Tag Archives: social change

Positivism, History, and Optimism: NPR’s 13.7 on the Endurance of Scientific Knowledge

“Religious repression and wars pass, but scientific knowledge remains.”

So goes theoretical physicist Marcelo Gleiser’s argument in a recent opinion piece on NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos & Culture blog. To which I thought:

Not necessarily.

Knowledge can be suppressed, corrupted, or simply lost. In one of the latter (lesser?) books of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, a character describes the problem of chronicling millennia of human history. In short, you can’t preserve everything. Choices are always made. Topics fall out of vogue. Those in power can produce countering knowledge, or bury unfavorable information. Even the most meticulous archivists, following the most stringent of professional standards, are guided by prevailing cultural assumptions about what is worth saving.

Later in the blog post, Gleiser writes:

“Kepler witnessed the state collapsing around him, and felt helpless. He couldn’t pick up a sword to fight, for he was a hero of ideas and not of bloody battles. Instead, he looked up. And so did Galileo. And what they saw, and their diligence in pursuing the truth, changed the world forever.”

How can one make such an eternal claim? For someone who lauds the scientific method and the “objective” power of observation so heartily, this is quite the leap of faith.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Media, Power

Fear Briefing: Lawn Sign Signals

It wasn’t the first time I encountered the “Hillary for Prison” lawn sign, but the second. In the first instance, I was walking a friend’s dog around their neighborhood. In the second, I was walking around my own.

It’s no mystery to me that I live in an area populated with people who hold largely different political views than I do, but it’s a peculiar sensation to feel attacked by those with whom I’m otherwise on polite, if distant, terms.

I am usually able to dismiss bumper sticker discourse as inflammatory trollspeak, but these lawn signs struck a chord of fear inside me as I passed. It was the deep discomfort that comes from knowing you’re in enemy territory–or that the people occupying the territory alongside you would consider you an enemy if they only knew your beliefs. Those of us in the minority are often silent.

I’m lucky that this type of discomfort is a rare sensation. For me, that sensation inspires a blog post. For many in this country, that sensation inspires at best steeled resignation, but more often indicates it’s time to be on guard. For many, that sensation is uncomfortably familiar, and the stakes are impossibly high. That sensation could mean death.

Clinton’s candidacy, like Obama’s before her, incites the endemic hatred of the Other that underlines our country’s patriarchal, racist social structure. There’s a reason Clinton faces so much push-back, such odd media coverage. We, as a country, remain deeply uncomfortable at the prospect of a leader who is not straight, white, and male.

A lawn sign that implies the female presidential candidate might be a criminal springs from this discomfort. There are no “Trump for Prison” signs, after all. When you’re faced with the most qualified candidate in history, what’s left to attack but the aspect of her identity that sets her apart–albeit in veiled ways. An 11-hour hearing there, a rumor about a health crisis here, and a dig at her ambition (so unbecoming on a woman!) for good measure. Chip, chip, chip. And every so often, a thunk rings out, resonating in the hearts of those who share her gender. Putting us on alert.

Just as racism became more blatant after Obama became president, forcing our country to reckon with our shameful legacy of slavery and discrimination, I worry that a female president will inspire the misogynists to pour forth with their hatred more publicly than they already do. It’s painful to realize that this is how progress is forged–with a representative from a marginalized group coming forward, only to be pushed back by those so invested in the status quo that grants them a higher status that they can’t see there’s room for more people on the pedestal. And everyone who shares that marginalized identity is at risk.

People who display these lawn signs are angry that someone who isn’t like them might gain influence. They worry that it means the power they consider their birthright is being taken from them. These people have forgotten the important Kindergarten lesson about sharing, because our society teaches white men that their place is at the top, and there’s only so much room. So push those with the audacity to reach for the top back down. Defend the hierarchy at all costs! Try to elect the most under-qualified candidate you can find, as long as he is a he and pays lip service to your (fragile) identity and (very real) economic concerns. But for the love of a tradition that conveniently privileges you, don’t expend energy fact-checking or looking beyond your prejudices. That would be too much.

“Masculinity is always in crisis,” my history professor reminded us in 2006. Sitting in the safety of that classroom, I never imagined how viscerally gender trouble would manifest in the real world. Having come to consensus in class, I naively assumed the issue had been similarly resolved in the real world. And now we’re ten years in the future, and look what’s happening. Progress is not an arrow. Change swings every which-way. Those with power are loathe to relinquish it. So we work and work and work. We give up. We try again.

It’s those who are first to step forward who bear the brunt in public of what they incite in those who never imagined they’d dare to stand up. The scarcely concealed hatred underlying the hierarchy is forced to the surface, in full view. The bravery of those who go first triggers a fierce backlash, and the rest of us also bear the brunt, but in private. In conversation. In passing. Until we (hopefully) survive and count ourselves among those who comprised the catalyst for social change.

For now, I walk, and live, among people who can’t stomach the thought of a woman at the helm of our national government. And I am a woman. So maybe they can’t stomach me, either. I increase my pace as I walk past these signs, hoping their owners don’t notice me.

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Filed under Contemporary

We Cannot Prepare for the Future: The Inescapable Exclusion of Segments of the Population from Society on the Basis of Age*

Can we, the youth, imagine a time when we won’t know what’s going on? Because it’s going to happen.

Culture changes, usually. This is natural. In Western societies, these changes are intertwined with technological “development.” As different technologies and ways of doing things are adopted by society at large, the old are often left behind. Technology kills parts of culture, altering them to nearly unrecognizable states of being. As new technologies are taken up, not everyone can keep up. Those set in their ways are left in the dark, relegated to less participatory modes of existing in society. This happens especially to the older generations. Perhaps it is because they are not as involved in the development of these new technologies, these new modes of societal interaction. Perhaps they have hit maximum capacity when it comes to learning new things, to keeping up with all these changes by reading about them. After all, when you aren’t immersed in these changes, you start to lose the background necessary to comprehend all that comes after. The young inherit the earth, and infuse the society at large with their culture. Hegemonic change disenfranchises the older generations.

This will happen to us, too. Sure, we can keep pace with new technology now, but we won’t always be able to. There comes a time, for most of us, when we decide it’s enough: we have all we need; we can exist in a current mode. And we stop adopting the latest things. When this happens in one’s life cycle varies, but it isn’t a problem at first. Who cares if we don’t understand every little thing our kids or nieces and nephews are talking about? We’re functioning just fine as adults in the world, thanks. We have all we need.

But as we age, we become less able to care for ourselves. We rely on others, younger people who have kept abreast of cultural changes; who know the newest technologies. And their knowledge of the world suddenly overcomes our own: we are no longer in charge of ourselves. We do not know quite how to operate in this brave new world taken over by the young with their new-fangled gadgets and ways of communicating. This loss of control, of knowledge, of feeling like you can exist competently, invades even the smallest, most mundane aspects of culture.

A few years ago, a 90-year-old friend of mine complained that she could no longer do the crossword puzzles in the newspaper because there were so many words she did not know. Words like “iPod.” Trying to explain these words to her and what they represented in the culture just caused her to wave her hand at me, as if to suggest that keeping up was a lost cause. (She could still watch Jeopardy, though, turned up to ear-splitting level.)

At any rate, as members of the current youth generation, the ones employed in sectors that develop and/or use new technologies we feel on top of things. We don’t understand or use every single little gadget that comes out, nor do we understand every nuance of society shifts, but we still feel generally confident about making our way through the world. This confidence allows us to harbor the fantasy that all the changes we are living through are becoming the new status quo–and will remain hegemonic. But at this rate of change–or any rate of change, really, this cannot be the case. There is no way to prepare for how out of touch we will become as we age.

Just look at how things such as the car changed society. Entire infrastructures, ways of procuring food, distances considered manageable, all changed. Changes in media technologies are also a good example. Radio and television changed the way we learned about the world, and how wide a radius of the world we knew about. It changed the ways in which we interacted with people: family, friends, strangers on shows, even. And who on earth was prepared for what the internet has done? Talk about altering the fabric of society with a “simple” medium of communication.

We simply cannot conceive of what’s coming and the changes new ideas and technologies will trigger. The flip-side of this–or at least, a related consequence, is the loss of cultural knowledge. Those of use alive in Western societies today would not know how to operate in a world without natural gas, or telephones, or national voting systems, or any number of things. We do not as a society know how to grow food for our families, wear knickerbockers, or make candles.

Societal and technological changes are constant and mutually constitutive: there is no escape. Not from the loss of culture, from the generational disenfranchisement, from the often sudden incongruity of life experiences. We cannot prepare for how lost we will feel in the midst of future changes. Everything will be different: some things slightly, some things radically. But at least we can count on our grandkids or grand-nieces and grand-nephews rolling their eyes at our ignorant, old-fashioned ways.

 

*I’d like to extend thanks and partial credit to a friend of mine for originally introducing me to this phenomenon in 2006. Without her, it would not have occupied my thoughts and driven me to write this post.

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Filed under Contemporary, Historical, Sweeping Generalizations