In a Time of Change, Power Struggles, and Tipping Points, Will Kindness Prevail?
Even as a young child I wanted to understand why common sense was not always common practice. It was simple things that some people did that made no sense to me, like hurting animals or people. What would inflicting pain or humiliation on another creature accomplish? I first studied history, and then psychology, but it was cultural anthropology—the study of the power of belief systems—that helped me answer my questions.
For the last 100 years, Americans have been pushed by new technologies into overwhelming social and cultural power shifts and changing beliefs. When a new technology concentrates energy it changes work and who can do the work. And our belief systems are forced to recognize who benefits and who does not from this shift.
When physical strength, as basic productive energy is replaced by a microchip, and when brain outstrips brawn, it generates monumental social and cultural power shifts. In 1920, 30% of the American labor force was farm workers. Now, only 1.3% of the labor force is in farming and ranching, yet food is more plentiful. Today, an educated paraplegic can be more employable and make more money than an able-bodied person without an education. They can also be less easily replaced by robotics.
On top of this, consider social change in the last 100 years: Women’s right to vote, the rise and fall of unions, desegregation, civil rights, gender equality, disability rights, homosexual rights, and more. Each change, backed by law, gave more legal standing to new groups. A power struggle became inevitable.
The 1960s’ flower children thought they could jolly us into change. I was one of them. “All You Need Is Love” was our anthem. How foolish we were. No group gives up power without a knock-down, drag-out fight. Ask yourself who has lost and gained power over the last century and who is fighting the changes now.
When a culture experiences deep, rapid change, some people are able to adapt through education and experience. Those who cannot or resist try to exploit their remaining advantage: Fighting change gives hope and a chance to win back lost power. It becomes like a tribal sports game. Each tribe wears matching hats and shirts, and cheers for their wins and the other side’s losses. “Push them back, push them back, waaaay back” was a cheer I remember.
Those who feel left behind by change are afraid and angry, and they need a leader. When a leader seems to arrive, character doesn’t matter. No level of corruption, ignorance, self-dealing, megalomania, cruelty, punishing of those who speak out, or disgusting behavior weakens tribal loyalty to a living symbol of a possible rescue from their loss of power.
Some cultural heroes are worse than others. When I consider populist leader-monsters from the past 100 years it’s a fearsome list: Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Saddam, Mao, Joseph McCarthy, Gaddafi, Kim Jong ll, Idi Amin, Pol Pot. At least, so far, America’s anti-heroes rarely kill except in a war somewhere else.
Social power struggles can lead to chaos until there is a tipping point where the absurdity or cruelty of old beliefs lead to their collapse.
There are signals that the current level of cultural and social absurdity is being reached. Harvey Weinstein’s conviction may be a marker for the end of male freedom to maul and rape women. Now even rich and powerful men are in danger of of being punished when they break the law. Some think women now have too much power to hurt men, and others breathe a sigh of relief and say, “It’s about time.”
We are reaching the tipping point of our long, yet still uncomfortable, power shift towards a citizen culture of gender and ethnic equality and diversity. Our current political news is clearly bizarre. When insanity is defended as normal, it expands until it is unmistakable and it becomes clear that the emperor is naked.
When America experiences a social-power tipping point the lynching stops, workers are respected, rapists are jailed, people with disabilities are enabled, children are protected, abuse of animals is punished, and bullies are unacceptable. History tells us that, eventually, more of us value fairness and kindness over greed and cruelty, and in social and cultural power shifts most people choose to adapt.
Civilization is, at its core, the seemingly endless process of learning to be kind.
Jennifer James has a doctorate in cultural anthropology and master’s degrees in history and psychology. She was a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington Medical School. Jennifer is the founding mother of the Committee for Children, an international organization devoted to the prevention of child abuse worldwide.