2013-03-03

Chronological Ethnocentrism

The ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism. -James W. Loewen
A friend of mine often remarks that they are rarely captured by fiction writing, instead preferring nonfiction for its edifying properties. In these discussions I unfailingly counter with the argument that fiction offers a unique form of knowledge that comparatively dry books on math, science, or philosophy rarely do: information modeling in the form of illuminating metaphor and allegory. I'm known to recommend speculative fiction in particular for it's unique ability to smoothly integrate topics of interest like technology, politics, and metaphysics into these metaphorical models of potential outcomes. Stories that involve time travel, alternate dimensions, or a combination of the two are doubly (triply? infinitely?) suited to aid the learning process for their ability to observe a given model from as many different facets as their are wave functions to collapse into a narrative1.

The final season (spoiler alert) of the J. J. Abrams produced television series "Fringe" (which incorporates alternate dimensions and time travel to an above average degree of success) posits a far future in which humanity picks up where evolution leaves off and follows a course of self-directed genetic "progress" to a level of apex-predation that spans universes and timelines. Some might say humanity started this process the moment we grabbed up the femur and started smashing tapir skulls with any kind of self awareness, but that's a discussion for another time. What's relevant in the "Fringe" plot-arc is that the primitive, present-day human protagonists of the series resist invasion, subjugation, and replacement at the hands of their time-traveling, dimension-hopping, lebensraum-seeking descendants in spite of the apparent progress their own species has made. They reject the argument that simply because future versions of themselves exist and are vastly superior in many obvious ways that they should therefor roll over and accept these descendants as their betters. They reject a chronological form of ethnocentrism.

In the series the protagonists are rewarded for their pugnacious spirit with the discovery of an even more superior future version of humanity without all the patricidal tendencies that, with a just a bit more time travel, can take the place of the bad guys in The Darkest Timeline2 and save humanity from a nightmarish dystopia. What's interesting to imagine however, is if the villains had not expressed such obvious antagonisms (time-colonialism, failure to emote, head a'splodin') and were instead simply mild mannered future versions of all of us set on a collision course of no one's design. If looked at from another facet, this is in fact exactly what happens, but the collision course is the simple progress of time and the replacement of one second with the next, one life lived with another born, and the slow erosion of one era's morality with another's. How could any rag tag group of protagonists defend their ideals against the inevitable march of time?

The introductory quote suggests one answer: a reconsideration of the idea of progress. Explaining the implications of revisionist history in American textbooks, Mr. Loewen wrote in his work of popular anthropology "Lies My Teacher Told Me":
Besides fostering ignorance of past societies, belief in progress makes students oblivious to merit in present-day societies other than our own. ... Ethnocentric faith in progress in Western culture has had disastrous consequences. People who believed in their society as the vanguard of the future, the most progressive on earth, have been all too likely to indulge in such excessive cruelties as the Pequot massacre, Stalin's purges, the Holocaust, or the Great Leap Forward.
Much ink was spilled in the last decade lamenting an increase in partisanship, often ascribed to the loss of impartial writing in modern media. Journalists wrote as if a halcyon era that began with Woodward and Bernstein were coming to a close with the end of the network and print news oligarchies at the hands of the comparatively anarchic Internet. Other media observers heeded Mr. Loewen, hearkened back to journalism's yellow past and the brutal politics of prior eras, and pronounced the cycles of partisan and impartial media as entirely normal given a modicum of (accurate) historical perspective. Today, participants in the debate about the merits and degree of modern partisanship seem to agree on at least one thing: moral relativism is a thing of the past3. Ideological proponents may disagree bitterly about their vision of progress, but they agree that theirs should be the one to win out in the end.

Beware the End Of History!
The worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. -Francis Fukuyama
If any ethos ever truly wins out, it blankets not just some large area or volume of human space, but some long epoch of human time as well. We may not experience the boredom Fukuyama hoped might rekindle a lively debate, we may simply change our core selves to better suit the winning ideology. From the lens of multiple backstories (pasts), universes (presents), and plotlines (futures), each party's morality is another protagonist armed with a fighting chance to resist a tyrannical outcome. Today your ideological foe may drive you to froth at the mouth and flail at your radio dial, but tomorrow they are a potential ally against a grinding monoculture intent on snuffing the both of you out of the history books. Or against time traveling telekinetics. Can't rule them out either.
  1. Anathem, Neal Stephenson's incomparable novel on quantum mechanics and the clash of philosophies in and against the secular world, is perhaps the best example of this phenomena. It is the underlying source of this post as well, I simply did not feel qualified to write about it at length without at least a third read through.
  2. A satirical examination of short run moral decision making via multiple timelines can be found in an episode of the television show "Community" entitled "Remedial Chaos Theory".
  3. The final prompt in the writing of this post was the recent This American Life episode on gang violence in and around Harper High School in Chicago, where Officer Aaron Washington remarked: "There is no neutrons anymore. It used to be if you play sports, or you were academically better than the average kid, [gangs] didn't bother you. Now it's different. It doesn't matter. If you live here, you're part of them."

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