An Easy Way to Change the World

January 16, 2018

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.

-K, Men in Black

Back in the year 356 BC, there was a Greek man named Herostratus. Pretty cool name, huh? If you’re into that whole nominative determinism thing, this sounds like a dude destined for great things.

Evidently Herostratus thought so too, despite the fact that he was likely of low standing in society, and possibly even a slave. But Herostratus wouldn’t let that stop him. And so in an attempt to immortalize his name he decided to commit an unspeakable atrocity: to destroy the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Fame at any cost, he figured; better to be known for something terrible than to not be known at all.

The Temple of Artemis might not mean much to you, but it’s considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. It’s kind of like deciding you’re going to topple over Christ the Redeemer just to bask in the inevitable news cycle about you that is bound to follow.

Anyway, back to Ephesus. To dissuade other potential copycat criminals, the local authorities declared that Herostratus be subject to a damnatio memoriae – “condemnation of memory”. Which is to say that they decided Herostratus shall not be remembered, and in a truly Orwellian fashion, they decided to wipe his name from history.

Obviously they failed, because here we are talking about him, but you’ve got to admit it’s a pretty baller strategy. If someone is trying to take fame through whatever means necessary, an effective strategy is to just ignore them.

Today I want to talk about damnatio memoriae, and why the heck don’t we as a society practice more of it.

You know how in Tom Clancy movies, the US government always makes a point of saying “we don’t negotiate with terrorists?” Same idea. The government doesn’t want to incentivize more terrorism by setting a precedent of saying “yeah, do that and we’ll give you whatever you want.” That’s only going to lead to more terrorism.

If you can convincingly precommit to taking a certain action (not negotiating) in response to some stimulus (having your family kidnapped, or whatever), people won’t engender that stimulus because they know it won’t bring them closer to their goals.

While we’re on the topic of terrorism, let’s chat about that for a bit longer.

You know how every time there’s a terrorism attack, it’s all over the news and society at large collectively loses its shit? Everyone changes their Facebook profile photos to something to show solidarity, and they send out their thoughts and prayers and all that. It’s all over the collective consciousness for like a month afterwards, and we ask our politicians “what are you doing to protect us?” and they use it as an opportunity to chip away at a few more of our liberties. But I digress.


Terrorism only works because we talk about it every damn time. Terrorists keep doing it because they know they’ll get our attention. That fits their agenda. Know what wouldn’t? If we just practiced some damn damnatio memoriae and agreed that yes, it’s sad, but no, we’re not going to talk about it, all of this shit would go away.

OK but it’s scary right? WHO KNOWS WHERE MIGHT BE NEXT! MAYBE IT WILL BE US? No. It won’t. According to all the statistics I can find, roughly 75 people in the States die from terrorism every year. For comparison, lightning kills about 51 people a year, and cars kill about 38,000.

In other words you should expect to die 500 times in a car before you will ever be a victim of terrorism. How many times have you died in a car crash? For me it’s not even one time.

So I’d like to end this essay with a small call to action – the next time some shit goes down – and let’s face it, it will – let’s all just collectively keep our shit. Let’s not talk about it, let’s not update our Facebook profile photos. And instead, let’s share this post you’re currently reading without any commentary on the tragedy du jour.

We can’t directly stop people from doing bad stuff, but we can practice damnatio memoriae and remove the incentives behind doing bad stuff. We can be the change we want to see in the world, and all it requires is the self-control to make it happen.

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