Thursday, March 1, 2012

Social Criticism

One of the best things about studying history and anthropology, and reading good science fiction, is that it helps you understand the wide range of possibilities for organizing human society. To use a familiar phrase from a rotten man, it helps you see that the customs of your tribe and island are not the laws of nature.

Lots of people like to play the game of "Point out problems with your society". But at least nine-tenths of them do so in order to try to gain some kind of political power. The complaint only serves to motivate the supporters of a cause, or to score points against their political enemies. People complain about something that is wrong, blame the other side for it, and claim that they would do better. The complaints are usually designed to appeal to self-interest among a certain group of people. The condition of other places may be used as evidence to support the argument, but the comparison is rarely done from a spirit of honest inquiry. 

People whose morality is guided by self-consistent philosophical principles, rather than convention, are rare, but such people often produce social criticism. This tends to be of higher quality then the political kind, but usually it ends up comparing our society to an imaginary utopia where everything works perfectly, guided by whatever the writer's philosophy is.

It is extraordinarily rare to see people who try to look at our society from the outside in, guided not by political posturing or utopian fantasies, but by an honest attempt to think about how others might see us. It takes a lot of work to think that the things you are accustomed to might be unusual or bizarre, temporary aberrations of the human condition rather than the default state of existence.

I am going to try to point out some things that I think are uniquely wrong with our society. I have no plan to fix them. They are not caused by any one group of people or political party. There are no scapegoats. The vast majority of people accept them unthinkingly, not knowing that there is any alternative, not knowing that their beliefs and actions are anything but the natural state of humanity. There is no simple philosophical principle that could end them; they spring from a combination of deep tradition and fundamental flaws in human cognition.

I am only focusing on things that are unique to modern Western society. Human universals like greed, poverty, war, and oppression are not interesting to point out. I am looking for things that both our ancestors and our descendants would be horrified by.

1) End-of-life medical care. We do things to people that are literally torture, and have very low chances of accomplishing anything useful, out of a misguided effort to show that we care. European society has always had a tradition of invasive and pointless quackery, at least among the upper classes, but in the past people had a better understanding of the inevitability of death and it was not considered proper to do 'heroic' things just to prolong life a few months. There are many, many things we do today that future generations will view the same way we view bloodletting.

2) Mass incarceration in general, and The War on Drugs in particular. Lots of people complain about this for lots of reasons, but I want to point out how bizarre it is for us to punish people by throwing them in a box and spending more on their upkeep than most people spend to live a comfortable life. It is an astonishing waste of resources, never before seen in human history, and it serves no moral or practical purpose. Another one where both past and future generations would wonder why we are collectively insane.

3) Our educational system. For most of human history, children learned social and technical skills by working alongside friends and family. In modern society, we dump kids into an institution full of barely disciplined savages, and force them to do a regime of strange things with no apparent purpose. The result is a seething mass of bullying, alienation, and social pathology.

Notice that all of these have a common thread. We like shoving people into bizarre and unnatural institutional settings and claiming that it is for their own good. People from more 'primitive' societies do not tolerate this kind of regimentation, in any context.

I am guessing that this is related to the rise of factories as the primary tool of economic activity. For a period of about 200 years, the most productive and powerful societies were the ones that were best able to get their people in the habit of being cogs in a complex and unnatural machine. Modern warfare, with its massive armies of infantry, also selected for well-regimented societies. There were vast social pressures for people to adapt to this kind of thing, and that spilled over into other aspects of human life.

This kind of thing should slowly fade away as we move to a more service-based economy. But the rise of information technology, with people constantly connected to each other and a global information web, will probably cause a brand new set of social pathologies, just like industrialization created the social pathologies of our world.

This does not mean we should stop the process. Our world, even with all of its flaws, is far better than any that came before. The future will be better than our world. But it will probably have deep social flaws that are accepted unthinkingly by its citizens.

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