Thursday, May 5, 2016
© Charles D. Hayes
In 1990, Walter Truett Anderson published Reality Isn’t What It Used to Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-To-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World. The subtitle is discerning. Anderson’s stunning observations offered cultural insight into the new century we were fast approaching in the same way Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock had been prescient twenty years earlier.
The 1990s saw the term postmodernism bantered about by people whose trouble defining it was crucial to its meaning. For many well-educated people postmodernism seemed to rest on casting doubt on the ability to know anything with any degree of certainty.
Postmodernists pointed out that language itself evolves from a foundation based on arbitrary assumptions. The notion resembled eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s proposition that we do not experience things in themselves but only as representations of themselves dependent upon the frailties of our cerebral architecture. The result of such thinking did little but escalate pretense on one side of the argument and contempt on the other.
Now, in a recent article titled “Despair, American Style” in The New York Times, Paul Krugman has written about the angst of white people and their difficulty in coping with life today amid the turmoil of growing cultural diversity and economic uncertainty. He quotes a source who suggests some Americans are suffering from a loss of narrative in keeping with their sense of reality. Hold this thought.
A half-century ago, Richard Hofstadter published his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. In it he said, “At an early date, literature and learning were stigmatized as the prerogative of useless aristocracies.” But disruptive ideas were all the rage in the 1960s, prompting Hofstadter to declare in 1964 that we had reached a point where “anti-intellectualism could be discussed without exaggerated partisanship.”
Come forward to the present, and Hofstadter’s assertion sounds absurd. Anti-intellectualism is now thriving in exaggerated partisanship. What went wrong? The answer in a nutshell is this: People today are experiencing future shock from the unsettling notion that reality bears little relation to the narrative that most of us internalized growing up.
We know now that our brains don’t work as we’ve always believed they do. Rather, we are rigged for self-deception, seeing what we want to see, and we are born masters when it comes to easily tuning out or shielding ourselves from contrary information. And all the while, our beliefs are setting up like concrete.
Cultures serve as shelters from reality. Some people adopt worldviews very much like read-only software, often internalizing a creed so rigidly that they do not hear, see, or even acknowledge contrary views as having any legitimacy whatsoever. As a result, a significant number of people seek the refuge of echo chambers and block out all contrary opinion.
Cultures also serve as ideological pressure cookers for the formation of beliefs. We are only a few generations beyond a time when many Americans were determined to fight to the death in support of slavery. Our cultural traditions remain so deeply rooted and so tenaciously entrenched that a residue of racial prejudice from the Civil War is still with us.
In many ways the profuse ideas of the 1960s represented a backlash to an overly conformist and authoritarian culture. In the two decades that followed, a strong sea of resentment for secularism and tolerant ideas led to an increase in opposition and to the growth of traditional enclaves and think tanks based on religion and traditionalist ideology. Take this smoldering anxiety globally, and the antics of terrorists begin to make sense.
It’s hard to get an objective sense of the cultural differences among the peoples of the world. In America, most of us grow up with an unrelenting emphasis on and about the ethos of individualism. This attitude shapes our worldview and the way we relate to other people.
But consider the ideas we Americans have about family and morality, and then contrast these feelings with those of cultures where the custom of honor killing is currently practiced. The moral gap here is so profound and so wide that people on either side of this issue cannot fully comprehend the point of view of the other.
Incidents of clashing social customs and values are increasing today as never before, and the future offers no letup. We’re experiencing lives mediated by technologies that border on magic. Society is both ripping apart and coming together at the same time, causing many people to be driven by fear and a thirst for security.
Alvin Toffler asserted that there are limits to the amount of change we can endure without psychological injury. He echoed William James’ observation that “lives based on having are less free than lives based on doing or on being.” The threat of losing one’s affluence is bewildering, especially when it happens as technology actually increases one’s life choices in superficial ways with new gadgets one can acquire on the way to lower and lower rungs on the economic ladder.
When worldviews unravel, so does the psyche of individuals. In some cases, the angst generated festers and results in conflict that leads to violence among people whose worldviews allow no room for contrary opinion. Although psychologist Steven Pinker has offered compelling evidence that violence globally is actually diminishing, our media’s focus on if it bleeds it leads makes this observation seem hard to believe.
My point is that we have reached uncharted territory. Our species has always had individuals who see the same things and reach different conclusions, and for centuries our political divide has been sharp or even hostile. As Walter Truett Anderson once observed, the fundamentalists fear the loss of faith while freethinking liberals dread surrender to those who promise certainty.
In today’s world, communication technology is effectively retribalizing the world at a pace we aren’t prepared to deal with. Echo chambers serve as obstacles for finding common ground and as battle stations on stand-by to detect cultural insults and acts of disrespect.
The more contentious the ideological divide between academics and average citizens, the more attractive an anti-intellectual worldview becomes to some. As the rate of change skyrockets, the felt need to seek simplistic solutions and the shelter of consensus increases. At the same time, technology is rapidly fueling the power of radicals to retaliate against society at large.
In short, everything that can happen is happening, only faster, while the disconnect between perception and reality gets bigger. As a result of this chaos, groups seek refuge in associations tenuously held together by ancient customs and supernatural beliefs. Out of desperation more and more of their members assume that those who disagree with them are evil and double down on their convictions when challenged. Moreover, when a culture’s sacred beliefs seem so bizarre that outsiders view them as preposterous, the passion required to defend them is likely to be fierce.
Barring a natural disaster or global catastrophe, the speed of change is not going to let up. Neither is seething cultural conflict as worldviews collide and insecure individuals and groups resist, believing themselves to be facing mortal threats by the mere existence of those who disagree with them about the nature of reality. People who express angst because they believe their symbols and icons are being disrespected are but the first signs of shattering worldviews. ISIS represents the extreme.
It is in the nature of human tribalism to assume one’s culture represents the pinnacle of humanity. When you find out what each culture believes is sacred, you expose a hypersensitive nerve that, when pinched, prompts fear, anxiety, and acts of irrationality. When handled with tact, that nerve holds a key to the radicalization of a group’s members.
If we are going to defuse some individuals and groups of their fear and achieve a more peaceful society with fewer acts of terrorism, we need to focus on strategies to help people cope with disorder without feeling that the escalating change in the world is a personal attack on their identity and thus their very existence.
If we put a lot of thought into this enterprise, we could call it education with the caveat that the way it is presented may be as important as its content. Education has never been more essential because ideas are the only way to dismantle ideologies. People who are incapable of creating their own narrative without the need for hatred as the cultural adhesive to hold their respective associations together are easy candidates for those who seek to recruit fanatics.
There is one clear and profound point to be made here which we ignore it at our peril: Violence begets violence, and if we have any hope of stamping out terrorism, it won’t be with bullets.
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