Our outrage and despair are fundamentally about loss. We fear that we’ve lost ourselves. We respond with outrage and despair.
But our sense of loss and decline goes much deeper than the climate crisis, religion, cultural traditions, technology, and all the other issues that appear at the root of political polarization in today’s society. This sense of loss is embedded within us, in nearly facet of our lives. When the pizza shop near our childhood homes gets replaced by condos, we often experience that as the deterioriation of the neighborhood and lament the loss of our childhood. When we see those condos look very different than those we grew up with, we decry the ugliness and soullesness of modern architecture. When our favorite brand changes its logo, we immediately complain that they’ve ruined it. When our local sports team comes out with a new uniform, we decry how tacky they look. Why can’t they go back to those “classic” uniforms we all loved so much?
We so often equate change with loss. We grow comfortable with the world as it is and interpret every departure as a corruption of the ideal state of the past.
Just start listening to how often you hear people using “nowadays” or “these day” or “anymore” language, in your personal life, at work, on the news, on social media, or anywhere else. This is the language of “they don’t make them like they used to.” It’s the language of the vast multitude of “Why Millennials Are Stupid, Lazy, Entitled Assholes” articles that seem to sprout up like weeds on the internet. It’s the language of “Make America Great Again.” It’s the language of “there goes the neighborhood.”
If you really listen, this language, this notion that we have strayed from some ideal past, is everywhere. It is encoded deeply within us. It’s so common and intuitive that we barely question or even register it.
Comedians lament “PC culture” and how they can’t speak their minds anymore. Christians complain that we can’t celebrate Christmas openly anymore. Football commenters complain that the game isn’t as tough and real as it used to be. Seemingly everyone complains that we spend too much time on our phones and don’t really spend time listening to one another like we did in past generations.
In a 2015 YouGov poll of over 18,000 people across 17 countries, 58% of respondents reported that they believe the world is getting worse, while only 11% said it was getting better. In a 2017 US News and World Report survey of over 21,000 people across 36 countries, 60% of respondents reported they believe the world is worse off now than a year ago. In a 2017 Ipsos survey of over 26,000 people across 38 countries, only 35% said they believe conditions for people around the world will get better in the next 15 years.
If you really listen, you’ll find it everywhere:
- “We were locked together spiritually, and I think that doesn’t happen so much nowadays: musicians can’t lock in so well together because there’s a lot of egos around.” – Billy Cox, a musical collaborator of Jimi Hendrix (2020)
- “Always been brutally honest. Some people don’t like that because it’s rare nowadays.” ― Baker Mayfield, age 22 (2018)
- “Good grief, we’re getting offended by everything these days! People can’t say anything without offending somebody.” ― Hillary Clinton (2016)
- “Nowadays it seems more and more like the ‘business’ in ‘show business’ is underlined, and there are campaigns, and it’s all part of getting people in to see the movies.” ― Jeff Bridges (2014)
- “We just seem to have lost all our morals and principles and values these days.” ― Dolly Parton (2012)
- “People nowadays don’t know the true meaning of friendship and loyalty.” ― Ziad K. Abdelnour, in Economic Warfare (2011)
- “Yeah, it’s pretty hard not to be completely cynical these days”. ― David Byrne (2008)
- “There’s very little reason in politics these days”. ― Cate Blanchett (2007)
- “I detest ‘Jingle Bells,’ ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,’ and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too.” ― Richard Dawkins (2006)
- “Laughter is too rare nowadays.” ― Jason Bateman
Again, we so often tell ourselves that our society can’t agree about anything. But so many of us actually seem to agree wholeheartedly that our species and civilization have lost some fundamental aspect of ourselves, that today’s humanity is a corrupted and decaying version of itself.
We believe we are in decline, careening ever faster toward our ultimate demise.