The Decline and Fall of the Decline and Fall

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011A few days ago Christian Price, my comedy co-conspirator and the man behind the hilarious ‘Age vs. Herald Sun’ blog , posted a fantastic analysis of why most classic ‘80s movies couldn’t be made today. In a nutshell, he argues that these days we’re all too overprotective, too computer-bound, too lawyered-up and too heavily policed for the plot of movies like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, The Never-Ending Story, The Goonies and The Karate Kid to get off the ground. (Because, of course, the events depicted in those movies are otherwise wholly believable).

It’s a great piece, and I really hate to disagree with one of my oldest and dearest friends, but I’m a philosopher so I’m basically paid to disagree with everyone.

So first of all: Ferris Bueller wouldn’t have gone to jail for hacking. Ferris never existed at all, except in Cameron’s mind.

But more seriously, reading about how much more peaceful, authentic and innocent life was back when folks of my vintage were riding our BMXs to the milk bar to buy a Bubble O’Bill, my immediate reaction was: hang on, the Eighties? They had much of the same bad stuff we’ve got – corporate catastrophe, HIV, international terrorism, even a war in Afghanistan – and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, not to mention endless movies about loveable losers trying to save the summer camp from greedy developers in cahoots with the rich kids’ camp from across the lake and/or lose their virginity before the end of summer vacation. That’s the golden age from which we’ve fallen?

Maybe it was – what do I know, I was in single-digits for most of it – but I seriously doubt it, and not just because of shoulder pads, ra-ra skirts and hypercolour t-shirts.

Of course, every decade looks better in hindsight, because we mostly remember the good stuff. We retrospectively filter out the crap and elevate the best bits as if they were definitive of the era. For every Hendrix, there’s a Monkees; for every North by North-West there’s a Plan Nine from Outer Space; for every Real Ghostbusters there’s that other Ghostbusters (the one with the gorilla); for every Three Amigos there’s an unkillable horde of Police Academy films. And often we only like things long after the fact: the stuff from the ‘80s that I have on my iPod isn’t the stuff I remember from the time. The songs  I think of as classic80s are things I never heard at the time. (Again, though, I was a kid).

So why do we think things have gotten so much worse? The belief in generalised decline seems to be endemic to every era. I’m sure there’s some complex sociological, psychological or evolutionary explanation for why this is the case. And of course there’s a fundamental disconnect between our perceptions of the world and how things actually are. We hear distorted, third-hand reports of half-remembered court cases and declare that society is becoming ever more litigious. We see crime on the news and conclude that crime rates are on the rise when they’re actually at historically low levels. We see high-profile terrorist attacks and conclude that we are in the grip of a West vs. Islam “Clash of Civilisations,” despite the fact that in 2008, of 515 terrorist attacks in Europe, only one was perpetrated by Islamists (the same number of attacks attributed to a group seeking to stop the sale of foreign wine in France).

We see war and destruction on the news and feel, instinctively, that the world is a more violent and conflict-riven place. In fact, as Stephen Pinker notes in his new book The Better Angels of our Nature(which I’ve not yet read but which Peter Singer discusses in a recent New York Times piece), we now find ourselves in an unprecedentedly peaceful era of human history. Of course that’s a relative measure, and the planet is still wracked with dreadful conflicts. But the stats are pretty clear: as a species, we gradually seem to have become less violent than we’ve ever been. Rather than descending into increasing brutality, we actually seem to be treating each other better than ever before.

And you know what? Pinker is, I’m sure, absolutely right: there may be things we’ve lost that are rightly mourned, but the overall trend is upwards. The present may not be perfect, but the past was no utopia either, and instead of moral decline, the long view shows distinct moral progress. The West is less than two centuries out from the legal abolition of slavery (which of course still exists in many places and forms), less than a century since suffrage for women, less than a handful of decades since homosexuality was a crime in most liberal democracies. The most powerful nation on earth went from formalized racial segregation to an African-American president in less than half a century. Indeed, much of the complaining about how much better things used to be turns out, on closer inspection, to be reactions to things that are net positives. Next time someone complains about “political correctness gone mad,” for instance, ask them whether things really were that much better when casual racism and sexual harassment were par for the course. They’re often the same people who complain about a decline in manners – yet most “political correctness” is really just a matter of basic human courtesy.

The interesting question is, if things are getting better, why is that the case? Here’s Singer on Pinker’s answer to that question:

To readers familiar with the literature in evolutionary psychology and its tendency to denigrate the role reason plays in human behavior, the most striking aspect of Pinker’s account is that the last of his “better angels” is reason. Here he draws on a metaphor I used in my 1981 book “The Expanding Circle.” To indicate that reason can take us to places that we might not expect to reach, I wrote of an “escalator of reason” that can take us to a vantage point from which we see that our own interests are similar to, and from the point of view of the universe do not matter more than, the interests of others. […]Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution.

The picture sketched here is that found in the early utilitarian William Godwin: “What magic is there in the pronoun “my”, to overturn the decisions of everlasting truth?” Reason clear-headedly enough and you’ll realise that your happiness has no greater claim than anyone else’s. That is surely true. We have, gradually, come to see the indefensibility of certain forms of preference, and the irrationality of our prejudices. Yet that sounds like, to borrow a term from Charles Taylor, a “subtraction story:” use reason to wash away our egocentric biases and you’re left with an ever-more inclusive altruism. I don’t think (and I doubt Pinker and Singer think) that such subtraction is the whole story. At the risk of outing myself as a crypto-Levinasian, or maybe proto-Løgstrupian (not to mention showing the influence of my former PhD supervisor Chris Cordner), our encounters with others are at least as decisive in expanding our concern beyond the narrow circles of self, family, tribe, country and race. And central to that is something that, as philosophers from Aristotle to Iris Murdoch (and especially Kierkegaard, as I argue in my book) have understood, plays an enormous role in our moral lives: moral perception, our capacity to see things as one thing rather than another, and to see the other as someone who makes a moral demand upon me.

When my country became a country, the first thing we, as a people, did was to introduce an explicitly racist immigration policy. Pretty much the moment we had our own parliament, we used it to pass what quickly came to be called the White Australia policy. The new Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, told the house that “I do not think either that the doctrine of the equality of man was really ever intended to include racial equality. There is no racial equality. There is that basic inequality. These races are, in comparison with white races – I think no one wants convincing of this fact – unequal and inferior. The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” Barton here couches his language in terms of the rational applicability of some normative principle, but I don’t think that sort of deductive, almost legalistic reasoning is really what’s going on here. Barton simply cannot see how equality could apply to races other than his own. He grew up learning the Golden Rule and he feels the force of the moral principle of equality – perhaps merely intellectually, perhaps more viscerally in his dealings with his fellow whites. Yet he cannot see large swathes of humanity as being subject to that principle. It’s not that Barton has gotten a piece of syllogistic reasoning wrong (“All humans are equal, people of different races are all human, therefore people of different races are equal”). Rather, he simply doesn’t see people of other races as the sort of beings that would stand as, to use a Kantian term, a limit on his own will. He doesn’t see these people as having a moral claim on him. It’s a question of moral vision rather than reason – which is not, of course, to deny that reason both shapes and corrects that vision. The scope of our care is as much a matter of moral imagination and perception as reasoning; we have to learn to see what our reason tells us is there.

So maybe the fact that we see the world differently than we did just two decades ago is cause for celebration, not dismay. Perhaps the fact we might now see allowing a group of twelve year olds to go off looking for a dead body as a pretty poor idea, or might question the wisdom of a minor responding to bullying by doing chores for an old man who gives him alcohol and free cars until he somehow knows karate, isn’t such a bad thing after all.

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