james debate
james debate

Tuesday 20 December 2016

2016 has been a bad year for social progress. Inequality is at record levels. Xenophobia and racially motivated violence are on the rise as reactionary right wing politics takes to the mainstream for the first time in 50 years. Fear continues to erode at our civil liberties and the peaceful order of modern society amid a perceived chaos of terrorism, fear, and relentless war. These appear to be dark times we live in. But the young and optimistic should take heart; things will get better.

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We were already facing a great number of problems in the world; ISIS and war in the Middle East, extreme inequality, our struggling environment. But a collective dysphoria, no doubt fuelled in part by these crises, has invited an additional self-inflicted misery which promises to have grave consequences in the short term. The disastrous Brexit vote, built on ignorance and fear, threatens to break the historic peaceful union of European nations, something that had been fought hard for over centuries. Then the Trump election, an emphatic vindication of mainstream insanity and the politics of hate.

These events have been mirrored all over the globe by the rise in influence of those who represent our baser natures; a primeval level of paranoia and aggression, the de-humanising of those who are different. It's the kind of division and barbarism that until recently appeared all but dead in the civilised world. There can be no doubt that these events represent major victories for those who would seek to damage western society from the outside, but more troubling is the seeming frailty they expose in the values that hold that society together.

We have lived through an era of historic peace, prosperity, and stability. In the final decades of the 20th Century we have seen our artificial barriers begin to disappear as the world opens up for all people to travel, trade and communicate with one another. United Nations, European Union, world trade, the Internet. At the same time, racism and hatred ostensibly receded into the crevices, an archaic relic on the wane from acceptable society. Recognition of the common humanity of all people had become the norm. Certainly not some post-nationalist utopia by any means, but nations and cultures nevertheless in a state of cooperation and co-existence in a way that had never been seen, and as a result, the opportunities of the entire planet fully open for the first time.

For an entire generation this was the seeming reality we grew up with: the idea that with a new millennium approaching humanity might finally start to look past labels and arbitrary divisions, progressing into an ever greater state of unity. Now that's all been shattered, with society looking on the verge of a hard step backwards. But what we are seeing now is not the dawn of some new dark age or the end of western civilisation, it's simply a reversion to the mean.

World War II brought unprecedented horror to this world: the senseless slaughter of millions of soldiers and civilians alike, the racially motivated murder of millions more, an absolute rock bottom for human civilisation. Everything that happens invariably has a proportionate reaction, and it's now clear that what previously looked to be a historic and rapid movement towards a more united world was simply the proportionate but temporary reaction to this dark period. Unimaginable violence being pushed back against by unprecedented peace, extreme racism being pushed back against by the political correctness movement.

Racism didn't really go away, it just became so commonly abhorred and publicly unacceptable in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust that it hid away in our deepest recesses. Gradually, enough time has passed for the post-war pain to subside, and these deep-seated prejudices to start rearing their ugly heads again. That has been the foundation behind much of the recent surge in far right extremism: the use of meme culture and online echo chambers in order to create a perception of acceptance. Shareable viral images, in-jokes, and disproportionate media presence to perpetuate an idea of community, and embolden those that harbour these prejudices to embrace those beliefs openly.

So indeed, the recent global upheaval may be the match that lit the tinderbox, but ultimately what this year has shown us is that these elements have been present in our society all along, and the reason we had begun to believe they were gone is down to a post-war reaction that moved the public consensus drastically far away from the type of thinking that had led to such global horror. Now it's back, and we are faced with the reality that maybe we haven't evolved as a civilisation over the past century as much as we had wanted to believe.

But that's not to say that all this progress has been an illusion. On the contrary, despite popular hysteria there has never been a more peaceful and prosperous time to be alive. Developed nations still don't go to war with one another like they used to, globally connected institutions are still intact, if severely bruised, and we as a whole are still more connected and cooperative as a people than we have ever been. Progress may be slow, but ask the LGBT community, or anyone of an ethnic minority whether things are no better than they were fifty years ago. The tragedy for the optimistic and young among us lies in accepting that it may not in fact be our generation that realises the full potential that we have as a society, that we are simply not quite there yet.

If things appear to be taking a step backwards at the moment, then remember this fact. The progress of the late 20th Century was preceded by two world wars, the Renaissance was preceded by the Dark Ages. Progress rarely moves in a straight line, it's a series of nadirs and apexes that still nevertheless trends constantly in a positive direction. Even if the worst happens and the European Union fails, something will eventually take its place. This was the first attempt at a union, it doesn't have to be the last. Even if Trump sets social progress back fifty years, his generation will be gone, and a new voice will take over some day.

This nadir is not permanent. We may not yet be at the state of enlightenment and unity as a people that many had hoped, but we are still getting ever more rational, more peaceful and empathetic. We will get there eventually. The short term trajectory might seem erratic, but the long term trend has been clear throughout human history.

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