Wednesday, October 10, 2012

In Defense of Ridiculous Hypotheticals

Have you ever met those people? You ask them a fascinating question, like “What do you think would happen if a terrorist attacked Cinderella’s Castle in Disney World?”

And they give you kind of a strange look and say, “But that won’t happen. They have security.”

“Well, what if the South had…?”

“They didn’t.”

“But what would you do if…?”

“I wouldn’t.”

This person’s motto is, “If it didn’t happen, isn’t happening, and won’t ever happen, why think about it?”

And they almost have a point. Almost. Sometimes, I think we do need to bring a conversation away from frivolous hypotheticals and talk about things that have a direct impact on our lives. But I still think discussions of situations that can’t happen are worth our time. Here are three that I’ve been a part of in the past few weeks, along with thoughts on why they were meaningful.

Revisionist History: What if YouTube had been around in medieval times?

In one of my classes, we were discussing the crisis that erupted in the Middle East over the response to the YouTube video with a negative portrayal of Mohammed. One person mentioned that it was hard for us to understand, because people make propaganda negative to Christianity all the time and we don’t respond in organized violence. “But we would have responded that way at some point in history,” I said. “I mean, what if YouTube had been around in medieval times?”

And we all laughed, because we were picturing the many differences between that culture and ours and what would happen if they intersected. Music videos of a travelling lute player, perhaps? Or maybe a how-to on avoiding the Black Plague. Would the ladies of the nobility have their own Pintrest accounts? Could Facebook users post their coat of arms under “Basic Information”?

The possibilities are entertaining, sure, but this scenario also allows you to compare the values of two very different cultures. For example, we consider it a progressive, positive change that we would no longer kill someone of another religion in the name of Christ. But are there things about our modern culture that would shock or horrify our more primitive brothers and sisters—and for good reason. What vices of the past would be amplified by technology? And what virtues of today are made more difficult because of technology?

Possible Future Reality: What would the world be like if a disembodied form of yourself could leave and return to your body at will?

This sparked crazy spin-offs like what parenting, travel, movie theatres, and the justice system would look like in this world (after about a million clarifying questions to figure out the boundaries of the scenario).

You wouldn’t think much serious thought would go on, given the crazy hypothetical nature of the situation. But listen to some of the related topics that came up. What is the purpose of prison: actual punishment or simply keeping the criminal away from society? If we lived in a perfect world, would there be any information we would keep from each other? Is an embodied experience part of having a full life, or would a less physical existence without the possibility of being hurt be preferable?

People-Oriented Hypothetical: What if all the Professional Writing majors were stranded in a confined, deserted area with no hope of rescue?

This gave us the chance to redefine society, from government to cultural practices to laws, although in a lot of ways, we stuck with what we knew (automatically assuming a democracy or a republic, for example). It was also interesting to see what roles in the community we assigned to different people, what we decided our weaknesses might be, and how we might respond to threats to our new little community.

These are some of my favorite hypotheticals, because they force you to piece together what you know about the people around you, then project that onto a situation that you have absolutely no context for. Often, you realize when doing this that you don’t know as much about other people as you thought, because you can only predict what they’d do in the normal, everyday circumstances where you usually see them.

All that to say, sometimes looking at life as it isn’t helps us see life as it is a little bit better.

So, go ahead, give it a try. Walk up to a random group of people and ask them what would happen if we went back to using the barter system, or how they would deal with a zombie attack, or what kind of zoo they would build if it had to have a theme and a storyline. Sometimes a little ridiculousness can bring on some incredible insights into human nature.

And other times it’s just plain fun, which should be enough motivation anyway.

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