The twin horrors of Ferguson and James Foley have been bombarding me this week, and each has offered plenty of opportunities for observers to complain about the “coarsening of culture.” Predictably enough, right-wing commentators have attributed both Michael Brown’s death and the resulting unrest in Ferguson to a “coarsening of the culture,” an absurd attempt to blame the victim akin to blaming school shootings on video games. Less predictably, I caught Bobby Ghosh (who I think is great otherwise) attributing the wide circulation of the James Foley beheading video to “a coarsening of culture” on WHYY’s Radio Times. Getting it from all sides like this makes me want to weigh in, because the “coarsening of culture” narrative is a particular pet peeve of mine.
In a timely comment in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik (who is also great) unwittingly helped me explain the problem with explanations that rely on the “coarsening of culture.” Gopnik’s essay is about why we should study history. He properly frames it as a “human question” rather than a question about productivity, and with characteristic insight, he neatly sidesteps the hackneyed cliche about “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Anyone who’s seriously studied history seriously for more than ten seconds know that it provides no easy answers. As Gopnik puts it, more poetically, “The advantage of having a historical sense is not that it will lead you to some quarry of instructions, the way that Superman can regularly return to the Fortress of Solitude to get instructions from his dad, but that it will teach you that no such crystal cave exists.” Rather, Gopnik argues, the the real danger of historical ignorance is that it leads one to believe that the present is inherently unique and unprecedented:
The real sin that the absence of a historical sense encourages is presentism, in the sense of exaggerating our present problems out of all proportion to those that have previously existed. It lies in believing that things are much worse than they have ever been—and, thus, than they really are—or are uniquely threatening rather than familiarly difficult.
Each historical moment is unique, but it is rarely unprecedented. It is the hubris of the historically ignorant to think that somehow we alone face challenges unlike any ever seen before.
And this is precisely the problem with the “coarsening of the culture” argument. It presumes that somehow culture was more refined in the past, and that it’s somehow “coarser” now. It implies that “cultural coarseness” is some sort of objective constant that can be measured in different moments, like temperature. And it implicitly suggests that we in the contemporary moment face unique challenges from this “coarseness,” something that our ancestors did not have to deal with, and maybe could not even foresee. I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty egotistical to me.
See the example of the image above, which I have recycled from my last blog post, because it seems equally relevant. It’s a woodcut of Nat Turner’s Rebellion in 1831, an event that certainly shocked contemporaries with its coarseness. And this image portrays the violence in pretty stark, unforgiving terms. Maybe it’s not a video of a beheading, but given the available technologies for mechanical reproduction in 1831, it’s a pretty in-your-face, and dare I say coarse rendering of the slaughter in Southampton County. The current unrest in Ferguson and Iraq can tell us a lot of things about our contemporary moment, but the “coarsening of our culture” isn’t one of them.