Friday, September 14, 2012

Progress or Dystopia?

[Note:  I just decided to break this subject into multiple posts, but I am too lazy to change my intro.]

I have already characterized the notion of progress as the central component of an ideology that is strategically used to justify the modern social order. If we believe that “things may not be perfect, but it is better than anything else,” and “at least things are better than they were in the past,” how motivated are we going to be to rock the boat?

What I want to do now is really provide a detailed challenge to the idea of social progress. In fact, I would argue quite earnestly that what we have now is the worst of all possible worlds. I believe that we live in a dystopia, and that in many ways things were better in the past. I do not mean to romanticize or idealize the past. Certainly I do not think things have ever been perfect. However, I do believe that inequality and oppression have spiraling out of control, and there is some value in questioning the current social order.

Let’s start with health. One of the most common claims in the favor of modernity is that we have eradicated all sorts of diseases and extended the human lifespan. The former contention is misleading, and while the latter is true, it is uncritically reflected upon. Undoubtedly there are many diseases that we no longer have to worry about. No Polio. No Bubonic Plague. Yet, there are new diseases (e.g. AIDS), some of which have been directly caused by our cherished “medical advances” (e.g. MERSA). New diseases will continue to evolve and thwart human progress. Then, there are those diseases that are on the rise, some, once again, as a result of modernity (like Diabetes). Modernity creates as many problems as it solves.

Well, what about that lengthened human lifespan, then? There are two parts to the counter-argument. First, medical advances have not eliminated the occurrence of early demise.  There are many opportunities offered by modernity for untimely, tragic (sometimes gory) death: advanced weaponry, automobiles (the number of deaths caused every year from car accidents should never be discounted), industrial accidents, and the type of alienation that results in suicide and mass-shootings, just to name a few. In fact, one could even argue that, to the extent that we have heightened the psychological discomfort surrounding certain kinds of death (especially as a long life becomes normalized), these untimely deaths are a greater source of suffering and loss than they were in the past.

Second, one must question the nature of the extended portion of a typical lifespan. Do those extra years really bring extra joy and personal fulfillment? Having seen way too many old people with severe loss of mental functioning (and that is not to mention the physical decline!), I would say “no.” Coupling the extended lifespan with the atomization of social life engendered by modern social formations, we have created a whole segment of the population that feels unneeded and irrelevant, with no essential purpose to their lives, and with little ability to support themselves in a world with high costs of living and little social supports. Furthermore, even if medical treatments can keep people alive, they can do nothing to stop the inevitable deterioration of mind and body. The one grandparent of mine whose final years I did not find utterly depressing and pathetic was the one who died before he reached 80. Old age is not something that I desire; it is something I fear.

How about our advanced understanding of the human body?  Surely that will lead to additional cures and a means of halting mental and physical degradation, right?  I am not too sure about how advanced anyone's understanding is.  I have already mentioned this in my series on health.  However, having long term physical injury was enough to convince me that no doctor had any idea how my body worked.  I saw a range of professionals and they disagreed about the most fundamental things... and they all turned out to be wrong in important ways.  The more deeply you are involved in the profession, the more apparent are the gaps in understanding.  For example, so many drugs are developed by trial-and-error (it just happened to work for some reason) and not due to any understanding of the condition itself or the mechanism of the treatment.  The image of progress in knowledge and understanding is another strategically deployed illusion of modernity.

Furthermore, one must not completely discount the types of treatments used before or outside the bounds of modern medicine.  Recently I went with a pharmacist friend of mind to an apothecary museum.  Many of the visitors laughed at the antiquated treatments, but my friend pointed out how many of them are still used today.  Moreover, pharmaceutical companies are scouring the globe and ripping off indigenous populations in an attempt to monopolize and commodify this supposedly "primitive" knowledge of plants and herbs.

Now, I am not staying that modern medicine is completely without basis, or that it has offered us nothing.  I am merely pointing out that the image of enlightenment and progress associated with its practices is quite a bit overstated.

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