Tag Archives: social change

Predicting The Future

It’s impossible to pick up a magazine or log into a blog or website without coming across an article predicting how dramatically the Coronavirus pandemic will change the world.

As Steven Pearlstein recently wrote in the Washington Post,  self-appointed soothsayers are predicting the demise of globalization, the triumph of large enterprises over small business, and dramatic lifestyle changes brought about by fear of dangerous microbes:
everything from diminished travel, as people “think twice about boarding an airplane, checking into a hotel, attending a concert or taking their kids to Disney World” to the emptying out of expensive cities, since so many of us–and our employers– have discovered that we can work just as well from home.

Time to take a deep breath.

I certainly don’t have a crystal ball–nor do I claim any particular expertise in “futurism,” but these predictions strike me as fanciful at best and absurd at worst. Just look at how desperately people are returning to their previous behaviors, even in the face of warnings that it is dangerously early for such return. Humans are creatures of habit.

We are dependent upon those international supply chains. Our families are scattered around the globe, and we still want to visit them. Often, on airplanes. Etc.  Although there is likely to be movement toward remote work, that movement has been underway for quite some time, and it is necessarily limited–not just because many jobs require our physical presence, but because so many of us see real value in face-to-face interactions with our coworkers.

All of this is not to say that change is not underway. It is–and much of the social unrest we are seeing is attributable to it. The pandemic may accelerate some part of the broader social changes that were occurring when it hit–or it may retard some–but the real shifts have been underway for years, fostered by improved transportation and communication technologies and demographics.

I suspect that changes in the wake of the video of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer will turn out to be far more consequential than those triggered by the pandemic.

Last year, Gallup documented major social changes that have occurred “since Woodstock”: religious attachment has waned, support for marijuana legalization has grown, interracial marriage–and its acceptance– has increased, a majority of Americans now support reproductive rights, voters are far more willing to elect women or people of color, family sizes have shrunk, and given the option, most women now prefer to enter the workforce to staying home. And of course– to belabor the obvious–attitudes about premarital sex and LGBTQ citizens have dramatically changed.

There is a (hotly disputed) academic theory that posits cultural “swings” every forty or fifty years. Whatever the accuracy of that theory, anyone even slightly conversant with social history can recognize how the disruptions of one era lay a foundation for those of the next, and how technological innovations affect those changes (usually, in unanticipated ways).

My absolutely non-crystal-ball conclusion is that humans are approaching one of our inevitable turning points. (This one is made far more dangerous by climate change, and by the sheer number of humans on our planet.) One aspect of our new reality is already visible: thanks to demographic change and significantly increased urbanization, it has become far more difficult for people to live in geographic–as opposed to ideological–bubbles, far more difficult for most folks to ignore the reality of human diversity and the complexities of our daily social interactions.

At times like these, when social transformation seems overwhelming, people everywhere fall into two broad (very broad) categories–those who accept the new realities and those who reject them. Those who adapt–or try to– and those who panic.

In the United States, the MAGA folks, the alt-right provocateurs, the fundamentalist preachers, the Fox-News audience members and their ilk are clinging to a world that no longer exists, insisting that we can bring back a time when everyone knew their place– and the straight white Christian guy’s place was on top.

The pandemic will impel some changes around the edges, but the real transformation will be produced by people who recognize the necessity of building a different, fairer world. I’m betting that there are enough of those people, that they outnumber and certainly out-think the reactionaries, and that the disorientation and unrest we are now experiencing will ultimately lead to a vastly improved social contract.

I sure hope I win that bet….

 

 

Speaking of the War on Women…

Social change almost always happens slowly and unevenly, and while it is occurring, people who were socialized into older worldviews must co-exist (uneasily) with those who have adopted the emerging paradigms.

I am old enough to have seen enormous changes in the way women participate in American society. With the exception of a brief period after high school and before marriage, my mother was a homemaker until my father’s death required her to enter the work force in her 60s. She was one of a legion of intelligent, talented women who should have had a career; she chafed as a housewife and was much happier after she went to work. Working for pay during the marriage, however, would have reflected poorly on my father’s ability to support his family, so like most of her middle-class peers, she stayed home.

Girls were supposed to be demure and decorative when I was growing up. I once overheard a cousin tell my mother “It’s nice that Sheila reads so much, since she’s unlikely to date. Boys like girls who are pretty, not smart.”

Later, when I went to law school, many “friends” let me know they were troubled by my choice; I had three young children, and according to the social mores of the time, my place was at home tending to them. I still remember people warning me that my children would all “do drugs” if I pursued a career–and I vividly recall a partner at the firm I joined (as the first woman ever hired) reassuring me that “There’s nothing wrong with being a woman. Why, we hired a man with a glass eye once!”

So–as the commercial says, we really have “come a long way, baby.” But as the “me too” movement, the persistence of the glass ceiling, and statistics about earning discrepancies all attest, we also have a long way to go.

In 2016, a substantial number of Americans didn’t find Trump’s taped admission of sexual assault reason to disqualify him from the Presidency–and a not-insignificant number of voters explicitly based their rejection of Hillary Clinton on her gender. (A friend of our handyman told me that some men he worked with had volunteered that they would never vote for a woman–any woman– because  a woman simply couldn’t “handle” being President.)

Granted, few prominent Americans are as forthright about their misogyny as Philippine President Duarte, who recently boasted that he had ordered soldiers to shoot female communist guerrillas in the genitals.

“Tell the soldiers, ‘There’s a new order coming from the mayor,’ ” the president said in a speech, recalling a directive he said he had given when he was mayor of Davao City. “ ‘We will not kill you. We will just shoot you in the vagina.’ ”

Duterte has repeatedly expressed hostility to women in the country’s political insurgency, saying they should have stayed home and raised children.

Most American politicians avoid expressing anti-women sentiments quite so forcefully, but there are plenty of signs that similar underlying worldviews–ranging from “women should be submissive to men,” to “women should stay home with their children,” to “women really welcome male ‘attention’ and just say no in order to play hard to get”–remain ubiquitous.

These cultural attitudes are a holdover from times long past, when physical strength was needed for most jobs, and families had to have lots of children, both to help support the family and to replace the large numbers who died in infancy.

As any sociologist will confirm, longstanding cultural assumptions are slow to change. As any political scientist will attest, people who enjoy power or status rarely relinquish those privileged positions out of the goodness of their hearts.

When Obama was elected, we saw the depth and persistence of widespread racism that had largely gone underground. As women claim the right to participate in a workforce in which we are both fairly compensated and unmolested, we are encountering equally deep-seated paternalistic resistance.

That resistance will persist at least until the men (and women) glued to Fox News pass from the scene.

Or as I tell my students, once my age cohort is dead, things really should improve.

Theater And The Absurd

When the whole world seems nuts–when every morning we wake to some bit of news that causes us to shake our heads and mutter “What the f**k are they thinking??”–the arts become even more essential than they are in more normal times.

(And they’re pretty darn essential in normal times. Assuming there really are normal times, rather than times that are simply a bit less harrowing than others.)

I share this bit of non-wisdom as an introduction to a new theater venture in Indianapolis, where I live.

Indianapolis is already home to a thriving arts community, including performing arts;  this new theater company  (full disclosure: I have joined its Board of Directors) will add a distinctive perspective–a feminist point of view.

Summit Performance Indianapolis was established by two supremely talented young women who are determined to produce top quality theatre exploring the lives and experiences of women.

Summit’s focus is threefold: to employ women of diverse backgrounds as playwrights, theatrical designers, artisans, actors, and staff; to create high quality theatre productions centered on social issues of the moment; and to use these productions as springboards to inspire an ongoing dialogue about those issues in the Indianapolis community through performance talk-backs, guest speakers, and town hall discussions.

The company will be housed in the Phoenix Theatre’s brand new, state-of-the-art facility on  the Glick Peace Walk (a key stretch of the city’s widely-lauded Cultural Trail).  Its two founders are among central Indiana’s most experienced theatre artists: Georgeanna Smith Wade and Lauren Briggeman.  Its goals are lofty: Summit Performance Indianapolis not only aspires to be a pillar of quality entertainment and a cultural hub, but also, in the wake of #metoo and #timesup, to serve as a necessary forum for women’s voices.

If you are curious, you can find more information on the theater’s Facebook Page.

Tumultuous times tend to produce new, exploratory arts outlets. Whether that art is visual,  musical or theatrical, it satisfies a very human need to engage with the social changes we are experiencing, and to understand the disruption that comes with the uprooting of the tried and true. The arts are a way we come to terms with the ever-changing world we inhabit; they help us recognize the truths and passions of others–and perhaps more importantly, of ourselves.

At some point–assuming our insane “Commander in Chief” doesn’t start a nuclear war–Americans will become more comfortable with the reality that women and men are just human beings with different plumbing, who should be seen as the individuals we are. Women’s voices, after all, are human voices, some pathetic, some strong, some profound, some wise, some not.

Until very recently, social structures have ensured that females of the species would have very different life experiences than their male peers. Theater is an ideal place to explore those differences and remind us all that–in the wider scheme of things–they were imposed upon humans whose actual differences are pretty superficial. Theater is a place to listen to, and learn from each other–and to internalize those messages.

It will be fascinating to see how Summit Performance develops. To those of you in Central Indiana, I say–stay tuned!

About Those Dire Predictions…

Today is the second annual Women’s March.

The first one was followed by an eventful year for women–from #metoo to vastly increased civic activism to record numbers of women running for political office. Those activities haven’t been universally applauded, but that’s nothing new. Every time we women assert ourselves, we are met with the usual warnings: children will be neglected or traumatized, marriages will fail, society will suffer, we women will enter old age embittered and alone.

I know the defenders of patriarchy will be disappointed, but it really doesn’t work that way.

A couple of weeks ago, I referenced Stephanie Coontz’ book The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, in which–among other things–Coontz reminded us that “Leave it to Beaver” wasn’t a documentary. In 2016, she updated the book, and the Council on Contemporary Families, a research institute she heads, issued a report on some of the data that would be part of the revision. That data just goes to show how often all those dire predictions about the effects of social change turn out to be wrong.

A few examples:

In the early 1990s, there was much hand-wringing about “scarlet women” and rising out-of-wedlock births; the warning was that the children would become juvenile “super predators,” morally-impoverished and violent.

But between 1993 and 2010, sexual assaults and intimate partner violence dropped by more than 60 percent. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics, the murder rate in 2013 was lower than at any time since the records began in 1960. Since 1994, juvenile crime rates have plummeted by more than 60 percent, even though the proportion of children born out of wedlock has risen to 40 percent.

We were warned that women who were selfish enough to pursue both motherhood and careers would inevitably “outsource” our maternal responsibilities and/or neglect our children. We can skip the guilt. (Now they tell me!)

Today, both single and working moms spend more time with their children than married homemaker mothers did back in 1965. And, according to David Cotter, Joan Hermsen, and Paula England’s brief report on Moms and Jobs, educated professionals – the women most likely to work outside the home – spend many more hours in child care than their less-educated counterparts.

Remember when pundits and scolds warned that no-fault divorce laws spelled the end of the American family?

In each state that adopted no-fault, the next five years saw an eight to 16 percent decline in suicide rate of wives and a 30 percent drop in domestic violence. Although no-fault divorce is now universal, divorce rates are actually falling.

Well–so maybe no-fault divorce didn’t destroy the institution of marriage, but legal recognition of same-sex marriage will surely do it; for one thing, it will never be accepted by the American public; for another, think of the children!

As late as 1996, 65 percent of Americans opposed same sex marriage, with just 27 percent in favor. Yet by 2011, 53 percent favored same-sex marriage, paving the way for its legalization in 2015. Definitive, long-term studies now show that children raised by two parents of the same sex turn out fine.

There’s much more, but you all get the drift. Bottom line: keeping marriage and the unequal relations between the sexes “the way they always were” is neither necessary nor desirable.

Ironically, although the public has adapted, politicians and government haven’t.

Since 1993, the federal government has made no substantive progress toward policies that help women and men reconcile work and family obligations, while other countries have leapt ahead. In 1993 the Family and Medical Leave Act gave workers in large companies up to 12 weeks unpaid job-protected leave. But 23 years later, only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and 44 percent don’t even have the right to unpaid leave. By contrast, every other wealthy country now guarantees more than 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers, limits the maximum length of the work week, and mandates paid annual vacations. Most also offer paid leave to fathers. The result? American workers express higher levels of work-family conflict than their European counterparts. And the U.S. has fallen from 6th to 17th place in female labor participation among 22 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development since 1990. The one exception to this backwardness? The Pentagon, which runs the best affordable and universal childcare system in the country and just instituted 12 weeks paid maternity leave.

Other things that haven’t improved in the past quarter-century? Women’s reproductive rights and wage inequality. And as the #metoo movement has illustrated, sexual harassment.

In her speech at the Golden Globes, Oprah predicted that “change is coming.” As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough.

Meanwhile, I’m going to the March.

Entrails, Tea Leaves and Other Prognostications…

The just-announced Pulitzer Prizes for 2016 included the award for Drama, which this year went to the smash hit Hamilton.

At Political Animal, the irony of that award was duly noted:

What’s so fascinating about all this is that – in the midst of a nativist Republican backlash to “take our country back” – the hottest thing in the country is a rap musical performed mostly by people of color that is all about our lily white founding fathers. Ain’t life grand?

At risk of reading too much into these particular “tea leaves,” I think the success of Hamilton does  rest on more than the admitted brilliance of its music and staging (we were fortunate enough to see it a few months ago, and I can attest to that brilliance). I think it signals an embrace of the culture change that–among other things– is driving our contemporary toxic politics.

I have previously suggested that this is a time of paradigm shift–a time when our previous understandings of the world we inhabit are being challenged by globalization, scientific discovery and diversity.

A “paradigm” is a pattern of received beliefs that we use to make sense of the world. The term was popularized by Thomas Kuhn, a physicist who—in the course of research for his dissertation—picked up Aristotle’s Physics and found that it made no sense to him. Reasonably enough, Kuhn assumed that neither he nor Aristotle was stupid, so he concluded that they were operating from such different realities that communication was not possible. He subsequently wrote a book about the way science adapts to new discoveries, or “shifts” its paradigms.

It isn’t only science. Cultures shift in much the same way.

Our paradigms, or worldviews, are formed through a process of socialization into a particular culture–a constant transmittal of messages about the way the world works, about the reality we inhabit, about the “natural order” of things. Every so often, in human history, that “natural order” is challenged, and the result can be disorienting.

Most social change is incremental, evolutionary–and even then, it can be hard for people to navigate. But we seem to be at one of those junctures where the shift is both relatively sudden and massive. Long-held belief systems–religious and secular–are being called into question.People who can’t deal with the pace and scope of this change are understandably terrified.

Think how you’d feel if you awoke one morning in an unfamiliar environment–surrounded by people (including your own children and/or grandchildren) speaking a language you didn’t understand except for tantalizing bits and pieces, with customs that were both alien and familiar, and expectations you couldn’t fulfill.

As hard as it sometimes is to be sympathetic, we need to realize that for inhabitants of the “old” reality, the world really is ending. Same-sex marriage, empowered women, an African-American President, “press 1 for English,” drones, social media….We wake up every day to a million and one reminders that we inhabit a new and uncharted world; a rap-music, multicultural portrayal of America’s founding fathers is just one of them.

And for so many people, it’s a reality too hard to accept. Too hard to get one’s head around.

So..back to a (mythical) simpler past with Trump? Or an embrace of a different, fairer, more equal world? I guess we’ll see.