Jun. 18th, 2008

heron61: (Gryphon - emphasis and strong feelings)
Because I linked to this essay about changes in media gender roles in a previous post,

[livejournal.com profile] aureantes posted the following:
I think the main thing that's a general social difference in the late '60s and'70s, is that there was a strong belief in the systemic betterment of humanity -- that through not force but through better understanding and communication and fairer legislation, the world could be made a better place for everyone, and that it's those who break/reject that human social contract that are the real villains, whatever/whoever they are.
When I read this, I remembered how different portrayals of conflict often were back then and how this both influenced and was influenced by assumptions about the nature of conflict and of its causes. When I look back at media from this era, what I see is that there are primarily two sorts of conflict. There is conflict due to basically good and humane people who misunderstand one another or who are acting on misinformation – these sorts of conflicts could result in anything from minor arguments to brutal and potentially genocidal wars.

However, popular attitudes and popular media also acknowledged some true villainy, which almost always took the form of a very small number of people who cared more for their own selfish agendas than the comfort, suffering, or even deaths of others, and often (but far more always) the reason for the disagreements between well-meaning individuals was ultimately deliberate lies by such selfish people.

What this set of ideas ultimately means is something that I firmly believe in and mourn the loss of in popular consciousness – that fact that most people are basically good and humane and that most social problems, crimes, and conflicts come down to some mixture of poor communication, fear, or deprivation and want and that if the underlying causes could be solved, the problems would largely vanish.

The implications of this idea are literally revolutionary – if this idea is true, then if you help people communicate with one another and do your best to make certain that no one is in dire poverty or otherwise in desperate physical straits, them most people are likely to be relatively good to one another and most social problems will be greatly reduced. We can see strong evidence for the truth of this idea in some areas, as I discuss in my post about Bruce Alexander's "Rat Park" study on drug addiction, recreational drug addiction and overuse looks to be neither a moral nor a medical problem, but a social one that is largely caused by serious deprivation and want. This belief also makes it incumbent upon any remotely decent government to maximize order and safety by actually care for its citizens, and at least for the US government and far too many citizens of the US, that idea was considered unacceptable, and so other explanations had to be found that could be used to justify other sorts of official action.

By the 1980s, these positive beliefs in humanity largely fell out of fashion in the US, in both mass media and popular discourse. They were replaced by an array of interlocking ideas. Most fundamentalist Christians claimed that everyone was innately evil and that this evil could only be kept in check through strict adherence to a single rigid set of moral and social rules. Meanwhile, secular sources from movies to corporate seminars and self-help books proclaimed that the world was filled with ruthless competitors and that the only way to succeed or even to survive was to strike at your competitors before they could do the same to you. More recently, this emphasis on ruthless personal competition has been replaced by a larger scale belief that the world is filled with people who hate the inhabitants of the United States simply for existing and that the only path to safety and security is to strike first before these many intractable antagonists can kill us and destroy this nation.

I simply do not buy any of those ideas, and instead continue to hold with the 60s & 70s views that the vast majority of people are essentially good and humane, if also easily mislead, and that when sufficiently stressed people are inclined to react in all manner of horrid ways, because desperate and scared people do not have sufficient mental space left to act humane.

I also see the differences between this idea and those opposite to it to be essentially the differences between the idea that humanity is as a whole generally good and worthwhile and the idea that as a whole it is vile and corrupt. I've seen this later idea far too often spoken and written by both liberals and conservatives and by people as diverse as religious zealots and extreme environmentalists. The prevalence of the idea that humanity is inherently evil makes me both sad and angry. I think the rise of the religious right helped the resurgence of this attitude, but it can be found well beyond the boarders of the religious right, and a great many non-Christian progressives I've met believe this as strongly as any hell and brimstone fundy. Believing people are inherently vile and corrupt is exceptionally useful to many people and it's a very convenient way to deny the importance of social programs that actually improve the lives of many citizens rather than punishing the desperate and the mentally ill. However, it goes equally well with equally destructive radical beliefs such as the idea that violent revolution or violence in general is the only way to improve a corrupt society or that most people must be forced to act in a positive fashion (a belief shared equally strongly by far too many radical progressives as by extreme reactionaries and religious zealots).

It is obviously naïve to deny that truly monstrous people exist – Shrub and many of his close advisors certainly fit that description exceptionally well. However, I've seen no evidence that more than a tiny fraction of humanity is like that. The ease with which most people can be convince to perform either wonderful or vile actions is definitely troubling, but my own answer to this is a distrust of putting any ideology or other abstract principle ahead of the comfort, safely, and happiness of humanity (and of any other intelligent beings we might happen to meet or create) and is also very much why I'm not inclined to trust radicals of any sort .

In any case, I'm tired of the cynicism, self-loathing (or at minimum general misanthropy) and distrust that goes along with the belief of humanity as corrupt. I'm hoping that some of the enthusiasm progressive politics in general (and the Obama campaign in particular) indicates the end of some of the worst cynicism and nihilism that have plagued this nation for the last 30 years.

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