I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be conservative. The tendency is, I think, to consider the term in a political sense, the stereotypical conservative/liberal dichotomy of uncompromising social and economic positioning that even conjures images of partisan physical appearance.
But, what I’m thinking about is how one deals with, resists or assimilates, changing social, cultural and moral values; how flexible one’s thinking needs to be to accommodate new ideas regarding ingrained beliefs that have become firmly ensconced and unchallenged for, maybe, generations.
Having long thought of myself as a progressive and open-minded individual, I’m finding it difficult of late to go beyond a ‘live and let live’ acceptance of notions that seem to be widely and enthusiastically embraced. It’s a bit disconcerting. The person I’m seeing in the mirror these days is less someone on the cutting edge of new ideas, someone not so avant-garde as I had always thought of myself as being.
I hate to think it but I’m afraid I’m becoming conservative.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the conflicts that developed between the ancient Romans and early Christians. The Romans were polytheistic, their many gods acquired for the most part from the Greeks were represented by magnificent marble sculptures housed in elaborate temples that played significantly in their daily rituals. Through sacrificial offerings the gods were appeased whereby good fortune reigned upon the Romans (well, the monied ones anyway).
The monotheistic early Christians were reluctant, to say the least, to recognize the Roman gods much to the displeasure of the Romans, and, so, suffered some pretty nasty earthly ends for their defiance, that is, until the visionary emperor Constantine converted, tossing the ball into the Christians court. The game changed big time; churches were built, idols and temples destroyed.
Over the centuries to follow the Christians, through draconian laws and inquisitions singled out the heretics, finding ever more creative tortures to convince the pagan Romans of the truth of the Cross. Tit for tat, I guess.
Other than who or what was worshipped the rub seemed to be primarily about the right way to live. The Romans ate, drank and were, more or less, happy in their licentious debauchery, recognizing as they did, the shortness of life while the Christians lived in severe austerity forgoing anything they saw as sinful in nature, suffering this life for the rewards of the next.
Notions of how best to live one’s life have been somewhat softened these days but the dichotomy persists. I guess we’re pretty evenly divided as to which path is the best one to take. A good case could be made, I think, for pursuing a middle way.
I’ve been reading that neuroscience has made significant inroads toward determining how exactly the brain makes possible our biological existence. Apparently, the mind can be thought of as a neural computer comprised of modules, each with specific tasks, that respond to the input of information that arrives through the senses. Within the brain, billions of neurons make up various organs that control everything from toe wiggling to eye blinking.
I find it all pretty hard to picture but maybe it can be thought of as a sort of ‘light show’, neurons sending electric pulses down a line to a ‘blink center’ (in the case of eye blinking) which converts the pulse to a chemical which is sent to nerves in the eye lid and blinking happens.
As I think about it, I suppose there must be another organ with it’s contingent of neurons that keep the lungs inflating and deflating, another one that processes the oxygen and delivers it to the blood cells and yet another that maintains blood flow to the extremities and on and on; and all of this brain activity happening just to keep us animated and more or less cogent.
In the light of such knowledge one might not be surprised, I guess, if mental lapses are experienced occasionally.
I’ve been reading that laughter is a means of communication. It’s an infectious behavior that manifests in social groups particularly but not exclusively in party settings. It’s understandable I guess as a stress reliever given the social pressures we all endure. What we laugh at though is often, more than likely really, about disparaging someone.
Humor may be self-deprecating or gentle teasing but a good laugh generally requires a victim and the focus of derision will often be someone seen as holding a position of superiority, a boss perhaps, or someone seen as feigning dignity. So, it’s a status thing. Put-downs level the playing field psychologically, distill our insecurities and are great sources of raucous laughter shared with friends.
Certain comedic routines feed the same need. There are comedians who play the dunce card; who display an incompetence or obliviousness that makes us all feel better about ourselves.
In any case it appears that humor tends to focus on subjects who are clearly inferior to us, a true doofus or two who allow us the illusion we are good and well-functioning individuals, at least for a little while. Which, I guess, is reason enough for a little fun-poking, realizing, of course, each of us is likely to be the recipient of the poking at some point.
I’ve been contemplating, lately, the mystery of how exactly certain people gain status these days. Apparently material wealth is a significant factor, but one must wonder what else is required for one to attain pre-eminence. I get that prehistoric cave dwellers and school yard children look up to those larger and stronger than average, maybe quicker-witted as well but the rule doesn’t seem to follow for today’s notables. Observing those in the public eye these days has me wondering how so many of modest abilities and unexceptional skills could have gained attention except through happenstance, luck or inheritance.
At any rate, once realized, status holders seem reluctant to relinquish the attention. The tendency seems to be to remain in the spotlight by what ever means available. Conspicuous display of wealth through ostentatious consumption is an age-old tactic meant to ensure special recognition: it was a traditional status move by the indigenous people of the Northwest Coast in their Potlach ceremonies and such behavior is easy to observe in today’s affluent culture.
The problem now is, so many are affluent that it’s pretty difficult to attract much attention through wastefully excessive behavior. Some have upped the ante by exercising conspicuous outrage: offering incendiary commentary that demonizes groups and individuals which is then readily picked up by the media always interested, as they are, in feeding controversy.
Such self-serving mean spiritedness, one would think, should provide short-lived attention but the opposite seems to be the case. I guess too many of us are comfortable viewing reality as melodrama.
I’ve been reading about parallels between biological evolution and cultural progression over the years. Biologically humankind has evolved over the millennia to produce, over thousands of generations, a fitter specimen, better able to sustain and thrive in a sometimes hostile natural world.
Similarly, I’m led to understand, ideas arise, catch on for their beauty and usefulness, spread from brain to brain and sometimes mutate into more useful variations. These ‘memes’ will evolve to become part of our common knowledge and humankind’s cultural sophistication grows accordingly.
Problems occur when our biological selves which are pretty much now what they were 50,000 years ago must reconcile our primitive brains with a rapidly evolving culture. Our essentially tribal inclinations tend to interfere with our ability to assimilate the pluralism our intellects assure us is a reasonable way to coexist in our culturally shrinking world, which, I guess, somewhat explains the populism rampant in today’s politics.
It’s one thing, though, to understand all of this, something else to have to live through it.
I’ve been reading, lately, about the distrust science elicits these days from diverse segments of the populace. Apparently, the condemnation isn’t coming only from the religious right who might, I suppose, have a problem with the dismissal of dogmatic beliefs toward which empirical investigation tends to lead, but also from certain intellectuals who see science as reductive explanation for the complexities of our world.
I must admit this second concern resonates with me being inclined as I am to wonder in awe at the mysteries of nature. My reading has awakened me to the realization that science offers deeper, richer investigation of the wonders I find so compelling to contemplate. The mysteries of consciousness, addressed with such magic by the Surrealists, becomes even more intriguing when considered in the light of neuroscientific studies on the human brain. Art can be appreciated in greater depth when historical context, provided through historical and archaeological investigation and the psychology of aesthetic response is considered.
I’ll keep this in mind, well, at least be peripherally aware of the contribution science might play in my daily aesthetic experiences even though I find it hard to put language to the ephemeral.
I’ve been reading that evolutionary progress will proceed through natural selection. Generational changes to an organism, occurring as the demands of existential pressures require, upgrade survival abilities; which suggests, I guess, that those beings that evolve with the fittest genetic make-up will be the ones that thrive and reproduce, passing on their fitness to their offspring. But I’m led to understand, the system isn’t fool proof; occasionally a glitch in the system will cause unfavorable genetic mutations to be passed on which results in less than desirable progeny.
One does have to wonder sometimes at the actions and decisions some people choose; maybe it’s the ‘choice gene’ that has mutated or perhaps it’s missing altogether in those folks who seem to proceed through life in a more or less spontaneous and thoughtless manner. These unfortunates may find themselves making bad life choices that result in a failure to mate and reproduce or prematurely exit existence, which I suppose, is how nature cleans up the gene pool.
I’ve been reading that there is evidence to suggest that the world is getting smarter, that world-wide, IQ scores have been steadily rising at a rate much faster than an evolving humanity can explain, which doesn’t necessarily mean, I guess, that a person of average intelligence one hundred years ago, transported by time machine to the present would be borderline retarded by our standards. But the presumption is our great grandparents would be sorely lacking in the intellectual flexibility we’ve become adapted to in recent generations to deal with the complexities of technological advancements not to mention the inter-connectedness communications with the world-at-large has impressed upon us. It appears our existence, the intellectual world we occupy, is larger and multi-faceted in ways unimaginable in the world of the 1920’s.
One wonders, though, if living in a smaller reality back then, restricted even to a limited geographical existence, you know, knowing less, didn’t have its advantages in terms of less anxiety, stress, working longer days and weeks making for less time to contemplate, anticipate all of the potential evils one might imagine. Living as they did through the devastation of WWI and the 1918 flu epidemic, did a naïve faith make it possible for them to realize a peace we will never again be able to grasp?
We’re healthier, wealthier and longer-lived than our great-grandparents could have ever hoped to be, but I have to wonder if our increased awareness makes us happier.
I’ve been reading that one’s political affiliation is the primary determiner of the position one assumes regarding the hot-button issues of the day. Well, maybe not everyone’s, but the suggestion is that a political stance is determined to a great extent by social relations, how one identifies with those around her: a kind of in-group, tribal association that leads to consumption and regurgitation of the appropriate sound-bites consistent with the ‘correct’ political view.
To support such a perspective my very credible source suggests that, when questioned, most on the political fringes (which now make up around 40% of the electorate) have little knowledge of the nuances of the issues: global warming, health-care for all, world trading agreements, capitalistic regulation, the social safety-net, the plight of immigrants are all seen through the lens of political bias; which accounts, pretty much, for the divisiveness in the contemporary social dialogue: each side demonizing the other aided and abetted by profit-seeking punditry.
So, I guess the question is, how to discourage unreasoned dogmatic belief and encourage critical thinking: thinking carefully about both sides of issues and side-stepping political flashpoints. It may all be left up to a younger generation to re-find enlightened thinking; their power is growing, after all, funeral by funeral.