What We Can Learn from Time Travelers

Forgive me for making a Star Trek analogy, but I am a lifelong Sci-fi nerd. A recurring theme in Star Trek is the messiness of time travel. Those who go back in time to prevent a problem often create worse problems than what they travelled backward to fix. Eliminate a youthful indiscretion, and the whole tapestry of one's life unravels. Save one friend and millions die who did not die before. The problem with time travelers in Star Trek is that they fail to take into consideration the interrelatedness of everything.  They often create self-fulfilling prophecies. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the act of creating the very thing we wish to avoid (or something even worse) through short-sighted behavior.

Many of our responses to today's crises are becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Examples:

  • A drone strike kills 5 terrorists but creates 20 more terrorists, survivors enraged because the drone also killed their sisters and mothers. Their subsequent attacks (or anticipated attacks) lead to more drone strikes.
  • Intractable poverty in communities of color opens the door to crimes of desperation. The over-response of police (racial profiling, excessive use of force) creates a police state that only intensifies desperate rage, crime and violence, which, in turn, ratchets up the aggressive response of law enforcement.
  • Lack of good jobs leads some to look for powerless scape goats, such as undocumented farm workers. Draconian legislation forces migrants out of the fields and back across the border, leaving behind crops with insufficient labor to harvest them. The dip in economic output drags down other sectors of the economy, yielding even fewer good jobs. (See Alabama's response to undocumented immigrants.)

Our fearful responses create or exacerbate the very catastrophe we wish to avoid. 

The reason a prophecy fulfills itself is because our aperture is too small. We narrow our field of vision to the scapegoat, cost or symptom at hand and fail to see the bigger picture.

  • Terrorism is not just about perverted religion; it's about economics.
  • No fence or harsh immigration edict will prevent desperate people from crossing a border to endure exploitation here if the alternative is starvation at home.
  • Unrest in communities of color is lead by a few bad apples, and it's also symptomatic of deeper issues of unacknowledged racism, income inequality, and a subtle form of segregation enforced by a militarized police force and a prison industrial complex.

More pointedly, we fail to take full responsibility for our own behavior and its contribution to the situation. For instance:

  • Is there a link between the $3 shirt purchased at Walmart and the poverty in Central America that leads millions to cross the border?
  • What's the connection between the hegemony of Western countries/companies pursuing their economic self-interest in the developing world, and the resultant political/economic instability in developing countries that then becomes a breeding ground for anti-Western religious extremism and terrorism?
  • Have centuries of institutionalized racism created an uneven playing field that is a daily, lived reality for those stuck its mire but that remains invisible to those who believe that racism and its consequences are largely a thing of the past.

The problems we face do not happen in isolation. Those "lousy people out there" do not operate in a vacuum. Everything is interconnected.

Self-fulfilling prophecies flourish when there is a lack of honest self-reflection about how our choices (past and current) are part of the problem. We avoid such self-reflection because it would require us  to make changes that do not immediately serve self-interest.

When we attack and scapegoat, delay and deny, the problems only return to a simmer until they boil over again with greater fury.

While we can't travel back in time to fix what got us here, we can choose to see how our fearful responses create self-fulfilling prophecies. We can acknowledge today our shortcomings, prejudices, errors, privilege, and addiction to comfort and convenience. And we can expand our self-interest to include other people and other species because what affects one affects all; maybe not in the short term, but over time, it is inevitable.