Deep Thought: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back?

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A seer thinking deeply, with a towel on his head

Deep Thought: Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back?

You probably aren't old enough to remember this song. I don't even know if you've ever heard this idiom, or if it's limited to the US. But I think you can do the math: if someone takes two steps forward and three steps back, they aren't going forward. The question is: is that what we're doing, people?

It's kind of obvious that progress in human relationships isn't an easy thing. It seems like we'll go along for a while, with a few patient souls making suggestions like, 'Why don't we treat each other better?' or 'Practise random acts of kindness' and every once in a long while, the suggestions seem to catch on for a bit. Then, predictably, there will be a backlash. Loud voices will proclaim that we're going too far in the direction of kindness. That's not good for us, they'll yell. It goes against the Darwinian order. Besides, they're grumpy and they don't wanna.

These loud naysayers tend to be listened to more than the kindness faction. I wonder why that is.

The question is: are we going two steps forward and three back, which puts us in the hole? Or are we going three steps forward and two back, which means making incremental (though hesitant and possibly counterproductive) progress? Which is it to be, humanity?

This morning, I saw on Twitter:

  • People in the UK arguing about whether it was the job of the Foreign Office to rescue British citizens who ran into trouble abroad.
  • Somebody posting a rejection note about an applicant for a flat-share. The applicant was rejected because he/she was a Capricorn. The others in the flat were Virgos or Geminis, and they felt this astrological sign 'wasn't a good fit'.

The first news item baffled me. Isn't helping your citizens abroad one of the main jobs of embassies? I used to be a resident alien. I knew I could count on the US embassy. I voted there. They helped me when I lost my passport. I mean, I wouldn't have expected them to start a war on my behalf, or to storm the beaches like Stephen Decatur (oh, look it up), but still, they were there for me. When did that level of caring become optional?

The second one didn't baffle me – I was a student, I've done the flatmate thing, and remember the 45-minute meeting about 'who cut the tip of the dish soap bottle too big so we wasted a whole bottle of soap1?' – but it made me shake my head. What made me chuckle 'right on!' was the post declaring, 'Astrology is a gateway drug to fascism!' Good point: do you really need any more reasons to discriminate against your neighbour? On the basis of birthdays, now? Not to mention pseudoscience.

It has been my experience that particularly egregious selfish behaviour tends to follow on the heels of a period of social progress. First the Sixties declared, 'Love one another right now,' and then the Seventies decided to be the Me Decade. Followed by the Eighties and 'Greed is Good'. Blah.

Various 21st-century movements have aimed to make people more aware of insensitivity toward one another. Of unmet needs among us. Of systemic problems of injustice and inequality. This has been met with a loud chorus of '[cause here] run amok!' and '[cause here] nazis!', accompanied by very mature locutions, such as calling your conversational opponent a 'snowflake'. Now, I dislike snow as much as the next Pennsylvanian, but seriously?

Of course, part of the problem is that, on their part, the proponents of social improvement can be insensitive, as well. Looking back over the last 200 years, I find that this has ever been so. Abolition was a vitally important cause. A lot of the rhetoric, however, was counterproductive. Also the raid on Harper's Ferry. The cotton boycott could have been useful if carried out more thoroughly.

Women were 100% right that they ought to have the vote. Chaining themselves to lampposts does not, at this distance in time, completely compute. Ditto hunger strikes.

Want more rights? Round bombs, not so effective. Making big holes in things just…makes big holes in things. I'm not saying you shouldn't be persistent. Or annoying as heck. You just need to target the problem, not the people you disagree with. Take a page from the Quakers. They never resort to violence. And they never shut up.

Does laughing at Trump supporters whose boats sink in the lake really improve the political landscape? No. Okay, I know why it was funny. But jeering at people is unlikely to change their minds about anything. Yes, I know those social media posters didn't really care about changing their minds. They wanted an enemy to laugh at. And they got one.

So they can't tell me they aren't part of the problem.

Does posting on Twitter that it's wrong to express sympathy for the Nashville bomber make the posters 'woke' because they're outraged that the perpetrator was white? Does pointing that out make them less prejudiced than those who express concern only when violence is committed by groups they don't like?

If we seesaw back and forth between groups that are in power and get their own way while leaving the others powerless and fuming…do you see what I mean? We aren't making progress. We've turned our shared existence into a zero-sum game. Zero-sum games may be your thing in the stadium. But they're no way to build a world.

We're going two steps forward and three steps back. If we aren't careful, before long it'll be the Middle Ages again. I don't personally long for the return of Attila the Hun.

Deep Thought Archive

Dmitri Gheorgheni

11.01.21 Front Page

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1Okay, this was a very German argument.

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