by Mike Meyer ~ Honolulu ~ May 30, 2020
A broadly held assumption is that the correction to our political, social, and cultural problems will restore commonality. Since the nature of our problems is polarization, including the loss of a shared definition of truth, the correction should restore broad ideas of public virtue, equality of rights, and truth.
This commonality was once the foundation of the nation, and those of us old enough to remember America in the 1960s and 1970s knew the hopefulness of working with primary, common standards. These shared ideas were more apparent than real, but they did form a trusted, though idealized, framework even for those of us working for structural change to correct gross racial shortcomings.
The foundation of the 1960s’ cultural revolution assumed an institutional acceptance of diversity as part of the common good. While that era of the social revolution created conflict, it was still possible to have a basic conversation on principles and differences over a beer in a neighborhood bar. The unifying framework was the constitutional principles that allowed us to disagree but still maintain a discussion as part of the national dialogue.
That idea of maintaining the dialogue quoted as an American ideal in the statement, I disagree with what you say. Still, I will defend to the death your right to say it — ignoring that this statement is attributed to Voltaire based on a paraphrase by Evelyn Beatrice Hall. She was an English writer, and Voltaire was French, but this was the essence of the American political system, including both the presumptuousness and ignorance, when I was growing up.
Even mentioning this now sounds very naive. It was innocent then, but the passage through the era of civil rights and the beginning of gender rights opened the idea of the opportunity to many. This feeling of shared powers, however tenuous, was still strong enough to lean on in public. These shared rights provided the social bumpers, something like a cultural pool table that allowed us to ricochet off each other but never fall off the table.
My need to work at explaining this is indicative of how far removed that sense of shared community is from the reality we inhabit today. Even if most people alive today, clearly millennials and younger, never experienced this, it has remained as a remembered ideal to restore. But none of us can articulate why it was lost or how it could be regained.
Amid a badly bungled national response to a planetary pandemic killing well over 100,000 people with no end in sight and, now, the most severe social unrest seen in fifty years, maybe it is time to admit the loss and move on. As the pandemic is only in its early phase, the economic devastation is obviously maximized for the benefit of the super-rich, and racist murder by police is now openly sanctioned and freely waged across the nation, efforts to describe what is happening as a replay is shockingly stupid.
The flow of time and history as a force moves to places where things we remember simply cannot exist. Age is, again, a factor as few things are more troubling than returning to our childhood home after many years and finding it changed beyond recognition followed quickly by the realization of how much we have changed. Even if it were all still the same, we wouldn’t want to stay.
Maintaining an unrealistic and impossible ideal is often tragic. Struggling to find a way back to something that is no longer possible or even relevant leads to frustration and rage. Continued manipulation of past ideals by groups dedicated to exploitation and suppression is incendiary as we are now seeing. These outbursts are not just another demand for rights long denied but a fight for survival at multiple levels. With that effort to cling to what is gone, we blind ourselves to a new reality and new ideas that are more appropriate to a unique setting.
To evaluate this problem, we need to identify the old ideal and exactly why it is no longer work as a model. However, this is obvious to the majority of the population. Ideals are, after all, models of how we think society should work. In a healthy community, there is a range of attitudes and specific ideas that can be shared and are within the scope of acceptability. We know this as the Overton Window helps to identify the acceptability of public policies.
But the Overton Window requires membership in a common citizenry with shared ideals necessary to define the range of options. We can no longer even agree on a working window because the US population can no longer determine such a variety of possibilities. In the US, the Overton Window has taken a superposition that cannot measure a position without collapsing into one reality or the other.
We all always and hopelessly discuss this failure. Some people work very hard to get people to be helpful and make an effort to understand the positions of those who they cannot understand. That sentence illustrates the extent of the problem. There is no longer any commonality on which to stand. We don’t even go into public areas without care, and if we do go into the shady area, we decamp expeditiously. Our media continually portrays confrontations in parks and sidewalks that make no sense while often turning into aggressive encounters between white racists and any other racial or ethnic groups. These acts of aggression become deadly when police are involved.
If we cannot go back to a fundamental working commonality, how do we move forward? Our cultural infrastructure has failed and needs replacement, but with what? How do we begin?
We have spent years in a growing cultural disaster though slow adaption. The old rule to avoid religion and politics in family gatherings or workgroups has become more extreme. To maintain peace requires precise care and avoidance of a wide range of hot button issues that can be, not only, unpleasant but violent. Unfortunately, the failure of any common values other than silence makes change impossible.
Because of this, we no longer have any confidence in majority rule. The threats of an irrational minority eliminate all conversation while that minority denies all other’s rights and even the concept of the common good. The mass of anxiety in our society puts the burden on those who want reasonable and beneficial change to maintain silence to avoid conflict and uncontrollable escalation. This burden is not socially sustainable.
It has become evident that what we have is so broken that we must discard the parts. And that is very much a critical point defining the cultural break. How do we get to a new and more neutral position, a new common ground, to begin determining what is needed?
To do this, we need to move rubble out of the way to find bedrock on which to rebuild. But what we will see, I think, is a geologic fault.
Evolution is the most fundamental law of our universe. As things evolve, they change and divide in new ways. People change, and groups break and separate while languages evolve and become separate.
We all agree that things are changing at an ever-accelerating rate. But even that rate is periodically escalated exponentially. We are in a planetary pandemic that has destroyed what little was left of our old, shared world in four months and is now threatening to become open rebellion. In the US, Great Britain, Brazil, Russia, and many other states, the total failure of the existing political system is shown by massive incompetence, growing absurdity, and thousands upon thousands of deaths.
What we are experiencing, I think, is a kind of continental breakup on a cultural and social level. Perhaps this is best seen as a seismic cultural shift, an evolutionary social split, or both. The two analogies are appropriate, but the timing is entirely off the scale. We must face that our previous time scales for social change are irrelevant. We might as well begin to think of the minority population that has highjacked the traditional conservative political groups, as the surviving remnant of the original human form that is unable to handle the species threats, multiple and integrated, that we face.
The slight majority, predominantly in metropolitan regions of diversity, are evolving to a different social form in response to that threat. Our worlds are separating. The basics of evolution are that stress can induce change and, sometimes, the adjustment helps while other changes fail, and, often, the remnants of the old form die out their descendants remerge with the successful. The difference is that we have created a microcosm that vastly accelerates that process as sentients on the social level.
With nearly eight billion individuals and growing environmental repercussions from that population growth, we know we cannot go on as we were. The complexity and scale of our problems are beyond our nationalist form of social self-management. The reversion of a minority to tribal tradition is the result of the forced a break from our tribal antecedents. This break is so traumatic to a portion of the human population that they have regressed by as much as one hundred years in social development. This regression or retention is visible planetwide as some national states retained political control by conservative groups who have always feared and rejected change. In contrast, others have been taken over by new, violently reactionary groups copying ancient forms.
We cannot make this a subjective value judgment on rates and types of acceptable change in human societies. The nationalist or tribalist ideal does make those judgments exclusively on very traditional group memberships, i.e., gender, race, ethnicity, class, or caste. That worked in many forms for thousands of years. It no longer works, and that realization is what is forcing the break from nationalist tribal tradition splitting the human population.
My point here is that this is not a traditional biological change, although we know that rejection of evolution and reliance on ingroup importance is genetic to an extent. But what is happening is not a purely natural or genetic but is driven by a complex mix of environmental conditions forcing a conscious or intellectual change for species survival. That describes the elements of an epigenetic modification as it is now understood. We are now beginning to understand the speed and nature of epigenetic change, but we still need to deal with its reality transforming our societies.
Perhaps we need to call time and regroup. I realize that this will immediately produce outrage and be denounced as some plot to destroy the nation, but what else are we going to do? We can no longer indulge our instinctive desires for absolute dominance that requires a grudge match to the death nor the other natural response to take our people and find new land, so we are going to need to find a way around this.
No, we cannot paint a line making a new border because that is also part of what does not work. Borders are part of the tribal past. As a species, even a diverging species, we must allow the majority the ability to work on our survival. That is not debatable though the denial of that is somehow a point of contention with the minority group.
A critically important area of change is the use of our technology to track and dynamically define groups as they move through society. This digital tracking of groups is happening now for the protection of public health and populations understand this and accept it. The problem is the continued existence of tribalist authoritarianism as an allowed form of government that sees any group and group communication as a threat to their power. This denial of rights needs to be made impossible.
There have been many fictional attempts to model this, but this comes down to freedom of group membership with any such group able to achieve a form of virtual sovereignty within a planetary administrative structure. These virtually sovereign groups cannot be geographic, although it may include ownership of property. Instead of tribalists, large nation-states, we would have a planetary legal system focused on rights and asset management with virtual alliances of individuals and families united by agreed ideals and living standards.
We need to make these social splits work in a way that is not violent and self-destructive for our species. That is difficult with the appearance of death cult symptoms among the tribalists. But we cannot only remain silent and ignore criminal and corrupt action by an incompetent and irrational group that, intentionally or not, is threatening to kill us by inaction and delusional denial.
We need to scrap what is failing and begin exploring ways to ensure the well being of our planet. That is a big jump, but what choice do we have but to try?