What We Talk About When We Talk About Societal Regression

What We Talk About When We Talk About Societal Regression August 26, 2018

Photo Credit: "caropat" at Pixabay.com, CC0 licensing

This week in Colombia, the Constitutional Court overturned a two-year-old ban on bullfighting, citing its traditional nature as a reason for preservation of the practice. The news reached me in the middle of processing another societal regression: the struggle, in countries like Brazil and Ecuador, to keep the influx of Venezuelan refugees from destabilizing local socioeconomic networks. In Brazil, 1,200 refugees were driven out of the country for the alleged actions of a few Venezuelans against a restaurant owner. In Ecuador, the decision only to accept Venezuelans with passports is certain to increase the rate of exploitation through trafficking networks. And even in Colombia, I see the xenophobia in the responses to news articles about Venezuelans captured for crimes–cellphone-theft, vandalism–that local Colombians perpetrate as well. Suffice it to say: even though Colombia is currently maintaining a softer boarder than its neighbours, the strain of Venezuela’s 7 to 10% population exodus has led otherwise innocuous people here in South America, just as in North America and Europe, to hate other persons, instead of the systemic crises coaxing the worst in us all.

“Societal regression”, as I have used the term above, can be a bit of a misnomer, because it implies an immediate state of decline instead of fully absorbing how every era has its regressive elements. When we express horror at a choice to marginalize other sentient suffering by invoking the year–“it’s 2018, people, come on!” we perpetuate an inaccurate view of progress as uniformly progressive. Certainly, I am thankful for modern healthcare and technology (by and large), but for all that our species continues to aggregate knowledge en masse, in the singular case, from person to person, enlightenment is a tediously repetitive affair. This means that petty tribalism can rear its head anywhere, in any era, especially when threats to our sense of safety appear–and this in turn means that people can be nasty and brutish even amid all the trappings of modern rule of law. (20 seasons of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit can’t be wrong!)

So What about the Bulls?

I had a friend once encourage me to attend a bullfight. This lover of backyard squirrels and birds and all tender, scrappy wildlife regarded it as perfect viewing for Easter–the sacrifice of Christ given pointed conduit for Christian reflection in the sacrifice of the bull; the animal’s blood, he described, coming “thick and ropey” amid the languid chaos of the event. I hadn’t been sure he was serious until he provided further detail–his own attendance at a few such things in Europe–and then I could not bring myself to reply. How does one say anything when the idea of watching another animal die for sport is personally unfathomable?

But the correlate between Christianity and bullfighting stuck with me, because the spectacle of the latter is one-sided–the bull is simply fighting for its life, not cognizant of the “show” in which it somehow stands admired–but in the former, even from a secular perspective, whatever street preacher was “crucified” was certainly cognizant of the crowd of followers witnessing his passing. This difference in agency on the part of the suffering is not without a greater impact, either, because the main societal struggle in storytelling about so many other “sacrifices” has been the role of intentionality on the part of the victim. We certainly frame many people’s deaths as sacrifices we hope will motivate change… but are the people in these scenarios closer to the street preacher or the bull in terms of personal awareness of the contribution their deaths will make?

Ivan, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, famously argues that if the price of heaven is even one child’s tears–his examples including a five-year-old enduring abject torture–it is too high a price for persons who value justice: the prize must be refused on the grounds of moral imperative. But even for we secular folk who do not believe that a heaven exists to be refused, the question of human lives sacrificed as part of the generally uneven lurch of progress remains deeply haunting–for what civilization in general could ever be worth that heinous price of admission? Ursula K. Le Guin wondered as much in “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” but one need not look outside the real world for example: How many Venezuelan women sold into sex trafficking rings, or fishermen tortured and murdered by pirates, so that we can “learn a lesson” about the hollowness of another form of government cronyism? How many children dying by U.S.-funded aerial strike to elucidate the evil of international arms trading?

To walk the streets as a secular person, and to read the news as one, I am sometimes compelled to remember that we are all algorithms in motion, up until that motion stops. As such, even the example of the bullfight does not fully encompass the difficulty of describing societal regression, because in the case of our own suffering, we–the competitors ourselves–are the only ones witnessing the spectacle. Today we bear witness; tomorrow, perhaps, we are the bull. How salient, then, remains the claim in Shakespeare’s Macbeth even 400 years on, that “[l]ife’s but a walking shadow, / A poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: / it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? What dignity exists in this state of affairs? Who are we to speak of any life as a sacrifice when all are little more?

Societal Regression, Sacrifice: Can We Do Better?

When I ask questions like the above, it does not surprise me that many spiritual people think atheists gloomy. It is difficult to imagine being otherwise, though, when one knows a four-year-old murdered by its mother to punish a straying father has barely had time alive to gather the simplest notions of its place in the human species, let alone the vastness of the cosmos. What justice therein exists? What hope of “progress”?

Aaron Copland once paraphrased from Paul Valery, “[a]n artist never finishes a work[;] he merely abandons it.” Our lives, too, are never finished so much as “abandoned”–some too soon for anything resembling personal agency over their stories; others, after decades of attempts to reframe what cannot be undone in the name of self-improvement. The same is true for our communal histories, and our civilizations. Perhaps better could have existed in our stead–better people, better cultures, better nation-states–from the outset. But nevertheless, the ones we inhabit are ours.

So how best can we position the array of suffering within them?

Abrahamic religions lean on the rhetoric of “sacrifice”–including, for Christianity, the ultimate sacrifice to redeem all others. In this framework, societal regression also fits neatly with the expectation of a “winding down” of the human narrative. If the end-times might indeed be coming soon, as suggested by the current state of human affairs, then everything wretched in the world is simply hastening along a reconciliation in which “God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Do we have a secular rhetoric to take its place? And is that secular narrative sufficient?

These are chewier questions than a single blog post (or indeed, whole philosophical canons) can hope to resolve–but with any luck, having now laid out the dilemma confronting non-religious folks when we read signs of societal regression in the news, I hope PART II, forthcoming next Sunday, might at least offer meaningful criteria for the evaluation of possible solutions.


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