Thursday, October 15, 2020

Mycelia of hatred

I've been thinking (always dangerous, I know). A common metaphor for hatred, bigotry, and discrimination of all kind is that a wind-borne seed falls on fertile ground and sprouts and blossoms. Another metaphor is that a spark ignites tinder and is fanned into a raging fire.

I think neither of those is quite right. If we've learned anything in the last four years, it's that the hatred has always been there. It doesn't need a seed or a spark to bring it into existence.

So let me propose a different metaphor, one that might actually have some predictive value: Hate is a fungus. More specifically, each type of hate, each type of domination and subjugation and indifference to the suffering of others is a fungus. And as with actual living fungi, there are no constraints on the emergence of new species to feed off of new substrates.

We think of the forest floor as being infiltrated with the mycelia of all manner of mushrooms. But in truth all kinds of soils are filled with fungal mycelia. They spread quickly and broadly, with some individual organisms spreading over many square miles. Yet we don't notice them until the season and weather provide just the right conditions for this vast network to send up the fruiting bodies we notice on our hikes. Yet they are there, spreading, absorbing nutrients and energy from their environment, all the time. 

So it is with hatred. It spreads out of sight, underground. And when conditions are right, it emerges and becomes visible, forming clumps and clusters and great fairy rings of fruiting bodies that release another generation of spores to strengthen and magnify the population. When the conditions become unfavorable, the mushrooms disappear, but the mycelium continues to thrive out of sight.

Other fungi spread above ground, forming the molds that digest abandoned buildings, roads, and the rubber dust cast off as your tire treads wear. But some of these are thin, invisible films that coat (and shield) the visible objects in our environment. White privilege comes to mind.

Okay, so much for the metaphor. But my serious point is that we have mathematical models for the growth of mycelium. And if I'm right, the same equations describe the mycelia of hatred and can be used to understand how it spreads and grows. The idea of uprooting it like an unwanted shrub or spraying it like a weedy lawn would be understood to not apply, to be the wrong approach. Instead, society could focus on managing the conditions that lead to outbreaks. Fungi are devilishly hard to eradicate, but they can be managed.