Opinion: Cultural Degeneracy Isn't Real
The enemies of Western culture, whether they be communists, feminists, or Islamic terrorists, all seem to say one thing, but curiously, so do right-wing extremists: Western culture is degenerate.
- To the communist, this is because capitalism is inherently decadent.
- To the Islamist, this is because non-Islamic society is devoid of all meaning and purpose.
- To the feminist, this is because society is full of "raunch culture" and other pop cultural messages that are harmful to women.
- To the right-wing extremist, society is getting dumber and weaker because pop culture glorifies the banal, mediocre, and vulgar. They would say we reward bad behavior and bad morals. Even not-extreme conservatives believe that culture in the West used to be much better.
So, do any of them have a point? What is with this constant barrage of bashing Western culture and modernity in general? Well, all those people have obvious political reasons. They're selling their diverse ideologies as "cures" for the "evil" of Western degeneracy. But so many people with different backgrounds, all more or less levying the exact same accusation, deserves a critical response and serious counter-argument.
What Is Cultural Degeneracy?
First of all, we have to define "degenerate/degeneracy" in the context of society and culture. The term first came about in reference to the natural sciences and Darwin's theory of evolution. In his terminology, evolution meant an organism changing through many generations of adaptation and natural selection, and this change at that time was taken to mean that unfit organisms would eventually change into more fit ones, and simple organisms would change into ones with greater complexity. Scientists no longer say this, but if "evolution" were positive change, essentially, "degeneration" referred to the idea of a species accidentally becoming weaker, less complex, or less fit over time. This idea was rejected by Charles Darwin, but took off in the emerging late 19th century social sciences. People have basically been fretting about every cultural change or new idea since then as a symptom of "degeneracy" in society.
But, the idea didn't, I would argue start there. I think it probably started before turn of the century. Every new idea or social change has been met with some criticism. The founder of art history, Giorgio Vasari, believed that the Renaissance (the time period he lived in) was the greatest art of all time, that earlier medieval art was crude and primitive. He coined the term "Renaissance" to describe his contemporaries' superiority over the "Gothic" art considered barbaric and crude; because it was foreign (describing the style of art in northern Europe from the standpoint of an Italian), and not influenced by Greco-Roman ideas. It was the ideals of classical Greece and Roman antiquity in art that were considered a pinnacle. Anything not derived from that ideal was considered either a degeneration or primitive. Greek and Roman works, primarily architecture and sculpture, became the basis for judgment of all other artworks.
Based on Vasari's works, later scholars considered art coming after the Renaissance to have represented cultural decline, rather than developments. Thus, this idea stuck that the Italian Renaissance was an artistic "golden age". Everything before it was barbaric, everything after it was decadent. But nowadays, art historians tend to take a more nuanced view, recognizing the merits of art that came before, after, and outside the Italian Renaissance. They recognize that Vasari was heavily biased towards his own culture, and have countered that bias, showing a more balanced, nuanced vision of the world's cultural history.
But, even before Vasari, we've pretty much always had cultural critics and scholars saying that new things are bad, and old things or current things are better. There is nothing new under the sun.
We've Always Had Bad People
Roosh V, a traditionalist cultural critic and PUA who often rails against modern culture, says "Right now, there are thousands of intelligent teenage boys who dream of becoming a rock star instead of a doctor or engineer. There are teenage girls uploading selfies to Facebook and Instagram in the hopes of gaining attention instead of seeking out a good man in her prime fertile years. There are morbidly obese individuals stuffing their face with food made dense with sugar and fat even though their body does not require it. There are men whose lives revolve around the accumulation of material possessions or status badges to impress women who have been trained to become drawn into anything that shines or sparkles."
But if you look into history, there is nothing new about this whatsoever. Parents have always had boys with pie in the sky fantasies about being rich and famous, and girls who care about looks and social status more than about some duties and obligations said parents feel their daughters owe the tribe to settle down with the right man (not chosen by her, but by her family) and reproduce as quickly as possible. There were "men whose lives revolve around the accumulation of material possessions or status badges" since the dawn of civilization. Jesus railed against such people. Moses was pissed off that people were worshiping a golden calf instead of his true God. Romans criticized Egyptians for their supposed decadence, and yet their own elites were just as guilty of it.
Human nature is stable, it doesn't change over time, even as most aspects of how we live and work have changed. It's a DNA thing, and DNA changes much more slowly than culture, technology, fads, trends, and politics. There is literally nothing about Instagram that makes vanity worse, it just makes vanity more obvious and visible. There is nothing about rap or rock music that makes boys want to put aside schoolwork and family obligations and chase some dream of making an easy living as an entertainer. Children have always had an inflated sense of self-worth and big, unrealistic dreams. Sometimes, this is a good thing, it pays off. Sometimes it doesn't. What are you going to do about this anyway? Tell kids they can't dream? Tell girls they should be pining for an arranged marriage and multiple babies instead of a glamorous career as a singer or actress? That seems not just unrealistic, but cruel. No, what kids need is balance. They just need to be told that dreams need to be balanced with realistic expectations of the work needed to achieve them. Don't you think it's a good thing that kids want to go out and achieve something greater than their parents had?
The point is, we've always had greed, gluttony, vanity, and a whole host of psychological hurdles affecting some more than others. There is nothing modern or recent about it. All the internet does is show us what more people are doing and thinking, so we can see more of the bad. But there is good in humanity too, and there always will be. It's just not what gets people clicking and Tweeting because people being good is boring, and people being bad is interesting and exciting. It's more dramatic when people misbehave. So of course it gets shared more. But that doesn't mean that all of our culture is bad, just because all you hear about on your Facebook or Twitter is bad stuff people do.
I think this is just like how Christians have been saying it's the "end times" since Jesus died. People talking about "cultural degeneracy" have been whinging about anything recent or new they don't like and assuming it's one symptom of a larger newly-forming cultural disorder that needs to be corrected with the particular political or cultural ideology of whoever is speaking. Sure, Western culture today has problems. I rail about my own pet peeves here. But there is a difference between not liking some aspects of a given culture and thinking the baby needs to be thrown out with the bath water (I like Ugg boots, Disney, pretending to care about the environment, and yoga!). I don't like all aspects of Japanese culture, or any culture on the planet. All of humanity is a mixture of good things and bad things. We're not perfect. No society is perfect.
But I think it's historically inaccurate to claim we're getting worse, or that current year is a degeneration from whatever previous year you pick as a model for excellence. People were saying that the 1970's were a degeneration from the 1950's, people said the 1950's were a degeneration from the 30's and 40's, people said the 30's were a degeneration from the turn of the century, and so on. People always tend to think the generations after them have it easier and are whiny, narcissistic, entitled, spoiled little shits. But what's the alternative? Living like the Amish, by rejecting technology and forcing hardship on everyone? I think it's a good thing if the next generation experiences fewer hardships. I think it's great that the generation after me won't know what a filing cabinet or fax machine is. That means their lives are richer, freer, and less encumbered by inferior technology. And if they're more open to frank, honest discussions about topics once considered taboo and hush-hush, I also consider that to be a good thing.