For years I thought Henry Ford had been very insightful saying that history was, in essence, all about heredity. After I quoted his famous dictum in my History A’ level, which I failed, my indignant teacher wrote to the examination board requesting a re-mark. Their remark was this:
“Henry Ford said that, ‘All history is bunk,’ and not, as the candidate quoted, ‘spunk’.”
The trouble is, the chaotic mess of history is particularly vulnerable to generalisations; they not only sweep – they beat as they clean. Only a few years before my “spunk” episode, I had reasoned that if history endlessly repeats itself, like a Paxmanian inquisition, I could probably get away with reading one bit and just assume the rest.
Avoiding the perils of repetition are history’s main claim to relevance but if it really is the mistakes and wrong turns that make it pertinent, why are we still studying the winners? Haven’t we got more to learn from Ethelred the Unready, Charles the Fat, or Chris the Huhne?
The fact that technology advances steadily makes me think we’re not actually, “condemned to repeat the past”. From the flint axe to the Moshi Monsters we’ve come a long way without too many people reinventing the wheelie bin.
Now, as applied science infests every part of modern culture; when the modern Boethius finds his consolations in technology; with instant global communication, poking, and sexting, it can feel like we’re standing on the shores of “a brave new world that has such networkers in’t.”
But what if it’s leading us to repeat one of the darkest periods in human history?
In the aftermath of WWII, in the search to understand what had just happened, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict found a new neat generalisation to sweep up the differences that had set nation against nation. She split the world between Shame and Guilt societies. Japan, she argued, was a Shame Society where the fear of public disgrace assured moral probity, whereas the Guilt Societies of the West instilled the idea of a personal conscience to do the same job.
Historians spotted that our own progression from a medieval culture, with public stocks and hangings, to the Elizabethan renaissance, producing dramas starring conscience-wrestling Danes was, effectively, a shift from a shame society to a guilt-edged one.
Societies that deliver justice through shaming are characteristically insular, like a family with young children, or a prison (spot the difference), but with the development of personal guilt renaissance societies could explore and expand. Guilt was a portable shame, you could go discover new worlds and take your demons, your sense of right and wrong, with you. We were no longer shackled to the approval or condemnation of our local peers.
But is there much difference between those medieval shackles and today’s social network? From facebook photos of drunken embarrassments to tweet updates about paint drying, millions apparently bereft of modesty, inhibitions or self-limiting guilt, post their opinions, chart their lives, open their most personal moments for the approval or condemnation of anybody, everybody and, if www.mariusbrill.com is anything to go by, nobody.
It’s the question of our age – particularly if our age is over thirty-five: Why blog, tweet or fupdate?
Most of us want to do the right thing but, in a world of broken families and fractured moral compasses, how do we know what the “right thing” actually is? Having rejected our class system, the pater-familias, respect for nanny state directives and universal faith, do we actually know when to feel guilty? And if we’re not sure of the rules, where can we turn for guidance?
“I just got drunk and snogged a stranger, should I tell my boyfriend? 328 Comments awaiting moderation.”
Blogging seeks out consensus judgement from a global peer group; moral questions can be solved by a force of numbers and the balloting of a less than silent majority.
From Jerry Springer to Big Brother, decree by the masses has steadily become more accessible to the individual. Now, as we turn the internet into a personal Judge Judy, are we regressing back to a shame society; will this be Medieval 2.0?
Technology delivers a “global village” so perhaps, now the whole world lives next door, our need to explore has faded. Maybe we just don’t need guilt anymore.
But next time someone dismisses the Islamic world as, “living in the middle ages,” remind them what’s happening here; about Facebook, “Name and Shame”, ASBOs and the public ritualised humiliations of the Ex-Pop Idol Got Talent Factor franchises; think about the rise of religious fundamentalism; of royals battling in standing armies in the Middle East (Crusades? What crusades?) and the re-emergence of a barter culture in a time of economic apartheid; and think of today’s “serfs” living in daily fear of plague from pigs or birds, immigrant invaders from across the channel and the imminent day of judgement, fire and brimstone, wrath of an almighty “G.” – Global Warming.
Are you thinking middle ages? Or is it just me being middle-aged?