp). Never again will I wonder why racoons haven’t evolved to the point of learning to be careful in traffic–apparently, humans can’t manage it either.
In the face of these and countless other examples, I’m convinced that the average person has lost the ability to use plain old common sense. We wouldn’t have a hope of surviving in a more primitive time.
don’t believe me? Then ponder this: we’ve come to consider it normal that almost every product we buy carries a label warning us not to do something stupid with it.
Grabbing a coffee to go? Careful–that drink that was made with near-boiling water may be hot. Slipping a pastry into the toaster? Better read the directions–your strudel will be hot after heating. New curling iron? At least one manufacturer feels compelled to remind you that (I kid you not) its product is for external use only.
Yes, these please-don’t-be-stupid labels are partly a reaction to frivolous law suits. But that may be the most telling sign of all: we live in a society where It’s even possible to sue a company for not warning you that you shouldn’t ride your bicycle into oncoming traffic. doesn’t that display an alarming lack of any expectation that people are essentially rational, sentient beings?
Who knows, maybe this is all just the next step in human evolution. Maybe our capacity for logical thought is slowly leaking away in preparation for the day the computers take over–you know, sort of a Borg-like collective where we all just wait for the next simple instruction.
I can see it now: ?Caution–this bottle contains water. Product may be wet.? And you can bet that somebody, somewhere, will do something stupid with it.
(1) CBC News, 2007. ?Dogs chase down suspects in break-in at Georgia K-9 training facility.? Retrieved July 25, 2007, from http://www.cbc.ca/cp/Oddities/070720/K072017AU.html
(2) Townhall.com, 2007. ?Misunderstood Hand Signs Trigger Brawl.? Retrieved July 25, 2007, from http://www.townhall.com/News/NewsArticle.aspx?contentGUID=aa9df39f-c368-464c-9fc0-76a2e86ff1dd