“Those were more sophisticated times, my friend.” Newton said, with such a sad sweet smile.
It’s funny how certain things people say can stick with you. I heard that many years ago, from a dear somewhat older friend, in response to my wondering aloud – “why is it that the films and books of the sixties and seventies (which we both adored in common) were able to discuss subtle and complex issues, so much more intelligently than today?”
Trying to say anything about culture shift (or drift, or decay), is always tricky – because reality is incredibly complex, and we can cite examples to bolster almost any position we wish to take (or oppose) for any reason.
Lots of things were lousier a half a century ago – but the basic survival game itself was not.
The ratio of what a starting worker can earn, against what you have to spend for shelter and food, has been declining horrendously ever since.
There are many ideas which are common now, important and helpful, which were very rare or even openly persecuted by a majority, back then. An undeniable advance, culturally – but the unaddressed and still growing survival deficit experienced by increasing numbers threatens to undo every single bit of progress made in our general social enlightenment, by bringing successive waves of fear and anger into power, instead of rewarding reason, hope and compromise.
I have to state up front, I have a bias here. I was born into a commune full of psychological ideas (some used well, and some abused horribly), so I have always seen humans as complex, highly contradictory, full of hidden capacities for help and harm, both gifted with creative and ascendent potential, and also burdened with much hidden sadness and shame.
Among many isomorphisms that appeal to me, is musical harmonics. Every single time we hear a ‘middle A’ note from any instrument, we are hearing the same fundamental frequency wave, most clearly. But the information which tells our ears which instrument is playing this A note for us, is all contained in the extra ‘harmonics’ – multiples of that basic frequency (440 cycles per second) – which are added to the simple wave.
How much 880 is in the mix? How much 1760? How much 3520? 7040? 14080? The ratio between these ‘additives’ is the only aural information we need, to distinguish between the sound of a sustained note on a piano and a clarinet.
When I think about human beings and the way they ‘are’ – I think about how many different instruments in a band or orchestra could make that note, and how many different timbres words like anger, love, honour and faith can have, depending upon which particular instrument is expressing them, when and how. The ‘why’, we always used to modestly (and quite rightly) assume was a mystery known only to the composer – only ever distantly and imperfectly understood by the observer or audience.
It is increasingly obvious that we have to make a dramatic turn, before our entire civilization smashes into an ecological brick wall at a thousand miles an hour. The absolute necessity of this broad and uncomfortable change, and the paralysis we see around us (and increasing stupidity) is making a lot of the sweetest people I know feel profoundly hopeless.
But I can tell you for sure, that at least a part of that picture is in error – because in effect, the modern world has come to accept a simplified synthesizer sequence for every soundtrack, in the place of the rich timbred (and so much funkier) expressive orchestrations we once used to demand.
Factionalism has made idiots of us all – not because of the strength or weakness of its content – but by making us so excitable we’re losing sight of what we actually are.
But – and this is important – we aren’t the first to get to this especially passionate moralizing state. Many populations in advanced countries have come to believe their moral wishing was incredibly important stuff.
“The scramble for Africa” by Pakenham makes especially horrifying reading for the modern audience – we see so much familiar popular rhetoric about saving foreigners from their horrible selves, and then watch as decades of war, exploitation, mass starvation and brutality follow directly behind (truly disgusting blood-crimes from every single ‘moral’ power involved, without exception.)
We forget this now, with our (very recent) popular understanding that colonialism was wrong – but a great deal of it was begun not because of capitalist lust, but because of well-meaning moral feeling and public demand (in which the press of course played a very active role). You could absolutely win elections this way. Promising to smite the evil doers overseas.
Of course corporations rushed into every power vacuum created by the disruption of an established culture (there were literally too many to count), and they were universally pleased to exploit every opportunity they saw (whether sane or not), but they were not the political instigators of this late wave of racist horror – well-meaning people just like you and I were.
Demanding the intervention, because of our moral confidence in their wrongness – but then also readily consuming the foul bounty won.
More sophisticated times
So – how much progress have we made in our standards of self awareness and moral understanding, in say, a hundred and fifty years?
I still hear plenty of drivers saying hilarious things like, “I oppose the war in Yemen, and fracking, and oil sands, and pipelines” even while supporting every one of those things directly, with every single tank of gas they buy. You could also very easily get into huge trouble with such a person if you used a bad banned word for any of the foreign persons that they have built their whole lifestyle around their absolute right to kill. (But only in a dilute way – perhaps a mere pico-corpse per litre?) Of course even as they pump away, they do still very sincerely wish and disdain!
You remember Descartes and his stupid insistence that exalted mind was completely separate from comparatively crude and carnal body? (An idea which looks dumber with every new bit of research, as even the bowels now seem to be a crucial part of the extended thinking nervous-system.)
Well, every single time we think – my opinion is of greater weight than my material actions in the world – we’re indulging in that exact same stupidity. A form of invasive arrogance that seems to be a western-culture specialty.
The classic curative formulation is Korzybzki’s brilliant – “The map is not the territory”. A descriptive word is never the thing – a theory is never the thing – a policy is never the thing – a judgement is never the thing – an opinion, a critique, a joke, a slogan, a piece of dogma, a ‘take’…. you get the idea.
Things actually are exactly what they are, and every simplification, opinion or generalization that we use in thought or discussion- especially for our emotional satisfaction – is an indulgence in untruth. Our cause is our own distorting ego, rather than respect for reality – and we therefore fail to contribute to any useful common understanding.
Yes A is always A – but oboes are not ever mandolins! (Nor are either ever the words we use to describe them, or the emotions we associate).
And no matter how lavish our dream-boards, flattering our teachers, or high our self-esteem, that is still always going to be a flawed, mixed up and unnervingly contradictory human being looking back at us in the mirror – not a freakin’ unicorn!