the Naked Celt (nakedcelt) wrote,
the Naked Celt
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The Changing Zeitgeist: a hypothesis

I haven't blogged for another month again. I should really do something about that. Somehow things get less interesting as days go by and I end up not mentioning them at all; and the troubles my computer's been having don't help.

Well, if it's going to be one post a month, I'd better make 'em count. Here's a deep sociocultural insight I had recently.
In any society there exists a somewhat mysterious consensus, which changes over the decades, and for which it is not pretentious to use the German loan-word Zeitgeist (spirit of the times)... This spread of dates through the twentieth century is a gauge of the shifting Zeitgeist. Another is our attitude to race. In the early part of the twentieth century, almost everybody in Britain (and many other countries too) would be judged racist by today's standards. Most white people believed that black people (in which category they would have lumped the very diverse Africans with unrelated groups from India, Australia and Melanesia) were inferior to white people in almost all respects except — patronizingly — sense of rhythm...
— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Dawkins goes on for several pages, detailing the changes in society's attitudes towards gender, race, and the environment. Finally, he asks: why is the Zeitgeist so consistent across so many people, and why is it drifting in one relatively consistent direction? The first question he has a reasonable answer for:
It spreads itself from mind to mind through conversations in bars and at dinner parties, through books and book reviews, through newspapers and broadcasting, and nowadays through the Internet. Changes in the moral climate are signalled in editorials, on radio talk shows, in political speeches, in the patter of stand-up comedians and the scripts of soap operas, in the votes of parliaments making laws and the decisions of judges interpreting them.
But the second question, as Dawkins frankly admits, remains a puzzle. Why is the whole of society drifting away from racism and sexism? Certainly, one can cite influential leaders and movements, decisive victories for liberal ideals throughout the last century — actually, make that two centuries or more; we mustn't forget the nineteenth-century struggle against slavery, for instance. But unless you've been living your whole life in a cave, you can also think of some powerful pro-racist, anti-liberal leaders and movements during the same time. Why does history favour the one and not the other? Roughly equal numbers of people at any time seem to be more liberal or less liberal than the general consensus. Religious answers don't help; religions can be found pitching in on both sides. I have a hypothesis.

Think of a loose screw. The more it rattles, the looser it becomes. Rattling means the screw is subject to small forces from random, and randomly changing, directions. Being random, there will on average be just as much force pushing the screw in the tightening direction as in the loosening direction. But, of course, it takes more force to tighten a screw than to loosen it. Though the tightening forces in the rattling are equal to the loosening forces, they achieve less. Over time, therefore, the screw will loosen more than it tightens, until eventually it comes away entirely. This principle, you'll note, is crucial to evolution. It can also apply in society.

In any group of people, deviations from the behavioural norm are penalized. As a general rule, the greater the deviation, the more severe (and overt) the penalty, working up from subtle disapproving tones through mockery and exclusion from social activities up to outright punishment. However, such penalties are not doled out purely symmetrically. Most people would rather be treated too kindly than too cruelly. Therefore, penalties for over-cruel behaviour — or over-cruel attitudes — tend to be slightly heavier than penalties for equally over-kind behaviour and attitudes. People who are too cruel for the group are shunned, while people who are too kind are merely laughed at. Hence, as with the loose screw, movements favouring kinder attitudes are not balanced out by movements favouring crueller attitudes, and, over time, society moves in the direction of kindness.

I don't know how you'd go about testing a hypothesis like this. But we can make tentative predictions from it, and these seem to be at least partly borne out. People who regularly find themselves in dangerous situations (say, soldiers or miners) have more to lose, should they be over-tolerant of foolish behaviour, than most of us do. Therefore, the gradient will be shallower in their case, and they will tend, on average, to lag behind the broader cultural consensus. People who believe in nasty supernatural punishments for failing to uphold particular norms (say, the norm of heterosexuality) at least believe they have more to lose should they be over-tolerant, and they, too, will lag behind. I don't have quantitative data for either of these predictions, but both seem to fit the general pattern of real-life experience.

However, there is one component of the shifting Zeitgeist that seems to go clean against the loose-screw principle: I mean the growing acceptance of more and more "sexually explicit" behaviour — particularly in the matter of dress, and of allowed topics of conversation. ("Sexually explicit" in quotes, because as such things become accepted, they cease to be unambiguous sex signals.) If someone says or does something that is too sexually "forward", they can be penalized right then and there, whereas it's hard to catch someone in the act of not mentioning sex. Over time, then, we should predict that sex will gradually disappear from public discourse. And if you apply that prediction to the period lasting from, say, Shakespeare's time to the Victorian era, you'll once again find it more or less borne out. But in the last hundred years the opposite has been the case. One can think of particular people who helped to bring sex back into the general consciousness; Freud, Kinsey, and Hite spring to mind. But in theory, their attitudes should have been overtaken by a general trend towards more and more prudishness. It hasn't happened. Why not? Here, I have no insights. I turn the question over to the reader.
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