Of cows and plowboys

There once was a farmer who thought his oldest son might be getting old enough to help him with the effort of farming. One day he took his son out to the fields with him, intent on teaching him how to plow. “The key to plowing nice, straight, even rows,” he told his son, “is to find an object at the far end of the field and plow straight toward it, never taking your eyes off it.” After demonstrating a few times, and confident he had taught his son well, he left him to finish the plowing.

When he returned some time later he was shocked to see the field a horrible mess of meandering and overlapping rows. He stopped his son and demanded an explanation. “I thought I told you to find an object at the far side of the field and plow toward it. Why didn’t you do that?!”

“But father,” the son protested, “I DID. Except the darn cow kept moving!”

Society today is much like the young boy trying to plow a straight row. Their intentions are good. They want to do the right thing, but they pick the wrong object to fix their course by. As people increasingly places their trust in the philosophies of man to define what “right” means, they will find they are chasing a moving target, making an even bigger mess than they might have.

One only needs to pay attention to medical news to see that in action. We’ll hear studies claiming one thing one year, only to have other studies contradicting that study come out the next year. And that’s in science! Social engineering is even more problematic. To understand whether a change to our basic social structure will really make a negative difference requires at the very least several generations to prove.

Yet those prodding society to change are seldom  willing to wait that long for solid evidence before pushing for that change wholesale. Instead, more often than not, they’ll push for the change, and then cast about for evidence that supports their having done so. Such unscientific experiments are inherently invalid, as there is no discipline, no control group, and very often no agreement on test factors.

Besides, most social changes do not come about as scientific tests, anyway. They come about because significant numbers of people decide simply “I want this, and therefore I should have this.” They’re not looking for studies to be conducted. They want what they want, and that’s that. If a study should come out that suggests that particular change has negative consequences they’re not going to suddenly reverse course and work to undo their lives, even if they could.

The story is told of a battleship that was out on maneuvers one dark, moonless night. One of the watchmen saw a light on the horizon and reported it to the ship’s commander, an admiral. “Is it moving or staying still?” asked the admiral.

“It’s not moving,” came the reply. That indicated that the light was headed straight toward the battleship, and a collision was imminent if something didn’t change.

The admiral got on the radio. “Calling unknown contact,” he said, “request you change your course 30 degrees.”

The call came back. “Request YOU change your course 30 degrees.”

The admiral didn’t like that. He was an admiral. He had worked hard to get to where he was. He had a huge battleship at his command. He was owed some respect!

“I repeat, change your course 30 degrees!” he growled.

“YOU change YOUR course 30 degrees,” came the reply.

“I am an admiral! Change your course!”

“I am a midshipman. Requesting you change YOUR course, sir!”

The admiral had had enough. “I am a battleship, and I could blow you to pieces! Change your course!”

The reply came back. “I am a lighthouse.”

The admiral changed course.

While it’s true some traditions that have come down through the years are not based on sound principles and should be changed, societies still need to be careful in what they decide to change. Whether we call them laws, commandments, mores, or traditions, there are many that are founded on unbendable truth and should not be discarded lightly. Like the lighthouse, they cannot be moved, and societies can only break themselves against them by stubbornly sticking to their desired course.

Change can be good, but it is not intrensically so. Those who advocate, even push for change must be careful they are not calling the old ways wrong simply because they do not wish for them to be right. We can defy gravity to our peril. We can reduce its effects. We can even harness it for our benefit. But we cannot will it not to be. Many of the foundations of society are the same way. They are foundations for a reason. They have endured for centuries, even millenia, and we swap them for untried (or previously tried and failed) ideas at our peril. No matter how smart, how powerful, or how determined we may be, some laws simply should not be broken.

While the points made here can be applied to any number of specific issues facing society today, it is not my intent to speak to any specific case. We face a much larger problem than any one issue. We face a society increasingly agitating for change, and increasingly intolerant of those defending traditional values. We need to ask ourselves, are we focused on a tree, or a cow? Are we the lighthouse, or the battleship? Before we insist on change, can we really be sure we are right, or are we just selfishly undermining foundations simply to avoid self-denial for the good of society?

I fear we are moving ahead while not as sure of the answer as we should be.

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