The United States in the 21st Century is fundamentally different than when it was the preeminent, ascendant world power of the 20th century. It would be simple to point to one or two major events as the catalysts for this change (9/11, the Great Recession, Barack Obama’s election), but in reality the world is in a constant state of flux and the status quo never lasts long.
I have known conservative religious types to warn of the danger of Same Sex Marriage by claiming that ancient Rome’s embrace of homosexuality heralded their downfall. Besides nicely illustrating the causation/correlation conflation fallacy and showing a complete lack of historical literacy, this thinking also illustrates our most common myth about reality. People are prone to believe that their present moment in history is the default, and any deviation from their norm is an affront, when in fact it’s inevitable.
Change is the constant. One of the failings of the environmentalist movement is that in their urgency to warn of Global Warming-caused catastrophes, they initially fell back onto the easy, grabby language of World Ending Apocalypse. The world isn’t ending, but it is changing, a fate that means very little to the planet Earth, but should prove a real boon to Slip N’ Slide sales in Alaska.
We Need Change
The ideas which are holding back or actively dragging down society can be traced to one terrible piece of reasoning: “It’s what I’ve always believed.”
The country I have come to know intimately is one that can be hard to love at times. Overt anti-science, anti-intellectual, sexist and homophobic public policies and talking points are easy targets for Jon Stewart or John Oliver to lampoon, but far subtler, less political strands of these worldviews inhabit average people in ways that are harder to extract from their, otherwise, fundamental decency. Good people can have lousy beliefs, especially if they’ve never had a reason to question them. It’s simple to think that everyone protesting against same sex marriage or outside Planned Parenthood is just a religious fanatic, but I was maybe five or six the first time I carried a sign in a “Pro-life” march. I didn’t know what I opposed (or supported), and it wasn’t until I was well into my 20s that I thought back on those days with any embarrassment.
Some people never examine their beliefs. That is a shame and the reason why ignorant, hateful people are so prominent in our society (well, that and because controversial statements make nice headlines). We of the “educated, liberal” persuasion shake our heads at others for their backwards beliefs, and yet it’s among liberal enclaves that pseudo-scientific (not scientific at all, actually) idiocy runs most rampant, from the Anti-Vaccine movement to whatever miracle vitamin Dr. Oz is peddling this week. No political, religious or social group holds a monopoly on bad ideas and ignorance.
The oft-ignored extension of the “some people don’t examine their beliefs” rule is that nobody examines all of their beliefs. When Descartes famously stated “I think, therefore I am,” he coined the definitive statement of Rationalism, but his hyperbolic doubt remained credulous about one central belief: God. Even the forefather of rational skepticism had his blind spots, is it any surprise that the rest of us are no better at scrutinizing our beliefs? Another great philosopher, Dr. Gregory House, once bellowed, “Climb out of your holes people!” but we live in holes and nobody wants to be homeless.
We Hate Change
It is quite possible that people seem angrier and more miserable today because the internet allows us to vent more freely and, thus, the dickish thoughts that we always had but kept to ourselves are now coming into the open. This view suggests that humanity isn’t growing shittier, we’re just more open about our fecal tendencies. I like this interpretation because it jives with the underlying optimism I hold for the human race (even if I’m pessimistic about individuals).
However, it’s hard to ignore the police killings of innocent teenagers and the increased mass shootings, along with the corruption at every level of power, both political and financial. The world may be less violent over all than at any other time in human history, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t still acting like savages.
I would argue that if there is one underlying cause for so much of the malignant behavior in our society, it’s change. Rapid, unstoppable change. The last 50 years has produced more social upheaval than almost all of human history before it. For 20 years, we have been in a technological explosion like no one’s ever seen. When Gene Roddenberry envisioned the 23rd century in the original Star Trek, it didn’t look all that much different from the world we inhabit in the second decade of the 21st century (minus the space travel; though that may not be far off). In our time, cultural revolution is more pronounced in one year than it was in entire decades of the previous century.
As the old axiom goes, nobody likes change. Sure, some people embrace new things more readily than others, but even for a guy who has made a life of moving from city to city, I’m not always receptive to shifting sands. We are especially unhappy when a change occurs without our input or permission.
I don’t mean to deny individual autonomy because we are all ultimately responsible for our actions, but I think the depletion of civility and society’s rapid transformation are more than casually linked. I don’t have any studies to support that hypothesis (better minds than mine would have to devise ways to test it), but it’s no stretch to suggest that big changes often have unexpected consequences. If the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was met with fierce opposition, is it any wonder that there is so much turmoil in the wake of social changes that include race, gender and sexual orientation in one massive tsunami? The United States isn’t so much a melting pot as a churning caldron.
There’s no returning to the status quo. Which status quo would that even be?
We Has Change
Will our society continue to evolve this dramatically and this abruptly from here on out? Most experts predict a technological plateau at some point, but since we’re experiencing a period like none other in human history, it’s really anybody’s guess. The concept of the ‘Technological Singularity’ suggests that there’s an endpoint for both human and technological evolution, but how far off is that? Could there be a ‘Societal Singularity’?
Whatever comes next for America, we should expect it to be met with challenges. It’s easy to get frustrated if you’re fighting for civil rights and facing backlash. It can be just as frustrating to be passionate about something, anything, and find nothing but hate and abuse thrown back at you. But take solace: if the world seems especially brutish to you, consider that these may be the growing pains of a society rapidly exploding through puberty. Awkward, ugly puberty.
And if that’s the case, maybe a stable, humane adulthood is still ahead of us.