We live in a social reality. In addition to physical reality, we have to make sure our friends, neighbors, co-workers and service providers like us.
To that end, we tend to repeat memes of “truth” about our world that they like. Even if we don’t mean to, we pass these memes on as conversation.
This becomes a problem when the memes diverge from reality by a substantial margin. I’m not talking about a little bit of fudging here — but outright wrong.
One meme we have is that our technology makes us bulletproof, our “enlightened” progressive politics make us post-historical, and that we’re too big too fail.
But if you think about it, there is no guarantee that the social memes are correct. We pass them along without thinking about whether they’re correct.
And if you think a little more, you’ll see that most civilizations fail at some point. If they knew they were failing, they’d counteract that, right?
Then you look around and see all the people in denial. In denial that their drug habits have consequences, that their teenage daughters are having sex, that those sounds at night are indeed squirrels that have moved into the attic.
Human behavior is very practical. Part of that is that if we cannot fix a situation, we go into denial. Can’t make myself immortal? Pretend death does not exist. At least that way we are functional.
However, at some point that function becomes inverted. If you change the background of a picture we see every day, we will probably not notice. In the same way, once we accept our civilization as it is, warts and all, we stop noticing subtle changes that add up to a whole lot of decline.
This inversion explains why societies fail at all: they don’t notice that the background changed. They’re used to going to work every day, reading bad news in the newspaper, and seeing mediocre films on TV.
Over time, these things get worse and people just adapt to them. To make themselves feel better, they keep passing along the same social memes that by seeming to have solutions or reasons why things as they are, explain away the problem.
But it grows. And now the reason we call it an inversion becomes clear: when a civilization decays past a certain point, all “truths” are lies and many “lies” are truths. The society has turned away from reality because it cannot face its own demise.
What’s it like to live in such a time?
- All of your “heroes” are bunk. A civilization in denial rewards those who strengthen the denial, not those who have something profound to offer. The politicians and leaders you see are the most corrupt, not the least. They got where they are by pandering to an audience that wants to hear their opinions on an internal dialogue like right-versus-left, not their diagnosis of where society is heading.
- All of your art becomes escapist. The concept of art itself is dead in such a time. People want political art, they want art about characters whose sole problem is within themselves… they don’t want art about people adapting to the world and changing it and themselves for the better. Art becomes entertainment.
- All “issues” are internal. If you are in a dying civilization, you cannot talk about future direction, only changes as they exist within the civilization as it is. Any competing ideology must be snuffed and called ignorant. Whether a society legalizes abortion must be more important than whether it can support the number of people it has, or stop polluting.
- The lowest common denominator reigns. Since we all need to keep our dialogue internal to stay in denial, we start becoming fascinated with the lowest common denominator. Don’t tell me about the geniuses; what do the peasants do with their time? And to pander to this group, and those who think this is a good idea, the media, art, culture and government workers target the lowest common denominator in their population, which is always crass.
- Reformers are rebels, not reformers. A reformer fixes things, starting with the biggest issues like social direction. A rebel acts out against the world in which he finds himself, but does not hope to change it. Most rebels are anti-heroes who self-destruct instead of finding methods of fixing the things they claim to be upset by. In reality, the outrage is a justification for the “rebel lifestyle”: anti-hero behavior that eschews responsibility for hedonism.
- Degree of offense is more important than degree of truthfulness. In a time where we cannot face reality, our outlook on life becomes arbitrary. As a result, people pick what is personally convenient, and label everything else offensive. And since lowest common denominator politics is essentially a mob shouting demands at its leaders, any idea that is offensive gets quickly silenced through non-governmental means. If no one wants to buy your truthful idea, you’d better come up with an inoffensive one quickly.
What does it mean to live in a civilization in decline? The first sign is that everyone around you is in denial, starting with denial that their civilization is slowly imploding.
It also means that all your public figures are corrupt or worse. Bono, Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Richard Dawkins, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert — are these people heroes, or just clever marketers who have found an audience? Even more, why are we getting our political opinions from entertainers?
It means that all of those who you hear lauded as “geniuses” are not, and those you never hear about may be, because society confers “genius” as a marketing title for denial experts, not reality experts.
It means you live in parallel worlds, one called social-reality and one called physical-reality. In social reality, the language of commercials predominate; in physical reality, when you bring the product home, you find the instructions are wrong and you need some hideous hack to make it even work.
Take a critical look around you as you go through life. The people you see celebrated; are they worth celebrating, or just clever denial experts? Are our leaders honorable, or just good at hiding their intentions?
While I love my country, and my world, the best manifestation of that love is a clear-eyed view of reality itself. And if a civilization you love is in decline the only course of action can be to not go with the flow” but get our move on to fix that decline.