Apr 15, 2022

two kinds of presentism

Alan Jacobs, being his usual polymathic, incisive self:

People on the left will typically be amazed and gratified by any good that has been achieved recently, and will treat any goods achieved by our ancestors as matters of course for which none of us need be grateful. Likewise, they are predisposed to see new developments as goods and are therefore unlikely to criticize them.

People on the right will typically be obsessively horrified by any new wrong, and uninterested in wrongs that have been long embedded in our social order — indeed, they will be so predisposed to see new developments as ills that they may, by way of compensation, grow inclined to see old ills as positive goods. But even if they see the ancient wrongs for what they are, they won’t feel their seriousness; it’s the new wrongs that engage their emotions.

In both cases, the looming power of the present moment distorts our judgment. Neophilia and neophobia alike occur because the present is so BIG that we can’t see around it; or because everything not-now seems small in comparison.

In other words, just as there are social discount rates for the future, there are also social discount rates for the past. And in both cases, our media environment encourages stronger and stronger discounts as we move away from the present moment (something that remains true even when the media try to tell us about climate catastrophe). But because the future has not occurred and could take many forms, it remains fuzzy for us, whereas the past can be seen more clearly. So I think that if we want people to have a stronger regard for future — to discount it less heavily — then, paradoxically, we need to make people more attentive to the past, its errors and its achievements alike.

Alan and I will be at Laity Lodge in July, leading a retreat with several talks on critique and repair (and, in his version, invitation and repair). The retreat booked up in 24 hours! I’m gratified that this seems important to other folks too, and if you’re interested in (broad, ecumenical) Christianity and these ideas, the Lodge’s programming might be for you.