Thursday, June 20, 2013

When I was a kid things were perfect

xkcd has a wonderful post today listing a ton of comments from the late 1800s and the early 1900s talking about how everyone is stupid these days.  Not just stupid of course, but unable to read, unable to write, and with the attention span of a ferret with ADHD.  Society was much better when those folks were young; people took their time, did things correctly, wrote long and meaningful letters to one another, and venerated their elders.

This sort of nonsense exists throughout the world and throughout recorded history.  I think of it as a defence mechanism, a way for people to shrug off any criticism of their most ridiculous and deeply held beliefs.  The problem is that if the present is pretty much as good as the past then there is little reason to think that the values of the past are actually better.  As soon as you accept that the values you were taught as a small child might legitimately be questioned everything becomes a ton of work.  You have to think about decisions you make, figure out if the things you do are worthwhile, and examine the way you treat people.  This is all very challenging and might lead to regret so it is much easier to refuse to accept that it might be the right thing to do.

The solution we as a society seem to fix on is framing the times of our youth as a golden age.  The people were wise, the cultural norms were righteous, and the quality of all things was superior.  Life is good when you look at the world this way because you can just keep on doing the same damn foolish and destructive things over and over in the certainty that they are infallible.  The world is getting better.  In starts and stops to be sure, with backsliding all over, but the progression is undeniable.  This progression is not due to fixing some particular set of values and lifestyles in our minds and sticking to them; rather it is due to the constant willingness to change when a better course presents itself.

It ends up being about science.  The ability and desire to examine deeply held beliefs and discard them when they no longer fit the facts is critical.  The religious strategy of doing whatever it was some powerful dude eons ago said instead leads us to stagnation - there is a reason that religious folk are so strongly associated with ancient and abhorrent viewpoints.  The world long ago had its good points and bad points but there was no golden age; we are building that golden age now piece by piece.  The price of the golden age to come though is the hard work of accepting that we must question that which has always been taken to be certain.

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