By Allison Saft.
When asked what the defining moment of our generation is, I realized it is much more difficult than it once was to answer this question. We’ve totally become de-sensitized to our current cultural shocking moments with help from being bombarded with information but more so the frequency of the potentially defining incidents themselves.
These defining moments by definition are things that haven’t happened before in such a way and have significantly impacted our society, culture, environment, and ideology. Things like mass shootings, weather disasters, oil spills, nuclear contamination have become the norm. Thus the bar has risen for what is considered a big moment. We have become used to seeing horror on the news, and it’s hard to stand out when everything looks so grim. The Newtown shooting should logically be a hugely defining moment, the biggest tragedy seen at least on a national level for decades simply because of the sheer heartlessness and horror of it. But a year later, nothing has been done to address the surrounding issues and people seem to have all but forgotten. These anniversaries are our only reminders, and even then, it seems to just be another ritual, passed through but rarely felt or analyzed to point of realization, action, or discouraging future incidents. I would say Fukishimo, the BP oil spill in the gulf, hurricane Sandy & Katrina are all up there though, and I think the “natural” disaster trend is one we will see much more of in the near future.
Still, we all believed the Newtown shooting is a defining moment, as it represents a political and social rift so large that our generation feels compelled to take action on it. Given the talking points about gun control and 2nd Amendment rights however, it’s becoming more difficult to parse through the information and eschew the noise to come to an informed conclusion about what political steps must be taken to ensure domestic security while balancing liberty.
The AIDemocracy team has lots of opinions on this topic. In discussions last month, many of us pointed out that causal reasoning and historical connections become simplified in hindsight, such that we can reduce incredibly complex social processes to chronologically linear plots. The Civil Rights Act was decades in the making, and of course the end of US engagement in Vietnam could have been attributed to changing global and national politics as much as or more than anti-war protesting. Certainly, there were big events that led to massive change, but they were much more complicated than we remember in our collective memory. Indeed, the issues run much deeper. Our historicization of pre-9/11 media consumerism depicts a public which paid more attention to “big” events, whereby those events had a more lasting impact on society.
Events of great enough magnitude came to mark the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. We see this as positive because we associate such changes with evolution and progress: the MLK assassination and related events leading to the Civil Rights Act, the Conflict in Vietnam inciting large-scale anti-war sentiments and student engagement, and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall leading to new perspectives on US diplomacy. These can also result in negative impacts, like Cold War news media focusing on the arms race, the threat of communism stoking the paranoia behind McCarthyism and the persecution of people with alternative views on political economy, and the World Trade Center attacks ushering in a new era of xenophobia, a host of wars, international policing and the ongoing global anti-terror campaign. In other words, paying attention to “big events” can raise public conservatism and reactionary politics just as readily as it can bolster liberal progressivism.
The influx of tragedy and apathy is not viewed by all of the AID team as negative however, as a colleague argues we may be entering a “post-epoch era” – an oxymoron, I know ; ) – where people recognize complexity and seek more gradual, less revolutionary forms of change. This may be the only way to deal with problems in a world where large sums of money cannot be gathered together for a purpose without taking on the potentially conflicting interests of major – often corporate – supporters. The alternative, then, is small-scale but pervasive change through alternative consumer practices (e.g. coops of various kinds), mildly disruptive but persistent activism (e.g. online hacker communities like Anonymous) and the raising of greater political conscience among the public (AMP!!!). Certainly, apathy is a problem. But I think that 20th Century historical change is a poor model for the kinds of contemporary awareness-raising we are trying to achieve. It’s not pessimistic to see something wrong with the system; rather, it’s a reassuring indication that we’re paying attention. This is a positive end note, and the following quote must only encourage us to care enough to stay engaged in a call to action:
“We live in one global environment with a huge number of ecological, economic, social, and political pressures tearing at its only dimly perceived, basically uninterpreted and uncomprehended fabric. Anyone with even a vague consciousness of this whole is alarmed at how such remorselessly selfish and narrow interests—patriotism, chauvinism, ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds—can in fact lead to mass destructiveness.”