Monday 19 August 2019

The Rhythm of Sentiment

Francisco Goya. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Posted by Allister Marran 
If you are privileged enough to go to university straight out of school, as I did, you are greeted by disdainful lecturers who roll their eyes at your infantile exuberance, your unenlightened ignorance, and often plain stupidity.
You think you know it all, yet you lack the fundamental tools to appreciate the gravitas of the knowledge you are being fed. Everything is so simple when you know nothing.

Life experience creates perspective.

Social theory was particularly difficult. To my mind, in a world where there was only black and white, I could not grasp the grey areas.

Nazis, right wing racists, and communist dictators were bad. Progressives and capitalist democracies were good. Nothing else to see or say. You could never have a bad democratically elected president, could you? You could never explain the rise of nationalism in a way that made sense, could you?

And yet we now live in an age where democratically elected populists, who are right or left wing nationalists, are dominating the world political landscape, where they are verbosely racist and openly swear allegiance to military dictators and murderers. Trump, Johnson, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, Austria. The list is long and shocking.

These are all democratically elected officials. The voice of the people has been heard. The people want leaders who allow them to chant 'Send her back,' and can question the nationality of anyone who is not white skinned (Trump), who diminishes the effects of colonialism on Africa (Zille), or promotes Islamophobia (Johnson), who actively promote racial tension and are anti gay rights (Bolsonaro).

A simple social theory was presented to us, called the social cycle theory, which may be described as follows:

Social cycle theories belong to the earliest of social theories. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society as progressing in some direction(s), social cycle theory argues that events and stages of society typically repeat themselves in cycles. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto wrote, 
'There is a rhythm of sentiment, which we can observe in ethics, in religion, and in politics.'
In the broader scope of having some greater perspective on life and politics over the last thirty years, if you subscribe to the social cycle theory, it is clear that we are heading into a very dangerous age, where political leaders are able to stoke their bases, and these supporters can wear their prejudices and their hatred of others with pride, knowing that there will be no accounting for their bigoted behavior.

As the chants become louder, the racists become more emboldened, stepping out of the shadows to add their voices to the cacophony of jeers and hate speech.

There is strength in numbers, and so they exhibit their most vigorous exuberance for resentment and loathing, of others not like them, when they are in groups. They wear hats and badges which are brightly coloured, so they can easily spot each other and seek each other out in the world, and can speak easily when in the company of similarly uniformed cadres. And they try to assimilate everyone in their orbit by jovial energy, brute force, or subterfuge.

I did not believe in the social cycle theory when I was younger. I believed that humankind evolved, moved forwards, and you can never look back. If the world was ruined and destroyed by the rise of white nationalism in World War II, surely people aren't stupid enough to fall for that again? Surely showing someone a video of the Nuremberg Rallies, or Mussolini speaking to his army, would be enough to guard them against rallying behind the hatred of a new nationalist cabal in the world?

Surely we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of the past ad infinitum, until mankind is no more, destroyed once and for all by their own hatred and prejudices?

In my old age I am slowly coming around to understanding that maybe the social cycle theory is the best way to explain humanity's stupidity after all.

Aside: The fate of the world rests with the youth. Their single-minded desire to cast off the sins of their forebears and parents, and to forge a new way could still save us. The depressing beauty of life is that death is certain for us all, and in that we renew with a potentially diverging purpose and direction.

The advice I give to older people is simple ... for you it is too late. Your time is over. Enjoy the memories, but don't impart your prejudices and bigotry on the younger generations.  Let them forge their own path, devoid of the hatred and darkness you have internalised.  Pass down your knowledge but not your bitterness.

Break the cycle. Make the future a better place for your children, and your children's children.


Keith said...

‘[S]ocial cycle theory argues that events and stages of society typically repeat themselves in cycles…. [T]he social cycle theory is the best way to explain humanity's stupidity’. Having said that, the essay goes on to propose that ‘The fate of the world rests with the youth. Their single-minded desire to cast off the sins of their forebears and parents, and to forge a new way could still save us’. If I may ask, what leads you to sanguinely have faith that our future ‘rests with the youth’ in the distinctly more fatalistic context of ‘social cycle theory’ the essay promotes? That is, why believe that today’s young cohort might be the first generation to break that cycle, rather than its yet again succumbing to the ‘social cycle theory’? (While, to be sure, history isn’t unbending, might the ‘social evolution theory’ still have legs?)

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Yes indeed, how does one break a cycle if it's ... a cycle.

A question comes to mind: do phases of a cycle cause the following phases? Does a phase of prejudice, say, cause a phase of reason, which causes a phase of prejudice, and so on. Does Obama cause Trump cause ... If yes, then where did we go wrong? and can anyone be absolved of responsibility in the full cycle?

Another question. How deep would the phases of a cycle go? Is there a complete replacement of, say, reason by prejudice, or is reason merely attenuated? Then is the next phase already contained in the present phase? In this case, Allister may be advocating for keeping the suppressed aspect of a phase vigorous?

Keith said...

‘The fate of the world rests with the youth…. The advice I give to older people is simple ... for you it is too late. Your time is over’. The message here, Allister, strikes me as worrisomely ageist. I’d hesitate to subscribe to a philosophy that dismisses the elderly so cavalierly, as if they’re all doddering and no longer have the wherewithal to meaningfully contribute to society. Generational wars don’t help. I’d rather opt for intergenerational collaboration — drawing, in merit fashion, from the diversity of talent, knowledge, creativity, and wisdom of all, irrespective of age. Telling anyone ‘your time is over’ may make it hard to recruit.

Keith said...

You make a solid point, Thomas, about ‘phases of cycles’ — including with the example you cite of alternating reason and prejudice. To me, that comes close to the other theory referred to in the essay: ‘social evolutionary theory’. One reason I favour social evolutionary theory, as I mentioned in my first comment, is that ‘social cycle theory’ seems unjustifiably defeatist. The other reason I favour social evolutionary theory is that, although there are always setbacks to social and political progress, as we’ve seen with the recent rise of populist authoritarianism around the globe, the longer-term trajectory of humankind, despite zigs and zags and the absence of a straight line, seems predominantly forward leaning. I’m encouraged.

Allister said...

I don't mean to be ageist but in my personal experience, people are born into a system which tries to bully them into conformity. The system of rules, norms and values is designed to create harmony in society and to limit conflict. However, during ones teenage years there is a very natural tendency to rebel against the system, as one explores and finds perceived or real faults, inequalities and unfairness in the laws and structures put in place to govern and guide our behavior. A thousand MTV music videos bear this counter-culture out. Later on, through coercion, education or social pressure the youth are actively or passively goaded into becoming Pink Floyd's Just Another Brick in the Wall. Instead of breaking the cycle, we become very much a part of it, becoming its biggest proponents. Look at the profile of the average MAGA hat wearer at a Trump rally, its mostly older white males. I would bet my bottom dollar many of them still own a Pink Floyd album and were once rebelling against the system. Once we are at this point its hard to break the cycle, and we then once again have to turn our eyes to the youth in the hopes that they can do what innumerous generations before them could not do. I don't believe social cycle theory is absolute or unbreakable, but it just seems currently that we are stuck in a Ground Hog Day, an eternal loop where we have to learn some kind of over-arching lesson before we are allowed to continue, and its our job to figure out that lesson. And I think that job now, as always, lies with the youth. Hope springs eternal...

docmartincohen said...

Mmm... controversial stuff but Allister certainly points at some interesting issues though. In general, older voters 'have' and younger ones 'aspire'. The first are backward looking and the second are forward looking - just in terms of theri actual human lives! But it must affect their politics too.. ON the other hand, I was intersted to check out he Nazis, who provide such a rich well of social counterexamples.

his difficult article by Dick Geary first appeared in History Today, October 1998.

Here is the view of Dick Geary, Professor of Modern History at the University of Nottingham and the author of Hitler and Nazism (Routledge 1993).

"The Nazi Party has often been portrayed as a dynamic inspirer of youth and contrasted with the sclerosis of the traditional Right. This youthful image of the NSDAP (and more rightly of the SA) certainly has some foundation. NSDAP membership was younger than that of other parties; the average age of those joining between 1925 and 1932 was slightly under twenty-nine. It rose slightly, to an average of thirty-two in 1932. That the Nazis did well with new voters may reflect their youthfulness."

We might add to that the co-option of youth by Pol Pot in Cambodia, and indeed Stalin in Russia...

But in 'ordinary politics', we see Trump, the British right wing, the Brexit reactionaries, all boosted by the retired voters.

Tessa den Uyl said...

Thank you for this post Mr. Marran,
Children will not start to think for themselves as long as they grow up when they have already been imagined. To give youth a chance, parents will have to give their child(ren) the space to explore themselves, without any images to influence them from their part. To set youth free, I am afraid that there is hard work to be done in parenthood. If that would be possible then schools are obliged to change their system etc. As the first contact with human being for a child is ( most often) the family, it are the parents who should let go off the past, of living memories they have turned into values, morals, judgements and properly this point seems a very difficult one to break, for this would mean a rupture in ones identification, and hence even saying ‘ my child’ in such a vision sounds rather absurd. I cannot come up with another view when thinking about how ‘to give the world to the younger’, if not like this?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

In Southern Africa, where our writer is situated, the age of our leaders has been in the spotlight, together with their failure to govern well, and the youth have been saying that they need to give way for the youth. Often this is put in harsh or revolutionary terms. It seems clear to me that we need both: the wisdom and experience of the old, the fresh ideas and enthusiasm of the youth, and so on. Aristotle spoke of finding the golden mean. The trouble is when one or the other excludes the other, and has the power to exclude them, and an interest in excluding them, as has happened a lot here.

docmartincohen said...

Plato insisted rulers needed to be at least middle aged. Talking about breeding better dogs, but with the intention of illustrating how to create a soceity of better people he says this:

[Socrates] And how can marriages be made most beneficial? that is a question which I put to you, because I see in your house dogs for hunting, and of the nobler sort of birds not a few. Now, I beseech you, do tell me, have you ever attended to their pairing and breeding?

In what particulars?

[Socrates] Why, in the first place, although they are all of a good sort, are not some better than others?


[Socrates] And do you breed from them all indifferently, or do you take care to breed from the best only?

From the best.

[Socrates] And do you take the oldest or the youngest, or only those of ripe age?

I choose only those of ripe age."

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