16 Apr 2024

Involuntary Cultural Change

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Ludwig von Langenmantel, Girolamo Savonarola Preaching Against Prodigality, 1879. St Bonaventure University.

Robin Hanson observes the magnitude of cultural change during the lifetimes of older people like myself and wonders aloud if the converso elites made sound decisions.

[W]hile as communities we are reluctant to change key institutions, and as individuals we are wary of letting other individuals change our values, as communities we perhaps surprisingly do not at all lock down our deep values. We instead freely, even with abandon, copy behaviors, beliefs, and values of all sorts from our prestigious associates. This allows cultural evolution, The Secret of Our Success relative to other animals.

For example, in my life I have seen a big increase in expected parental attention to kids, a switch from cornerstone to capstone marriage norms, lengthening of expected career preparation durations, great declines in religion, patriotism and militarism, far more acceptance of homo- and trans-sexuality, far stronger norms against sexist or racist language, and a merging of national cultures into a global culture, especially among elites.

These changes are quite shocking if you think about them. A system we rely on far more than our systems of units, voting, or times is changing very fast, and no one seems to be in charge, either of picking these changes ahead of time, or of evaluating them after the fact. In my essay Beware Cultural Drift I consider some stories trying to frame these as something better than maladaptive culture drift, but was not persuaded. The space of possible cultures should mostly be harsh and dysfunctional, where we started was functional due to strong selection centuries ago, yet our cultures really are wandering fast off into that vast space without a plan, map, or light.

Such changes are even more shocking to those of us old enough to remember when our culture told us to have different values than it tells us now. Neither set of values came with detailed justifications, and the arguments we are given now for recent value changes are ones we were aware of long ago, and rejected then. So do we just pretend to go along while secretly keeping our old values, abandon both the old and new values, or give the new values the benefit of the doubt, and assume our elites had good reasons for them, even if we can’t see them?

No real cause for wonder, I’d say. What we have here is one more of the periodic outbreaks of religious mass hysteria resembling the Byzantine Iconoclasm, Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities, and the Puritan version of the English Reformation’s demolition of ecclesiastical art and ban on music and the celebration of Christmas.

Our misfortune, though, consists of the irresistible rise of not one, but two demented species of radical faith-based fanaticism.

On the one hand, we have a hypertrophied Egalitarianism that declines stopping at an obdurate, utterly inflexible denial of reality that insists on regarding that which is not equal as equal and then proceeds hysterically to the inversion of values by which the inferior is transformed into the privileged class owed a limitless debt of apology, homage, and reparation.

And, on the other hand, we have a spectacular recrudescence of the dualist Manichean heresy with Nature and the Environment envisioned as the Good and Humanity, especially all forms of human economic and productive activity as Evil. Nature is envisioned as perfect and self-regulating and unchanging. At this exact moment, every species is essential (Sorry, Darwin!) and any observable change, whether the increase or diminution of some critter’s range or population size is a disaster!, a tragedy! Any extreme or unusual weather; any long-term change in shorelines; ocean currents, or climate is all your fault and mine. Every human activity is violative somehow of that sublime natural order. Really, the best thing we could do is to go extinct ourselves.

Our elites subscribe overwhelmingly simultaneously to both of these crackpot ersatz religious cults and they are ruthlessly intolerant.

Practically, What have you to recommend? I answer at once, Nothing. The whole current of thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction. The old ways of living… are breaking down all over Europe, and are floating this way and that like haycocks in a flood. Nor do I see why any wise man should expend much thought or trouble on trying to save their wrecks. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.”

— James FitzJames Stephen (1829-1894), Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, 1874.

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