by Daniel A. Kaufman
The New Year has always struck me as a time not for resolutions, but for musings. Here are some from this New Year, in the order in which they occurred to me.
- The future is not very futuristic. One can drive down significant stretches of road – even in densely populated urban and suburban areas – and see no indication of whether it’s 2018 or 1980. This would not have been true had one driven down such a street in 1980 and thought about what it would have looked like in 1942.
- American politics is no longer even marginally about ideas, but about the hatred that the different portions of the country feel towards one another. Trump didn’t cause this. He is a manifestation of it.
- For the first time – at least since the beginning of the industrial era – we have generations of young people who care less about freedom than their elders do. This is unnatural and bodes ill for us.
- The ubiquity of smart phones and the almost complete absence of a space program suggests that we are shallow, unimaginative, and self-absorbed.
- That people in wealthy, modern, industrial nations no longer have the desire to reproduce is evidence of very deep social and cultural rot; a bizarre combination of narcissism and self-hatred.
- It now seems imaginable that (in the developed world) we could reach the point that men and women no longer will want to live together, as part of a single society.
- Doublethink is now necessary to navigate virtually every part of our lives.
- We are simultaneously the most depressed we’ve ever been and the most obsessed with healthy living. This indicates a deep confusion.
- Professional, academic philosophy will either be captured by its social justice wing or descend even further than it already has into scientistic irrelevance. Or it may continue as it is, with each of these elements simply becoming more pronounced and extreme. Regardless, it will not survive.
- It seems quite clear that within a generation or two, the humanities and liberal arts will play only the slightest of roles in primary and secondary education and no longer will be a significant part of higher education, other than (perhaps) at the most elite margins. This will do much more to usher in our “post-human” future than anything the transhumanists can dream up.
- On rare occasions, fantasy literature imagines that a world of elves and dwarves and magic lies in the distant future, rather than the past; in the wake of some sort of collapse of modern, technological society. Given what seems to be a widespread penchant for magical thinking, in spite of our complete technological immersion, this seems more plausible than the futures imagined by Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein.
- With the exception of a handful of old-fashioned diners, one can no longer simply walk into an establishment and order a cup of coffee. Watching my elderly parents’ bewilderment as they try to operate their new television makes me realize that one also can no longer simply watch TV. Our commitment to customization seems to have reached the point of diminishing returns.
- How else to describe contemporary social justice activism but as a kind of racket? Progress, no matter how great, never results in a reduction of attention, energy, or resources. Indeed, all three are increasing rapidly, even at a time when the social and economic condition of minorities and women is the best it’s been, since concern with such matters began.
- The enthusiasm and ease with which we have embraced the simulacra of human relationships that social media provides shows that we effectively remain Cartesians, in spite of our professed naturalism.
- Generation X was the last generation to have anything that reasonably could be called “childhood and adolescence,” as these concepts have been understood since the Second World War. One result has been that the next generation, the Millennials, have no idea what it means to be an adult. It may take several generations for these concepts to be redefined in ways that are socially, culturally, economically, and politically viable. Our institutions, however – at least as they are currently configured – will not be able to wait that long.
- A time of disunity and mutual antipathy, such as we live in today, is one in which the liberal consensus is needed more than ever, and yet, the likelihood of our accepting it becomes smaller every day.
68 responses to “New Year Musings”
Look at the people. In 1980 they were looking around at the neighborhood, or talking. In 2018 they will be texting on their smart phones.
To me, it has seemed this way for a long time — perhaps since the assassination of JFK.
Yes, smartphones are one of the only things you’d notice. I was thinking of street signs, traffic lights, etc. I drove down a stretch of the Grand Central Parkway in NY and it looked exactly the same as it looked 40 years ago.
Any thoughts on the idea sometimes floated around that rather than there being a decreased interest in the humanities what is going on instead is that the important discussions about the humanities will move out of the universities and onto internet podcasts and blogs (such as this one)? It seems to me that some of the most interesting and relevant conversations are now happening online. Eg. Sam Harris’ podcast hosts conversations with experts in a range of subjects from the sciences to the humanities, and depending on the guest the quality of the conversation can be well above what I had access to in university courses. There are also suggestions to have online universities focussing on the humanities (eg. Jordan Peterson).
I think this is right and need not, in principle, be a bad thing. It might even be a good one. However, remember, that what is happening now is still in the context of liberal arts and humanities being very much a part of peoples’ formal education growing up. I am much less confident looking forward, when that no longer will be the case.
I can agree with some parts, disagree with others. Maybe it is that USA/Australia divide again.
But I don’t think the MIllennials can be considered the next generation, they appear to have faded into fogeydom like the rest of us.
My “Noughties” kids and their friends bristle at being called Millennials, who they say are people “born in the 1900’s”.
They are the next generation in the context of the entry — the generation after Generation X.
My daughter can’t stand the Millennials so there at least is some hope for her generation.
It now seems imaginable that (in the developed world) we could reach the point that men and women no longer will want to live together, as part of a single society.
That seems hard to believe. Maybe lesbians will want to live with lesbians and gay males with gay males, but most of us want to live with the opposite sex (or the opposite gender), if I may be permitted to express myself in binary terms.
(I was once criticized in another blog for seeing sex/gender in binary terms.)
I’ve not seen male/female relations in as poor a state as they are today, and every indication is that they are moving farther apart in terms of their social expectations, not closer together.
It seems to me that in Britain in the 1960’s in my parents’ generation it was the case that men and women basically lived separate lives.
When we had friends around to dinner there was a while that men and women met together at the dinner table, but the women had come in from the kitchen where they prepared and served the food. After the meal they took the dishes and disappeared back into the kitchen to wash up while the men went into the lounge room to talk.
During the day my Mum would meet up with other mums or in craft groups of women. During the evening my Dad would meet other men over their hobbies (in his case model railways).
Sure, nearly everybody lived together, man and wife. But largely their appeared to be a separation of the sexes.
I recall completely flummoxing my parents in the mid 1970’s when they asked where was the girl I spent most of my time with. I said “She is with her boyfriend tonight”. “Her boyfriend? Aren’t you her boyfriend?”. “No, I am just her friend”. They couldn’t quite parse that.
I’m talking about mutual hostility, Robin. Increasingly, it seems to me that men and women simply loathe each other.
I can’t say that I have seen any evidence of men and women loathing each other, any more than the kinds of men that have always loathed women and vice versa.
There’s always been a substantial sector of male opinion which loathes women: read Schopenhauer or Nietzsche on women, for example or listen to traditional male locker room discourse.
Maybe the feminist movement has allowed some women to say what they used to fear to say: that they loathe men.
However, most people I know, of both sexes (or genders), like the other sex/gender and maybe even feel more comfortable around them than they do with their own sex/gender.
For any given socio-cultural level, I prefer to converse with the woman. That is, I prefer to converse with the hair-cut woman than with the truck driver, with the talented woman poet than with the talented male poet, etc.
There’s much on your list that accords with my observations, and they are truly distressing. I think particularly of points 3, 4, 9, 10 & 13.
Specifically, point 3 resonates with me deeply. I avail myself of smartphones, of the on-the-spot fact-checking functionality, of the aid in navigation and schedule-keeping. In essence, I recognize and appreciate the convenience of a device that combines the capacities of phones and computers into a pocket-size package. Even so, I fear smartphones enable some of the worst and most addictive aspects of digital life: the inane exhibitionism and tribalism of social media; the least interesting kind of games, as might appeal to cocaine-starved rats; click-baity news, with miniature “articles” fit for small screens and impatient minds; and more. It’s too much to hope for books, but as a regular commuter in the Stockholm metro system, I see fewer newspapers and more glowing screens every day. Every time a conversation is disrupted because of a notification that must be checked, or because someone feels the impulse to memorialize a moment with a tweet or picture, my despair for my fellow man deepens.
What despairs me even more is that expressing these sentiments makes me sound as cranky old man, even though physiologically I’m some decades away from that.
With that rant out of the way, I have some further small comments on the rest of your piece.
Regarding item 7, I don’t understand why doublethink should be necessary to navigate our modern world. Is this related to your other observations, or have you written about it elsewhere?
On point 12, I don’t see what you describe. In Stockholm, and in many other Swedish cities, it’s quite possible to walk into cafés or bars to order coffee, and most hotel lobbies serve walk-in customers. Many restaurants also have separate bars where drinks and coffee can be ordered. Is what you describe an American phenomenon, or have you seen it elsewhere?
As usual, a very provocative list of theses. If you choose to elaborate on any of these points in the future, I would be interested to read it.
Happy New Year to everyone!
The male female relationship is one which has always puzzled me. I remember talking with a woman at a secretarial college I was attending, who mentioned that she had been accepted into the Australian Film and Television School (a place I had unsuccessfully tried to get into for years), but she turned it down because her boyfriend didn’t want her to do it. That floored me. First that someone could be the boyfriend of this woman and not want her to take up this opportunity, second because she didn’t tell him to go to hell.
As a young teenager, at a loose end in a small seaside resort, I started up a conversation with a girl, I ended up watching the sun set over the sea with her and talked until it got dark and my parents would be starting to worry. She said “This is great, my boyfriend never wants to do stuff like this”. Again I couldn’t understand how someone could be the boyfriend of a funny, smart romantic girl like this and not to want to watch the sun set with her and talk on the beach through the night.
This kind of thing has happened to me so much that it seems to be a pattern. And, yes, sometimes I would sit and watch the sun set with a guy whose girlfriend didn’t seem to appreciate these kinds of experiences.
It has always seemed to me that a sizable proportion of men and women don’t particularly like each other, but still get into relationships.
Re: 12, the point isn’t that one can’t get coffee, but that one cannot simply order a cup of coffee. One must order a latte or a capuccino or a macchiato or bold or light roast etc. If you go to Starbucks and just ask for a cup of coffee, see what they say to you. My friend tried this in six different locations once and by the end still hadn’t succeeded in getting a cup.
As for 7, doublethink is the capacity to entertain contradictory propositions. Think about how many of such propositions one must master to successfully operate in today’s world. I have my own list — men are women, victimhood is empowerment, etc. — I’m sure you can think of your own.
Point 1: in the developed West, yes. But think of Beijing or Shanghai in 1980 versus 2018. Or any number of other cities in Asia. Are they just “catching up”? Or overtaking us? (They are not doing so well on the environmental front, certainly.)
Points 2 I strongly agree with. Point 3, maybe.
Point 4 is nicely rhetorical. Point 5 also on target I would say.
On the men/women thing I agree that we may be moving into uncharted waters. New reproductive technologies change everything.
I will refrain (for once) from talking about the fate of academic philosophy and the humanities etc.
I don’t think I have ever had to believe that victimhood was empowerment or that a man was a woman. And I say that as someone who was regularly told in school that I was a girl and that “she” and “her” were the appropriate pronouns for me.
It seems that if I were to say “have it your own way, I’m a girl” a completely different set of people would be lecturing me that gender is biological and not a social construct. I don’t mind either way, but I wish these groups would get together and sort it out among themselves and leave me out of it.
Robin: You apparently haven’t been reading the trans activist literature or following what’s going on in that area. I have. That male transsexuals are women and female transsexuals are men is not only common parlance but are required locutions, lest one be labeled transphobic and accused of committing “violence” against trans people.
As for the other point, you clearly need to get out more. Victimhood is now brandished as a potent social and political weapon in contemporary discourse.
On 7 and your reply to Robin, I suspect the problem is worse in the US and in higher academia. The only times I encounter situations requiring the doublethink you mention is when I venture online. While I was a student and very engaged in conversation on current topics, those things almost never came up. Not once when I had mathematics courses, and during English courses, it only surfaced during a few seminars when the topic of discussion was gender studies. Even during those seminars, the tone was never hectoring, and when the seminars were over, the topic didn’t come up again.
Bjorn: All of my entries are limited to an American context, as I thought I clearly indicated in my numerous references to American circumstances and institutions.
That said, we are seeing a lot of this stuff in the UK and Canadian contexts as well. And it is not limited to academia. Canadian Bill C-16 is an example, as is the NY civil rights code.
This is great stuff.
What is especially worrying is that the age of onset of clinical depression has dropped to 24 years. It used to be the case that depression set in much later in life when people succumbed to the failed hopes and expectations of their youth.
Now they are succumbing to depression when their natural hope and optimism should be the greatest. This is a deeply disturbing phenomenon. Nobody fully recovers from clinical depression and they remain scarred for the rest of their lives.
My own take on many of the problems you have listed is that depression is responsible as an underlying cause. It is an insidious ‘disease’ that manifests in many and subtle ways. Of course one must ask the question why is it that depression has become widespread. The answer to that is another whole discussion.
I would put that down to two things, increased fear of death and increased concern about healthy appearance.
That is closely linked with a decline in resilience, which also makes people vulnerable to depression.
There are also some positives
– thoughtful discussions are now possible in a way that was not possible before. The downside is the many trite comments and the drive by shootings that occur in the discussions. It enables unprecedented meanness.
– if I want to make something or embrace a new programming project there is a cornucopia of information available to help me. This is really empowering.
– I need no longer carry contour maps when I walk in the mountains. You would know what I mean if you have ever been stuck on a wind blasted ridge in heavy rain at night. It is very difficult to use a map under those conditions and it quickly becomes a soggy mess of paper pulp..
The things I miss!
– using my slide rule. I loved the tactile feel of calculating. I still have it but nobody recognises this ancient artefact.
– using my book of five figure log tables. As above.
– letter writing with fountain pen and paper. I valued receiving such letters and loved writing them. They were evidence of of care, attention and valuing the other person. They were a kind of craftsmanship. This ironic because I was an earlier adopter of email and became responsible for implementing it company wide.
– the cheque book. Writing a cheque took care and time. It focused your mind on the issue of spending money.
The thing I hate!
– Ball point pens. They should be banned for eternity and the use of fountains made compulsory on pain of public whipping. My own pet theory is that the Biro ushered in the rot of modern society.
Apparently you missed my point. People might say this. I don’t have to believe it. Hence no doublethink. Just as there was no need for doublethink required when people said I was a girl, even when they pinned me against a wall and forced me to agree by threat of violence.
If someone held a gun to my head and told me to say “Pi is exactly three” I would say “Pi is exactly three” without any doublethink required as I wouldn’t believe it.
Things that give me hope!
– the growth of open source programming. This is the strangest, most counter-intuitive thing that could have happened and yet it has produced the largest, most reliable and successful tool in the world – Linux. That large numbers of people can voluntarily, and in their own time, carefully craft high quality software, in close collaboration with others and then give it away for free use by others, is a very strange phenomenon. It reveals aspects of ourselves that should be celebrated.
– the growth of marathon running. See the annual marathon report for 2017 – http://www.runningusa.org/marathon-report-2017.
Marathon completions in the US:
1980 – 143,000
1990 – 224,000
2000 – 353,000
2010 – 507,000
2014 – 551,000 (the all-time high)
2015 – 509,000
2016 – 508,000
The decline to 508,000 since 2014 may be significant.
Marathon running is a signature event since it requires a large investment in training effort, does not require much financial outlay, is egalitarian and completing a marathon is not trivial.
If victimhood is a potent political weapon then there is no contradiction between victimhood and empowerment and so again, no doublethink.
“As for 7, doublethink is the capacity to entertain contradictory propositions. Think about how many of such propositions one must master to successfully operate in today’s world. I have my own list — men are women, victimhood is empowerment, etc”
Well let’s get a little more precise. Your examples are from the Left (and they are accurate), but the Right indulges in it too – “Keep the government out of my Medicare!” slogan from 2009 is a flaming example.
The problem is that public education has completely failed. Fewer and fewer people know history, fewer and fewer have any basic grasp of reasoning.
I recently met someone convinced that the 1968 landing of men on the moon was a complete hoax; that it was all manufactured in Hollywood. I asked if he was calling the hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers, world wide, over the hundred or so history of rocket science and technology, liars, and he said. “I guess so.” All because of a couple of conspiracy theorist videos on Youtube. I asked how that made sense; he said “Well, they wanted to say that they had done it.” I said, “you don’t have a right to your own facts.” he responded, “I have free will, I can believe anything I want to.” So, I said, “You’re calling me a liar for having read books, having witnesses the moon-landing, having accepted the evidence of the millions who have experienced the same. He laughed and that was the end of it.
Of course he voted for our Conspiracy Theorist In Chief now in the White House. But, it could be remarked, he might just as well discard the whole of history as some ‘Eurocentric’ myth.
When my friend Dave, a traditional Democrat, said recently that we needed to convince people of their real ‘best interests’ and get them to the polls, I told this story and responded – “convince this guy of his ‘best interest’ – get him to the polls.”
He could never be convinced; he will go to the polls.
Appropriately, David Brooks, in his current column, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/opinion/the-retreat-to-tribalism.html, has this to say,
That is so well put. “The Temptation of Innocence” is on my reading list.
As a New Yorker from Queens Dan, this series of videos from the 1964 Worlds Fair say it all. They predicted the future, not because of the dopey cheesey futuristic exhibits created by corporate America to sell junk. The fair predicted the future because of the behavior of the American people who attended the thing over 50 years ago.
Labnut: This is great. I was hoping others would post their musings, rather than just react to mine. Thank you!
They are contradictory in fact. The whole point of Doublethink is that one ceases to find contradictions jarring and accepts them.
I am not going to go around with you endlessly on this, Robin. I appreciate your comment.
EJ, I didn’t give examples in the piece. I only threw out those two in reply to a comment. As far as I am concerned, the doublethink we are forced to engage in is non-partisan and not necessarily even political. The idea that one must carry insurance that at the same time, one must never use, is a kind of doublethink.
Funny about the moon landing. One theory I’ve heard is that Stanley Kubrick created it in a studio. He felt so guilty that he filled his film The Shining with clues that it had been faked.
Wrong. Unless one wants to be hounded, socially condemned, and in Canada and parts of the US face legal sanction, one had better say it.
By your logic, doublethink is not possible. Orwell did not mean it to be taken that literally. The point of introducing the concept in 1984 was to describe things that are actually happening in our society and warn us about where they might go.
As I said in my other comment, I don’t intend to go around and around on this with you. We’ve each had our say on the topic. And as I indicated to EJ, I view the point about doublethink as being non-partisan and ultimately, not even political, so there is no need to get defensive on behalf of the Left.
What amazes me, Victor, is that the remnants of that Fair are still standing there, as rusted, dilapidated hulks. My parents still live on Long Island — I’m there now — and I drive by the damned thing every time I go to the City.
Nice to hear you’re from Queens. I lived in Astoria for several years, at the end of graduate school.
I was actually thinking about the original Tomorrow Land in Disneyworld, which I first saw when I was a kid. The world it portrayed looked a hell of a lot more futuristic than the one we are living in now.
“The whole point of Doublethink is that one ceases to find contradictions jarring and accepts them.”
The White Queen has been reincarnated as policy strategists for both of the main parties where she is highly esteemed. She is believed to deliver her briefings at power breakfasts. Alice was put out to pasture in an old age home on a ventilator and her eyes are still closed. Bernie is a regular visitor and fondly holds her hand.
Labnut: Good call on the White Queen. I’d forgotten about that one. Wonder if Orwell drew from it, in conceiving of “doublethink.”
Sorry, that was incomplete. It should have read:
“Bernie is a regular visitor and fondly holds her hand as he quietly sings ‘Humpty Dumpty…’“
I’m a Queens fan myself. I prefer it to post gentrification Manhattan. That’s something I miss, pre-gentrification New York City.
I lived in Forest Hills, near the Continental Boulevard Subway stop, for a long time in my sister’s apartment there.
My sister has been the librarian in the Queens Jewish Y for about 35 years now.
That’s another thing that I miss, the books in the Queens Jewish Y library: they sold them all and there is no more physical library.
I don’t like Manhattan anymore for precisely the reason you mention. (And others.) Unfortunately, Brooklyn and Queens are rapidly gentrifying as well. Long Island City is unrecognizable, if you remember what it was like just 30 years ago.
Dan, actually I meant yourself as a kid from Queens. I’m a kid born in Borough Park and raised and now live in Nassau County.
The 64 Fair was a harbinger because it was heartwarming to see it was designed for families but the crowds are being channeled from one corporate sponsored pavilion to another and the kids are all getting hungry so the parents are buying them sugary soda, snacks and overpriced industrial manufactured hot dogs. Even the so called foreign pavilions which were funded by the foreign governments were not there to promote peace and cultural understanding but tourism since this was the budding age of mass air travel. As the commentator pointed out the main attraction to the foreign pavilions were their restaurants where you could purchase an overpriced meal.
I wonder if the pharmaceutical companies sponsored a pavilion where they would explain how they would cure every disease like hypertension and diabetes caused by the American diet or restless leg syndrome caused by sitting in front of the TV?
One segment shows the Mexico exhibit where Acapulco Native Men scale these extremely high poles and sit on top of them. I would bet Trump’s father Fred Trump who was a contractor from Queens may have funded this?
Sorry I misunderstood you.
I grew up on Long Island. Specifically in Roslyn. My parents still live there and it’s where I am right now! Where are you?
I only lived in Queens for a short time as a graduate student. I am Long Island born and bred.
I’m in Wantagh. I grew up two miles east of here in N Bellmore. As a kid I remember those rides on the Southern State Parkway to the Belt visiting the grandparents. Mom grew up in Borough Park near the Maimonides Medical Center and Dad was from Bath Beach in the shadow of Coney Island.
My wife grew up in Borough Park. She developed a lifelong hatred for the Satmar Hasidim as a result. Lol.
“Funny about the moon landing. One theory I’ve heard is that Stanley Kubrick created it in a studio.”
Yes, that was about the same time that Roger Corman was secretly filming combat scenes for the media so they could foster the hoax that there was some military conflict going on in Viet Nam.
Actually, double-think is a complex of ignorance, willingness to believe a simple absurdity rather than a complex fact, lack of any sense of history, inability to communicate well with others or even to pay attention to one’s own inconsistencies and contradictions.
I remember that for most of my youth, the selling phrase “priced competitively” was taken to mean prices lower than a competing seller. Then in the Reagan era, it suddenly came to mean prices higher than those of competing sellers, I suppose on some weird notion that a higher price meant better quality, which of course does not necessarily follow. Now of course the rhetoric of pricing takes many forms and doesn’t really have to do with anything other than ‘what the market will bear.’ The troubling thing is that no one seems concerned with this.
But they’re still pricing a six dollar object “$5.99” as if the peny made any difference!
Actual victimhood is never empowering.
A spurious claim of victimhood appears to be empowering since so many people appear to have effectively wielded power this way.
Time to stop handing power to the pseudo victims on the left and the right.
New Year is a time for reflection, renewal and confirmation. Janus-like, we need to stop, look at where we have come from and decide where we should be going. We celebrate our survival with great gusto but we should also celebrate with gratitude for the gifts we receive from life.
In that spirit I ask 1) what should I be doing more of? 2) What should I be doing less of? 3) What should I carry on doing? 4) What should I be grateful for?
1) What should I be doing more of?
– pray more. As CS Lewis said, we don’t pray to change God, we pray to change ourselves.
– give more. Give more love, give more to the poor, give recognition, respect and support.
– trust more. Trust is the glue that binds society. The world is filled with well intentioned people.
– forgive more. It is a healing act which makes reconciliation possible.
2) What should I be doing less of?
– less time wasting. There is only so much sand in the hourglass.
– less anger and resentment. It doesn’t change the situation but it does harm ourselves.
– less grieving. There is always loss in life. What is past is over and the pain must end.
3) What should I carry on doing?
– valuing my friends.
– loving my family.
– helping the community.
4) What should I be grateful for?
– Dan Kaufman and his band of thoughtful contributors and commentators. Their stimulating, insightful and provocative thoughts bring the light of understanding to every day.
In re: our seemingly unstoppable descent into tribalism: I think Bruckner gets part of the picture here, but only part. He’s right to point out the importance of social comparison, but the connection to victimhood needs more unpacking. He makes the adoption of a victim identity appear to be a coolly calculated attempt at virtue signaling. I think that, in most cases, at least, it’s a lot more reactive than that.
To claim to be oppressed is, among other things, to claim that the perceived low social status one occupies is undeserved, unfair, the result of a rigged or biased system. A claim of oppression is a claim against the legitimacy of the hierarchy within which one is ranked. This isn’t just the province of SJWs; witness the incessant bleating of the alt-right about “white genocide” and Jewish conspiracies and the women/feminazis they blame for everything wrong with their romantic lives. Most of the noise (especially online) being generated at these extreme political poles is being generated by young people of low perceived status who are desperate for a social reorganization that would see their relative position raised.
Now, the Marxist will be quick to lay the malaise from which such reactionary movements spring squarely at the foot of Late Capitalism, and increasing economic inequality probably does contribute a good deal of broader status anxiety. But I think there’s more going on. There’s a weird phenomenon studied by psychologists in which comparing ourselves with an individual better off than us has a greater (negative) effect on our self-conception and self-esteem than comparing ourselves with an individual worse off. And there’s a nasty feedback effect here, whereby low self-esteem makes people weight upward comparisons even more, which in turn lowers self-esteem further, and so on.
This skewed focus on upward comparison targets means that people tend to feel worse about themselves as their group size increases, even if their relative position remains unchanged. Now, think about how the Internet, and social media in particular, has changed the size of our social comparison groups. Think about how many more opportunities for upward comparison it provides compared to when most social groups were highly spatially localized. Consider what additional effects the selective image curation social media allows are likely to have on our perceptions of social rank.
Actually, the Internet probably isn’t perceived as just one big social group. Rather, it’s innumerably many smaller groups from which we may emigrate on the fly. In the much more local social settings of the past, if we wanted to raise our status we had to either compete within the group’s established value paradigm or invest a lot of time, effort, and resources into physically relocating. No more; if we’re unsatisfied with our position in one group, we can simply pledge ourselves to another more appreciative of our talents. Little wonder millennials seem to lack grit and resiliency. But all these virtual groups now draw from a genuinely global talent pool, with the result being that one is apt to face a large number of upward comparison targets wherever one goes. Whatever your skills and interests, there’s always someone out there better, someone more devoted, and that someone is now easier than ever to find. Little wonder, then, that we’re seeing these passionate calls to either abolish social hierarchy altogether or ossify it into a (personally favorable) race- and gender-based aristocracy.
This is probably only going to get worse, and the problem would likely persist in either of the post-neoliberal futures the youth seem to be clamoring for. See, the kind of social information that drives this anticompetitive desperation is also the kind of social information we can’t seem to get enough of. It’s worryingly easier to imagine us breaking up with democracy than breaking up with Facebook.
On thinking about this post, I’m reminded of a time perhaps 40 years ago when I remarked to a colleague that things were getting worse than they used to be. His reply: that it is one of the great paradoxes, that things have always been getting worse than they used to be. And yet things are better than they ever were.
And when I thought about that, I realized that my colleague was right.
Generally, the people in question are victims, are oppressed or discriminated against, but, as Dan K., says above, they turn it into a racket, a way to blackmail others emotionally, to get special treatment, etc.
In every family there’s someone who’s is chronically ill and they’re not faking it, but with time they begin to use their illness to blackmail others emotionally, to get special treatment, to become the center of attention. It becomes a racket, so to speak,
and if another family member has a heart attack in their presence, their only reaction will be to complain about how that inconveniences their sciatica (I have chronic sciatica myself and it can be very painful, but others suffer more).
Neil, I would have said things were getting better up through, roughly, the second Bill Clinton administration. This attitude began to change, with the first Bush administration and the re-emergence of the religious Right as a prominent force on the scene. In a sense, they were the first of the current round of identity politics.
And certainly *some* things continue to get better. The things in the piece were just what came to mind. Perhaps next year’s musings will have more positive things on them.
Contra Robin’s continued “Nothing to see here!” posture, victimhood is *certainly* being promoted as a form of empowerment. Indeed, it’s not just I who am saying this. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at NYU points to an important paper by sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning that carefully describes the sense in which we’ve become a victim culture. Haidt gives a thorough summary of it (as well as a link) here:
Now, of course, being a victim isn’t *really* being strong or empowered. The sort of acculturation that is resulting from this victim culture is one that is severely hobbling the younger generations, as well as doing tremendous damage to the society as a whole. So not only is it an example of societal doublethink, it is a particularly insidious one. It is infantilization, and subversion, and incapacitation posing as kindness and support.
ainsophistry: You are absolutely right about identity politics being an equal opportunity racket. This current round of it was — in my view — started by the re-emergence of the religious right at the time of the first Bush presidency. It’s only in its most current manifestation that it has become a largely left wing phenomenon. And sadly, it is trans activism that currently seems one of the worst incarnations of it.
Labnut, my inclusion aside, that’s one of the best lists I’ve seen. As of my counting, we are at 5 or 6 years of friendship now, and I am quite grateful for it.
Dan, thanks for your kind words. The fact of the matter is that I and your other readers are deeply indebted to you for this wonderful tour-bus excursion through the highways and byways of philosophical thought. As the tour guide you have pointed out features of interest; you have patiently explained them; you have guided us to a deeper understanding; you have tolerated our ignorance; and you have ignited our curiosity. When the tour-bus stops at night it feels as if we have only just started and the next morning we are there bright and early, just waiting to get back on the tour-bus. You are the tour guide that never needs to use a megaphone because the clarity of your thought has us leaning forward to catch every word. I am loathe to admit this but you have finally convinced me that all roads lead to Wittgenstein and not Rome, as is commonly thought. You are the best kind of friend, the one who enriches his friends.
“Contra Robin’s continued “Nothing to see here!” posture.
It is hardly a “nothing to see” ,posture.
I am critiquing your continued “nothing we can do about it” posture.
When Germaine Greer said that transexual males are not women people protested and she initially pulled out of a lecture she was giving at Cardiff University.
But the university convinced her to change her mind and the lecture went ahead.
There should be more of that. It is the “acquiesce and complain” attitude that empowers them.
We clearly have two very different views of the current scene. That’s OK.
I am still trying to make sense of the ‘victimhood’/’microaggressions’ issue so I forwarded those articles to an insightful young friend studying at the University of Cape Town. This is what she said:-
I think that defines the motivation and the response quite nicely.
What her response does not capture is the desire to control and the resulting doublethink that is required to reconcile victimhood with the urge to control.
Again I am puzzled about what you disagree with in what I said.
Do you think that we should simply sit back and let people get away with using claims of victimhood as a political weapon?
Do you disagree with me that we should take a stand against this, as Germaine Greer did?
Robin: Then you will have to remain puzzled. I’ve been as clear as I can on the subject in the numerous comments I’ve made and have no intention of discussing it anymore. If you continue to push, I will simply deposit the comments in the trash.
Give it a rest. There are 15 other points to discuss. Or not.
What really is the significance of the new year?
Answer – we are feedback control loops. Feedback control loops are foundational to all purposive activity. Set a goal, observe performance, detect deviation and send a corrective signal. Without a feedback control loop we quickly drift off course. The more frequent the feedback(the sampling frequency), the closer the control we can exert.
How frequently should we sample performance? In my company we did performance reviews yearly. In my experience that was hopelessly too long and I shortened that to monthly, with good results. My staff wanted to know how they were doing and how they could improve, long before that all important yearly performance review that set their salaries for the next year.
When we do new year’s resolutions we are performing a kind of feedback control loop(performance review), and, just as with my staff, the sampling interval is hopelessly too long.
How often then, should we sample? Too frequently and it is onerous, too seldom and it is ineffective. St. Ignatius de Loyola understood the importance of this and he prescribed that all Jesuit priests should perform a Daily Examen once a day:
I can tell you from my own experience that this is a hard discipline, that perhaps only Jesuit priests can maintain. For many people once a week, or even perhaps once a month is a good compromise.
In the next comment is the secular version of the Daily Examen that I practise, somewhat intermittently. I try to do it every day(Massimo, with his Stoic journal, would understand) but I don’t beat myself if I miss some days. After all, I am not a Jesuit!
The secular Daily Examen
Find a quiet place at the same time every day, open your journal, get your pen ready and light a candle.
2) Presence of awe and wonder.
Search your memories of the day for experiences of awe, of a sense of wonder, beauty, significance and meaning. This sets the stage. Write down one memory that is striking.
3) Review the day.
Review the events of the day and note them in bullet form. This is the bulk of the exercise.
4) More of.
Now ask, in the light of these events, what you should do more of. Note them in bullet form
5) Less of.
Think about what you should do less of and note them as well.
6) Carry on.
Then note what you should carry on doing.
7) Gratitude for.
You have put your day in perspective. You complete this by looking for and noting reasons why you should be grateful.
If I may make one last comment about point 13….
There is nothing wrong with using victimhood as a political weapon. Martin Luther King did it and Gandhi did it, among others. However, at some point (I’m not clear when) using victimhood as a political weapon becomes a racket, as Dan K. points out: you
profit more, psychologically, academically, in terms of political power, even financially, from being a victim than from solving the problem. Some of the mechanisms of ressentiment, of the slave revolt in morals, described by Nietzsche in the Genealogy of Morality, are certainly apropos here too.
[…] #1 The future is not very futuristic. One can drive down significant stretches of road – even in densely populated urban and suburban areas – and see no indication of whether it’s 2018 or 1980. This would not have been true had one driven down such a street in 1980 and thought about what it would have looked like in 1942… I drove down a stretch of the Grand Central Parkway in NY and it looked exactly the same as it looked 40 years ago. https://theelectricagora.com/2018/01/01/new-year-musings/ […]