Smug Thinking – What will the Next Generation think?

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Culture Wars

The federal government has announced that it will compensate people who lost their jobs or were otherwise persecuted a generation ago simply because their sexual orientation did not fit the accepted norm of the day.

This perfectly reflects modern thinking, and the government should be applauded for the decision! The vast majority of Canadians now accept the idea that consenting adults are entitled to live the sexual life they choose.  

But this thinking was not the accepted a mere generation or two ago.  Even a man like Tommy Douglas, who was considered very progressive for his time, regarded homosexuality as a mental illness that was to be tolerated – but just barely.

Very few of us would have done much better than that in 1962, and we are fooling ourselves if we think that we would have stood above the fray, and opposed the thinking of the day.  Jordan Peterson takes us some way out of our comfort zone when he speculates that if you or I had lived in Nazi Germany, we would almost certainly have thought in the same way as a German citizen of that era. And I am sure he is right. We are all creatures of our time.

We now look back at the attitudes of the last generation, and find them quaint – at best – and backward, or even repugnant. We are now rather smug in our belief that our modern take on things reflects a perfect and compassionate view for all time.

But again, we are fooling ourselves if we take that smug view.

The Tommy Douglas generation also looked back on the accepted thinking of the generation previous to theirs with much the same amusement and revulsion. That was the time when the civil rights movement was in full swing. Giants, like Martin Luther King, denounced the racism of the day.  Tommy Douglas, and all thinking people of his generation, could ask:  How could the giants of the preceding generation, like FDR and Winston Churchill, actually believe that black and Asian people were inferior?

The point is that the Tommy Douglas  generation smugly considered their world view as the final word, as did the  generation that preceded theirs, just as we now tend to consider today’s accepted wisdom as the final word.

And so it goes backwards through the generations.

But, are we not deluding ourselves when we believe that today’s accepted wisdom is the enlightened word?

The next generation will likely look back at what we have been thinking today, and regard it with the same smug disdain – perhaps a mixture of amusement and astonishment.

Which of our cherished beliefs will they consider odd, backwards, or even disgusting?

Of course, I have no idea. I am a creature of my time, shackled by the thinking of the day. To paraphrase the saying made famous by the infamous Donald Rumsfeld:  “We only know what we know; we don’t know what we don’t know”.

But that won’t stop me from making some guesses:

The next generation might look with bemusement at how we today glue ourselves to our Iphones and spend mindless hours interacting digitally with cyber people instead of spending our time with real people, or perhaps reading a good book.

They might look back with revulsion at how so many of us are willing to tolerate the horrible treatment of animals simply for the sake of eating cheap meat.

Perhaps they might look with astonishment at the way we waste vast resources – human and material – in the futile pursuit of criminalizing people who feel they need to take drugs instead of adopting a medical model.

Maybe they will be horrified at how we treat unfortunate people born with sexual preferences that don’t fit the norm – such as people sexually attracted to children – as monsters to be demonized, instead of human beings to be helped.

Or they might be simply amazed at how many of us routinely accept magical beliefs as part of our world view.

What about the way we think nothing of driving at 100km/hr toward a complete stranger, while he or she drives toward us at 100km/hr – separated only by a white strip of paint.  And yet we tolerate spending an hour going through security at an airport, on the miniscule chance that another stranger will do us harm?

Or how we think nothing of getting on a fuel guzzling airplane just to spend a week in the sun, and then boast about how we are saving the planet with our hybrid cars.

And where did we get the idea that flushing toilets with drinking water makes any sense?

It could be that they will scoff at how our institutions of higher learning became obsessed with pursuing “social justice” and forgot about their primary purpose – the pursuit of academic excellence.

Or how so many of this generation seem to regard freedom of speech as dispensable if it gets in the way of their own views.

Maybe they will be amazed at how this generation finds its own ideological bubble or intellectual ghetto, and never strays outside its confines, while exchanging yells over the cyber walls at people in the opposing camp.

And what about the current mania to rename buildings and tear down statues, simply because yesterday’s heroes held yesterday’s ideas? Even the father of our country, John A Macdonald – perhaps the greatest Canadian to ever live – is under attack. How will history judge the people determined to erase our history? Will our grandchildren be putting the statues back up?

The truth is, we don’t know what the next generation will think. History doesn’t help us much. (My favourite saying about history is: “You can’t tell anything from history, except that you can’t tell anything from history”).

The people who did try to predict the future never did too well.  Remember how Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” was taken so seriously a generation ago? He got most of it wrong. Or what about the predictions about all of us “freezing in the dark” because we would run out of oil?  I do not remember anyone predicting that we would have so much of the stuff that they are having trouble selling it.

I guess we are not as smart as we think. So, my conclusion is “who knows”?

But let’s not be so smug about what we think we know.