This is a bunch of posts that I’ve been writing put together because they vaguely intersected.
This is the first of my long form posts of the year, in truth, I had a bunch of posts in my drafts around cancel culture, virtue signalling, progress and normalcy and while writing those posts out, I found a common thread that I thought was worth exploring and ,perhaps, aptly, this is titled homogenous culture.
Although maybe it should be called multiple homogenous non-geographical culture, but, that’s a mouthful.
I have to say at the outset that none of this is based on hard data, rather these are just my broad thoughts on this loosely defined topic, also I don’t really have a proper conclusion for this post - just a collection of thoughts - so consider yourself warned.
One of the weird things that the web promised to do and eventually did over past 5 years is it broke geographical boundaries.
With it came this a set of common values, fears, leaders, and worries that cut across geographical boundaries but bound themselves through ideology which is usually rooted in the common values and leaders that one identifies with.
The common values and leaders however, more often than not, are irrelevant to an individuals life geographically, which is a incredibly modern phenomenon - yes in the general sense, great movements where inspired by people all over the world, but, the common man was not influenced to this extent by people they had no geographical connection to.
Another aspect of this is the ideological worries sometimes supercede problems closer to home which are more apparent and have a larger impact on daily life, which leads to a homogenous set of problems which for the unaffected become topics of conversation through which to identify people who connect on this non-geographical plane.
One of the effects of this is the misapprehension that battles have been won when they have been won online. This has proved time and again not to be the case, not because of a silent majority or bubble, mostly because of apathy when it comes to online discourse.
Another effect of this is the need to conform, while not an overwhelming need and definitely not a critique of everyone, there’s enough people out there who will meet any sidestep with ad hominem and the larger the platform, the wider the spread of the ad hominem, this is unfortunate and I don’t see this changing.
I have to point out at this point that this post is influenced heavily by an essay by Bertrand Russell called ‘Modern Homogeneity’ : I’ll use a couple of snippets to highlight why this is in my view one of the better essays in terms of predictions of where we have ended up as a society, while some of his other essays like ‘The Case for socialism’ and ‘The ancestry of fascism’ have not aged well given what has happened in the past 70 years, this one stands tall in my view.
It has been 4 years since I read the essay and when I went back to find the right passages, I found them already marked by me, for me.
“The greater the uniformity that in fact exists, the more eager the search for differences that may mitigate it”
In a weird way uniformity/homogeneity encourages people to criticise the people who differ only slightly from themselves on issues because the cost/difference is so slight that it is much more easily overcome than one who is far away in terms of principles.
The effect of this expectation of uniformity from those closest to us in terms of thought and identity is perhaps a misunderstood war against one’s allies.
“Perhaps the greatest of all forces for uniformity in the modern world is the cinema,….. Our emotions in regard to love and marriage, birth and death are becoming standardised according to this recipe.”
This quote is tangential to this topic, but, one that I feel is one of the better predictions from the essay. The normalisation ( not in terms of acceptance, but, plotting on curve ) of emotions on the events of one’s life through media is at its peak today, where it is now sold in small packages which analyse the smallest pieces of grief, happiness through multiple perspectives. This in itself isn’t wrong, I think its fantastic that movies are now showcasing voices that were left behind in the past, what I think needs to happen along with this is an pseudo-education to ensure that we don’t take the emotions of the characters as a template on how to live our lives.
“One of the dangers of uniformity as an aim : good qualities are easier to destroy than bad ones, and therefore uniformity is most easily achieved by lowering all standards”
Which brings me to an interesting online phenomenon - cancel culture.
I covered one aspect of this is a previous post called depedestal.
The post is quite simple, the central idea is the acceptance of the fact that everyone is by default fallible, which isn’t super insightful, but, the point is we assign infallibility or the refusal to accept fallibility onto some people in modern life which makes it difficult to accept when people fail at the standards that we set for them.
The surprising aspect of online fallibility is that, given the fact that everyone is fallible, everyone is always surprised to discover that someone is fallible and the impact or the level of fallibility is really based on who the ‘cancelling’ person is rather than the person being cancelled and the faults that they must own. What this promotes or leads to cyclical or circular its hard to say which exactly but either type of continual cancelling based on the person ‘cancelling’.
This is a tough time to be imperfect. Especially if the person who made the mistake is no longer who you are.
Growth as a person is another thing that is considered a definite thing but, growth needs to be public or acknowledged publicly, if not, growth is not acknowledgeable.
The thing about cancel culture is that at the end of the day, it is just a lot of people utilising their freedoms to voice their opinions on an event about a person/some people, which is fantastic, the fact that most people feel empowered enough and safe enough to express their views online is a good thing.
The problem when it comes to evaluating an online movement/people expressing their voices online is that we do not really know how many people want something cancelled.
There are a lot of reasons why people participate in online discussions, some to comment, some to detract, some to affirm, some to support, some to attack the individual offering the opinion.
The fact that something is being discussed is not in itself proof that it deserves to be cancelled, it is only proof that it is controversial.
One of the things that I was not comfortable with 5 years ago, but, super comfortable with today is the idea that not all opinions are equal. Me commenting on an issue that has had and will have little impact on me (e.g : women’s safety) is significantly less valuable than literally any woman who could offer her opinion on this, purely because I lack the experience that such a person has.
This is not to say that a solution to the problem should be crafted only by the demographic that is most affected by it, this only means to say that the demographic most affected by it needs to have a large say in the definition of the problem and the ramifications of possible solutions. I’m reminded of a q&a that Milton Friedman did a long time ago.
The doctor analogy is a good one because the patient might not be in the position of power ( for a variety of reasons , most likely a lack of medical knowledge ) and hence will not be able to solve the problem on their own, but, the truth that matters the most in the understanding of the problem that the patient is having is the experience that the patient is able to detail to the doctor, not anyone else is the room, the doctor might still be right person to solve it, but, it doesn’t matter what the doctor thinks until the patient is heard. This applies to a bunch of other social issues as well.
The reason I bring this up is that sometimes this is lost when it comes to online discourse, while I think cancel culture has its positives, it has brought to light perspectives that were afraid of coming forward, provided an avenue to validate voices that might have gone unheard in traditional means of justice because of the power that lies in the hands of accused, it does suffer from a few tendencies that I feel are worth pointing out.
I think do honestly think that the end of result of this form of cancelling people, where guilt is assumed by default ( and no this is not a clamour for let the courts decide or trust but verify ) based on who the accused/accuser are, sometimes I think back to the courtroom scene in And justice for all where Al Pacino’s monologue begins - especially in the wake of the metoo movement, will be in effect a weird stagnation of culture, because any form of movement either way would be opposable in fragments.
The modern controllers or signposts of culture are decentralised with a high signal to noise ratio, in essence what has happened is that thinking about an event is outsourced and reacting is left to the crowd, which is superbly lapped up.
This leads to a stagnation of culture because the gatekeepers have no incentive for culture to evolve, the crowd is effectively left with too much rage about and not enough to think about, gatekeepers on all sides make their followers believe that they are the hunted which leads to weird situations where all sides of an argument post the same quote about fascism and everyone is a fascist in the opposing factions eye.
Stagnation could also stem from the application of modern standards for past mistakes, which can get exhausting because we’ll be left criticising people who might not be able to defend themselves, or maybe people who have since changed for the better but, didn’t publicly acknowledge the mistake because they weren’t in the public eye then, who knows, the fact is, and I think Taleb coined a nice term - Anachronistic Bigoteering - for this, has no upside for anyone and this goes back to the third quote from the essay by Russell about the lowering of standards.
Everyone is brought down societally to the same level for crimes that they may or may not have committed but sure as hell cannot defend themselves against.
This is a weird time to live in, perhaps for the first time in recorded history, superficiality, a usually uncelebrated trait is the biggest currency in a world of walking billboards.
I’ve written about virtue signalling in the past, and mostly I have been critical about it and I’ve given it some thought now and come to the realisation that writing about virtue signalling is a form of virtue signalling in itself because I’ve been signalling a virtue ( not being virtue signalling ) by writing about it, an interesting trap I fell right into.
But, the signalling of virtues in a superficial way for all to see leads to the celebration of superficiality or the hiding of vices or worse - flipping of vices into virtues which are then celebrated, the reason I think this is the case is that there is in truth a very short half life for frame in the online world and not enough time to evaluate the credibility or genuineness of an individual, hence signalling helps to point the crowd in the direction needed which can lead to effective monetisation before hitting that half life.
A side effect of this short life is the continual wantonness towards scandals or social issues where one’s voice is not really necessary - in effect we are left with celebrities without foundation who cannot afford not being one.
When you tie this back into cancel culture you are left with individuals who have to carefully tread the line in order to not be cancelled and appear ‘normal’ at the same time - in effect become politicians with no hope for real power. It’s hard to say where this road will take us but, I think this is an effect that will run its course very soon due the incredible power of apathy.
The reason I put ‘normal’ in quotes is I think the effect of the word normal has transformed over the past 10 years.
In a sense, the non-geographic nature of culture has made normalcy unappealing and significantly exacerbated the need to be doing something out of the box, where we’ve ended or are going to end up is not-normal being the new normal and normalcy the new risque lifestyle.
Similar to the virtue signalling point made earlier a bunch of things like, non-comparing and level upto which you can choose not to compare is the new comparing, not caring is the new caring, not normal is the new normal.
We’re moving towards non-geographic stagnant culture that is separate from its geographic roots, significantly less introspective, and very often does not practice what it preaches.
Hopefully the slightly decentralised online culture continues becoming more and more decentralised until we’re comfortable with the idea that there are multiple voices, multiple normals and they can all be genuine but not necessarily for us - and maybe that’s our normal.
I do think there are a few exceptions to this rule, obvious cases of racism, sexism, casteism should have no place in rational discourse - they are not an equal side to the argument - in essence : any opinion which leads one to consider any human being lesser than themselves for things they are born with is one not worth debating - but, barring these obvious exceptions the rest are worth hearing but, not necessarily agreeing.
This has obvious problems when it comes to the idea of nation states.
But first, let me reconcile the past few paras with the notion of homogenous culture. I think the combination of cancel culture, the stagnation resulting from it, tightrope walking and virtue signalling creates this weird non-geographic culture that is almost exactly the same everywhere in the world : the topics are the same, the tropes are the same, the leaders are the same - which begs the question - what about geographic culture?
I think we’ll be left with confused individuals who are trying to reconcile their online personas, the culture, and ‘society’ they are a part of with the real life culture they deal with on a day to day basis that actually impacts them the most on the continual short term.
This means a lot of things for normalcy and progress, but, I think this phenomenon is so new that it will not last the next 5 years, it has evolved too fast to reconcile itself with reality and will die out, it will be interesting to see where we go from there.
I don’t think it needs to be fixed - I just think it will break itself, the key mover in this is a trend that has already happened : decentralisation but, it needs to be coupled with privacy - a kind of privacy that has gone missing today.
Who I follow on twitter or who I’m friends with on facebook etc are not private, they’re information that’s available either publicly or to people I’m friends with - I think the feed killed privacy in this sense - this is different from the more dystopian privacies that are usually talked about.
Much like people who support charities privately, I think people will want to support people privately - even without the person they are supporting knowing about it - this protects both parties from knowingly colluding and influencing others.
We have multiple homogenous cultures today that cut across geographical lines that are incredibly hard to reconcile with our daily lives - this affects people in multiple ways - in terms of what a normal relationship is, what a normal company culture is, what a normal weekend is etc.
It is also imperative to be publicly good and act against those who have done wrong in the past - in effect cancel them for a mistake they might have evolved from - mostly based on the sense of injustice faced by the people affected by the mistake they might have made.
In essence, the modern concept of homogeneity is too complex to comply with, find a tribe, find a way to live with yourself and make your peace with it. These walls will come down soon enough.
I don’t have a better conclusion for this as mentioned earlier, this is just a commentary on a bunch of topics that I’ve been thinking about.
Do leave your thoughts below.
Thank you for reading