We were afraid long before 9/11.
As so many have observed, fear causes us to trade freedom for security, real or perceived. Fear makes us sheep, a lesson that’s not lost on those who seek to acquire, retain and extend power. Fear causes us to follow not those who’d deliver us from fear or its causes, but rather those who profit from it.
But why are we so afraid?
This is a question I’ve been thinking and studying on for some time – longer even than I realized. As it turns out I did a good bit of research in the ’90s that bears directly on the issue, and while I don’t claim to have a definite answer nailed down, I do believe I have a theory, and maybe it’s one we can leverage as we try to infuse the Republic with a bit more reason. It’s longish, but bear with me – hopefully the payoff will reward your patience.
My dissertation looked at the evolution of science and technology throughout Western history – literally I worked as far back as Genesis 1. What I discovered was that progress ebbs and flows, and as it does society also endures the upheavals associated with change. Moments of major technological advance (and I use the term “advance” advisedly – one person’s Heaven is another’s Hell) are always accompanied by significant social upheavals. The Industrial Revolution in Europe, which gave rise to the Luddite Rebellion, serves as maybe our best example of this. Even when the progress looks like its more or less obviously a good thing, it’s still attended by social dislocations as economies, political systems, social practices and ideologies struggle to adjust. To note a lesson I like to teach my business and PR students, even good change can result in crisis.
If we might abstract for a moment, let me get some posits and assumptions on the table:
- I’d assert that over history there’s been something like a default progress curve – gradual increases over time, building to critical mass moments that drive periods of explosive innovation and change.
- My research suggests that change and the need to compensate and adapt inherently foster stress.
- Further, I’d posit that societies have a default “coping curve” – we’re wired to manage and adapt to a certain degree of change over time. It’s important to understand that it requires energy, at both the personal and societal levels, to manage stress. The coping curve isn’t a freebie – perhaps if we understood the dynamic completely it might lend itself to a sort of three-step analogue to Newton’s third law – progress leads to an equal amount of stress which requires an equal amount of psychic energy to balance.
- There’s a “normal” equilibrium level where X progress/stress is assimilated and managed by Y coping mechanism. That is, in most cases X = Y.
So let’s illustrate some of this graphically.
Here you see the hypothetical equilibrium, where the progress/stress curve advances moderately and is paralleled by the coping curve. If we see the time frame as a century, then 100 years brings X progress resulting in Y stress, all of which is managed by the default coping curve Z.
However, technology doesn’t always advance in a steady, linear fashion. At various points the curve shoots upward, as seen here.
At this point we have a system out of balance. But why can’t the coping curve match the steepness of the stress curve? We need to examine the relationship between the evolution of our intellects and that of our non-intellectual faculties. A few years ago when Englandâ€™s Prince Charles (of all people) delivered the commemoration address at Harvard Universityâ€™s 350th Anniversary celebration, he lamented that humanityâ€™s intellect had advanced so tremendously while its ethical capacities had evolved so little. “In the headlong rush of mankind to conquer space,” he said, we must teach our children “that to live on this world is no easy matter without standards to live by.”
I think Charles has only scratched the surface here. On the one hand our minds present us daily with wonders so incredible we have to pity science fiction writers – things they imagined might decades down the road might just be reality by the time they get the manuscript to the publisher.
At the same time, how rapidly have our ethics, our spiritual capabilities, our moral abilities advanced? Well, the dominant moral principle in Western society is Christianity, a theology born thousands of years ago. And while its ultimate message is hotly contested, it’s worth noting that literally millions of its adherents seem to believe that we’d be better off if we rolled the spiritual clock back to those ancient origins.
If you want to engage the nuances of this debate in more depth, I recommend that you pick up a copy of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Read them, then hit the Net for an avalanche of rebuttals. At this point, conclude whatever your conscience dictates, but it’s unarguable that the accomplishments of our minds are evaluated on 21st Century criteria while our souls are being contested on belief systems that are more than two millennia in the past.
It seems uncontroversial at this juncture to observe that the intellectual progress curve moves more quickly than our ethics and morality. This conclusion is more than supported by our own experience – by the time we come to terms with a technological marvel, that technology is old hat. The Catholic Church, for instance, is still waging battle against contraception, and the pill was introduced some 45+ years ago.
So, what happens to a society in times of rapid technological innovation? The progress curves shoots up, and along with it the stress curve. Perhaps we experience a century’s worth of progress in a decade – that, of course, means that we have to somehow process a century’s worth of stress in that same timeframe. This requires an equal measure of psychic energy, but the coping curve is unable to match the advance of progress. What results is a massive imbalance between the intellectual and spiritual, a crisis of compensation.
In short, we have what I’ll call a fear gap.
Massive stress, but no tools are available to assimilate these changes. It’s only natural that this engenders fear, especially among those least given to intellectual pursuits. So how do we cope in a world where our minds have completely outpaced our souls?
Well, the common response seems to be to grasp onto any fixed point available like we would a life preserver in stormy seas. In times like these appeals to easy answers, to organizations that offer “eternal wisdom,” to things that are familiar, to traditions, to leaders who pander to those uncertainties – these are bound to be successful.
The tech curve above doesn’t begin to do justice to the past few decades – it often seems like it should be nearly vertical. Here are a few things to ponder:
- Nuclear weaponry
- In-vitro fertilization
- The Internet (and all the Frankensteinian possibilities associated with it)
- Satellite photography (we can see you from space)
- Data mining and consumer tracking (Big Brother knows exactly what you’re up to)
- DNA fingerprinting (privacy)
- RFID (think “Mark of the Beast” here)
- Stem-cell research
- Space flight and exploration of other planets (what happens if we find life on Mars?)
- Broadcasting (inability to control flow of “indecency” and unwanted messages into home)
- Nanotechnology (powerful, invisible)
And what has been the cultural response?
- Religious fundamentalism (in the US and abroad)
- Growth of reactionary political ideologies and empowerment of demagogues
- Dynasties – by the time our next President is inagurated the White House will have been governed for two decades by two families. There is a very real chance this era could expand to 24 or 28 years – and given the apparently endless supply of politically-minded Bushes, perhaps even longer.
Clearly we are grasping for the familiar, for something we recognize and believe we can count on. It’s worth noting how many of our most contentious advances lie in the area of reproductive technology. Sci-tech continually seeks new ways to create, terminate and modify life – an arena that most directly challenges the assumed dominion of god. And of course, so much of the reactionary conservatism that defines our present culture war centers on these and related issues – abortion, stem cells, gay marriage and gay rights, etc.
If my theory is accurate, there’s a fairly linear flow: technological advance breeds cultural stress, which engenders resistance. When exceptional degrees of advance outstrip the possibility of productive resistance, potentially violent backlash ensues.
So, if the theory enlightens us as to what’s happening, does it predict the future? Maybe, to some extent. We’ve had rapid progress fueling strong reactionary backlash in the past, and we know that progress always wins in the end. Technological advance seems to be the unstoppable force of human history, at least so far. Over time our moral capabilities catch up a bit, new practices and mores emerge, and in true Darwinian fashion those communities and ideas that can’t adapt go extinct. The forces of traditional morality negotiate a space for themselves.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that wars claim casualties, and while progress might triumph it won’t necessarily be a rout.
Conclusion: the fear we’re now experiencing is a normal feature of human progress – growing pains, if you will. It may be violent and it may last awhile, but there’s ample hope for a brighter future.
I’m sure some of my readers have things to add and others no doubt have challenges. I look forward to hearing them.