We live in turbulent times. Times of fast, sometimes inexplicable, change. But change is not new, it is intrinsic to our way of life.
‘All that’s solid melts into air’, wrote Marx when describing in the coming of modernity and the dynamism of capitalism. Traditional societies were essentially stable and changed little (which is not to say that they didn’t change at all), whereas modernity brought continuous change and ‘melted’ tradition. Today, some 170 years after Marx wrote those lines, change has speeded up so that now we may talk of ‘accelerated modernity.’ Change is continuous and rapid. We can barely pause to take a breath.
Consider my mother: she was born in 1922 and witnessed a depression, a world war, a torrent of motor cars (instead of a trickle); the arrival of television, a moon landing, personal computers, jet flights, mass tourism, the internet, more wars….and so on. And it is not so long ago that I had my first lap top, smart phone, watched television be eclipsed by streaming and seen the realisation of climate change…. Not to mention a pandemic!
However, more significant than all these technological changes, I believe, have been cultural changes that have seen the destabilisation of the concept of truth, the fragmentation of homogeneous cultures, the splintering of the family, information overload and the decline of authoritative accounts of ‘right and wrong.’
Once, not too long ago, people believed that there was one objective truth that could be discovered, possibly by science. In tandem, there was a widespread sense that there was something solid to believe in (e.g. progress). We no longer have faith in one absolute truth or belief system. Rather, we accept that there are a multitude of context specific truths and beliefs.
Many people struggle in times of rapid change and feel the need for certainty. All the more so when those changes undermine their social and economic well-being. It is no coincidence that populist authoritarian regimes like the German Nazi’s and the US’s very own Donald Trump (though I do not think the two are identical) arose in times of great uncertainty. A good many people look to authoritarian father figures for certainty about who to blame and what to do. Simple slogans often do the trick. Many Trump supporters felt they were being screwed by the system. They were right. But they got the wrong targets and the wrong solutions. The solutions are complex and uncertain. Trump offered a (false) promise of simple solutions and a certain destination (Make America Great Again).
What to do? My brief answer (which would require more space to fully address) is through a combination of accepting evidence as a necessary if contingent basis of action, along with the values of democracy, respect, compassion, equality, and justice.
I note that in a blog that set out to be about writing, I have written a couple of pieces about politics. I might return to the question of writing and politics another day. But for now I would note that, for me, writers should address the concerns of their times (or any time) as a part of their purpose.