By Vexen Crabtree 2005
People mostly think that the times in which they live are more important than any other time. People have been doing this for quite some time. The first century Jewish historian Josephus bemoaned this aspect of Human nature two thousand years ago2 and since then our egos show no sign of letting us be more objective. Our egos make current events in the world around us seem more significant and cataclysmic than at any time in history. The scientist Lawrence Krauss states that "we are hardwired to think that everything that happens to us is significant and meaningful"3. We are, after all, at the center of our own little universes.
“Remember that people take more interest in their own affairs than in anything else which you can name.”
Academics fall foul of this as much, and probably even more, than the layperson. For example, the sociologist Peter B. Clarke says that "the present age might well be described as an axial age" due to the scope and importance of changes in the current era5. Four sociologists from the Open University staff describe the "contemporary UK" as "a society which appears to almost everyone who lives in it to be in the throes of change"6.
I have never read a historian or social commentator say that they are living through times which are routine. Those who lived through the industrial revolution reported that Humanity was going through its most significant and disastrous change. But now, it is history. It is nothing compared to the telecommunications revolution of the present. Changes which are affecting us in our living lives seem much more important to us than the changes of the past. Once change has passed we no longer experience its importance. It becomes abstract. Changes that affect our own lives are made by our hungry egos into things that must be important for everyone. But future generations will wonder why on Earth we were all so hot under the collar: they will know that their generation lives in the most precarious and important of human times.
Downmarket media publications reflect - and exaggerate - many of the fears of society itself. News outlets have dropped most fact-checking and critical analysis steps in order to churn out news more cheaply and quicker and as a result daft and untrue stories are appearing in mainstream news7,8. There are virtually no checks or quality control mechanisms that newspapers have to adhere to, and, occasional outrages against press misbehaviour are quickly forgotten by paying customers. The purpose of it all is (1) sell more newspapers, or (2) influence public opinion. People are all too willing to believe exaggerated claims. People want their lives to be part of historical drama9. The millennium bug, worldwide pandemics, moral panics and fear that society is going wrong all betray humankind's neophobic reactions to progress and change. Newspaper editors pick on this fear and concoct alarmist stories from everyday events and statistics; for example they publish alarmist articles on dangers from mobile phone masts even though there are none, and there are almost no good-news stories about children despite massively improved circumstances10. Many editors and media owners have explained the usefulness of fear-mongering and sensationalism - it certainly sells more copy than balanced news. Fears become amplified and made more real by their appearance in headlines, creating a hysteria about a topic whereas in reality things are much more mundane and acceptable11. Professional broadcaster Fraser McAlpine says "news outlets are behaving like spoof sites, and they're making spoof sites look like sensible news" and people are finding it harder to tell the difference12. Modern newspapers and news outlets are producing low quality, misleading and untrue stories because they are driven by consumers who prefer entertainment, gloom and outrage rather than serious text of reasonable reading. Always remember that after thousands of hyped-up press warnings, on midnight of the 31st of December 1999, nothing happened.
It is very common for us to allow our egos to convince us that now, around us, are unfolding changes which are more important than those of any other time. We think that we are witness to the ultimate decline of Human society and that brooding and significant upset awaits on the horizon. People's own areas of interest are always the highlight of the crises of the present time - for example the children's worker and chaplain Johann Christoph Arnold in "Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World" says that "Teaching has probably never been as difficult as it is now. [...] We live in difficult times and many people have lost their joy in life. [We witness many] gloomy statistics and dire warnings for the future of our society and its children"13. It seems to be a universal, negative human apprehension that we think we have noticed this coming catastrophe even while many others carry on regardless.
“[The] media emphasizes the negative and pessimistic side of events and therefore creates perceptual crises of faith where no real crises exists.”
"Global Trends 2005" by Michael J. Mazarr11
These feelings of the importance and foreboding of present events are shared by professional sociologists and analysts, who in addition to the typical Human desire to be at the centre of events, also have professional interest in highlighting the perils of the present time, and hence the relevance of their own skills, warnings and teachings. For example Alvin Toffler, an "influential political and cultural theorist... saw the 1980s and 1990s as a period of immense and cataclysmic change"14. A few decades before him, historian and public intellectual Gerald Heard also thought the same of his own time. He wrote:
“No one can look at civilization to-day without the liveliest concern. That is a truism - a truism so painfully obvious that we have ceased to be able to respond to it. We turn impatiently away - away to our pleasures or our preoccupations, our amusements or our causes.”
Such motivations, normally subconscious, have afflicted public intellectuals for as long as recorded history. The ancient Dao De Jing is traditionally said to be authored by Lao Zi. He was convinced that civilisation itself was a mistake, which had diverted people from the Dao (true way) and people had become unethical as a result. "Laozi looked back to a Golden Age of agrarian simplicity, when people lived in small villages with no technology, no art or culture, and no war". The solution to the problems of Lao Zi's time was, he argued, to abandon the goal-directed ethos of civilisation, and therefore find The Way, and rediscover how things ought to be. Needless to say, not many sociologists have gone that far in their warnings against modern society.16
“This is the most important time in history. Now I imagine that every generation before ours would say that [...] but this time it is really true, ok, honest! Now - it really is.”
Jonathan Foley (2012)17
End-of-the-world-mania is dependent upon certain properties of human ego. We want to witness important historical times, and we want to be at the fore and center of tumultuous and attention-grabbing events. There have been thousands of end-of-the-world predictions. They have been the products of many great minds and have had many devoted believers from various religions and cults. For example in Christian England alone, during the reformation, "eighty books were published on the subject of the world's end"18. All have put a lot of time and effort in to each and every prediction, building up supporting evidence from religious texts, historical trends and numerology. What do all these predictions have in common about the end of the world? They have all been wrong. Those promoting these fears, and those subject to them, are all in the grips of their own ego!
The EU was born in crises, as a result of the crises of WWII and of a long series of regular European wars. Every decade since then has seen prominent politicians pronounce that the EU is now facing "it's most serious crises yet". The Suez Crises (1956) and the 'crises' that resulted from the French National Assembly's rejection of the proposed European Defence Community in 1954 both resemble the combined Middle East 'crises' and the 'crises' of the Dutch and French rejection of the Constitution.
Following on from these two founding crises were a series of doom-laden prophesies from academics and professionals of every calibre.
“By 1980 some academics warned about the possible disintegration of the EEC and even leading members of EC institutions openly spoke of the dismal state that Europe was in. At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Rome Treaty, in 1982, the president of the European Parliament compared the Community to a 'feeble cardiac patient whose condition is so poor that he cannot even be disturbed by a birthday party' (Lagerfeld 1990)”
"Origins and Evolution of the European Union" by Desmond Dinan (2006)19
After that dismal diatribe, the pronouncements continued throughout the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. "Jacques Delors, who was president of the European Commission from 1985 to 1994, says that the present "crises" is the worst in the project's history"20. And again in 2005 Jeane-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, which then held the EU presidency, said "the EU is not in crises: it is in deep crisis"20. The EU is always in crises, just like crime is always getting worse, immigrants more dastardly, the weather deteriorating and employment evaporating.
There is something psychological about the need to give column-inches to the dramatic. The present crisis is based on a global depression and the comprehensive failure of some of the economies of European countries. There is genuine worry: there is always genuine worry. However valid and mighty the present problems are, all previous crises - similarly declared to be morbid injuries - have not yet resulted in any major demolition of the European project. It is not over until the fat lady sings!
In reality the psychological effects of the ego, placing oneself at the centre of a cataclysm where the (perceived) most important events are occurring, is the cause of the EU crises.
“By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Extreme poverty rates have been cut in half in the past 25 years. Child mortality is plunging. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient.”
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (2014)21
Crime rates are falling, large scale wars have apparently ceased to occur and other forms of violence are mostly decreasing (see the next section for all that). Worldwide poverty is decreasing, literacy has been rising for hundreds of years, and technology and medical science are making astounding strides in preventing diseases (many of which are now gone for good). Jobs and marriages may not be for life, but we are living twice as long. Absolutely nothing is as bad as people say. The press thrive on bad news. Our egos trick us into thinking we are living in the most important times during our own lives. We're not. Those times are yet to come. The end is yet to come. Just remember to take a leaf from the British: Keep Calm, and Drink Tea.
One particular feisty comment was made by Jeremy Paxman at the 2014 final of University Challenge, a quiz show that pits two seemingly omnipotent teams of University students against each other in a test of knowledge and cognitive ability: After presenting the trophy, he proudly declared that the teams had "demonstrated yet again that all this stuff about young people not knowing things is RUBBISH"22! Clearly, despite the internet, mass entertainment and the many other ailments of modern society, our youth are still able to excel!
“[Today] you will read about a shocking act of violence. Somewhere in the world there will be a terrorist bombing, a senseless murder, a bloody insurrection. It's impossible to learn about these catastrophes without thinking, "What is the world coming to?". Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.”
Steven Pinker (2011), Wall Street Journal23
This decline in violence is apparent not just recently, and not just in the modern era: it is apparent over a timescale of hundreds and thousands of years. Professor Steven Pinker, who is the strongest proponent of this good news (based on long-term statistical analysis), states that "from the Middle Ages to the present, at lesat in England, there has been a thirty-five-fold decrease in the rate of homicide"24. Pinker divides this humanitarian victory into stages: the first main decline in violence occurred as nations emerged with central governance, taking over from tribal rulerships.
“Forensic archeology - a kind of "CSI: Paleolithic" - can estimate rates of violence from the proportion of skeletons in ancient sites with bashed-in skulls, decapitations or arrowheads embedded in bones. And ethnographers can tally the causes of death in tribal peoples that have recently lived outside of state control. [...] These investigations show that, on average, about 15% of people in prestate eras died violently, compared to about 3% of the citizens of the earliest states.”
Steven Pinker (2011)23
“The second decline of violence was a civilizing process that is best documented in Europe. Historical records show that between the late Middle Ages and the 20th century, European countries saw a 10- to 50-fold decline in their rates of homicide.”
Steven Pinker (2011)23
Another improvement occurred since the enlightenment-era concentration on individual human rights, alongside the increase in good and balanced governance that is based on rules of law, not on individual power. "A growing wave of countries abolished blood sports, dueling, witchhunts, religious persecution, absolute despotism and slavery"23.
Since World War II there has been an unprecedented period of peace. Before it, for example, there were non-global wars between European countries every year. "Though it's tempting to attribute the Long Peace to nuclear deterrence, non-nuclear developed states have stopped fighting each other as well. Political scientists point instead to the growth of democracy, trade and international organizations - all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict. They also credit the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur - a hard-won lesson of two world wars"23.
The news will continue to show us all the bad stuff because although no news is good news, they have to show something! This can make it hard to appreciate the statistical facts that violence and violent deaths have been declining. Because it is not very exciting and hard to turn it into a story (unlike a murder), few news outlets can adopt the "things are continually getting better" motif as opposed to the "everything is going wrong" motif. The former gives people little to get their teeth stuck into, whereas dramatic news lets people rant and rave about how, right now, during their own lives, important things are happening that must be resisted and shouted about. It's all about the ego.
Current edition: 2005 Aug 07
Last Modified: 2014 Oct 19
Parent page: Errors in Thinking: Cognitive Errors, Wishful Thinking and Sacred Truths
The End of the World is Nigh! The Dangers of Apocalyptism and End-Times BeliefsDon't Panic: The World is Not About to End and Western Culture is SafeGeneral Neophobia in Everyday Life: Humankind's Fear of Progress and ChangeThe Importance of Current Events is Amplified by our Egos
All #tags used on this page - click for more:
The Guardian. UK newspaper. See Which are the Best and Worst Newspapers in the UK?. Respectable and generally well researched UK broadsheet newspaper..
Skeptical Inquirer. Magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
The Economist. Published by The Economist Group, Ltd. A weekly newspaper in magazine format, famed for its accuracy, wide scope and intelligent content. See vexen.co.uk/references.html#Economist for some commentary on this source..
(2005) A Short History of Myth: Volume 1-4. 2008 Kindle edition. First published in Great Britain in 2005 by Canongate Books Ltd.
Arnold, Johann Christoph
(2014) Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World. Paperback book. Published by Plough Publishing House, New York, USA. This book is "based on Arnold's acclaimed book Endangered: Your Child in a Hostile World (2000)". Book Review.
(2001) Literature, Politics and Intellectual Crises in Britain Today. Published by Palgrave.
Clarke, Peter B.. Peter B. Clarke: Professor Emeritus of the History and Sociology of Religion, King's College, University of London, and currently Professor in the Faculty of Theology, University of Oxford, UK.
(2011) The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Paperback book. Originally published 2009. Current version published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2006) Origins and Evolution of the European Union. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(1995) The Dark Side of Christian History. Paperback book. Published by Morningstar & Lark, Windermere, FL, USA.
Furedi, Frank. Professor of sociology at the University of Kent, UK.
(2002) Paranoid Parenting: Why ignoring the experts may be best for your child. Paperback book. Published by Chicago Review Press, Chicago, USA. This edition is "substantially different" from the 2001 UK version.
Krauss, Lawrence. Lawrence Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Department at Arizona State University, as well as Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative and Inaugural Director of the Origins Project.
(2012) A Universe from Nothing. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Published by Free Press, New York, USA.
(1990) In 'Europhoria', Wilson Quarterly, 14:57-67. Via Dinan (2006).
Mazarr, Michael J
Global Trends 2005. Paperback book. Published by Palgrave Books.
Routledge, George. (1812-1888)
(1860) Routledges Manual of Etiquette. E-book. Amazon Kindle digital edition. Produced by Curtis Weyant, Leah Moser and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team, from scans provided by Case Western Reserve University's Preservation Department.