My theory about the drive for order and control

I have a theory about what we are experiencing in society, and really throughout the world right now. I’m sure my theory has plenty of holes in it. I can guarantee that you can poke holes in it too. Because that’s how theories work. They don’t encompass 100% of what is going on. No one has the ability to do that after all. Theories about societies and the world are really about looking at large amounts of information over a period of time and seeing how they connect with other large amounts of information over a period of time.

So with that being said – let’s go back in time before I talk about my theory about what we are experiencing now.

Go back to the end of the Middle Ages. It’s arguable about when this is exactly. Which leads to point 1 – there isn’t any one specific “thing” that causes major change in society. It’s a multitude all flowing together and having a cumulative impact. So what happens in this nebulous period of history. You have the Renaissance for one thing. It’s debatable on when it started, but it was definitely in full swing by the 1500’s. One definition of the Renaissance is this:

“The transitional movement in Europe between medieval and modern times beginning in the 14th century in Italy, lasting into the 17th century, and marked by a humanistic revival of classical influence expressed in a flowering of the arts and literature and by the beginnings of modern science.” (Source)

That’s one piece of the puzzle. Think about the impact this one piece has though on society. It causes a change in the way that people look at the world. What was once considered normal was put aside. Think about how disruptive that is. You know what that causes – a lack of order because a new order is being established. And when something is being established, it creates uncertainty. People don’t know what to do, or what is considered the norm, because there isn’t a norm established. They have to sort it out. It’s hard work and often there are unsatisfying answers or no answers at all. It leaves people with a sense of not being in control of their lives and that the world is not in control either.

There is a spectrum to how people respond to not being control and seeing that the world is no longer ordered and controlled. On one end of the spectrum people embrace the lack of order and control and approach it with a sense of new opportunity and hope. They see that the best is yet to come. That society will be moving towards something better than what was.

On the other end of the spectrum people fear the lack of control and order. It is an unknown. They see the best as already happened because the way things were before was known. There was a known order. There was a sense of control. It may not have been perfect, but they somehow benefited from it – even if that benefit is the reduction of stress by knowing the established order and their place in it. There is much to lose for these folks.

Now combine the Renaissance with other major changes in society. The Reformation gets going and is not squashed (like previous attempts not long before it). This creates an upheaval of the established religious and political order in Europe. You have the Plague which lasted from the 14th century to the 19th century. It kills large percentages of populations over this time. Talk about creating uncertainty in life and major upheavals in order. You have wars raging and ending throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years War ended in 1453 after 116 years. That’s multiple generations that “know” that war is the norm. Along the same time as Martin Luther is getting the Reformation going, he’s helped by the latest technological advancement that makes a huge impact in Europe – the Gutenberg Press, which was created in 1440. The impact of it would be equivalent to the invention of the Internet in the sense of easily information can be spread to more and more people. This also starts to impact literacy and education. And of course you have the “Age of Discovery” where Europeans “discover” that they were wrong about the world being flat and there is more land and people to be exploited than they thought before. There are so many pieces in that part along that has an impact on unsettling what was known. That’s just a small portion of what’s going on. Put all those pieces together and you have a major upheaval of society. And it happens over a long period of time. It’s not one event. It’s many. And this means that people are in a state of uncertainty for entire life times in some cases.

That creates stress. Generally people desire a sense of order and control over their lives and will do what they can to create that. But order and control don’t create advancements in society, knowledge, or faith. They restrict them. That’s the pull back and forth – order creates stability and predictability. But order doesn’t allow for creativity, breaking norms and testing things out. And when we do those things, it brings disorder or a new order.

So let’s jump to the current time. Here’s my theory – That we’ve been going through a similar change in society for some time now. I think of it in two stages actually. I think the first stage started with WWII. The war created a new political order. There was technological advancement. There was economic change. Churches changed too. It was after the war that a new age of discovery started – the space program. And not long after that you have the Civil Rights movement which changes the social order yet again. This all creates unheaval. And like the earlier period, there is pushback from those that seek to maintain things the way they were. People either seeing the best days yet to come with a new order or attempting to protect the known order as the best there has been.

Phase two of this societal change starts around the fall of the Berlin Wall. The political order of the world becomes uncertain. And the only remaining super power struggles with answering the question – Why do we exist. The ready answer that was available and used for decades is gone – “we’re not the Soviet Union!” For 30 years now we haven’t been able to answer that question. The easiest answer has always been to point to one’s enemies to define oneself as not them. And so with a lack of an external enemy, we’ve been turning inward on ourselves finding internal enemies to fight against. And that’s easy to do in a society that has an addiction to dualities of two opposites with rarely a third option. It’s during this time that the rise of the Internet takes hold changing the flow of information forever. Other new technology jumps in – cell phones that are more computers than just a phone. All of this becomes tailored to individual wishes and demands. The unintended effect being that while we are more connected than ever when it comes to information, we are more unconnected relationally than ever. Individualism of this sort has the side effect of mashing communications – if everyone gets their individual desires and wishes, then we all have our own language and communications becomes harder than ever. People might be using the same words, but they have different meanings. During this period there is political distress – three presidential impeachments in a couple of decades. We suffer a worldwide pandemic that kills many people and causes change to our everyday lives. Economic uncertainties to say the least – poverty is on the rise along with those who have vast wealth. Environmental uncertainty with changes in weather patterns and climate that continue to remind us that we are not in control.

And there is a backlash to all of this – those who work to protect the order they knew. The predictable order. The order that gave a sense of control. Authoritarian ways of doing things rise in times of uncertainty because authoritarians offer order and control. And there are people predisposed to need those things. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about political or religious authoritarians, or authoritarian economic systems, or controls on technology and education, and more.

We’re in the midst of a major societal change. I don’t think that’s a controversial statement. But I argue that this has been going on for 80 years already, in what is now two waves. We’re not even close to how it will be resolved. What I do feel confident in saying is that when we look at human history, those that attempt to preserve an established order do not come out on the right side of history. They never do. I think part of the reason for that is like a rubber band. Once you stretch it enough, it never goes back to the same size it was before. It’s changed.

Take this idea to society and human beings – stretch their minds and hearts, show them new possibilities and how much better things can be than the established order and you have a group of people who see no benefit to going back to the way it was before. I think that’s what we are in the midst of.

So how do we help people in this journey? A few things. 1. We need to help people mourn what was is now in the past. People can’t move on until there is closure and they have gone through stages of grief. It doesn’t matter if the past was good or bad for most people. It is what they knew, what was predictable, what was known. It’s a part of their identity. And that dies with a change. We need to help people mourn so that new possibilities can be embraced. 2. Shift from abstract ideas to humanizing things. Any polarized debate that we have is because we’re dealing with abstract ideas rather than actual people. The whole “debate” about masks during the pandemic is a great example. People were debating science that they didn’t understand, but had some tag lines to use, in an ongoing ideological battle. It wasn’t really about the masks. It was about being right – which gives people a sense of order and control and provides them with an enemy who they can define themselves as not being. When we shift topics to being about actual people and the impact on actual lives, it changes the conversation and what is possible. 3. More unknowns. I don’t have the answers. And neither do you. Acknowledging that we just don’t know goes along way. It means I can accept that I’m no in control and that I don’t know. I can acknowledge that I’m uncomfortable with this too. I can see more easily the fear that others have and I can connect with people where they are. One of the biggest challenges with fear is this – people think they are alone. If you can name the fear that people have, without insulting people for having the fear, it goes a long way in connecting with people, creating conversation and relationship. If means they won’t be approaching major changes alone. They won’t be left behind. They won’t be disregarded and seen as a liability to be overcome or discarded. They will have value and worth – not because of the changes that are happening and what they contribute to them, but rather because they have inherent worth and value and someone sees that.

Too often our debates about authoritarianism and change fall into the trap of ideas and logic and abstractions and theories. And when we keep them there, we lose sight of the bigger picture of what is going on as well as the tiny picture of actual people going through these changes and trying to sort it out. We can do better.


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