In How to Fight (2017) Zen Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that our personal views, beliefs, and perceptions are not the only ones. Whether they are religious, political, racial, economic, or nationalistic, our pre-conceived notions can foster hate, intolerance, discrimination, exclusion, and violence. Too often, our sense of self is defined by them. He writes: “Many arguments and conflicts come about because we are so sure of our own thoughts and perceptions…Don’t be fooled by your perceptions…Keep an open mind. Be ready to let go of your views…Clear, unbiased observation…can contribute greatly to building connections and removing anger, hatred, and discrimination” (65). The most fundamental statement in science is “I don’t know.” All knowledge and understanding begins with uncertainty. Be less certain of what you think you know. Be willing to let go of your convictions and pre-conceived notions. Or, at the very least, learn to respect the views and beliefs of others. But be aware that opinions and beliefs are rarely let go of without leaving claw marks.
Jonathon Swift, the 18th century author of Gulliver’s Travels, understood that one of the best ways to make people examine their attitudes and actions is through satire, the intentional parody of contemporary conditions and problems written in such a manner that readers do not easily recognize themselves in it. I’ve visited Swift’s grave at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. I hoisted a pint of Guinness to his memory in a pub in Temple Bar later that drizzly afternoon. With a nod toward my illustrious literary predecessor, I offer the following story with the hope that you are open enough and wise enough to discern the meaning.
THE WARS HAD BEEN WAGING for more than a thousand years. As with all wars, the reason it all began was obscured by myths, obfuscated over generations of storytelling and indoctrination until the truth was more fairy tale than fact. Countless millions had been killed in the war, the surface of the world an enormous killing field. Every so often, archaeologists on both sides unearthed mass graves that had escaped detection for hundreds of years, though legend had forewarned of their existence. In one instance, legend told of a gleaming city by the sea whose population of more than a hundred thousand disappeared over night when a black cloud from the west blew across the desert and covered the city in darkness. Legend said it was the wrath of God come to punish the people for the sin of disbelief. When archaeologists discovered what they believed to be the ruins of the gleaming city buried beneath centuries of sand, they searched for years to learn the truth of what befell the populace. Finally, they found a number of mass graves outside the city walls and they began to excavate. They estimated there to a hundred thousand skeletons, more or less. In most corpses that had been exhumed they found arrow and spear points and evidence that the bodies had been hacked with swords or axes. A significant quantity of the corpses had been decapitated. Pendants depicting a circle were found around the necks of thousands of skeletons. Slowly and methodically, the excavations revealed that the dark cloud that had come from the west in the legend was in actuality an army that had slaughtered every living being in the city.
Objects found during the excavation revealed the cause of the slaughter. It didn’t take an archaeologist to recognize the circle on the pendants. In the present century, almost the entire populace of the planet was divided into two factions: those who believed the world was round (as represented by the circle on the pendant), and those who believed the world was flat (represented by a single horizontal line). Little had changed in the thousand years since the Flatters attacked and murdered every last Rounder in the gleaming city by the sea. Naturally, the instruments of violence had changed with technology, as it always does. The race for technology is almost always a result of war.
Nowadays, followers of one belief excluded anyone who believed differently than they did. They discriminated against each other in the workforce and in the great halls of learning. Each side built institutions to indoctrinate schoolchildren in their belief system’s dogma and world-view. In their edifices of worship, they proclaimed that only They knew the truth and that all others were malefactors. Both sides referred to themselves as “Soldiers” for their cause. Prayer Leaders often proclaimed from the pulpit that it was the sworn duty of every member to conquer every misguided individual on the planet in the name of their belief. They used military words like “swords” and “spears” and their hymns sounded like marching songs. Billboards, banners, and bumper stickers decreed “Might Makes Right!” When one group outnumbered the other in a region, they passed legislations and ordinances that provided their group with benefits while subjecting members of the other group to poverty, lack of access to housing, education, healthcare, hopelessness and despair. Using their voting power, they cruelly imposed their beliefs on the rest of the populace. Over time, the weaker group would gain enough power to overturn the existing laws and impose their belief system as cruelly and as unfairly as the other group had ever done to them.
What goes around comes around; a never-ending cycle of hate and revenge.
Of course, there was a small population of the planet that was uncertain. They didn’t quite agree with the belief systems of either the Flatters or the Rounders. They questioned the dogma. They opposed the oppression and intolerance of others. They opposed the socioeconomic penalties imposed on anyone who disagreed with them. They especially opposed the violence that seems inherent from the “We” versus “They” groupthink that divides people instead of uniting them. But these people were labelled “Non-Believers” and in many ways they were treated even more harshly than members of the opposing belief group, so much so, that these people rarely disclosed to others what their belief was. Instead of recognizing their neutrality, these “Non-Believers” were seen as threats to the status quo on both sides, whose concerns were many: What if everyone refused to join either of the two groups? Who would pay for the mega Worship edifices and the salaries of the Prayer Leaders? Where would the money come from to influence elections and legislation? From where would people get their moral code? Who would be our enemy?
Eventually, the demographics shifted considerably in favor of the Flatters. It would be for historians to figure out why it happened exactly. Some say it was because of the Great Financial Collapse that lasted for more than a decade. Others suggest that it was because the Prayer Leaders of the Flatters secretly urged their congregations to have more children with the intent of increasing the demographics in their political favor. Some say it was urbanization, because as a group, Rounders increasingly moved to cities and postponed having children as they pursued higher education and careers.
What is known for certain is that once the Flatters had a decisive advantage over the Rounders, they began to impose their might on their enemies like never before in history. At first, every Rounder was forced to wear a patch in the shape of a circle with a capital “R” in the middle on the outside of their tunics to mark them in society. They were excluded from government jobs and from higher education. Public restrooms, drinking fountains, and transportation all bore signage restricting who could use them or where they could sit (Rounders always sat in the back of the bus). Not long afterward, the Flatters herded all Rounders into ghettoes and confiscated their bank accounts and real property. Like thieves and hoodlums, Flatters looted the empty businesses and homes, ripped up floorboards and demolished walls in search of valuables the Rounders may have hid before they were forced to abandon their homes, all in violation of one of their most ancient Belief Laws that “No one shall steal from another.”
Belief Laws are always the first victims of totalitarianism.
What happened afterward is history. The Flatters built immense Neutralization Camps all over the world to exterminate the Rounders. At the height, there were over two thousand camps. Some were crammed with more than a hundred thousand prisoners. Flatters who considered themselves virtuous turned over to the Neutralization Squads (known as the NS) old friends, colleagues, neighbors, and even relatives . . . anyone who contradicted their belief that the world was flat. Though statistically insignificant in numbers or influence, Non-believers were included in the round-ups under the maxim: “If you aren’t with us, you’re against us.” Every day, all over the world, it is estimated that a million men, women, and children were eradicated in the camps. And every day new prisoners arrived to take their place.
Eventually—one by one or by the thousands and tens of thousands—every last Rounder was exterminated until the world was peopled only by like-thinking Flatters. The jubilant celebrations lasted for weeks as Flatters proclaimed their righteousness. Nightly, fireworks burst over every major city until their stockpiles ran out. Everywhere was the ubiquitous slogan: “Might Makes Right!”
The very next year the Flatters launched the first rocket into space with a camera mounted to beam back images of their home. It was estimated to be the most televised event in history. Billions stayed at home to watch the historic event with their families or attended Rocket Parties at the homes of friends or at local Alcohol Dispensaries. In the days leading up to the launch, newspapers reported that commercial slots were expected to be the most expensive ever, with some businesses paying a million per second of commercial time.
Everywhere could be heard the boisterous cheers as the rocket successfully lifted off the launch pad after the countdown, which had been postponed twice for technical reasons. Video cameras positioned a safe distance away broadcast the rocket’s fiery climb into the sky. Tens of thousands of people were amassed around the cameramen watching the launch in person. Enormous television screens displayed the images that were being seen around the world. Vendors sold food and drinks from their carts and trucks. Entrepreneurial peddlers sold souvenir buttons, refrigerator magnets, and T-shirts.
Shortly after the first-stage booster rocket had been safely ejected far out over the sea, the video camera mounted on the hull was activated. Almost instantly, the boisterous cheers fell silent, stifled by a billion hands covering a billion gaping mouths as the first images of their round world were broadcast live across the wordless planet.
John Smelcer is the award-winning author of over 50 books, including The Gospel of Simon, the faithful, yet daring and radical retelling of Jesus’s crucifixion by Simon of Cyrene, the man who helped him carry his heavy cross through the streets of Jerusalem up to Golgotha.