A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
One of the problems with observing our modern world is you spend half your life in fear and the other half with no friends. Technically, I suppose, these are actually two problems, but they come from the same place: having an opinion and voicing it outside the comfy confines of your own head. It’s a truism in the 21st century, that whenever you say anything about anything, you’re going to piss somebody off. Most people get all free speech macho about this, but when push comes to shove, everybody knows that our society is unforgiving when it comes to unguarded opinion. More importantly, when the mob turns against you, we punish it severely. This is why we will never produce a contemporary Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock – the consequences of unedited thoughts, in today’s world, are just too dangerous. Far better to be momentarily safe than monumentally sorry, so people with pens tend to stick to the road most travelled. Unfortunately, that road is crowded with dumb-ass clichés. Future anthropologists who attempt to piece together our social structure from the mountain of evidence we’re going to leave behind will naturally conclude we had an unholy obsession with lawyers, rednecks and upper middle class men. They are the nominated villains for most of our commentators, so the record of our times will read like a bad John Grisham novel. It’s a sorry state, but it beats the hell out of the world according to Suzanne Collins and E. L. James.
There’s no real problem with history recording our time as the shallow end of the intellectual swimming pool. None of us is going to be around to be embarrassed by it anyway. Nor do we have to worry about future chroniclers calling us cultural cowards. They won’t be the slightest bit interested in our existence. After all, you get historical ink from speaking up, not lying down.
The thing that burns my beans is that having set the table for a vigorous and dynamic dialogue, we’re now scared skinny of the food fight it might create. Just look: we have a mostly educated public with the information of the ages at their fingertips (literally.) We’ve cracked opened the old boys club and now have instant access to all manner of ideas from everywhere and everybody. Furthermore, we live in a free society, where (for the most part) the rule of law gives free range to these ideas. Plus our leaders (such as they are) fear public opinion and follow it relentlessly. Life is good, right? Wrong! The first thing we did with this intellectual banquet was set dietary restrictions. Not to beat the metaphor to death, we have populated our world with so many sacred cows that, in the land of intellectual plenty, we’re starving to death.
It used to be that the only thing that governed public discourse was civility. There was decorum in our discussion. For example, we didn’t call each other names – offensive or not. Perhaps certain subjects were handled delicately, but there was never any thought that they should be avoided. In fact, it was a matter of honour to shine light into the darker parts of our society – distasteful or not.
These days, those days are over. We have more social taboos than a tribe of Borneo headhunters. A plethora of subjects in our world are no longer open for discussion. Some of them I can’t even name in these pages without hollering up a verbal lynch mob. In the past few years, this list has expanded exponentially. Soon the only subjects anyone will feel comfortable commenting on will be the Kardashians’ breasts and the zombie apocalypse.
People like me, who know enough history to understand what the mob is capable of, are cowards at heart. It’s one thing to go Vaclav Havel on the powers that be and strike out against censorship and oppression, for history shows us that eventually the pen is mightier than the sword. However, it’s quite another to stand alone in front of a self-righteous mob of your neighbours and colleagues, demanding to be heard while they’re grabbing the torches and pitchforks. In these troubled times, I do not fear the endless apparatus of the omnipotent state. It’s the eagerly offended citizen, who created this mess that scares the crap out of me.