Got Change?

17 10 2011

There used to be a BBC radio program called, “My Word“. This was a panel game about words, featuring a regular panel of people who made a living with words, but was really more of a vehicle for Frank Muir and Dennis Norden to display their wit to a large audience. The show is still available- in reruns, of course- on NPR in some markets. Due to the timing of the re-broadcasts (at noon on Saturdays here in the Shallow South), I have managed to hear most of the shows while the wife and I do our weekly shopping.

Many BBC programs get stolen and modified for the American market (The Office is a recent example, and Sanford and Son is a more antiquated one), but I doubt anyone would ever try to adapt My Word. Without exception, the panelists on the show were extremely knowledgeable on the subject, and this alone dramatically decreases the likelihood of a successful adaptation. While it may be possible to find American writers and thinkers who are equally adept with language, vocabulary, and etymology, I find it hard to believe that any American academics who qualify would have the ability to demonstrate it with the easy humor of Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Then, too, there is the real possibility that any putative literary wit would be completely unable to make the average American audience laugh, given the generally dismal level of American education.

This depressing thought brought me to a realization about the enormous cultural divides so visible in the US today. Among the many artificial divisions in American society (black vs white, north vs south, east vs west, coke vs pepsi, etc), a far more subtle division is growing: tolerance of change.

The US has long been a major source of what are frequently world-shaking changes, so it seems odd that so many in this country now want the changes to stop. America is built on change, and our scientists, inventors, engineers, and salesmen have mass-produced that change and sold it to the whole world. Our current leadership position in many scientific fields is based upon anticipating and exploiting change. We owe our extravagant lifestyle and standard of living to embracing change, but now there is an increasingly vocal minority in this country who are demanding an end to change. Worse, they are deliberately trying to roll back many of the changes that make their standards of living possible.

Some of this resistance to change is coming- as usual- from religious extremists. Religion in general basically says that certain things are beyond human ken, and people should spend all their time and energy preparing for some sort of afterlife in lieu of improving conditions here and now. Despite the available evidence, the religious extremists refuse to admit that their holy texts might be wrong, because to admit the possibility of error opens the door for questions the religiously deluded are incapable of answering. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it” does not allow for differences of opinion (or evidence to the contrary), so the religious types can almost be counted upon to be intolerant of change.

Another group intolerant of change are those who aren’t willing to expend the energy required to learn how to cope with- and profit from- the rapid pace of change. Granted that many of these could also be religiously deluded, this is not universally the case. Part of the problem is the fact that the stupefying complexity of our universe can only be properly described using purely mathematical terms, and the bulk of these change-resistant people think that algebra is some sort of magic trick designed to make them look stupid. The upper-level maths needed to properly describe the universe and how it works might as well be Egyptian hieroglyphs, as far as the people I’m describing are concerned. User-friendly scientists like Carl Sagan and Neil DeGrasse Tyson are very helpful in trying to explain the nature of reality in everyday language, but only if the target audience is willing to listen. Too many are not willing to listen, and they end up resentful of those who are increasing the amount and pace of change. They also end up increasingly resentful of anyone who- unlike them- is comfortable with change.

So we end up with another artificial division, this time between those who are willing to adapt to change and those who are not. Those who are unwilling to adapt clamor foolishly for a return to a golden age which never actually existed, and decry the “decadence” of those who embrace changing times. The change-intolerant, with their rose-tinted 20/20 hindsight, never seem to realize that the “good old days” never really were all that good, and the “golden age” they pine for is nothing more than 24-carat gold-plated wishful thinking and selective memories.

Every new set of changes also changes us- how we see ourselves and the universe. For centuries, the Catholic church was philosophically wedded to the idea that Earth (and humanity) was the center of the universe. Church rituals and dogma were all derived from this “fact”, as was the stratified social order the church tried to implement. Small wonder that the leaders of the early Renaissance church were so adamantly opposed to the new evidence that not everything revolved around Earth, humanity, or even the church. Those who had a vested interest in the social order saw these new facts reducing them from the heavenly-annointed center of the universe to just another rock hurtling around a not-particularly-impressive sun in a distant corner of a medium-sized galaxy in an ever-expanding universe. The political ramifications of that one discovery resonate to this day, and the church has been forced to grudgingly admit that they were wrong … eventually. Galileo wasn’t forgiven by the church until almost four hundred years after his death.

A similar firestorm still rages about evolution by natural selection. Despite the mountains of evidence supporting the theory of evolution, millions of people absolutely refuse to accept it. Like all discoveries, this one changes how we see ourselves. It turns out that we are not divinely created in our current forms, but are rather the result of millions of years of natural selection, whose DNA is nearly identical with that of chimpanzees. Instead of being the lords of creation, we’re just a weird, bipedal mammal with a minor genetic quirk that makes our brains work differently. Some people just cannot accept these repeatedly demonstrated facts, because it means they’d have to see themselves as just a hairless plains ape with a damaged gene sequence.

This particular cultural gap is nothing new, of course. Every generation has its radicals and reactionaries. The bulk of the population, as always, will grumble a bit about the pace of change and then get over it. Those who embrace change and try to push it along will chafe at the reins of what they see as indifference by the public at large and continue to push the boundaries of what we know. Those who are unwilling or unable to adapt to change will eventually die out, because the one constant in the human universe is change.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Current status: Sick and tired

Current music: If You Only Knew by Shinedown

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