Thursday, October 16, 2014

Unsung Massive Societal Changes

I'm enjoying "How We Got to Now," a six-part PBS series (here's a NY Times review) explaining how things we take for granted about the modern world came to be - often with much struggle by people we hardly remember.

A mere 150 years ago, for example, we traipsed through human and animal excrement whenever we went out. Modern waste management was grafted on more recently than we recall, and only via herculean effort (series host Steven Johnson tells the tale of a planner in Chicago named Chesbrough who hatched a plan to jack up the entire city by ten feet to allow run-off).

It's amazing how clean our world is (cleaner even than my childhood, due to the demise of unleaded gas and smoking and to the clean air act), but we've forgotten to appreciate it. Humans have a peculiar amnesia for major shifts. At age 50, a few such shifts have occurred during my lifetime. And not all of them, of course, have constituted progress. The most fundamental shift has been so all-encompassing that it seems hardly anyone even noticed it.

A friend recently made a flatly incorrect remark about something I know a great deal about. I argued against her statement with vehemence and passion. Midway through my spirited rebuttal, I realized that people don't do this anymore. Have you (those of you over 40) noticed that hardly anyone argues these days? If someone's wrong, and you know with certainty they're wrong, the polite, friendly, enlightened, modern move is to blandly smile and feign agreement (while internally registering one's "superior" understanding). Better to let erroneous conclusions stand than to risk friction.

And that's new. We used to treat only incorrigible morons - those who couldn't be made to see reason - this way. It was a response born of disrespect. Nowadays, one winces at the very word "moron". The distinction is unfashionable, so we disrespect everyone like morons, and deem ourselves more civilized for it.

As I wrote a few months ago,
To grimace at someone after they've said something silly - and ask them whether they've lost their mind - is a demonstration of respect. It shows you normally expect them to say sane, smart things, and it invites them to clarify or re-think. We only react like this to people we highly esteem.

If, on the contrary, someone says something batshit crazy and you respond by smiling blandly and nodding your head in feigned agreement - never flinching or questioning - this means you hadn't expected any better. This is how one reacts to known crazy, beyond-the-pale people.

Yet these two reactions are interpreted backwards. These days, patronization feels like gentleness, while respectful challenge feels like disdain. This is a new thing.
I attribute it to the increasing influence of corporations. Corporations once seemed like incredibly odd places where friction (with coworkers, with customers, with everyone) was avoided so strenuously, and at such great cost (of accountability, of honesty, of humanity), that they were seen as suffocating environments. In my lifetime, corporation culture has become omnipresent, and a tipping point was passed where corporate-style communications became the prevalent mode even in social and private lives. The world is now corporate. In fact, the very term "corporate" is hardly used anymore, because there's no longer a distinction to be drawn. The dryly uptight, creepily artificial culture described by that word has become our culture, inescapable even for those holdouts still working outside that system.

Ever since it became fashionable to adopt the mores of corporate customer service representatives, we rarely contradict each other. We pamper, placate, and pander even friends and loved ones. The sole reprieve is when conversation takes place under the cloak of anonymity (i.e. on the Internet). In such cases, the popular move is to excoriate, with infinite savagery, anyone who's so much as omitted an apostrophe. Online trolling, flaming, and general snark has become a suffocatingly corporate society's sole outlet for conflict.

In corporate work life, the avoidance of conflict and contradiction has given rise to the notoriously imperious American consumer, relishing life in an artificial ecosystem where they're denied nothing, challenged never, and flattered perpetually.

In corporate private life, the inviolable expectation to never be challenged or contradicted has given rise to the strange custom where a great many people would rather be idiots than feel like idiots.


Richard Stanford said...

Have you seen the old James Burke shows, Connections and How the Universe Changed? More physical than social, but a really great collection of examples of getting from Then to Now.

Jim Leff said...

I even have the Connections CD Rom game!

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