Popular culture is worse than it ever has been. The education system is following it into disordered inadequacy. Unemployment is undermining society and perhaps as a result, crime rates are getting scary. Immigration is out of control. It is going to be like the fall of the Roman Empire, with weak government no longer in touch with the lives of the citizenry. The European Union is on the verge of collapse1, and, the Internet era is eroding our ability to form friendships. Youths are not being brought up properly - computer games and the TV are increasingly violent and graphic: films are now nearly all shallow and simple. Social commentator Daniel Goleman warns we now face a "collective emotional crisis" resulting in worsening social dysfunction2. Global warming and the global economy have created insurmountable problems. All of us, in our lives, are going to face chaos and witness the mass failure of morality and decency. The young no longer respect the old. Jobs and marriages are no longer for life. Did I mention the crime rates?
This, with a few variant details, is what they will think in the 2020s, because they also thought it in the 2010s and 2000s. The 1980s was a decade obsessed with the rising power of computers - they'd turn against us soon, for sure. And recessions were seemingly endless - the anarchists were winning. But perhaps they were right in the 1960s where they warned that mass immorality and liberality would destroy civilisation - if we survived nuclear war, that is. Still further back, those same feelings were echoed in the Industrial revolution, at the end of the era of Empires and at the foundation of global shipping which heralded unheard-of immigration and globalisation (hundreds of years ago). As mankind moved into cities, or into towns, the outcry against the changes in morality and customs was as loud as it was paranoid. In the 1st century CE, the Roman philosopher Seneca reassured us that the vices of mankind, including "contempt for morality... are the defects of humankind, not of the times. No era has ever been free from blame" and that "everyone reproves his own age"3. 2,000 years later, and we're still at it! However do we survive?
Luckily for us, it seems that the more people predict chaos, uncertainty, cataclysms and the end of the world as we know it, the less likely it is to actually happen. Crime rates are falling, large scale wars have apparently ceased to occur, worldwide extreme poverty has radically decreased4,5,6, literacy has been rising for hundreds of years, and technology and medical science are making astounding strides in preventing diseases (many of which are now gone for good). Jobs and marriages may not be for life, but we are living twice as long. Absolutely nothing is as bad as people say. The press thrive on bad news. Our egos trick us into thinking we are living in the most important times during our own lives. We're not. Those times are yet to come. The end is yet to come. Just remember to take a leaf from the British: Keep Calm, and Drink Tea.
People mostly think that the times in which they live are more important than any other time. People have been doing this for quite some time. The first century Jewish historian Josephus bemoaned this aspect of Human nature two thousand years ago8 and since then our egos show no sign of letting us be more objective. Our egos make current events in the world around us seem more significant and cataclysmic than at any time in history. The scientist Lawrence Krauss9 states that "we are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful"10. We are, after all, at the centre of our own little universes.
“Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name.”
Academics fall foul of this as much, and probably even more, than the layperson. For example, the sociologist Peter B. Clarke says that "the present age might well be described as an axial age" due to the scope and importance of changes in the current era12. Four sociologists from the Open University staff describe the "contemporary UK" as "a society which appears to almost everyone who lives in it to be in the throes of change"13.
I have never read a historian or social commentator say that they are living through times which are routine. Those who lived through the industrial revolution reported that Humanity was going through its most significant and disastrous change. But now, it is history. It is nothing compared to the telecommunications revolution of the present. Changes which are affecting us in our living lives seem much more important to us than the changes of the past. Once change has passed we no longer experience its importance. It becomes abstract. Changes that affect our own lives are made by our hungry egos into things that must be important for everyone. But future generations will wonder why on Earth we were all so hot under the collar: they will know that their generation lives in the most precarious and important of human times.
For more, see:
Downmarket media publications reflect - and exaggerate - many of the fears of society. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news14,15. There are virtually no checks or quality control mechanisms that newspapers have to adhere to, and, occasional outrages against press misbehaviour are quickly forgotten by paying customers. The purpose of it all is (1) sell more newspapers, or (2) influence public opinion. People are all too willing to believe exaggerated claims. People want their lives to be part of historical drama16. The millennium bug, worldwide pandemics, moral panics and fear that society is going wrong all betray humankind's neophobic reactions to progress and change. Newspaper editors pick on this fear and concoct alarmist stories from everyday events and statistics; for example they publish alarmist articles on dangers from mobile phone masts even though there are none, and there are almost no good-news stories about children despite massively improved circumstances17. Many editors and media owners have explained the usefulness of fear-mongering and sensationalism - it certainly sells more copy than balanced news. Fears become amplified and made more real by their appearance in headlines, creating a hysteria about a topic whereas in reality things are much more mundane and acceptable18. Professional broadcaster Fraser McAlpine says "news outlets are behaving like spoof sites, and they're making spoof sites look like sensible news" and people are finding it harder to tell the difference19. Modern newspapers and news outlets are producing low quality, misleading and untrue stories because they are driven by consumers who prefer entertainment, gloom and outrage rather than serious text of reasonable reading. Some news outlets remain high quality, with good fact-checking and little clickbait; but the modern era in which quantity-of-page-views is more important than reputation means that quality appears to be permanently lost from popular outlets. Always remember that after thousands of hyped-up press warnings, on midnight of the 31st of December 1999, nothing happened.20
For more, see:
It is very common for our egos to convince us that now, around us, are unfolding changes which are more important than those of any other time16. We think that we are witness to the ultimate decline of Human society and that brooding and significant upset awaits on the horizon. It seems to be a universal, negative human apprehension that we think we have noticed this coming catastrophe even while many others carry on regardless.
“[The] media emphasizes the negative and pessimistic side of events and therefore creates perceptual crises of faith where no real crises exists.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr18
Professional sociologists have provided us with a long history of dire warnings. Ordinary folk also perceive that their own areas of interest are going through especially tumultuous times. For example, the children's worker Johann Christoph Arnold (2014)21 says "Teaching has probably never been as difficult as it is now. [...] We live in difficult times and many people have lost their joy in life. [We witness many] gloomy statistics and dire warnings for the future of our society and its children"22.
Here are some more warnings, working backwards in time from the present. Bill Emmott in "The Fate of the West" (2017)23 says we are going through times of pessimism and disintegration of alliances. Before him, Alvin Toffler, an "influential political and cultural theorist... saw the 1980s and 1990s as a period of immense and cataclysmic change"24. A few decades earlier, the great economist Joseph A. Schumpeter25 warned at length about the collapse of capitalism as a result of its insurmountable issues:
“The present generation of economists has witnessed not only a world-wide depression of unusual severity and duration but also a subsequent period of halting and unsatisfactory recovery.”
Historian and public intellectual Gerald Heard thought the same about general humanity. He wrote:
“No one can look at civilization to-day without the liveliest concern. That is a truism - a truism so painfully obvious that we have ceased to be able to respond to it. We turn impatiently away - away to our pleasures or our preoccupations, our amusements or our causes.”
Publishing in 1918 and 1923, Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West stated that European-American culture is now due to slip into decline and, ultimately, to be replaced28. Although all such warnings do eventually come true, because no civilisation lasts forever, it seems that the concentration on current problems makes it hard to see the sources of resourceful adaption and survival, which it seems, cause consistently unpredictable resilience29 in Human cultures. One hundred years later, we're all still here.
And so back in history it continues. As long as we have written about current events, we have written that things are worse than ever. The ancient Dao De Jing is traditionally said to be authored by Lao Zi. He was convinced that civilisation itself was a mistake, which had diverted people from the Dao (true way) and people had become unethical as a result. "Laozi looked back to a Golden Age of agrarian simplicity, when people lived in small villages with no technology, no art or culture, and no war". The solution to the problems of Lao Zi's time was, he argued, to abandon the goal-directed ethos of civilisation, and therefore find The Way, and rediscover how things ought to be. Needless to say, not many sociologists have gone that far in their warnings against modern society.30
For more, see:
To say that "the question of the EU's long-term survival has frequently been raised"31 is a mild way of phrasing it: Every decade has seen a series of doom-laden prophesies from academics and professionals of every calibre, declaring that the project towards institutional European integration is at the end of its life. "Many expected the dissolution of the EC in the 1970s and there was much guesswork as to who would leave first"32. In the 1980s, academics "warned about the possible disintegration of the EEC and even leading members of EC institutions openly spoke of the dismal state that Europe was in. [In] 1982, the president of the European Parliament compared the Community to a 'feeble cardiac patient whose condition is so poor that he cannot even be disturbed by a birthday party'"33. After that dismal diatribe, the pronouncements continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. In 2005 the veteran politician Jean-Claude Juncker said "the EU is not in crises: it is in deep crisis"34. From 2016, Brexit is said to be the latest cause of the imminent disintegration of the EU35,36 amongst other reasons36. A 2017 book The European Union in Crisis37 states that the death-tolls have been sounded so frequently that many people under-estimate the seriousness of the current crises - which is, yet again, the most serious yet38. The EU is always in crises, just like crime is always getting worse, immigrants more dastardly, the weather deteriorating and employment evaporating.
For more, see:
A concerned researcher, Peter de Jager, attempted to warn industry experts that come year 2000, there might be an issue with the system clocks on Windows computers. This was particularly important for servers and networks. As these underlie much business, as well as national infrastructures in general, the problem certainly needed looking into. Jager received little attention, so, he hyped it up a bit. Then, the world's media took note of his warning, and propelled it into a massive story of worldwide doom and gloom way beyond the scale of the 'possible' risk initially pondered by the computer expert.
The press didn't examine the claim and investigate it. It is a simple procedure to set your system clock forward a few years to see what would happen. They didn't ask Microsoft or Intel about it. If the press had engaged with this kind of journalism - the kind that created the press in the first place - they would have discovered that not much happens when a computer's clock reaches the year 2000 and beyond. They could have then reported that some computer software firms are making outlandish claims in order to sell expensive yet pointless bug-finding software. But that's not what happened and even if they did know the truth, the papers wouldn't have ran it.
“By the late 1990s, a final wave of sources joined in as all kinds of maniacs and religious groups cranked up the anxiety to the point of apocalypse. They were led by Gary North of Christian Reconstruction who declared that 'We need times so hard that men will turn to God.' Mr North had got in early, explaining in 1997 [...] 'Month by month, fear will spread. Doom and gloom will sell, as it has never sold before. I have positioned my name, my site, and Christian Reconstruction in the center of this fear. All I have to do now is to report bad news.”
Gary North of Christian Reconstruction sounds rather like a modern newspaper editor! If the news services checked their facts, his claims would not have made the news.
When the Millennium Bug's big day came, nothing happened.
For more, see:
We expect to find religious fanatics proclaiming that their own religion's codes of conduct ought to be adhered to, otherwise people will suffer the consequences. They say this because they believe in their own religion. For example after Anselm was banished from England at the turn of the 12th century, his fans warned that unless Anselm returned, Christianity risked complete extinction, and that "the most shocking customs" were prevailing - men were daring to wear long hair without fear of reprisal40! These Christians expected complete social moral collapse if the minutiae of their religion was not observed. They said so, because they believed in the Archbishop's religion. What isn't so expected is also finding some sociologists and academics fearing that the loss of religion in the West will result in mass degeneration and immorality on a scale that is society-threatening. Yet lo and behold, this warning gets repeated about every decade, at least since the 1960s.
Religions almost universally emphasize the moral duty of the individual. "God knows all" as the Qur'an and Bible repeat: examples in the Christian Bible include Job 28:24, 37:16; 1 John 3:19-20; and very frequently in the Qur'an: the first chapter (after the introduction) iterates God's omniscience ten times, for example Sura 2:29,77,85,115,137. We all answer to God eventually. Buddhism and Hinduism likewise teach that we pay the consequences of this life throughout our next. So many people come to think of religions as being a bastion of moral thinking, because, religions tend to dramatize and exaggerate the rewards and punishments of good and bad behaviour. Don't forget that when Psalms 14:1 says "the fool saith in his heart that there is no God", the word it uses in Hebrew also means immoral people: immoral people say 'there is no god'. This emphasis is strong amongst laypeople: despite their record against human rights on an institutional and national level, locally popular religions are often seen as a force for good and there is a general belief that religion supports morality41. A 2002 poll in the USA, an unusually religious country for its state of development, found that on average 44.5% of the adults believed that "It is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values"42. This included both church-goers and laypeople. 65% of regular churchgoers believed it, thinking therefore that the vast majority of the members of "wrong" religions therefore could not be moral people. This ridiculous belief is still held by 25.7% of those who never attend church. Although it is hard to believe that this level of ignorance can exist in the rest of the world, the underlying belief was more popular in pre-modern times throughout the world. Academics have also toed this line; Talcott Parsons in 1966 said the same thing, merely using bigger words. After saying that what makes moral rules valid is a 'legitimation system', he adds that 'a legitimation system is always related to, and meaningfully dependent on, a grounding in ordered relations to ultimate reality. That is, its grounding is always in some sense religious. [...] The process of secularization, then, undermines the system of legitimation by which a society's rules seem to be grounded in ultimate reality.'43
Bryan Wilson is an insightful and respected sociologist of religion. Even he, in 1982, warned of mass breakdown in morality in the West if the religious underpinnings of moral propriety were forgotten.
“As Wilson (1982: 52) concludes, 'Unless the basic virtues are serviced, unless men are given a sense of psychic reassurance that transcends the confines of the social system, we may see a time when, for one reason or another, the system itself fails to work...' [...] Wilson (1982: 86) describes how secularization resulted in the breakdown of morality in Western societies: 'When in the West, religion waned, when the rationalistic forces inherent in Puritanism acquired autonomy of their religious origins, so the sense of moral propriety also waned - albeit somewhat later, as a cultural lag. Following the decline of religion [... and the resultant] process of moral breakdown [... we should have] genuine concern about the role of morality in contemporary culture' (Wilson 1982: 87)”
After Parsons in 1966 and Wilson in 1982, Karen Armstrong repeats the same story in "A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4" (2005)46, arguing that myth is essential for good ethics and meaningful living. How do all of these thinkers rationalize the fact that many god-believers, myth-believers and suchlike, appear to commit the same atrocities and immoralities as unbelievers? From the Dark Ages presided over by Christianity, to the spectre of Islamist brutality against (for example) women and gays in Islamic countries, it seems that religious morals are hardly a panacea. Karen Armstrong dismisses these problems with the odd concept that they are caused by "failed myths"47. An element of double-think appears to be in place: if religious people do good, it is because they are religious, whereas if they do wrong, it is because they are fallible human beings. Such circular logic ought to be challenged wherever it is heard.
So there are numbers of people who, if they want to be good or, wants to be seen as good, will gravitate towards religion simply because they think it is what required. These people, who have come to actively choosing to be a better person, will find that their efforts are rewarded whether or not they choose to do it within a religious framework.
There is plenty of evidence that religion is not required. Parson in 1966 and Wilson in 1982 both warned of systematic collapse in morality if secularisation continued. It not only continued, but has accelerated. There has been no mass failure. Crime is down, wars are shorter, violence is down. It happens that people can also adopt non-religious and secular philosophies in order to promote good moralizing. Secular movements such as the British Humanist Association and IHEU (International Humanist and Ethical Union) are devoted to encouraging moral behavior, moral thinking, overall conscientiousness and rationality. The main difference between these and religious groups who do the same, is that the religious groups often teach that they are the only valid source of morals.
Social commentator Daniel Goleman warns we now face a "collective emotional crisis" resulting in a worsening social dysfunction because of the modern inability to communicate with others properly - "he sees 'a growing calamity in our shared emotional life,' which is expressed in martial violence, child abuse, rising juvenile delinquency, and the increasing incidence of depression and post-traumatic stress. American schoolchildren shooting their classmates, teenage pregnancy, bullying, drug abuse, and mental illness are some of the consequences of the public's refusal to attend to its emotional needs"49. Our very grasp of language is slipping through our hands - the effects of the Internet on English writing and English grammar has been disastrous.
But all of this has been seen before. It seems that every generation has an upper echelon on wingers and complainers who busy themselves warning that society is about to collapse. William Langland stated that English is in decline, and that our schools have given up enforcing good standards of English - "there is not a single modern schoolboy who can compose verses or write a decent letter", Langland warns us all. Ranulph Higden sounded the same warning a year later, stating that the cause is the continual mixing of English with other languages is the cause. But Higden was not thinking of netspeak, pigeon English or colourful ghetto slang. Because Higden wrote that in 1387, and William Langland wrote his warning in 1386. In 1577 Richard Stanihurst bemoaned the loss of standards of English, and in 1672 the intellectual John Dryden warned that even the intellectuals of his era had lost the knack of skilled English-writing. Every century sees the same old warnings, repeated anew, with fresh urgency and contemporary examples, all proving that English is doomed.50
End-of-the-world-mania is dependent upon certain properties of human ego. We want to witness important historical times, and we want to be at the fore and center of tumultuous and attention-grabbing events. There have been thousands of end-of-the-world predictions. They have been the products of many great minds and have had many devoted believers from various religions and cults. For example in Christian England alone, during the reformation, "eighty books were published on the subject of the world's end"51. All have put a lot of time and effort in to each and every prediction, building up supporting evidence from religious texts, historical trends and numerology. What do all these predictions have in common about the end of the world? They have all been wrong. Those promoting these fears, and those subject to them, are all in the grips of their own ego!
The cumulative effect of a constant overall perception of risk contributes to poor mental health; those suffering from serious psychological distress think that their local area is less safe and more violent than do others. It looks like this perception alone can induce more stress than actual risk.
The United Nations Human Development Report (2022)54 presents multiple data sets showing an overall increase in worry and stress: in these uncertain times, people more than ever need to be have a better appreciation of real crime and safety statistics - they need the truth!
“Feelings of distress have been on the rise for almost everyone everywhere, even before the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet conventional measures of wellbeing suggest that, on average, life has never been better for our species.”
“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years. Child mortality is plunging. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.”
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014)4
Crime rates are falling, large scale wars have apparently ceased to occur and other forms of violence are mostly decreasing56,57. From 1990 and 2015, "more than 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty"5. Literacy has been rising for hundreds of years, and technology and medical science are making astounding strides in preventing diseases (many of which are now gone for good). We are living longer5, and healthier, lives.6. Absolutely nothing is as bad as people say. The press thrive on bad news. Our egos trick us into thinking we are living in the most important times during our own lives. We're not. Those times are yet to come. The end is yet to come. Just remember to take a leaf from the British: Keep Calm, and Drink Tea.
“Progress in human development has been impressive over the past 25 years. People now live longer, more children are in school and more people have access to basic social services. [... From 1990 to 2015] more than 1 billion people escaped extreme poverty, 2.1 billion gained access to improved sanitation and more than 2.6 billion gained access to an improved source of drinking water [and] the global under-five mortality rate was more than halved. [...] The global net loss of forested areas fell from 7.3 million hectares a year... to 3.3 million during 2010-2015. [...] Gender equality and women´s empowerment are now mainstream dimensions of any development discourse. [Taboos are slowly opening for discussion including] discriminations faced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people; and female genital mutilation and cutting. Awareness of sustainability has been growing. The 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement on climate change are prime examples.”
“The 21st century has witnessed great progress in living standards, with an unprecedented number of people around the world making a "great escape" from hunger, disease and poverty [alongside] dramatic improvements in ... infant mortality rates.”
One recurring comment is made by Jeremy Paxman at the annual finales of University Challenge, a quiz show that pits two seemingly omnipotent teams of University students against each other in a test of knowledge and cognitive ability: After presenting the trophy, he proudly declares that the teams have "demonstrated yet again that all this stuff about young people not knowing things is RUBBISH!"58. Clearly, despite the internet, mass entertainment and the many other ailments of modern society, our youth are still able to excel.
Even before the modern era of explicit human rights, tolerance and enforced avoidance of prejudice, things were getting better culturally. Although political and societal failings were about to make things much worse in an era where there were too few co-operative strands holding countries together, Schumpeter wrote the following in 1942 describing the developing positiveness of much of Western culture:
“There never was so much personal freedom of mind and body for all, never so much readiness to bear with and even to finance the mortal enemies of the leading class, never so much active sympathy with real and faked sufferings, never so much readiness to accept burdens, as there is in modern capitalist society; and whatever democracy there was, outside of peasant communities, developed historically in the wake of both modern and ancient capitalism.”
Warning against the spectre of the divisive and destructive kind of nationalism that has reared up against in several Western countries in the last 2010s, Bill Emmott finds reason to sound a positive note:
“Open societies often think they are in crisis, shortly before finding their escape route from it. [...] There is ample cause for optimism. Our record, as Western countries, of confounding our own doubters and of dealing with our own demons, should give us confidence that once again this fight can be won.”
We are slowly getting more peaceful as a species61. Although over the past 15 years there have been decreases in 75 countries, 86 became more peaceful62. In the long term, the overall trend is that humanity is getting less violent63,57. Most people are feeling this effect, with 75% of people globally feeling safer in 2021 than five years before62. Deaths from conflict between humans have been decreasing over the millennia; legal systems and centrally organized states have been effectively reducing interpersonal conflict. In modern times, the best places at doing this are highly democratic, comitted to human rights, and interlinked with their neighbours economically and culturally.
“[Today] you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It's impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, "What is the world coming to?". Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.”
Steven Pinker (2011), Wall Street Journal63
For more, see:
The mass media, including news outlets and newspapers, are a powerful influence on most people64,65. News media and journalism outlets influence public opinion and therefore democracy itself so their reach and power is not to be taken lightly66. The press has "responsibilities to the public interest: to respect the truth, to obey the law and to uphold the rights and liberties of individuals"67. Good journalism is good for democracy68,67, but, unfortunately the most popular news feeds in most Western countries have degraded into poor-quality sensationalism, which is effecting democracy and degrading society69. Aside from the biases that are to be expected from corporations and editors, tabloids in particular portray the world in an unrealistic way. The warnings of academics about the institutional biases of Murdoch's news outlets are longstanding and the bias is so great that it has a statistically detectable effect. In the USA, a University study from 2011 found that those who watched Murdoch's Fox News channel were less knowledgeable about current events even than those who watched no news at all - in other words, Fox News spreads misinformation70. Studies have shown that education, and consuming respectable news instead of trash, results in a more sensible appreciation of the world in all matters, including views on the economy and crime rates. This is also about the tendency for people to accept overly negative and foreboding forecasts of societies' declining moral worth. Research reveals that excessive television dulls the mind, causes stupidity, causes failure at school and perpetuates ridiculous and simplistic stereotypes. Social commentator Robert Todd Carroll71 warns that "a critical reader must not assume that stories we read in the press or hear on TV are true" even when similar stories are repeated by multiple outlets72. Educating people that TV is fiction, and that violence is wrong, can reduce some of these effects and break the link between TV violence and criminal aggression. Media studies lecturers teach students that by understanding the power and influence of the news and the mass media, and by understanding its failures, "people are better able to resist the power of 'the media'"64.
For more, see:
Poor quality press and news reports portray a biased and skewed vision of the world. This is not just a form of gloomy entertainment. It has real-world effects on the life of society. The social academic Michael J Mazarr says that the "media emphasizes the negative and pessimistic side of events and therefore creates perceptual crises of faith where no real crises exists"18. Research shows that the contents of the news that people read does affect their opinions and attitudes whether or not they 'trust' them. "Over 70 per cent of viewers trust television news as fair and accurate, while only one-third trust newspapers"73. Although surveys of trust show that people do not trust much they find in newspapers, the contents of those papers effects their worldviews nonetheless. Despite intellectual doubt, the contents of trashy, poor-quality news is insidious and subconsciously absorbed.
“In 1991 the [Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, DC] did an exhaustive analysis of network news and New York Times stories on the rapidly recovering U.S. economy. An astounding 96 percent of stories about the general economy were negative in tone; pessimism occupied 87 percent of the stories on real estate, 88 percent of the features on the auto industry, and a perfect 100 percent of stories on manufacturing. [Now] the intervening years have produced one of the longest economic expansions of the postwar era, [it] looks positively foolish.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr74
“The media play a significant role in provoking ... irrational attitudes. There is no such thing as good news when it comes to children. In January 2000, a report by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children indicated that no babies were abducted from U.S. hospitals in 1999. This story could have been used to reassure expecting mothers but was swiftly buried. On the other hand, every negative incident involving [causes a media storm].”
"Paranoid Parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child" by Frank Furedi (2002)17
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a hardworking charity organisation famed for the genuine progress it makes in fighting disease and poverty in Africa, report that in every measurable way, things are better in Africa than ever before, and indeed, around the world:
“You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated [but instead] I´m struck by how few people think the world is improving, and by how many actually think the opposite - that it is getting worse. [...] The belief that the world is getting worse, that we can´t solve extreme poverty and disease, isn´t just mistaken. It is harmful. It can stall progress. It makes efforts to solve these problems seem pointless. It blinds us to the opportunity we have to create a world where almost everyone has a chance to prosper.”
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014)4
Mazarr describes the classical sociological studies that concentrated on this negative view of the world. It became commonly known as the Pessimism Syndrome. The author continues to consider what solutions there might be to such an inbuilt, subconscious bias.
“The first element of the solution involves a demand for more objectivity on the part of the news media. It would be wrong, and simplistic, simply to ask network news broadcasters or weekly newsmagazines to report "happy news"; ignoring problems is no alternative to exacerbating them, and one of the media's most important roles is to uncover social ills. [...] More fundamentally, the real solution to the pessimism syndrome is education. Citizens of developed and developing nations alike need a context to understand information they receive, a basis of objective facts that help moderate the news.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr75
Mazarr points out that education is the key to shattering the dark glass that the popular press portrays the world through. Supporting his view are statistics on what people believe about crime rates. The Home Office highlighted an undercurrent of the pessimism syndrome when it complained about the public perception of crime rates: That the trash tabloids are its principal voicepieces and tabloid readers' perception of crime rates are more skewed than readers of better newspapers.
Two major points:
The Pessimism Syndrome affects tabloids and popular opinion, resulting in outlandishly negative slants even on economies or crime trends that are doing well.
Readers of national tabloids fall victim to this mis-reporting more than readers of broadsheet newspapers.
We have seen two factors that help prevent this skewed representation of reality:
Education in general facilitates a more objective and realistic reading of the news.
Avoiding the tabloids and trashy news services results in a more realistic outlook of events and trends.
It is the trashy tabloids and popular weekly magazines that are most damaging, but despite this they remain by far the most successful.
The popular presses have exaggerated events and created "moral panics" about some issues where there was not actually a problem. A sociologist who writes on this topic, Erich Goode, points out the media's active role in the creation of many issues, including: The UFO craze, the dramatizing and wholesale exaggerating of 'epidemics' of violence in school, the phantom of Satanic ritual abuse in the 1960s, the paedophile abduction of children, and even the 'fact' of increasing crime. It has been editorial policy in nearly all titles (except the qualities) since the 1980s to pick on popular fears or worries and to exaggerate and emphasize them with alarming headlines, such as with the millennium bug76. These are (or were) seen in the papers over and over, and all evaporated as the evidence and any supporting statistics failed to materialize.77.
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“ANCIENTS AND MODERNS: The great dispute between the ancients and the moderns is not yet settled; it has been on the table since the silver age succeeded the golden age. Mankind has always maintained that the good old times were much better than the present day.”
"Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary" by Voltaire (1764)79
But is it really true? One critical thinker from 1998, Anton LaVey in San Francisco, USA, highlights some home truths about the state of how things used to be in the recent past:
“Having been a rebellious youth, I can attest that the "good old days" were not so good. First off, conformity - right or wrong - was king. [...] It's easy to argue that one conforms just as much today, but to different standards. But I believe there is more room for individual, out-of-the-closet non-conformity than ever before - if the opportunity is taken. Things we now take for granted were once so tabooed as to be unthinkable. [...]
If you were traveling abroad and got homesick, you couldn't jump on a jet and be back in your own bed in a few hours. Mail was slow, and long distance telephone was a costly luxury. Well-made products were so well made that it took four strong men to move an item that could now be single-handedly lifted into a van. [...] Driving a car was a greater risk. Tires blew out. [...] Brakes failed. [...] Radiators overheated. [...]
Clothing was of fine material - and heavy, uncomfortable, hot, scratchy, and hard to maintain. [...] Dress codes were rigorous. I could not buy a black shirt, and had to have them made. [...] Adornments like earrings on a man were unknown. No respectable man had tattoos, and if a woman didn't wear a corset or girdle, she was a slut. [...] People smelled pretty strong. Heavier clothing made them sweat. [...]
Intolerance was rampant [and] anyone who was slightly different fair game for ridicule or insult.
It was a much crueler world for the elderly, the handicapped, and children. [...] Con artists and poseurs always had an audience because everyone was more polite and well-mannered and trusting to a fault. [...] Food preferences were not catered to in the good old days.”
When people say "things used to be better" they are often thinking only of one or two contentious topics. All of the mundane, day-to-day improvements become so commonplace that they are easy to overlook: increasing tolerance, equality and diversity, mass communication, the internet, good clothes, consumerist choice, accountable government, the rule of law: all of these are taken for granted to the extent that we no longer feel the pain from the times when none of them stood on firm ground. Yes, some things were better. Life is now overcrowded, the natural world is decimated, the pace of change is quicker, technology is inescapable and peace and quiet are surely harder to find. But in comparison with the past, these are petit concerns. Things have never been so good as in the current era! Golden-age thinking is flawed and short-sighted.
In the depths of the cities of secular Europe, and out of the moral confines of the most commercial part of the computer industry in the USA, non-religious communal spirit is proving itself inextinguishable.
The British Crime Survey (from civilian disclosure, not police stats) has found that people's experience of crime has dropped from 15 million crimes per year in the 1990s to 10 million in the 2000s (despite a rising population). The Home Office reports that, from police statistics, crime has been falling for 10 years81. Yet 65% of the population report that they think crime is rising, according to the academic of journalism, Lewis (2009)82. Over this period, religion has continued its serious decline in the UK. See: "Mass Media: Sensationalism, Panics and Exaggeration: 1. Perception of Crime Rates in the UK and USA" by Vexen Crabtree (2016).
Over 10,000 volunteers worked hard in the rubble of 9/11 twin towers, basing themselves at nearby St Paul's Church which became a welfare HQ in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack83.
After the UK riots in 2011 Aug (centred on London) a spontaneous wave of thousands of enthusiastic volunteers was organised by ordinary people online into clearing-up parties. Symbolic gestures of communal love appeared on "love walls" featuring thousands of post-its and messages. These saw the general citizenry proclaim their positive feelings for the communities and places they lived in. No-one had to profess any particular religion, theological belief and no-one denied consumerism or materialism in order to do it. In today's secular Britain, I suspect they didn't even care what each other's beliefs were. They stood up for what they believed in, whilst not being aggressive themselves. Moral society has not died; it has merely ceased to be religious.
After the death of Princess Diana in 1997, London saw a remarkable togetherness in the mourning of a shared public symbol often in a shared, public way. Sociologists talked of a "civil religion" whereby national symbols such as Diana command a pseudo-religious respect and devotion.
A suite of organisations from national bodies such as the British Humanist Association, to international ones such as the International Humanist and Ethical Union, are continually growing, priding themselves of providing outlets for non-religious moral and ethical activism and debate, engaging constantly in human-rights battles. Their usual opponents are non-democratic hardline political regimes abroad, and, fundamentalist religious groups at home, both of which are often found actively fighting against human rights and equality. See: Humanism.
The richest man on Earth founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and gave away more money than the combined wealth of dozens of countries. So the world's greatest philanthropist is a commercialist entrepreneur who made billions from modern technology and who is an agnostic if not an atheist, and considers religion to be a waste of time84.
You can't count or quantify these elements of communal pseudo-spirituality in the same way you can count people entering Churches, but, such things have not disappeared alongside shared Christianity in the West. The world is not simple enough to simply blame areligious materialism for social ills. Most of the world's most horrendous human-rights abusers are intensely religious countries, and, most of the world's poorest countries lack free markets. It must therefore be noted as rather odd when religious types claim to represent the moral side of mankind.
For more, see:
Africa has developed no banking system infrastructure, and no telecommunications network. Doctors, emergency services, government officials and humanitarian workers had to improvise with patchy communications and, frequently, little knowledge about local areas. The moniker of 'the dark continent' seems apt for this reason. But, mobile phone technology has allowed the most backwards continent to become a trend-setter: as mobiles do not require cabling infrastructure, they have been used there for mobile banking and as mobile wallets, a feat which is only popular in the most advanced country of all, Japan.
Modern technology has heralded a long series of amazing advances. The Internet, computers, international travel, high tech science experiments helping us learn about entire galaxies and the formation of the universes billions of years ago, medical science which has eradicated large numbers of serious and horrible diseases through vaccinations, and an untold number of other improvements to all of our lives... all of this gets ignored by the doom-laden prophecies of the disenfranchised. The rate of success in applying advanced science and advanced technology in our everyday lives is not only progressing surely and nicely, but it is accelerating and has been since the industrial revolution. All negative effects have been spotted, debated and mitigated (except, perhaps, for climate change).
“The world has been so dogged by bad news of late that it is almost possible to forget about tiny miracles like the LOC. But two timely new books remind us that boffins continue to make the world a better place even as politicians strive to do the opposite. Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler make a breezy case for optimism in Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. Eric Topol provides a more considered look at why medicine is about to be Schumpeterised (his word) by digital technology. These books are a godsend for those who suffer from Armageddon fatigue. They also remind us that technology keeps improving despite economic gloom.”
The Economist (2012)85
In case you are wandering: LOC = Lab On Chip. 'A small device with a huge potential. It can run dozens of diagnostic tests on human DNA in a few minutes. Give the device a gob of spit or a drop of blood and it will tell you whether or not you are sick without any need to send your DNA to a laboratory. In poor countries LOCs could offer diagnostics to millions who lack access to expensive laboratories. In the rich world they may curb rising medical costs'.
The family is not about to break down causing anarchy on every street. Families survived our move into cities, they survived the worst and longest depressions of history, they survived world wars that saw most adult males go to war and many of them die, and families survive in circumstances so difficult it is painful to read about. Sociologist Ronald M. Green employs (and coined) a nifty little phrase for this: PLAAP: Parental Love Almost Always Prevails, and talks of the massive improvements that have been made the world over in medicine that affects the family (aside from where religious institutions successful oppose them). Further advances, say in genetic engineering, will also not destroy the family:
“So it is not clear to me that genetic testing or gene enhancement will endanger parental love. [...] Because the family is the center and source of so much that we value, we should be worried about anything that threatens it. But many of our fears are overblown. Consider this. Less than a century ago, in my grandmother's day, almost every decision about becoming parents, including the timing, spacing, and number of children, was left to chance. Today we use contraception to determine how many children we will have and when we will have them. If we face infertility, we use high-tech medicine and test-tube conception to procreate. People needing the help of sperm or egg donors choose those donors from catalogues providing detailed information about the donor's traits and background. Women routinely undergo dozens of prenatal tests to ensure the health of the child. [...] Has any of this impaired parenting?”