“Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.”
I often hear this aphorism spoken in social situations. But does the speaker really know its significance?
It refers to how social conditions change over time but leave an identifiable common thread behind. This legacy can be in the form of traditional mores, problem-solving methods, folkways, artifacts, and so forth.
The saying can also imply that as knowledge expands, ignorance reduces, but is never gone. Ignorance then is not only squelched by what is changed, it is recreated due to the knowledge residuals that replace and reinstate it. This is why technology always precedes cultural change. New observable, technical values have to be placed within the existing social ‘homeostasis’ and juggled about by consumers, standards bureaucrats and detractors for a while, and either rejected outright (like failed patent applications), or slowly incorporated (like the electric razor), or adopted instantly (like cellphones). This process of values synthesis and adoption (‘homeogenesis’) to produce a new social structure takes longer to achieve or be recognized when we’re talking about ‘social’ as distinct from ‘technical’ values. That is because new social values such as promoted through fashion, buying trends, fads, minority group behaviour, social movements, require an experimental period before adoption (or rejection) occurs. Legalizing marijuana in some states and provinces has taken decades to achieve. Similarly with women’s right (like men’s) to go topless in public in Canada, the legalization of abortion clinics, the appointment of women as Supreme Court Justices, new rights for gays and lesbians, the abolishing of capital punishment, laws for driving with an iPhone, and so forth, all required lengthy public or private debate before acceptance.
Social movements, cultural deviance, war – can change existing values in any society, as well as value change introduced normally through new technologies and day-to-day social interaction of individuals at work or at play. So social change can occur from many sources. Nonetheless, the point is that in spite of external symbolizations and material products of actual change, human behaviour at its core does not. Human behaviour collectively remains glued to basic inherent features.
Pinker (2011) in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, supports this view in his assumption “…supported by evidence for the psychic unity of humankind – that people in every society have all the basic human faculties such as language, causal reasoning, intuitive psychology, sexual jealousy, fear, anger, love, and disgust, and that the recent mixing of human populations had revealed no qualitative innate differences among them.” (p. 613) The constancy of behavioural traits across cultures persists in spite of supra-social changes. This also takes into account the influence of endogenous experiences which may influence the genome, thus leading to behavioural changes based on what humans do. “Behavioural genetics confirms [for example] that aggressive tendencies can be inherited” (p. 617) Regardless, Pinker comes out swinging in favour of how the faculty of reason can “interact with the moral sense”, thus leading to a reduction in aggressive tendencies.
The pull-back from collective destruction as a species is optimistically shared by Pinker (and others), and rests on “the escalator of reason”, powered by “literacy, cosmopolitanism, and education.” He has faith that reason will prevail in its work to produce less violence in this world. Social change into a new homeostasis is possible, in spite of our negative traits.
I am not quite so optimistic as Pinker, although I would like to be. As we change the world around us, through physical technology, rational-technical problem-solving, and new human agreements based on empathy and compassion, there is hope for humankind only if these change mechanisms come to predominate the world theater. ‘Lead by example’ hopefully will become the “plus la meme chose”, as the constant legacy we leave behind amidst positive change of the human condition.
September 23, 2015