by Mike Meyer
We are living with the death and transformation of words. Some are dying on their own, others are being killed, and many are metamorphosing into loosely related words with new meanings. The process appears sudden but started slowly and it is the primary reason for political and cultural confusion. This process cannot be reversed.
This is the most immediate and daily experience of what we call paradigm shift. It is a profound and fundamental change in any form but incredibly so in a period of major disruption. For the last four hundred years this has been powered by scientific methodology through the birth of technology.
This type of change is geometric. The size and speed of the change starts very slowly and progresses slowly until it reaches mass awareness. This results in sudden and massive change that overwhelms people with its range and extent in areas that had not been previously considered changeable.
The ‘sudden’ transformation of the word ‘marriage’ to include homosexual couples as well as heterosexuals is as classic an example as can be found anywhere in history. In the course of twenty years in America this went from being unknown outside the gay community to being made nationally illegal, to being decriminalized and accepted, to being legalized nationally ,and then becoming broadly unquestioned.
This was not a superficial change. It’s speed is normal for this stage of paradigm change in a culture. This is not something that is impressed on people but is driven by the broad acceptance of the new meaning. As with many paradigms, they go unquestioned and unconsidered until they suddenly change. To understand paradigms they can be thought of very much like a classical optical illusion.
You can see one version or the other but it is impossible to see both at the same time.
At the cultural level this is driven by what makes sense to the majority and this is usually a matter of practical utility. The mass awareness of new information creating a new perspective on social structure causes the shift to a new normal.
The new way of seeing something now makes more sense than the old. The background conditions change that illustrated dysfunctionality or unjustifiable situations that can be eliminated by seeing the new way. This is obviously what happened with the new meaning of ‘marriage’. In an increasingly diverse world with basic emphasis on individualism and with massive expansion of decentralized communications precluding homosexual couples from the legal marriage simply no longer made sense. The conversion was and is viral.
When these changes are made by a population they are a fait accompli. Despite the inevitability of a portion of the population that, by nature, will attempt to deny the change as ‘abnormal’ there really is no going back. This is the essential cause of cultural polarization and the break up a social or political unit when a recalcitrant portion of the population converts a paradigm change into a defining larger symbol. These things then may take a generation or two to disappear completely.
At the fundamental paradigm level this is straightforward and not reversible. The 21st century marriage example is working its way around the planet and will ultimately become unquestioned and, simply, normal. An even larger and earlier paradigm change illustrates this in the Western Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. It is hard to believe now that the paradigm for the universe had the earth at the center with the sun orbiting the earth although orbiting did not exist and is a product of the new paradigm. The heliocentric view was clearly, with new optical technology, not workable although the use of logic as well as objective observation were both important. To most people this didn’t make much difference but to anyone with a growing knowledge of optics and astronomy it was critical to change.
People with problems
The Catholic Church had major problems with this and were able to fight the change for some time. Mostly this was because few people had direct experience of the errors of the old geocentric model. Reality wins in the end. But it is a new reality.
An old paradigm, as in the example of marriage, becomes overly complicated to use or simply fails to work in all needed situations.
Reality to homo sapiens is the working analogy or set of analogies that both explain things and allow them to be effectively manipulated. The Scientific Revolution was a major paradigm shift because of the interlinked set of analogies that were used to understand earth and sky, planets and stars and the physical world around us. The new system was far more effective because it was simpler (Occam’s Razor) at the start but then was able to provide theoretical laws that were continuously proved. Paradigms are really just big analogies that underlay how we explain and know things around us. When too many things cannot be explained by them the search for a new paradigm begins. Our paradigms must meet our needs or we change them.
An old paradigm, as in the example of marriage, becomes overly complicated to use or simply fails to work in all needed situations. With the Digital Revolution (by any name) we are in , arguably, the largest paradigm shift in at least 500 years and perhaps in 10,000 years. The beginnings of the Scientific Revolution included the dismissal of the geocentric paradigm and the change form hunting-gathering societies to permanent settlements and cities with agriculture marked the start of the Neolithic age. This was urbanization, the rise of ‘civilizations’ and human ‘history’ as a written form among many other things. We are now in a shift somewhere between those levels of change.
No wonder things are screwed up. And that is why I and others who have some knowledge of the history of these things are warning that far bigger changes are coming. There is not only no way to go back but the implications, resulting from the fundamental change become a cascade of changes that radically transforms social and political systems and the structure of human society.
The inevitable cascade
Second order changes are what may well break apart the US as it now exists as well as the EU, Great Britain, and others. That is because the base paradigm change is fundamental that is a change to our social foundations. That is why reaction and effects of this are so diverse and surprising. The one thing that will become clear as we understand this is that the call for the return to ‘normal’ is an indicator of failing to understand what is happening. Normal has been found wanting and has been dismissed.
I will mention this again a little later but this is not the product of leaders, rulers, or a consortium of academics or conspirators. These kind of shifts come from and must come from people dealing with things in their lives that no longer work. Efforts to take advantage of elements of this process by opportunists are equally short sighted and will be stumped by continuing change that they don’t understand and by people having changed to a new paradigm. This is not a good time for the ignorant.
At this level of change we have both the changes to words and meanings themselves but also the ability of different societies to handle large and very disruptive change. It is in this sense that older organizational structures may well suddenly collapse. There may be simply too many major shifts for significant parts of the cultural unit to stay together. They find themselves living in different worlds with a different language that they thought was the same. This is dependent on how the shift in meanings affects that social or subcultural unit.
At this point it appears that racism in combination with opposition to diversity, xenophobia, and misogynistic are base structural analogies for that part of America having the greatest difficult in the conversion. These things obviously have not been acceptable for a long time but also have never gone away. The old paradigm was not as focused on the essential need for diversity so racism and related rigid belief systems were suppressed but could survive. That no longer works. The new paradigmatic structure puts great emphasis on, not just diversity, but the structural value and power of diversity in social and cultural innovation. The very meaning of the word race no longer works for a rapidly expanding mass of the population. That word no longer exists as a valid term.
Where it does not work is now uses language that is nearly un-understandable to those people who see that word as integral to their paradigmatic view of the world. These are the people who converted the old Republican Party into a strongly reactionary reaction against these very strong paradigmatic changes to human society. As this progresses more and more related words and ideas change exacerbating the confusion and failure in communication.
The only other humane option is break up larger political units into smaller ones that can be taken over by paradigm rejecting populations.
For much of our history these situations would produce migrations of the rejecting group to some area that would allow them to set up their society and maintain it in slow decline. That is no longer possible as we are too crowded in arable areas and too tightly linked in an emerging planetary culture that is, I think, a critical component of the new planetary paradigm.
The only other humane option is break up larger political units into smaller ones that can be taken over by paradigm rejecting populations. Few of them would actually want to do that but many would. These people will be a constant source of divisiveness and unrest for one and maybe two shrinking generations. The long view is the only way, I think, to deal with this in our world. Suppression of these people and their adherence to an old paradigm is not workable or acceptable in the new paradigm. That is one of the most positive aspects of this shift. The evolution of the paradigm is easy to trace by patterns of action and has been done so by people such as Steven Pinker in Our Better Angels.
The next battle in words
These changes, as I’ve said, come harder and faster as changes cascade. With a basic knowledge of words and paradigmatic change it is easy to identify the next area of dispute and the result. By the time these things begin to become visible to the general population in a changing culture these changes are already effectively done. This is a case of the long tale of change through a population.
When 30% of the population is aware of a change, whatever they ‘think’, that change has been accepted by enough people to transform the culture and it’s components. The point is that to discuss it enough people have realized that the old definition, as in the case with ‘marriage’ in America, is no longer functional and they have already learned of a new, more effective or efficient meaning. That is a new paradigm.
On the level of language and identity we are seeing the end of gender based pronouns and terms. This is well on is way to completion at the use of ‘her/him’ is being replaced with genderless ‘they’. Most all public or government forms now show gender choices only where it is essential and include nonbinary. We have already seen the replacement of binary gendered toilets and “restrooms” with family or nongendered options. There will be fighting about this but this is a language change that simply makes sense. These paradigmatic changes are not imposed by any political or academic group but by people who are adjusting their language to reflect a new social and world structure.
This is the fun part as the conflict quickly becomes silly to the great majority of the population. The people being drug along are simply refusing to give up the two faces for the vase that is obviously there. This is beginning to work its way through literature and fiction. You have probably noticed that married people in novels include same sex couples and, also, non sexual partners that use to be the means of talking about same sex couples who could not be married or sexual pairs. The terms husband and wife are now role descriptors sand may apply to either cisgender or transgender individuals. This will produce more changes as the awkwardness of knowing which marriage role word to apply to a particular couple is already removing wife/husband from polite language for nonspecific words. I expect new terms will steadily try out for adoption.
This is, as noted throughout this essay, moving very quickly and will continue to speed up. We need to make many changes to English in its current form but many have already been made in the natural way that people adjust their language to their current view of the world and of themselves.
The problem of succeeding in delaying planetary level paradigmatic change is very much like missing computer OS upgrades and then having to step through each missed process before upgrading to the current standard.
The final term I will mention is ‘socialist’ as in Democratic Socialist. Because of the cascading failure of the American political system over the last forty years, the term ‘socialist’ was placed in a frozen state tied to an increasingly bizarre refusal to recognize planetary social and political changes. This is a case of the rest of the industrialized nations experiencing paradigmatic shifts incorporating social welfare models based on the original English Labor part or on social democrats or democratic socialists in a variety of forms. This was distinct from the traditional communist parties that held to Marxist revolutionary and authoritarian models. The conversion of most government models to some form of social democracy for welfare maintenance and income protection was completely lost in America.
We are seeing the rapid change that is now taking place to catch America up with the paradigmatic model of the rest of the industrialized world. Ironically that social democratic model is itself changing to a new form that is not yet clear but is an automated (non-political) form of human wellbeing management as a primary if not the primary obligation of government. My own expectation is that this will move to include both a new planetary culture agreement on rights while government becomes directly democratic, automates, and shrinks to smaller more diverse regional units. Please note the importance of diversity in the new paradigm must effect governments, also. The general public has just not realized that yet.
The problem of succeeding in delaying planetary level paradigmatic change is very much like missing computer OS upgrades and then having to step through each missed process before upgrading to the current standard. That analogy seems surprisingly appropriate.
Information technology based analogies are very much the basis of our new paradigm. Data security, collaboration, innovation, and recursive processes will steadily shape our new normal world. Keeping up with our updates is very important now. Failing to do this becomes a social problem.