I'm back home. The flights from Melbourne to Edinburgh were mercifully tolerable — at least as such things go (helpful travel tip: on really long flights, pack spare underwear in your carry-on and schedule a 4 hour stop-over, then use the time to have a shower and shave: you'll feel much better for it). However, the hangover is dreadful. It's not just the nine hours of time zone difference you'd expect; crossing the equator (from 40 degrees south to 60 degrees north) adds an extra chunk, so that it feels more like 33 hours of jet lag than 9. If I ever do this again, I'm going to see if I can schedule a 2-3 day stop-over at the halfway point in each direction ...
But I digress.
Yesterday (9/11, as Americans call it), was widely touted as International Religious Tolerance Day, for reasons which should be obvious. To a first approximation, this seems like a good idea; a lot of the most unpleasant news of the past decade has been generated by the actions of the religious and intolerant, from Al Qaida to Pastor Terry Jones. But is more religious tolerance the answer?
I don't propose to use this blog entry as a bully pulpit for bashing the intolerant religious (despite temptation; the Pope is visiting my town next Thursday, and he's not exactly a poster child for ecumenical liberalism). Rather, I'd just like to note that the past decade or so seems to have been marked by a worldwide upwelling of bigotry and intolerance. And it's not only the extremist fringes of every religious creed that are to blame here, although they're part of the picture (and no religion seems to be free of turbulent loons around the edges). We have extremist, eliminationist rhetoric in American political discourse, combined with a hair-raising outbreak of ethnophobia directed at muslims. We have France and Italy deporting Roma (illegally; they're EU citizens and have an absolute right of residence), in a move fuelled by a wave of xenophobia that bears unpleasant echoes of 1940-45. A wave of petty authoritarianism in the UK has led to the installation of all the well-oiled machinery of a police state — now in disarray due to an epochal political upset, but deeply alarming to anyone concerned for civil liberties in the past decade. Australia had its great firewall debate. Russia's government is increasingly authoritarian, harking back to the Soviet era in methods and goals (now with less revolutionary ideology).
This stuff is pervasive; you can come up with alarming news of authoritarian excesses in every corner of the globe.
What's going on?
Reading Robert Altermeyer's The Authoritarians gives one or two pointers, but the narrow focus — on authoritarian followers in politics — begs the question of where all this authoritarianism is coming from.
The term Future Shock was coined by Alvin and Heidi Toffler in the 1960s to describe a syndrome brought about by the experience of "too much change in too short a period of time". Per Wikipedia (my copy of Future Shock is buried in a heap of books in the room next door) "Toffler argues that society is undergoing an enormous structural change, a revolution from an industrial society to a 'super-industrial society'. This change will overwhelm people, the accelerated rate of technological and social change leaving them disconnected and suffering from 'shattering stress and disorientation' — future shocked. Toffler stated that the majority of social problems were symptoms of the future shock. In his discussion of the components of such shock, he also popularized the term information overload."
It's about forty years since "Future Shock" was published, and it seems to have withstood the test of time. More to the point, the Tofflers' predictions for how the symptoms would be manifest appear to be roughly on target. They predicted a growth of cults and religious fundamentalism; rejection of modernism: irrational authoritarianism: and widespread insecurity. They didn't nail the other great source of insecurity today, the hollowing-out of state infrastructure and externally imposed asset-stripping in the name of economic orthodoxy that Naomi Klein highlighted in The Shock Doctrine, but to the extent that Friedmanite disaster capitalism can be seen as a predatory corporate response to massive political and economic change, I'm inclined to put disaster capitalism down as being another facet of the same problem. (And it looks as if the UK and USA are finally on the receiving end of disaster capitalism at home, in the post-2008 banking crisis era.)
My working hypothesis to explain the 21st century is that the Tofflers underestimated how pervasive future shock would be. I think somewhere in the range from 15-30% of our fellow hairless primates are currently in the grip of future shock, to some degree. Symptoms include despair, anxiety, depression, disorientation, paranoia, and a desperate search for certainty in lives that are experiencing unpleasant and uninvited change. It's no surprise that anyone who can offer dogmatic absolute answers is popular, or that the paranoid style is again ascendant in American politics, or that religious certainty is more attractive to many than the nuanced complexities of scientific debate. Climate change is an exceptionally potent trigger for future shock insofar as it promises an unpleasant and unpredictable dose of upcoming instability in the years ahead; denial is an emotionally satisfying response to the threat, if not a sustainable one in the longer term.
Deep craziness: we're in it, and there's probably not going to be any reduction in the prevalence of authoritarian escapism until we collectively become accustomed to the pace of change. Which will, at a minimum, not happen until the older generations have died of old age — and maybe not even then.
(It was at this point in the pub conversation where I was coming up with this blinding flash of insight that Peter Watts announced that he's basically a lot more optimistic about humanity than yr. hmbl. crspndnt ...)
Anyway, back to my earlier question: is more religious tolerance the answer?
I'm going to give it a qualified thumbs-up, for now. Thumbs-up, because religious intolerance is clearly not the answer — but a qualified thumbs-up because I don't believe we should give a free pass to all religious doctrines in the name of tolerance. Some beliefs can kill, when they are translated into action. They can kill directly, as when the Taliban stones women to death for adultery, or they can kill indirectly, as in the Catholic Church's opposition to the use of condoms (which makes it harder to prevent the spread of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease holocaust is killing two million people a year). We should, in my view, not seek to accommodate those religious doctrines that would impose restrictions on people — especially non-co-religionists — through the force of law. (If you're a Hassidic Jew and don't want to eat pork products, that's fine; campaigning to ban pork products from sale to anyone at all: not so fine. And so on.)
But ultimately, religious doctrines aren't the source of today's social problems. The taproots run deeper, and religious extremism is only one manifestation of the underlying problem: widespread future shock. And I've got no easy answer to how to deal with it, unless it is to apply a little humanity to our fellow sufferers when we meet them.