The Mind Revolution…part three

The new normal

Moral philosophies contributed to a conservative view of reality, where truth was seen to remain fairly constant, and attitudes were slow to change. Thus, for centuries, religious diktat determined much of how people viewed each other and the world. We were all operating within a paradigm. In contrast, revolutions such as that provided by the arrival of science and technology sped up the pace of change of thought. They broke open the paradigm and allowed new ways of thinking to permeate our psyche. Later the arrival of social media has accelerated our changing attitudes. Moral philosophies had defined what was good and right; the individual was meant to follow creed or commandment, as moral philosophies viewed truth as absolute. If, however, reality is not absolute, our ways of thinking are freed from their shackles.

Philosophers such as Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970) and Berger and Luckmann The Social Construction of Reality (1966), began to question the nature of knowledge and reality. They believed that knowledge was not held by the individual, but rather by the groups in society. It was not absolute. Unlike the moral philosophers, they believed that reality is not fundamentally moral or immoral but amoral. This then was the beginning of a whole new mind-set, one based on Constructionism.

“Constructionists see deviance as the consequence of humans attempting to create a moral order by defining and classifying some behaviours, appearance, or statuses as normal, ethical, and acceptable, and creating rules that ban, censure, and/or sanction violators of normality” (Stuart Henry ‘Deviances, Constructionist Perspectives’). In essence then, something is not right or wrong unless a group believes it to be so, and it is the group consensus that produces the deviance by imposing its rules on the situation. The deviant is no longer immoral (bad) but amoral (acts outside of the rules of the consensual view). The former ‘deviant’ would attract the judgement and criticism of the group, whilst the latter ‘different’ is seen to be expressing their difference and is to be tolerated.

Since the 1970s, the world view has incorporated many aspects originating from amoral philosophies such as constructionism. Within this newer way of thinking, something is not inherently right or wrong. Instead, if enough people subscribe to certain behaviour patterns, it becomes acceptable. Thus, the sissy who was once forced to live a life of shame can now come out as gay and the gay pride movement is an established force. Similarly, the illegitimate child, whose mother was once pilloried in society can now legitimately hold her own. There is a black President of the United States whereas in the 1950s, Sammy Davis Jr was not allowed to stay in the hotels he played in, as they refused to take blacks as customers.

With a growing call for tolerance, there is less tendency to judge situations using a moral framework, and more prevalence in viewing such situations using a new narrative; that if enough individuals engage in a certain behaviour, and their desires are supported by others doing similar things, it becomes the ‘new normal’.

Take queuing as an example. In the traditional system, queuing is viewed as the right and proper way of behaving. It is the civilised way as opposed to queue jumping, which is judged to be a game.

“We’re civilised because we subscribe to queuing and you’re uncivilised because you don’t.”

In modern times, this is not so clear cut. The introduction of new concepts, such as ‘fast track’ and ‘cultural diversity’ into our mind-sets has not only challenged the traditional system, it has established alternative systems alongside it. If only one or two people subscribe to the new system, it is weak by comparison with the traditional. However, when many start to use it, it starts to become a norm. For instance,

“Let’s fast track — there’s always a faster system.” Promoted in theme-parks, the idea behind fast tracking is that for an extra payment, the individual is spared the ordeal of queuing. This sets up an alternative means of access, bypassing the traditional queue. Over time, the permission granted by not having to queue has evolved. It has developed into a mind-set that believes there is always an alternative to queuing, even without paying. There are stories in the press recently, where wealthy couples from Manhattan are reportedly hiring a’ handicapped person’ for the day in order to skip to the front of the queue!

“Let’s have some fun — Let’s surge” The idea is that if enough individuals push together, they can break through the system imposed by the queue. The act, which would be viewed as aggressive if performed by a single individual, is often regarded as a bit of fun and the ‘exuberance of youth’, when carried out by many. The arrival of social media has resulted in a new phenomenon whereby large numbers of people agree to congregate together, to have fun/protest/riot as a large group. The surging group often intimidates other on-lookers. The surging group takes over a space either to have fun and dance, to protest (as on the London Underground), or to riot (as in the UK riots in 2011). Those who view it as anything other than fun are often accused as lacking a sense of humour or of being ‘old’. Helen Mirren’s clash (May 2013) with a drumming group outside the theatre where she was performing as ‘the Queen’, is a good example of the traditional world coming head-to-head with the modern surge culture — and what could be more traditional than ‘the Queen’?

“We don’t queue in our country — you queue if you want to”. In a multicultural society, tolerance for other cultures is promoted. The cultural diversity argument often allows those from other cultures to bypass the host country’s norms without attracting criticism. It has led to queuing being viewed as something that you do if you believe in it — without attracting the label of ‘uncivilised’ if you don’t. There are many stories in the press of immigrants being promoted to the head of the housing queue, leaping ahead of nationals who have been waiting patiently for housing, often for many years. In other cultures, officials often expect to be bribed to allow faster access. In a truly multicultural society, there is an established norm, whereas in a ‘many-cultural society’, there are many norms, which often contradict each other and cause chaos and confusion.

Is this not the same testing of norms that happened in the 1960s? After all, there is nothing new in alternative ways of behaving. Surely it is no more than people expressing their individuality? There’s nothing wrong in having fun!

I believe that what happened in the 1960s was an expression against the traditional system. A rebellion against the moral authority held by parents and institutions such as the state and religion. So, if a child disobeyed a parent’s instruction to return from a party by X o’clock, the act would be viewed as a rebellious one, probably entailing a consequence such as punishment. There was a need to acknowledge, firstly that a norm existed (X o’clock) and secondly, that means existed to re-establish the norm (e.g. being ‘grounded’). Thus, in the 1960s, there were very creative ways of expressing self, all against the backdrop of a traditional system against which to rebel. Mary Whitehouse became a symbol of the traditional establishment (old) in her opposition to a more permissive society, as symbolised by the ‘groovy’ generation (new).

Whereas there were florid and colourful ways of expressing individuality, such as the Hippie movement, the 1960s lacked the political and legal underpinnings to establish an alternative culture. However, the push towards the ‘culture of the individual’ had begun. As minority groups seized on the possibility to promote their own agendas, principles such as tolerance, human rights and equality began to challenge social mores such as decency, kindness and moderation.

As legal systems created and were then bound by statutes promoting the rights of individuals, traditional understanding of the law was increasingly challenged. However, it has left many people confused by the new rules. Nowadays if someone ‘breaks’ the traditional rules, they are often left unpunished by the law. They may plead human rights, cultural exceptions or appeal to laws established outside of their own county. Politicians are often left impotent in the face of the judiciary interpreting legislation in favour of individuals, and against the ‘traditional lobby’. The alternative culture has become established in politics and in law.

However alternative cultures have a habit of spawning other counter-cultures, and of creating anxiety and splits. For if we cannot agree on a new settlement where both minorities and majorities feel heard, something has to hold us together and provide the necessary social cohesion. Unfortunately, history teaches us that this is often war or authoritarianism.