Recently having caught a few minutes of Big Brother 2017 and noticing the return of Naked Attraction, had inadvertently made me start to ponder the future of British society. I expect this wasn’t the producer’s intention. You aren’t supposed to have an existential crisis while witnessing some light ‘entertainment’, but this this is what it did to me.
For a few seconds I gazed into the abyss and it gazed back at me. I could see all previous civilisations before ours, interspersed with an assortment of bronzed torsos, collagen filled lips, man buns and fake eyelashes; the Babylonians, the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, all rose and fell in the blink of a cosmological eye. Of their deeds, only time weathered stone remains and a few ancient artefacts that have been preserved by the arid desert or the cloying bog.
Once I regained conscience a few hours later, I was left with a dejected and hollow feeling. Where is our society headed? What is its overall purpose? Why do things feel so fragmented nowadays? Can it be stopped?
I was reminded of the notion of the ‘grand narrative’. Simply put, this is the idea that most societies have an overarching theme that gives its people some deeper meaning to their existence. We can never truly know what this was, but we can hypothesise.
Throughout history, the vast bulk of humanity probably just tried to survive on whatever meagre resources they had at hand. Kings fought, empires shifted, people lived their lives.
However, most societies have something that binds them together. Some ‘golden thread’ that links all their people in some way. Something above the minutiae of everyday life and perhaps even above politics. A common theme, objective, or endeavour to work towards. In times past this could have been a religion. Opposition to the ‘other’, usually a geopolitical rival also served this purpose. Perhaps a national figure head like a monarch would serve as a societal totem to rally around. Interestingly, high-intensity conflict can also serve this purpose as well, and it can paradoxically foster a sense of community and purpose for many people who live through these events.
From 1945 onwards, the West had the Soviet Union and the rest of the Second World to contend with, which seemed to ossify international relations and internal divisions.
Since the end of the Cold-War and in these post-modern times, everyone has their own version of the ‘truth’. Everything is subjective rather than objective. There is no overreaching theme or ‘ultimate’ truth now. Your experiences and opinions are just as valid as anyone else. The fact that those experiences might consist of drinking twelve cans of super-lager a day and verbally abusing an image of Jeremy Kyle while wearing a pair of chicken jalfrezi stained boxer shorts is totally irrelevant now. Subjective opinion is also far more liable to change as well, being dependent on current societal tastes and opinions. Objective, not so much.
Without an overall truth, we seem to be living in meaningless and meandering times. I’m as guilty as this as anyone. I look forward to Christmas, not because of any deep religious or even cultural significance, but because it’s my biggest break from my job. Easter is about chocolate eggs, cute bunnies, hot cross buns and not much else; the symbolism, even of these remnants, forgotten by most.
Everything seems like a ‘pick and Mix’ when it comes to culture and religion. People can take a bit of eastern mysticism, Christianity, paganism and come up with what appears to be an unsatisfying and incongruous whole, totally at odds with their own cultural and historical heritage.
Organised and traditional religion in the United Kingdom has been on the wane for over fifty years. The idea of patriotism went into decline at the same time and is now viewed by mainstream society as faintly embarrassing, especially if it’s British. Moderate national unity can still be achieved by the Royal Family. Most people still watch royal weddings with some sense of history and occasion, even with an absent mind.
In political discourse, its got to the stage, where if you’re not a left-wing liberal, you will be labelled a ‘Nazi’ by a sizeable segment of the population for the temerity to offer, an often sensible, contrary opinion. A situation that eventually degenerates into both sides bawling at each other across the void. Western nations seem to have lost their own historical narrative, and no longer seem to be in control of world events.
In the UK, even parliamentary democracy is undermined by constant referendums and the refusal of zealous elements to respect the will of the majority. The moment I heard an SNP MP paraphrase the film Trainspotting by Danny Boyle in the chamber of the House of Commons was the day that our society either had to reclaim the ‘grand narrative’ or accept our collapse into stupefaction.
Even in everyday existence, the only aim just seems to be get a job, earn money, progressively acquire bigger houses, rent storage for your belongings, head into your dotage. I don’t seem to see much more than this. This appears to to be the sole aim of mainstream culture.
Of course, in the current economic climate even this seems challenging, so many of us turn inwards, to the fabricated ether of social media, where the poor facsimile of community and narrative is now to be found.
The remainder of us is left somewhere between the worlds of nihilism and narcissism in an increasingly politically fragmented world, bereft of our cultural heritage and with little knowledge of our own history. No idea of who we are and where we are going anymore.
This is not to say that life is entirely nihilistic or devoid of meaning, at least if you take active steps to make it so. Family, friends, political affiliation, nationalism, and the assorted activities that are associated with these all provide a sense of place for us all.
However, these are all individual measures, and I would suggest that it’s okay for you to learn about your own culture and history. Doing that doesn’t denigrate another culture either unless you actively choose to. By learning about our own and other cultures ‘grand narrative’ we might even find our own again.