May 20th, 2020

The only mentality that can survive in a city

Regardless of what you think of the origins of humanity, whether we were created by a Creator or evolved from other life forms over a longer period of time, "evolution theory" is certainly true in the sense that living things tend to be adapted to the environment which they live in. In nature, this usually occurs through "natural selection", which is to say that life forms which are not suited to their environment die quickly, leaving only the ones which can survive in that environment. In human populations, however, things can work a bit differently, especially today: Because people have the mobility to travel nearly anywhere in the world in a relatively short space of time (you could fly to the other side of the globe in a matter of hours), human beings tend to naturally migrate to places which suit them best. An animal which is in a place which it's not suited to will probably die young; a human being in a place it's not suited to is more likely to move somewhere else, or at least try to.

This creates a slightly different form of evolutionary theory than the one biologists know; it's more the field of sociologists, the theory of the origin of human settlements rather then the origin of species. What's important to understand here is that while the mechanisms behind human migration and congregation are different than the mechanisms of biological adaptation, the end result is similar: Every place in the world tends to have life forms which are similar and adapted to that location. You do not usually find incompatible life forms living in close physical proximity to each other.

A city is a particular type of environment very different from any other: There are many types of natural environments in the world, including forests, deserts, undersea ecosystems, grasslands, and icy polar regions, as well as many variations on these basic templates, but cities tend to all fall into the same pattern, because there is a particular type of life form which can thrive in a city, and life forms which are not of that type do not fare well in cities and tend to either leave that city or die in it. In general, there is only one mentality which can survive in a city; despite the common perception that many different types of people from many different walks of life live in modern cities, the reality is that the vast majority of people living in cities all around the world have one common mentality, a unifying set of principles which makes life in the city possible.

I often think of the line from Crocodile Dundee in which the titular character, upon learning that New York City is home to seven million people, concludes: "That's incredible. Imagine seven million people all wanting to live together. New York must be the friendliest place on earth". Of all the lines in the movie, this is the one which really stands out for me because it communicates so much. People have this naive idealism about cities at first, thinking that a city is the bright and shining promise of a better life, that everything which is humanly possible is possible in a city with the right attitude, and that the future of humanity is in cities.

In reality, once you've been in a city for a while, you find out why all those millions of people can live with each other: They do it by ignoring each other. Human beings have a natural tendency to disagree with each other, to fight about petty things like who gets the last package of toilet paper at the supermarket as well as larger things like whether people should buy products from companies which use questionable business practices. The human mind is an infinitely complex group of interlinked ideas, impressions, and fantasies linked together in such an incomprehensible network of synapses that no human being fully understands their own ideas or opinions, nor does anyone live without some degree of self-contradiction and self-deception. Even small groups of people, when brought together, can readily start heated fights among themselves if there is a disagreement over the pettiest detail, like a remark someone made which was misunderstood or the fact that people don't share the same sentiment or opinion about something irrelevant. This tendency among people to fight is multiplied greatly when you bring millions of people together. It becomes apparent that in an environment like that, where millions of life forms are constantly passing by each other, life forms which would probably have ample reason for conflict if they were to interact with each other, the only way for those people to survive is to be as unfriendly toward each other as possible: To ignore each other for the most part, and if interaction does occur, to avoid talking about themselves or their personal opinions, goals, values, dreams, or fantasies. Human cities can only function when people distance themselves from each other as much as possible. The joke of Mr. Dundee's line is, of course, that far from being the friendliest place in the world, New York City only functions because of how unfriendly it is. If you want to see the real mentality of New York, it is revealed in another line from a more recent (and much less subtle) comedy: In Borat, the eponymous character attempts to say hello to a random stranger in the New York subway, whereupon the stranger responds monotonously, like a programmed robot: "Do not touch me. Do not get near my face." That's the mentality of the city: Don't interact with me in any way and things will be okay. That's the only way a city of millions can function.

To some people, this may sound horrific, but part of the reason why many people go to cities is precisely because this kind of mentality and lifestyle appeals to them, and they want to live in it. People like the idea that their life is nobody else's business, and in fact, that nobody's life is anyone else's business. People like the idea that they can be anonymous, alone in a crowd, all those people going by whom you glimpse once and will never see again in your life. People like the idea that "You can do whatever you want, as long as you don't involve anyone else. Live your own life alone, and let other people do the same". From the social evolutionary perspective, this mentality is the only mentality that can survive in a city. Any other mentality is unsuited to city life. Anyone not holding this opinion in a city is likely to have a very difficult life which will result in them either dying early or leaving the city.

I do think there is a very real connection between the rise of this mentality and the fact that more people now live in cities than at any other point in human history. Around the year 2008, the global human population that lives in cities went over 50% for the first time ever, and it's continued to increase since then. The number of people who live in cities is projected to reach two-thirds of the global population by the year 2050. Because a majority of people now live in cities, and because the mentality of "Don't involve yourself in other people's business" is the only mentality that can survive in a city, it is pretty obvious that a majority of humanity must hold this opinion, and that a growing number of people will hold this opinion going into the future. Live, but don't involve other people in your life.

Of course, I'm not the first person to recognize this trend or comment on it. The increasing loneliness and social isolation in the world is a matter of international concern, and people have taken various steps to address it. Various social groups exist for people who want to make friends with mutual interests. There are parties and other types of social gatherings where people can go and meet new people and exchange friendly conversation with them. But these social gatherings, by their very nature, attract a certain type of person, and you need to be that certain type of person to fit into such gatherings; otherwise, you'll be a misfit, someone physically present but not integrated into the crowd. What is to be done for the people--and there are quite a few of these people--who don't fit the established social order? What happens to the weirdos and outcasts?

Some people might have you believe that there are communities which specialize in such people. Some cities have a local motto of "Keep X weird", where X is the name of the city. Cities known for this sentiment include Santa Cruz, California, and Portland, Oregon. In these cities, you can find a cast of local characters for are known and beloved for their kooky and outlandish behavior: People who ride around the city juggling on unicycles, people who walk around dressed in colorful and bizarre costumes, and people who perform acts like puppet shows or comedy routines on the sidewalk. Local residents like these unusual characters because they make the city "diverse" and "interesting", but even these "different" people must conform to the expectations of the city in order to be accepted. Even these communities have very strong dogmas, and they will not tolerate anyone who does not adhere to their dogma. Just try going to one of those places and do something really unusual like saying "Donald Trump is a great president", "Climate change is not influenced by human activities", or "Women should have less rights than men" and watch just how tolerant the people there are of diversity. No one will say "You're just so different from us, and that's wonderful! Your uniqueness and the variety you lend to our community is beautiful!" Rather, they will feel that they have the natural right to use verbal and physical violence against an intruder in their community. The idea of diversity is a joke; the idea that people are tolerant and welcoming of people with other lifestyles or beliefs is a fantasy invented by people who lack self-awareness. Among communities where "diversity" and "tolerance" are nominally cherished, people don't actually want the things they say they want; what they really want is conformity and narrow-minded adherence to their ideological demands. You can defecate on the street, go barreling down the sidewalk on a unicycle and knock people over, or just scream and make a lot of noise because you're bored, but you're not allowed to have an opinion which is different from anyone else's.

What people really want is entertainment, and as a study of humanity's television-viewing habits reveals, the most important thing in entertainment is that it has to be as stupid as physically possible, by which I mean, it must not be allowed to inspire people to think for themselves. If the entertainment features anything other than people grunting nonsense at each other and doing the most stupid and pointless things a human being could possibly do, then people will get upset and say "This is boring and stupid and I'll go somewhere else". For the handful of people who think they want "intelligent" entertainment, there's satirical comedy which exists to make people think that they have just witnessed something brilliant and insightful: "Ha ha! I saw somebody tell a joke which I understood! I'm glad that we have such clever entertainment available to intellectuals like myself. Entertainment should make you think as well as entertain". The purpose of "smart entertainment" is to make people think that it makes them think.

The same is true of social company, of course. People who live in cities today often have the idea that they are very smart because they studied marketing and do not work on a construction site, and so they seek similarly "intelligent" people to reinforce each other's idea that they are very smart: "My friend is a genius because he thinks that climate change is real! I'm glad that I have the opportunity to spend an evening with such intelligent friends. You don't find people like that outside of the city. We should really just kill off everyone who doesn't agree with us so that we can finally have universal human rights for everyone".

In reality, the unspoken rule of social gatherings is: Be entertaining. If you are not entertaining to other people, they will not appreciate your company, no matter how nice and polite and smart you are. Elsa Maxwell, one of the most famed party hostesses of the modern era, once declared: "Nothing spoils a good party like a genius." Maxwell made a policy of not inviting too-intelligent people to her parties, because she knew that such people spoil the mood by making other people actually think about actually challenging topics that require actual intelligence to understand. The reason why people get together is not to learn from each other or exchange meaningful ideas, but to entertain each other and reinforce their mutual illusion that they are very smart and have the only correct mentality that exists.

The net effect is that even in a city of millions and millions of people who are supposedly "diverse", the city actually acts as an echo chamber. It serves to aggregate people who are all of the same opinion and mentality. Today, we hear about how various Internet sites act as echo chambers because they attract people who agree with the tenets of whatever ideology is being expressed there, leading to a world of people who all believe that everyone in the world thinks the same way they do, and anyone who doesn't is obviously a mentally-disturbed maniac, but even without the Internet, a city does precisely the same thing, because a city attracts a certain type of person with a certain type of mentality, the only mentality that can survive in a city.

This leads to the quintessentially human paradox that we live in a society of people who are all vastly, incompatibly different from each other and yet all uniformly, monstrously identical. People have differences in what they like, what they consider important and true, and what they want to do with their lives, but they are all unified by the understanding that whatever they end up doing, they must do it alone, in darkness and silence, in anonymity and loneliness, in the lifelong self-deception that they are alone but not lonely, aimless but not lost, empty but satisfied with life. And cities, too, are like people: They may seem different in various ways, but fundamentally, all cities are the same: They are all full of people like this. Because that is the only type of person who can survive in a city.