12 Jul Society Undone: Two Crumbling Pillars
“The world has changed.
I see it in the water.
I feel it in the Earth.
I smell it in the air.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Like many around the country, and indeed around the world, I feel as though something has come undone. To all outward appearances, the world continues as it always has. We all go shopping, watch movies, do our taxes, chortle at politicians, and laugh at memes. And yet, the continuation of the everyday routines seems somehow empty now, doesn’t it? Those routines are a bromide, a salve covering over wounds.
Of course, if you’re fairly liberal, you’re thinking about the President, his actions since the Inauguration, and the bitter election campaign. You’re thinking about the Electoral College, the popular vote, bogus email stories, grabbing of female body parts, tax returns, Muslim bans, border walls, and on and on. It’s deeper than that, though. If you’re a supporter of the President, you voted for him because of this feeling that things aren’t right. You’re thinking about liberal disdain, your lost job(s), maybe the fact that your parents made more money than you, your friends and family with drug addictions, and all the other groups who seem to get all the help that you never get. All of us together are feeling it. Unfortunately, we’re all treating the symptoms of a profound disease.
There are foundational assumptions that we all have about our place in the world, and about how the world works. The last fifteen or twenty years or so of modern life have fundamentally assaulted at least two of these assumptions. I have the image of strong pillars; pillars of our inner life. Unbeknownst to us, these pillars of our own lives are also pillars of the world, supporting our relationships with each other and the right functioning of our society. Many of these pillars are crumbling, but I want to talk about two of them.
“Rage! Sing, O Muse, of the rage of Achilles…”
— Homer, The Illiad
1. Ability to Belong
The Internet: wonder of wonders, font of knowledge, beacon of the modern world. And, perhaps inevitably, engine of our rage.
When we’re children, our social circles are small. We find groups of friends, and establish our place in them. Whether one is the funny one, the talkative one, the popular one, or whatever traits one becomes known for, one generally finds a place. We become important and influential in our own ways in our own groups, and this continues into adulthood. This ability to find belonging in a group is that first pillar of the world.
The Internet gave us a way to turbocharge this ability. Indeed, it deserves greatest praise for giving all of us unparalleled ability to communicate and connect. However, it has also forced us to come into direct and constant contact with groups and individuals that are different. Indeed, not just different, but so different as to repulse us. Every single day, we’re assaulted by the horror of someone being wrong (in our eyes) on the Internet. Even with all the best lessons of our parents, we are not prepared to meet the true diversity of human thought. Moreover, we’re not prepared to face our own potential insignificance within it. Our opinions cease to matter when they can be replaced by literally any other opinion with the flick of an app, and we rage. We call out on Twitter and Facebook, fuming into our self-constructed groups (which agree with us already) about the wrongness of it all. We also delight in the confusion and anger of the other side when things go our way. There are liberals that shout the facts about climate change not to make change, but to belittle rubes. There are conservatives that gleefully mock “liberal tears” and “social justice warriors” not to enlighten, but to degrade and enrage those with which they disagree. It feels good.
Is this really a problem? Well, we see the results in our public life. Being a janitor polls better as a career with high school students right now than running for office. Neighbors all too frequently don’t know each other. Formerly bustling forms of community involvement, whether it’s the Church, the Legion, the lodge, or the temple, now seem quieter. Students demand to be shielded from opinions that challenge their own at a time when that challenge is so desperately needed. We’ve all found our groups to belong to, we gather into them online, and we rage into our phones at the teeming hordes of others all around us.
This has all set the stage for two political parties who literally talk past one another, talking instead at the cameras who will feed their words into the Internet rage machine almost instantly.
“Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
None of this is to say that truth is relative (I don’t believe it is), or that both political poles are contributing equally to the discord. Truth is not what you decide it is, and the things that offend you are not “fake news”. However, we can’t allow the profession of truth to be one more thing that allows us to retreat into our own tribes. Once we’ve started down the dark path of rage against all the Others, the more truth acts as a knife that cuts instead of a light that guides. I don’t know what solution there is, aside from awareness, but the rage is dominating our destiny even when we’re in the right. I feel it every day myself.
It is not just the Internet that pits us against another, though. It is but the self-reinforcing amplifier of a gnawing fear that hacks at another pillar of our minds.
2. Human Equality vs. Human Utility
Liberals and conservatives are becoming consumed by the same fear. There are liberals that respond to it by continuing to push for single payer universal health insurance, more generous benefits from employers and governments, and even universal basic income. There are conservatives that respond to it by pushing for protectionist trade policies to safeguard jobs that will not come back easily (if ever), laws reducing immigration, and stricter and more punitive policing.
The fear is that our jobs, the basis of self identity, and arguably of self worth in our country, are leaving or even being taken from us. People on both sides cast about for who to blame, but the answer is clear (though conservatives right now are having trouble seeing it). It relates to the force eroding the first pillar that we mentioned. Except in this case, the Internet is but a harbinger.
Even if I wanted to explain the relationship between modern technology and jobs in my own words, I would never be able to do as good a job as CGP Grey has. Behold, the shape of things to come:
Grey is right: this is a huge problem. The problem, however, is not that automation is coming for most of the paying jobs out there. Given a long enough time scale, that is inevitable. The issue is that we, liberals and conservatives both, repeatedly assert that our work and jobs are the thing that give us meaning and purpose. This thinking has massively deleterious effects on how we think about and treat the unemployed and homeless. It also makes us cower in fear (and anger) that one day, something will take our jobs and livelihoods away from us.
That something is coming. It might not be tomorrow, but it will be sooner than we think. Those of us who assign all value to specific jobs and livelihoods, and who rage against the Others who are capriciously stealing it all, are assigning value to sand falling through their fingers. We all forget one of the oldest truths there is: memento mori. Everyone is enraged over protecting things that you can’t take with you even if you could protect them.
“…for you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”
— Genesis 3:19
Many have a hard time with the idea that the high performer, the rich man, the entrepreneur, the CEO, and the president are actually no better than the refugee or the homeless. Nearly every religion reminds us constantly that we are equal. Machines will eventually remind us all that we are not only equal, but are equally incompetent at both driving cars and picking investments, both the blue collar and the white collar. Furthermore, how can there be a meaningful difference between capital and labor when the labor is done by machines and the capital is moved around and invested… by machines? What will happen when our own creation robs us of the jobs that give the majority of us our self-worth (and indeed a key criterion by which we judge others)?
Does all of this mean that we stop having pride in what we do? Do we stop trying to contribute (and thus earn) as much as we can? I say no. It is indeed important to feel the sense of purpose that comes with good work. But, if we forget the foundational truth of our equality, the rage will spread as our creations take more and more employment from us. Machines built to make our lives easier will make it easier… to get on the Internet and rage at one another.
I won’t pretend that everyone will see and ponder our circumstances as deeply as the current situation would suggest is necessary. For some, people who can’t find jobs and money have no virtue and don’t deserve any help. For others, no corporation or capitalist will ever be anything but a rapacious buccaneer. For still others, nothing other than their own lives matter and no politics is relevant to them (these I fear the most).
What I do know is this: these twin forces of our own making have begun to put us to the test. If the pillars of the world crumble, will we be able to put aside our natural tendencies and build new ones?
I believe there is a better world waiting for us, but that we have to build it, brick by brick. Let us begin.