Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Is the world going to hell in a handcart?

I suppose I've slightly missed the boat on this one, the latest outbreak of such commentary being at the time of the Mayan-apocalypse-that-wasn't, but that wasn't the first nor will it be the last. No doubt, as I write someone somewhere is fulminating about the imminent demise of all that is good and true and the inexorable decline in standards of morality/ethics/good citizenship. And people have been saying much the same for centuries, if not millennia.  I have no doubt that when the first homo habilis invented the first flint axe someone in his or her tribe pretty soon started going on about how modern technology was ruining the world.

Typically (though not universally) it is the middle-aged, middle-class, relatively affluent and politically conservative who are most likely to claim that the world is going to hell in a handcart and it is not hard to see why. Mostly, such people will have done pretty damn well out of the status quo and will be nervous about any change whatever. Also, they will probably be beginning to sense an imminent diminution in their personal authority and influence in the world and that is not a prospect they would relish. From being (in their own heads at least) the (potential if not actual) Masters of the Universe they envisage a time when they are the old guard, marginalised, impoverished and emasculated and swept aside by the impatient next generation. Or shuffled off into secure accommodation, anyway.

However as I have said it is not universally such as these who bemoan the direction of travel of humankind, in whatever era they find themselves. There are also the more high-minded doomsayers, who see nothing but menace in the relentless pursuit of progress by their fellow humans. These are the people who have railed in their day against climate change, deforestation, nuclear weapons, the rise of fascism, the growth of empire, slavery, barbarism... There are no doubt more as you go further back in time.

Not that there is anything whatever wrong in railing against such iniquities- far from it. These things are and were iniquitous, and have arisen from the darker side of human nature. Yet what is striking when you look back is to what extent each new manifestation of man's (potential for) inhumanity is, at the time, seen as uniquely and devastatingly terrible. It is as if we forget how far we have progressed as a species: yes, the prospect of climate change is appalling, but it is only 50 years since the world was on the very brink of utter and complete annihilation in a US/USSR nuclear war. Yes, the way America treats detainees in Guantanamo Bay or carries out extra-judicial murders with drone strikes is appalling, but it hardly compares with Hitler's treatment of the Jews or the gypsies.

These are general points, that could apply to any time or place. However since I am now of the generation typically most prone to evoking the (rather odd) handcart image it is worth reflecting a little on the specifics of here and now. These are odd times in the UK. After the decades of relative affluence built on cheap Chinese labour and cheaper (but in the end utterly unaffordable) credit from the banks the nation seems to have descended into a despond of self-hatred and masochistic self-denial. We are a nation stumbling in the cold light of dawn into the bottle-strewn carnage of the post-party kitchen, wondering how the hell we're going to get the red wine stain out of the carpet in the front room. And our government is like some judgmental doctor, shaking his head over our liver-function tests and telling us we've been overdoing it for years and we only have ourselves to blame.

Of course the government has another agenda. It is not our health they care about, but their own narrow ideology. To take the area I know most about- education- Michael Gove has gone full steam ahead undermining public confidence in every element of the system he is presiding over. "It's all total and complete shit," he has effectively said, and the British people, broken and humiliated and self-pitying, have just nodded weakly in agreement. Who cares if international comparators do not actually make the case Gove presents? Who cares if the England and Wales exams system is actually far better regarded overseas than it is here? Gove wants it all swept away so he can rebuild an education system that was outmoded, divisive and unfit for purpose in the 1950s. And we are in danger of letting him.

All of which sounds as if I am saying that, in education at least, the world is going to hell in a handcart. And yes, maybe I do think that English education is in danger of heading at least some of the way along that road by that conveyance.

But the point I want to make is a more general one. Yes there are those who, for their own political or selfish reasons want to return the world to some dimly remembered better times, but there are those too whose opinions I otherwise admire, who equally bemoan some or all of the way human society has been or is progressing. People are becoming more selfish, they feel, or more prone to violence and wickedness. They are caught up in virtual digital worlds and have lost the ability to engage with others. They have become obsessed with money and technology and forgotten what is good and true in the world. And they are prepared to gamble the future of the environment for the price of a bit of feel-good economic growth.

The implication being, of course, that we weren't like that. Back in the day people looked out for each other more, the argument goes. We were more politically motivated. We cared about our neighbours. We didn't go on gap yahs, we travelled the world independently, worked for VSO, really cared about the places we went to. And we dreamed of better things (or if we didn't then our parents did). We thought that one day peace and love would prevail. We imagined that one day the world could be as one.

Only it's all bollocks of course. Although we didn't realise it at the time we were the over-privileged children of the post-War boom. We didn't need to worry about work, because of course there were jobs if you wanted them. We took free university education as an absolute given, and with it the freedom to disappear far, far up our own back passages, fuelled by a range of recreational drugs and funded by the ruthless exploitation of third world labour. In retrospect it is astonishing how much of youth culture back then was geared at introspection and self-centeredness. And yes, many of us may have gone on CND marches or union demos but how much of that was ever really that much more than public theatre? We believed in "them and us" and the corollary of that is that whatever "we" do it will not (cannot) influence what "they" think. And yes, some of us may have gifted our tremendous wisdom to benighted African villagers, but how much of that was really just as patronising and backward-looking as 19th Century missionary work?

And actually, the notion that things generally are worse now than they were then simply does not stand up to scrutiny. So we looked after our neighbours, did we? Well, it depends how you define "neighbours." Can you imagine a sign in a B&B window today saying "No dogs, no blacks, no gypsies"? And today's youth are feral, are they? Perhaps anyone over 50 with a genuine ability to recall their own childhood might like to compare their behaviour with that of today's youth. Personally, I remember: submitting a lonely old man to mental torture by climbing over his fence to steal from his garden; knowing that a boy in my year was carrying a sharpened screwdriver and was likely to use it on other boys; hearing of boys playing "chicken" with a train; and seeing an armed gang of youths from another school at our school gates one lunchtime (they had iron bars, motorcycle chains and broken bottles, as well, no doubt, as concealed knives).

None of these incidents made the news, not because they were concealed or hushed up, but because they were not seen as newsworthy  Boys will be boys, it was generally accepted. Meaning that boys will fight, bully, extort money, carry weapons, intimidate and humiliate those weaker than themselves, utter racist, sexist and homophobic abuse. And that was all fine, it seems, and we have allowed such notions the warm, cosy glow of nostalgia.

But it is not like that any more. Incidents of appalling behaviour still take place of course, but they emphatically make the news these days. And it is not just because of the prurience of the news media- partly at least it is because society now sees a far greater range of behaviour as socially unacceptable. Boys (and girls) will not always be all of the things society used to assume they could not prevent them from becoming. Surely that is a giant step forwards, not hellwards.

And in fact, far from becoming more self-centered I genuinely believe that the direction of travel is the opposite one. Certainly there is still hedonism and the pursuit of instant gratification but even that seems to me to be becoming more inter-personal rather than intra-personal. The drugs of choice of earlier generations were acid and marijuana- both tending to enhance the disappearing-up-your-own-arse tendency. Today's youths are more likely to seek to obliterate themselves in the company of others, and it as much being seen to be off your face that is the draw as the insights into the nature of one's own back passage.

Perhaps the clearest measure of how the world has changed though is around the use of technology. There was a time, certainly, when technology threatened something akin to the downfall of human society. As young people became enclosed in their little worlds of Walkmans and Gameboys and sat hunched through the early hours in front of the PCs in their bedrooms it seemed that maybe human interaction would be on the decline, with fatal consequences (ready the handcart. Hell, here we come).

Except of course it hasn't ended up like that at all. Those who embrace technology today are becoming socialised in ways that are developing with dizzying rapidity. Governments have had their polished carapaces of secrecy and privilege stripped away and vast numbers can no longer be tortured and killed in far away countries without anyone so much as noticing. And certainly, a lot of what is on the internet is exploitative of women, or motivated by hatred, or objectifying of sexual relations, or frivolous and pointless. But then again, a lot more of it isn't any of these things. And slowly we are beginning to discriminate and to learn. And the way we can now share opinions and knowledge and creativity and watchfulness is astonishingly powerful.

Yes, the world faces huge problems but when has it not? Yes, Hell is there, and the handcart is ready and waiting, as it has been since the dawn of time. But maybe we really are beginning to face up to some of our responsibility as the dominant species on this planet. We are overusing resources and gambling with ecologies and allowing injustice and oppression to continue, but when have we not? The difference is that maybe for the first time we are beginning to force such concepts onto our collective consciousness.

And just maybe we are even going to find ways to address them.

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