Sunday, 1 July 2018

It's Hard To Say Goodbye If You Won't Leave

Humans, through their short-sightedness, frequently make it difficult to get rid of the things they do not like, because they continually change the definitional goalposts to ensure the things they dislike do not die out. This is likely due to the fact that humans appear to show susceptibility to prevalence-induced concept change.

Take poverty as a good example. In his Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith cited the linen shirt as an example - that is: not being able to afford a linen shirt does not mean you are in poverty, but a society that deems poverty to mean you are unable to afford a linen shirt will see you as poor if you can't afford to wear one.

Many relatively poor people in the UK today have riches that their great grandparents wouldn't have thought possible. In the year 2018, the smart phone might be the present day linen shirt, as even most relatively poor people have one. In the future the linen shirt equivalent will be something only the richest today own - or it may be some technological wonder that hasn't yet been invented.

Another definition of poverty, the EU one, is any household income that is below 60% of the median income. This is a truly asinine definition (as I blogged about here) - not least because it ensures that poverty cannot fail to exist. If such a thing is measured by proportions of the middle of the income distribution, it is literally impossible for some people to avoid being in poverty, however well off they are.

I can think of numerous other examples where definitions are shifting to ensure it is harder for them to die out. Racism is a good case in point. Once upon a time racism would have been something like disapproving of inter-racial marriages or displaying a "No blacks, no Jews, no Irish, no dogs" sign in your shop window. Now it can be something relatively innocuous like not having enough ethnic diversity in your film crew or at your university, or being highly critical of terrible human inventions like Islam.

Sexism is another good case in point. Once upon a time sexism would have been something like believing a woman's place is in the kitchen. Nowadays even inequalities that have a perfectly natural outcome on the basis of individual choices can have sexism levelled at them.
People of 50 or 60 years ago would be amazed at how less racist and sexist society is today - yet hear some people speak and they give the impression that societal progress is imperceptible to them, and that they always want to be consumed by dissension and incongruity.

Aggression used to mean antipathy towards a person that results in violent behaviour or readiness to attack. Nowadays you can be accused of being aggressive if you mildly offend someone with a view that departs from the mainstream. Injustice used to be a more powerful concept, as did the concepts of truths and facts - but today the power of their meaning has been eroded away into a passive-aggressive relativism that seeks to undermine the edifice of human progression. The list goes on and on.

Consequently, in a world in which we've never been more prosperous, more knowledgeable, more equal, healthier, wealthier and with the highest standard of living, it seems that many people want to perpetuate their dissonance and actively seek ways to be unhappy with the world. We should, of course, continue to challenge genuine injustices and societal ills - but too often by changing the definitional goalposts people have an easy pretext for losing sight of perspective.

Because if the medium to long-term future resembles the past, I can conceive of upcoming scenarios in which almost everyone has a living standard that people of today would marvel at, but yet they habitually partake in complaints about annoyances that would make us scoff.

Perhaps it would be similar to how a young teenager from the Victorian period, who had to work all day in grotty, polluted, laborious, precarious conditions almost as soon as he was able, would be somewhat insensitive to the complaints of a young person of today who feels oppressed by patriarchy, and who hasn't yet managed to acquire the latest smart phone on sale in the shops.

Finally, with all this in mind, I will leave you with this prescient passage from Phineas Finn, which I think is easily Anthony Trollope's best novel:

"Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;—and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made."

"It is no loss of time," said Phineas, "to have taken the first great step in making it."

"The first great step was taken long ago," said Mr. Monk,—"taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards."