[Opinion] On human inertia in society

Foxtrot by Bill Amend

Obligatory science comic: Foxtrot by Bill Amend

Newton’s first law of motion states that “an object at rest or in uniform motion will stay in that state unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force”. It’s called the law of inertia, and it’s a very powerful statement in physics, serving as it does as a basis for classical mechanics. I prefer to sum it up more colloquially as well, y’know, things’ll keep on keepin’ on if’n ya don’t touch ’em, but regardless of how it’s phrased it doesn’t only apply to apples rolling down hills or baseballs speeding towards your unsuspecting face; rather, it applies to thought processes as well. I’m not referring to the actual electrical signals in your brain – though they probably also obey the same law (and you’d think after four years of university-level physics I’d be able to say with more certainty) – but to frames of mind.

Humans are change-resistant creatures. Now, this is a problematic statement, so let me clarify it a little. In one sense, it’s patently untrue: humans are in fact very good at adapting to the unexpected and the unknown, which explains why our species has survived long enough for me to type this out on my keyboard while lying in bed (good work, evolution!). Our brains are marvelous machines composed of extraordinarily complex neural networks that are constantly shifting and adjusting. There are many cases where individuals who have lost the use of, say, their eyesight find that their other senses sharpen accordingly as their brains re-assign their now-defunct visual centres to other uses. Evidently, then, humans are not rigid in the face of change, but we react to new situations by resorting to what we already know.

This is not really a contradiction: it’s what I call human inertia, stubborn adherence to what we have internalised when faced with something that clashes with our preconceptions. The more weight we put in that belief and the more fundamental it is to our world view, the more inertia that idea has and the harder it is to shift in our minds. For example, consider trying to move a billiard ball and a truck; obviously (unless it’s an awfully big game of billiards) the truck is going to be heavier, and take more effort to speed up or slow down. In this analogy, my belief in peanut butter’s impact on your health could be the billiard ball – you’ll find it equally easy to convince me that it’s a panacea or a poison with the right graphs – whereas my belief in man-made climate change is the truck, and would require a significantly larger effort to sway.

Human inertia leads to a systematic and collective societal apathy. I’m not condemning our reluctance to challenge and change our ideas because, after all, we only have a finite supply of time and energy to devote to the endless everyday drain of thoughts, issues, and tasks. Actively questioning a held assumption, especially one reinforced by years of conditioning and exposure, is an exhausting task; so exhausting, in fact, that for many things it doesn’t seem worth the effort. Discussion and debate around many of these subjects is stilted and shied away from due to the energy cost involved, and the problem is compounded by the fact that often we don’t even realize that alternatives to our preconceived notions even exist. Here’s an example.

Monogamy is deeply ingrained in our patriarchal society. The idea of someone’s ‘true’ love only being able to be given to one individual at a time is perpetuated in media and books and most especially our language, where people searching for ‘the one’ are ‘single’ when looking for a partner. Growing up, I rarely had cause to question this assumption and thought that anyone trying to keep up more than one intimate relationship at a time would inevitably not give their partners the time they deserved and therefore lack a genuine connection. Consequently, I considered a polyamorous relationship inferior to an ‘obviously’ more committed monogamous one. It wasn’t until a few years ago when I was halfway through an article about polyamory that I suddenly stopped to think. Why did I have these views? Over the next few days, I came to the conclusion that a polyamorous mindset was every bit as valid and valuable as a monogamous one, and that I’d been embarrassingly dismissive of it simply because it didn’t apply to me.

This “well, it doesn’t affect me” attitude is an extraordinarily dangerous source of inertia. Indeed, it seems to be the defining mentality behind our current government’s every policy. As fine, upstanding members of Team Australia (i.e. rich white middle-aged men), why worry about social health-care, youth unemployment, refugees or forests? Political mean-spiritedness aside, I have observed wider social apathy on any number of critical issues on the same grounds. Women’s rights? Well, I’m not a woman. Domestic violence? Tragic, but that’s just because some people are shit. We’re taught by example to keep issues at arm’s length because what’s the point of talking? It won’t change anything, and besides it really has nothing to do with me.

I don’t think it’s true. Women’s rights affect you because without them we hang on to the same gender inequalities and stereotypes that damage men and women alike. Domestic violence affects you because its specter hangs over every relationship between you and your partner, regardless of gender. Refugee rights affect you because our systematic brutalization and alienation of asylum seekers diminishes us as individuals and as a nation.

Discussion and debate aren’t useless. When I write, I sometimes think about the overwhelming inertia that a lot of damaging social attitudes have. It’s rather discouraging to ponder the resistance to change that society seems to hold. I don’t expect that this or any of my articles will inspire a burning fervor on social issues and drive you to embrace radical new trains of thought you’ve never considered before. What I do hope is that it will inspire you to think, to maybe be more willing to engage in debates about these issues and, in challenging your and other’s assumptions, add your weight to the push against the vast wall of human inertia.

And now, excuse me as I indulge in a pretentious physics-related quote.

“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the world.” – Archimedes


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