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In Perpetuity

Dec. 11, 2020
We may never find agreement on the right approaches to any of our problems, but all of us are coming to the same ending.

There is a time and place for everything, according to an old cliché, an easily summoned phrase that signals it’s time to change a subject that may be impolite or undesirable. Just by employing that convenient phrase, topics like illness or death, or past arguments, or provocative political or social issues would be set aside for some later time (or maybe never.)

In writing, clichés are discouraged because they’re unoriginal and not documentable. They’re seen to be a lazy way to make a point, but clichés exist because people continue to rely on them to say something more complicated, or to fill the air when otherwise words fail – and people do this because we understand that most clichés are grounded in truth.

The truth about a time and place for everything is that it recognizes some topics are just impossible to discuss sensibly and cordially, and that rationality and cordiality are important to maintaining courtesy between people – and that clarity and courtesy are important to establishing mutual respect. So, if some subject threatens to undermine clarity and courtesy, the mutual respect can be upheld. The discussion will wait for another time or place (or even forever.)

In a way this cliché may have reached its end date. Among the other effects of this Age of Imperatives is the unwillingness of people to wait to act on their impulses. If someone wants to say something, good sense and courtesy will not stop him.

Now there is no time or place for anything because, in this impulsive and anxiety-ridden era, now is always the time and no place is off-limits if someone is sufficiently piqued. You or I may not be open to a lecture about politics or social injustice, but that’s up to someone else to decide. Celebrities and public figures are no longer bound by civility: each one must use his platform to “make a difference.” Courtesy is no obstacle if some acquaintance is sufficiently agitated about some subject, or even if a complete stranger feels compelled to make the world know his urgent feelings.

Businesses and workplaces are frontlines now, and by choice if not by default. Consultants and product managers argue it’s wise to align products with “just” causes, whether there is any relevant connection being a secondary factor. And HR departments advise organizations to tolerate the right sorts of activism by their employees, to show solidarity.

It’s difficult to say when the rules of civility were inverted, so that self-expression overtook self-restraint and mutual respect gave way to impulse. What seems clear to me is that although we have arrived at that time and place for discussing everything, we have no clear idea how to discuss any of those things. Political discussions are no more than accusations now, and opinions stand as evidence, assuming the speaker is suitably impassioned. Agreement is not the goal; submission is.

Assuming then that we will always live in this time and place, we are strangely fortunate to have been assigned an implacable but generally treatable virus to contain us. It is the topic that all would like to put off, but it is foremost in everyone’s mind. It will not be put off for another time or place.

It is the subject that intrudes on work and business, disrupts our activities and plans, forcing us to pay heed. It is not death, necessarily, but it is mortality — and this is what unites everyone now that courtesy and civility have been abandoned. But it was always there, and always will be with us.

We no longer have a social order that can make sense of all the disruptions and doubt that prevail now. The rules change month by month, and the basis for authority is strained and failing. Who can open a business or force it to close? Who can compel you to stay at home or tell you when to go out, or to wear a mask? What is the role for science if we cannot channel it to solve this problem? And if the pandemic is overcome, can we put away all these problems and go back to ignoring our mortality?

The answer to the last question is no, of course. What we know now cannot be unknown. We may not find agreement on the right approaches to any problems, but all of us are coming to the same ending. And though we may not find the courtesy to explain this knowledge to each other with any mutual regard, what has been revealed to us, about us, in this time and place always has been true.