The recent attack on a St Andrews student by a purported group of school pupils got me thinking: where do we actually stand here in St Andrews, and what does this say about where we’re going? Is there a rift between those of us who have made this won – derful, windy spot by the sea our adopted home, and those who have spent their lives here?
It would not be difficult to link the attack to wider social trends: we are very much living in an age of anger. This is best characterised by our political retreat into populism, as we chase after a world running away from those of us without the privilege to keep up. In defining society as ‘the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community’, I can confidently proclaim society as dead. Our ‘togetherness’ is now no more than spatial, and even then that only applies to the aggregate — within even our planetary constraints we have found ways of segregating, mainly on class divisions. But I digress. My point, to put it plainly, is this: we are in a period of social regression.
Going back a little bit in history, I can confidently say that the period of the Renaissance was fantastic (viewed through the lens of historical context). I realise that the achievements of the Renaissance come with hindsight but in lieu of that, I nonetheless write confidently that we have since plateaued — I will let you be the judge of when, but regardless of when the zenith was, it has been reached.
I ask you this: is anything even debatably good happening on a macro level? A few considerations:
Technological progress? The jury’s out.
Populism? Utterly wrong.
Capitalism? Still sucks.
Man-made climate change?Terrible (and very real).
Every era, I am sure, believes the same—that theirs is a regression from the glory days of the past. But we really have hit the most awful downturn in human progress. That is we are in a period of regression. Now what indicators could I be using to make this argument? Through what lens am I viewing this issue? Teen angst come in the twilight of my teens? Yes! Beyond this, I am looking at the socio-cultural landscape. I will rule out the technological and economic; I think it is too early to say whether the evolution of technology today truly represents a regression or not. There has been nominative ‘progress’, yes, but whether or not it will have a net benefit on society is yet to be seen. And on the economic, that argument is far too nuanced for 800 words. So, on the socio-cultural — the fact that I write these words feeling as though I am stepping onto the most fractious of ice is perhaps indicative of our social climate. It is stifling.
Cancel culture has censored sensitive debate, and cut off controversial— sometimes merely contrary! — opinion. That we can now label opinion ‘wrong’ for being offensive or in opposition to our own is worrying. Indeed, it is in utter contempt of the free and democratic society which we purport to support in the West. Further, ‘cancelling’ someone for their expressed views or beliefs fails to recognise both the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators that drive us all. And if nothing else, surely we have a democratic duty to listen to our opponents?
I believe we can pin a large part of this shunning of the ‘wrongly opinionated’ onto the digitalisation of socialisation: we live increasingly in online echo chambers wherein we can subscribe to beliefs like we subscribe to YouTube channels, block those we disagree with and generally exist within a self-styled utopia. This isn’t so bad itself, but the problem lies in that unless we actively seek out contrary opinion, we will not find very much of it in our online ‘safe space’. Walkouts and boycotts of speaker events on college campuses across the globe are indicative of this move of the echo chamber offline. The solution, I reckon, is that we need to wake up, smell the coffee, and unplug ourselves from the Matrix. We need to listen ; to converse not just with those around us — whose opinions we are likely to share — but with wider society, too. It is in the act of listening that we can learn, and surely by knowing as many sides to an argument as possible, we are best placed to make our own.
So what does all this have to do with a couple youthful troublemakers and one of our peers? For one, the very real degradation of community has perhaps exacerbated the hypothetical ‘us and them’. Or alternatively, the aegis of anonymity online has potentially given us more confidence to be combative offline. And that is, from my perspective, where we stand currently.
On the corollary of where we’re going, I’ll refer you to Master Oogway in Kung Fu Panda who contemplates that yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery. Whether today is a gift, as Oogway continues — well, on that I’m not too sure.