“The Comparative Lightness of Being”

Feather reflection“The Comparative Lightness of Being”

Except for the dentistry, this old world seems to be going from bad to worse. It’s been downhill for decades. Neighborhoods going to hell. Small businesses and specialty shops closing. Anti-Semitism at a toxic high. Quaint, historic towns and country spaces overtaken by gas stations and fast food joints. Whole domains of inherited culture dropping out of memory.

Everybody has his or her own list.

However, on a separate track, unnoticed by the culture critics and the pundits, a remarkable change is taking place.

People are getting lighter.

On TV, I watched a film about the old, but recently revived, gag show, “Candid Camera” –then and now.   In case you don’t know the show, it films people without their knowledge as they try to cope with problem situations that have been rigged so that they can’t solve them. At the end, they are told, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!”

We first see the confusion and frustration they go through and then we see their embarrassment, as they realize that countless viewers will be enjoying the sight of them looking like fools.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, the ordinary American shoppers who were made inadvertently to knock over cereal boxes, looked appalled when the boxes fell and consternated when they realized how they’d been played. Their sense of how things ought to work was turned upside down and they were pretty much up-ended with it.

Not so the kids and grownups of today. Told, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!,” almost immediately they begin to clown it up for the camera in ways that show a real sense of fun and natural showmanship.

Compare people in 19th century daguerreotypes. Heavier still.

Perhaps postmodernism, with its world-dissolving claims (that there is no objective reality, no subjective reality either, only texts – and no privileged interpretation even of texts) is part of this trend. I think many valid objections can be made to postmodernism’s signature claims, but it may belong to a strategy of getting lighter – itself part of the spirit of the times!

It used to be that, if you sailed from New York harbor across the Atlantic for seven or eight days, you landed in a place where everything was foreign. Now, if you want to find “far away places with strange sounding names,” you have to look for them high and low. You really have to sweat, to get there.

I know an anthropologist who investigates exotic tribes. He told me that no longer will he write anything for publication that he wouldn’t want the educated younger members of the tribe to read.

There are no more far away places!

Of course, it must be acknowledged that all this shrinkage of the globe has made it easier for enemies, who know our ways, to fool us and to hurt us. In some cases, however, it can make it a bit harder even for them to remain what they profess to be. Everybody’s a little bit of a mixture. Even fanatics can flip. We are all somewhat more porous than our forebears.

We float easier.

If I’m right about the new lightness, I’m also a bit optimistic about it. I see it as a plus. Perhaps we are more open to good changes, not just – as the culture critics lament – to the ominous ones.

It doesn’t make everything relative to anything you please. It doesn’t mean there are no metrics. It doesn’t put good-heartedness on a par with malice. It’s only that, maybe, we are all getting less hard-shelled. If so, more light, more truths, more good changes can get through to us.

And that ain’t so bad.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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4 Responses to “The Comparative Lightness of Being”

  1. People sense what is going on in the world. Things are tough, so we must smile and be happy or it all will get to us. I look at this world that is said to be over populated, yet if one really looks; there is much land out there to be inhabited. Why does everything have to be over crowded in one place? People have gotten lazy and don’t want to travel to a store. And who really needs all that so called fast food that is faker then a stuffed toy? I quit eating that junk within the last couple of years. I never really ate much of it to begin with.

    With all that is going on in the world today more people are looking up for answers. HE is getting attention. It’s a shame it takes the things that are going on for people to look up and call upon HIM, when we should have been doing that all our lives.

    Bless you!

    • Abigail says:

      Many thanks, Letitia, for helping to move this thinking process along.

      Here’s an illustration of the sort of change I’m getting at, when I see (or think I see) that people are getting “lighter.” At the time when my parents bought the House in Maine, it had some nineteenth-century things in it, from previous owners. Included was an illustrated nineteenth-century songbook, with old favorites — still fun to sing. But among the illustrations were racial and other crude stereotypes, so broad and shameless that no normal person today could see them as funny or cute or harmless.

      Another example, from a time about 75 years later, mid-twentieth century: a woman friend, a now-retired lawyer, told me that, when she was looking for her first job, the interviewer at one firm said, “We’ll call you if we have a need for a Jewess.”

      Part of what I am talking about is that hardened shell that people wore around their identities, of ethnicity, of religious allegiance, of class and background and marital status. People were much more “dug in” behind these barriers than they seem to be today.

      We rightly lament the loss of the best family values, but — let’s face it — some of those “lost values” were well lost!

  2. Judy says:

    Oy, it’s almost 11 p.m. and you’ve got me thinking …… again !
    That sure starts to make me feel heavier. But when I don’t get too identified with any particular “conclusion” it begins to feel quite light. And it’s much more interesting.

    • Abigail says:

      Judy, thanks for “weighing in,” heh heh. I know it sounds odd, and of course I can’t prove it empirically, but could it be that — as people get perceptibly lighter (which is what I’m noticing) — more love gets in through the newly-opened pores? (Sorry to use the L word. I know it’s over-used nowadays. Still, this occurred to me.)

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