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Having it Both Ways

Sept. 28, 2021
Consistency has become something of a trap, the means for others to challenge our integrity, or to impugn us for failing to change our position.

Because much of my work is addressed to a particular audience my observations may seem repetitive or unoriginal, which of course is worse for readers than for me. It’s also possible that over time I may contradict myself, which may be a problem if I make claims based on integrity or sincerity. Consistency is generally a virtue, though it largely depends on the underlying details – meaning how my statements square with the facts and implications of some case. Lately, however, consistency has become something of a trap, the means for others to challenge our integrity, or to impugn us for failing to change our position.

We live simultaneously in two dimensions of time – one of moments, to which we must adjust – and one of eternity, against which we are measured according to values that are not (or should not be) open to interpretation or reconsideration. Social and commercial activities help us to accommodate ourselves to the first, while conscience (rightly formed) should guide the latter.

Social customs and commerce are good things and on this point I may be judged inconsistent because of what I’ve written about the influence of commerce in our social engagement – distorting how we evaluate ourselves and each other, turning individuals into commodities and relationships into transactions. I stand by this observation, but the commerce is not the cause.

The ways that people apprehend and manage our connections with the two dimensions of time seems to have shifted, and not in any good way. Someone who behaves like a commodity, available at a price, sees everyone else as a threat to his success. Today, people monitor the statements of total strangers and correct them with unjustified (even profane) incivility. Some people are hounded into silence, others have their lives or livelihoods threatened by invisible mobs.

Public figures regularly contradict themselves or exceed their authority or dignity, rather than lose their celebrity or power. The restorative effects of silence or contrition are rarely if ever noted.

To repeat another theme that occurs to me with some frequency, we are living as people with no awareness of the past and no hope for the future. We do not seem concerned with how our statements may contradict what we have said or done before – or about what we may have to say or do in the future. We ignore the second dimension of time, the one with enduring standards of what is good and true, what may be trusted and what can be proven. Everything is relative, as the cliché assures us.

This situation was strangely predicted by Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, during a 1976 interview staged as part of a forum on futurism and technology. (Excerpts of his message can be viewed online.) In that the forum organized by AT&T, the matter of communication was a central theme. Clarke predicted that communication would become mobile, that mobile communications would make individuals more isolated from each other, and more detached from the norms established to coordinate people with each other – such as work schedules, regional or national boundaries, even time zones. We would all be detached beings floating in space.

Clarke explained how broadcasting had universalized communication by the middle of the 20th Century, but that the work was only partly done.  “We’re going to get devices that allow us to communicate much more information. They’re going to be able to see us, we’re going to see them, exchange graphical information, data, books, and so forth.”

In that forum Clarke could not, apparently, bring himself to describe how demanding of gratification (recognition, stimulation) individuals could become, though in other works he seemed to appreciate how we’d become numb to the authority that technology holds and the particular implications of new information on the choices we make. Information becomes a stimulant, not a nutrient. We consume, but we gain little understanding.

Now for the catch-up: in the past I have laid blame for this state of indifferent gratification on the prevalence of technology and the use of commerce in place of civic and social engagement. But that diagnosis is out of order.

Commerce can be (and frequently, it is) the means of promoting civil harmony, raising living standards, and promoting the inherent importance of individuals’ lives and liberties. But these outcomes are only possible if those engaged in commerce remaining attuned to the past – so as to recognize what has value – and alert to the present, so as to make informed choices that inspire creativity and strengthen future prospects. We can have it both ways.