In the wake of the divisive political hatred exhibited in increasingly-shrill tones since 2008, I have some news that many might consider bad: namely, things are not going to go back to normal. Undoubtedly, there will be an ebbing away from the public focus on this hatred seen in response to the Kavanaugh hearings, which seems a catalyst for the abnormally-high levels of vitriol. But those hearings, while a catalyst of sorts, were far from the primary cause of our current “decline in civility”, the true roots of which have destroyed whatever “normal” in which we believed or might still believe.
Let me put it this way: what is our “normal”? On the day-to-day, probably some succession of home life, professional life, and family life. We have coffee in the morning, spend 9-5 at work, have dinner and television or family time in the evening. We socialize on the weekends. Perhaps we have other regularities or rituals: the gym, religious practice, date nights with a partner, charity or volunteer work, personal hobbies (woodworking, sewing, reading, writing) and so on. In the span of our lives, our picture of normality is being raised in a two-parent heterosexual family, going to school, a struggle for maturation in high school, attending college (where maturation is supposed to flourish), finding a career, getting married, having children, and continuing the cycle. Both in the day-to-day and the span of a life, we are marked near to the roots by a dichotomy between the public and the private aspects of our life, between workplace and society and home and bedroom.
But is this norm still the norm? Was it ever?
Previous generations in the United States would have seen college as a bit of an enviable and exceptional abnormality. Most men would see their careers in the trades, while most women would not have had a career at all. College opened up new avenues not accessible to most. In recent decades, those avenues have been accessible only through graduate school–and the numbers of people entering graduate school have risen over the years, albeit somewhat inconsistently with various “bubbles” (such as a “Master’s in Education”).
Of course, go back even further–a century, two, six–and these variations would seem minor. Education was a luxury for a very few, labor almost a necessity for all; family was one’s surest route to normalcy, but it was fraught with higher rates of mortality at every age and especially in youth.
In short, the only “normal” which exists now or ever has existed as a constant are the things of nature. Cultural normality is always subject to fluctuation. This does not mean that we should not have cultural norms, or that some cultural norms are not better than others. The cultural norms of Western and specifically American society, specifically concerning morality, that were in place for the previous several centuries were based upon a sentimental but decreasingly-rational attachment to Christianity; as the sentiments shifted, the norms eroded. Now they are hollowly echoed in divergent strains, as sympathy for the plight and the suffering of the poor and oppressed is championed by the political left while respect for tradition and the natural family are sought by the political right. But neither side has deep principles, let alone rationally-rooted principles, behind its advocations.
The rest of our culture will shift even more evidently as the technological paradigm trasitions from the image-centric control of television to the informational, communicational, and interpretational diaspora that is digital. Bit by bit, the dichotomy between public and private life is being erased. Not only do we engage constantly in social media, an expressly public mode of being, but we live in part through the internet, an in principle public technological modality. Our actions, including the supposedly private, are recorded, categorized, archived in data that may in principle be accessed by anyone with an internet connection: not only the things we do on our computers and phones, but often even when and where we go anywhere, if we bring those devices with us.
Likewise, the immediacy of communication in the digital paradigm eliminates the necessity for the conventional workplace and the conventional work schedule. More and more it is the case that people find themselves working from home, on the road; working when they need to, and needing to go to work just in case they may be needed.
So while coffee is still had in the mornings and television is still watched in the evenings, the morning is less frequently before 9am and the television is not necessarily watched on a TV–it may be the stream of Twitter or Facebook on a phone, too; a stream which prioritizes the popular and where the “authorities” are strugglging, vainly, to determine what can, should, and ought to be popular.
In the meanwhile, traditional political allegiances are breaking down; universities are breaking down; and the family has long since lost its status as a paradigm of normalcy. The one thing that is certain? The descendents of Western civilization–a civilization effectively dead–we orphans of the decayed occident–are neither prepared nor equipped for the new lack of normal.