02 March 2021

Stages of culture and choosing battles

In social activism, it's important to be aware of the concept of stages of cultural progress.  Culture evolves in a step-by-step way, and in many cases each successive step lays the foundation for the next one.  At any given point in history, you need to understand what stage your culture is at, and to know which changes are realistically achievable and which are not yet possible.  The former are worth fighting for, the latter are not -- not because they are any less morally imperative, but because energy wasted on an unattainable goal is energy not available to use where it could actually do some good.

For example, during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, it would have served no purpose to fight for the right of gay people to get married.  Western culture at that time was simply not ready for such an innovation.  Homosexuality itself was still illegal in most countries, and attitudes toward it were largely shaped by the Bible.  Gay people had just as much right, in an abstract sense, to marry as they do now, and denying them that right was just as much an injustice as it is now.  But it would have made no sense, at that time, to fight on that issue, when there would have been no chance of winning.

What did make sense at the time was fighting for the right of women to vote.  The culture had reached the point where this was an imaginable reform, and was being seriously debated within Western society. It was achievable, and it was in fact achieved (in 1920 in the US).

I have read that many of the founding fathers of the US, at the time of the country's independence, were morally troubled by slavery, but never seriously considered trying to abolish it because, as a practical matter, doing so was impossible, even unimaginable.  Any such effort would have failed to attract the kind of public support it would need to succeed.  Over time, of course, this changed, and as the 19th century progressed, slavery became more and more controversial until the argument about it came to consume society and politics, with the abolitionist movement becoming a powerful force whose eventual success became so plausible that the slave-owners finally tried to divide the country in order to escape it.  It's not that the objective moral status of slavery, or the horrors it was inflicting on the enslaved, were any different in 1860 than in 1780.  But the attitudes prevalent within mass culture changed.  What had once been unthinkable -- full abolition -- became thinkable and doable decades later.

Even the most profound changes follow the same pattern.  Religion was no less false and absurd in 1500 than it is now, but the kind of anti-religion arguments that bloggers today routinely make would have been met, back then, with shock and horror and incomprehension (and would have made you the victim of some very nasty form of public execution).  The culture had to pass through several successive stages of development for religion to be challenged, debated, put on the defensive, and eventually driven into unmistakable retreat.

(Note too that it is possible for societies to regress.  In the ancient Greco-Roman world, an almost modern disdain for religion was fairly common in the writings of intellectuals.  But later, the destruction of that civilization due to the rise of Christianity led to the dogmatic repression of the Dark Ages.  During the Middle Eastern golden age of roughly 800-1100 CE, again, many of the educated questioned and even mocked the dominant Islamic religion and its taboos, but the hard-line theocratic resurgence of the 12th century destroyed this freedom, an intolerance which has only recently begun to be challenged again in the region.  But I don't think we'll see any more such reversals.  Occasional temporary revivals of repression, such as the 1950s, barely constitute speed bumps by long-term historical standards.  The Trump regime doesn't even qualify as a speed bump.  It was a brief, freakish political event which had no impact on culture at all.)

So it is in our own time too.  The choices of what causes to fight for must be made largely on the basis of what changes the culture is ready to accept, or is becoming ready to accept.  This is why, for example, I pay a lot of attention to issues like drug legalization and meat-eating.  Mass public attitudes about drug laws in the US are clearly at a tipping point -- the madness and injustice of incarceration for private behavior which harms no one but the user is becoming widely recognized.  As for meat-eating, I believe it's at a similar stage as slavery was around, say, 1800.  Most people still unthinkingly accept it as a normal part of life, but a growing number are beginning to realize what a profound moral evil it encompasses.  American culture is not yet at a stage where the total abandonment of meat-eating is possible.  But I believe it's moving in that direction.

It's even possible to speed up the underlying cultural changes that make behavioral and political change attainable.  The most remarkable thing about the success of the gay acceptance movement is the speed with which it happened.  A core religious taboo -- one of the toughest nuts to crack -- was driven from almost universal prevalence to the fringes of society in just a few decades.  There are a number of reasons for this, but as I've written before, I think that a sustained yet subtle campaign within mass entertainment (movies and TV, mostly) to normalize homosexuality played a major role.  This is a tool which was not available until the rise of visual mass media a century or so ago, but it is with us for good now, and the internet has increased its power.

If popular film and TV were to become pervaded with the same kind of subtle but consistent messaging about the cruelty, health effects, and ecological damage caused by meat consumption, it is possible that the necessary cultural shift on that issue could be greatly speeded up, as happened with the issue of homosexual acceptance.  This doesn't seem to be a priority for those who shape such works, however.

What I say here may repel or anger some readers, because it seems to require acceptance of some forms of cruelty and evil which should be fought against.  I deeply understand this reaction.  It is horrifying and maddening to watch, say, people being sent to prison for things that should not be crimes, as (for example) harmless drug users have been for decades.  But I'm a pragmatist -- I believe what's important is to actually get things done, not just strike the right pose.  Each generation faces a range of evils, and must choose which battles to fight -- which battles can be won.  Pressing a cause which the culture is not yet ready to accept may even get you damned as a monster or a lunatic (think of someone actually taking up advocacy of gay marriage in 1900) and destroy your effectiveness in fighting for things where you could have made a real difference.  The battles which one generation cannot fight, the next may fight and win.  But the goal must always be to achieve real change and real improvement.  To do that, we must understand the stage of cultural development in which we find ourselves, and direct our efforts accordingly.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

I think you're right. It takes some time for society to digest and then accept change. The example of same-sex marriage is a very good one. I don't think that people would have accepted it the same way, let's say in 1980. The fifties were still fresh in people's minds.
What you point out about Cheeto's regime may hopefully be true and his fuckery will be seen as a dark dot in politics and not as a turning point. But he may have sowed the seed for Madison Cawthorn or Josh Hawley to take his place later. Who knows?


02 March, 2021 04:41  
Blogger Debra She Who Seeks said...

Very true. You have to walk before you can run.

02 March, 2021 07:08  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

After reading this piece, I think it is importante to consider, at least for myself. I've been very quick to press change that is NOT acceptable to many. I think I expect too much, too fast, and am maybe a little too unrealistic at times, much you can see of that in my honest attitudes that I wrote about on my blog for several years. Time and again in simple coversations with people, friends, etc ... I been told that I expect too much, too fast, and that folks cannot grasp what I am saying. So this in a way pauses my thought, to look at myself for a moment and my handicaps and faults, and try to understand the other side of the issue. At the same time, on a flip side note, I credit my thinking to the ability to tackle challenges in a timely matter (fairly quickly), as far as basic survival ... so everything has a flip side to it. As far as LGBT acceptance, there was a time that I actually thought that gay marriage was legal, even my wife and I attended gay friends weddings, and gatherings where they introduced themselves as spouses to us, like how straight couples meet and greet, for my wife and I, this was just common, no biggie. As a young man I interacted with and befriended gay people (or just about any kind of people), played music with musicians that were gay, or even had a transgender type or gay person come on to me, as early as my teens, just as a straight woman would, so to me, it was absolutely normal. But I have seen guys over the years who would go ape- shit if a queen (transgender) ever came on to them. Nonetheless, plenty I could say here, but Thanx for the read ....

02 March, 2021 08:24  
Blogger Tundra Bunny said...

Yes, you have to pick your battles carefully and be prepared to die on the hills you choose.

02 March, 2021 09:56  
Blogger Kay said...

I think we have to keep up the fight against misguided misinformation. There's always change, but the change has to be for the good.

02 March, 2021 11:04  
Blogger Mike said...

Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers was known as 'the cradle of civilization'. But civilization packed up and left.

02 March, 2021 18:53  
Anonymous Annie said...

Your approach is cogent and realistic, but I think a key factor that pushes change is familiarity. The culture of gays on TV was part of creating that familiarity, but I think the speed of acceptance was due to the fact that people began to see the gay individuals among their families and friends. Harvey Milk was a hero in that regard: a public political figure who encouraged gay people to come out—finally forcing a confrontation with reality among so many.

It’s most comforting to view the trump years as a blip, but he is the tip of the iceberg, and I hope we will soon find out the monied interests who are bankrolling this movement. I agree with Kay above that misinformation is one of the greatest dangers we face now, and we have to find a way to guide some of the misinformed back to the broader culture. Perhaps Biden’s focus on unions will open a path where common purpose becomes more comfortable and familiar.

02 March, 2021 21:00  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: If I'm right about this, another Trumpazoid won't be able to win an election -- Trump was a freak case. Even if they manage to carry out vote suppression to such a degree as to win in spite of the popular will, it will just be another four years of political vandalism with essentially no effect on cultural evolution or popular attitudes, like Trump was.

Debra: That's another way of looking at it. Tolerance in one area paves the way for tolerance in others.

Ranch: It is frustrating when there is still so far to go. But pushing people too fast risks a backlash, and can actually be counterproductive.

Tundra: If one chooses the hills well, one can live on them instead.

Kay: I think for a long time we underestimated the danger of fake-information sources like Fox and talk radio. I think nowadays they mostly reach only those who already believe that kind of stuff, though. The advantage of mass entertainment is that in some form it reaches pretty much everybody.

Mike: Well, it spread out, but still persists there, though somewhat battered.

Annie: I agree that in the case of normalizing homosexuality, the coming-out movement made a major contribution, and will certainly make the progress very hard to reverse. It's much more difficult to demonize people you know personally. However, see also my exchange with Debra in the comments here. Attitudes have also been changing in places where "coming out" on a large scale wasn't possible, such as the Middle East, and there have been changes on other issues where no equivalent of "coming out" existed. So I do think the role of mass entertainment is substantial as well.

Trump brought the iceberg into view, but it's important to remember that he didn't create it. People like Limbaugh and the Fox stable of ranters did that, on foundations laid by generations of religious indoctrination. Icebergs are dangerous, of course. Try to deal with an iceberg by ramming it head-on, and you'll be crushed, and sink. But when exposed to enough light and warmth, an iceberg eventually melts.

03 March, 2021 03:16  
Anonymous BobbyD said...

Apples and oranges, physiology and psychology, its a false equivalency. The fact that humans evolved with a gall bladder predates any religious dogma and would seem to indicate that meat eating will be something society condones for a long, long time.

05 March, 2021 16:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The human digestive system and teeth are fully consistent with an entirely herbivorous animal. Gall bladder? All primate species have gall bladders, including the many entirely herbivorous ones such as gorillas. Eating meat is not natural or healthy for humans. You don't know what you're talking about.

05 March, 2021 16:54  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do agree with the premise thatthe "times" must be right for social/economic/ political change.
But I disagree that bringing up the issue when they are very remote is futile.
Just as an old British admiral, in the times of wooden ships, used to plant Oak acorns wherever he went looking to a future (30 to 100 years) when the navy needed that wood that they would be mature and ready for harvest.
So it is with progress and change the seeds must be planted. It may take years, decades or even century's before the culture has matured enough to incorporate those ideas but if they are not "planted" in the marketplaceof ideas their time will never come.

06 March, 2021 14:46  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: That's certainly true. In some cases what mass entertainment does to subtly normalize things is like that, planting seeds that will be ready to harvest in the future. I like to think I contribute in my own small way, occasionally.

07 March, 2021 05:28  

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