by Jay Johansen | Jun 22, 2015
I read an article recently in which the writer stated that conservative groups, like the Tea Party and people who oppose gay marriage, are doomed to failure. His logic: If you study history, groups that are willing to embrace new ideas inevitably win over groups that are not willing to embrace new ideas. For example, in the 1500s, Europeans embraced the new idea of "guns", while Native Americans and Pacific islanders did not. So in conflict between the two, the Europeans won.
He hastened to add that it is not necessarily good that people who embrace new ideas win, but that the historical reality is that they do.
Which left me wondering, What in the world is he talking about?
For starters we might point out that the agenda of the Tea Party is low taxes and free markets. It is not at all clear that this is an "old" idea, and that there has been some recent discovery that makes it obsolete. Socialism goes back to at least Plato circa 400 BC. The idea of free markets was first clearly described by Adam Smith in 1776. Similarly, homosexuality is hardly a new idea that someone just thought of recently. Homosexuality was common and routinely accepted in ancient Greece.
But regardless, let's accept the premise, for the sake of argument, that high taxes and gay marriage are new ideas.
It is still not at all clear how the fact that people with guns generally defeat people with bows and spears in combat proves that people who support gay marriage must inevitably defeat people who oppose gay marriage in cultural conflict.
There are some rather obvious reason why people with guns defeat people with spears in combat: Guns have longer range, do more damage, can be aimed more accurately, and generally have a higher rate of fire than spears. A modern gun is, all around, a better and more effective weapon than a spear. It is not at all obvious that acceptance of gay marriage is superior to rejection of gay marriage in any comparable sense.
Guns enable the society that has them to kill people more efficiently than do spears. Regardless of the underlying morality, this clearly gives the society with guns an advantage over the society without guns. That's plain and obvious. What advantage does gay marriage give? Does gay marriage give a nation an advantage in combat? Does gay marriage reduce a nation's unemployment rate? Does it reduce environmental pollution? Does it make computers faster or more reliable? Unlike the example with guns, there is no obvious competitive advantage in combat, economics, science, or anything else, that gay marriage gives to the society that practices it over the society that doesn't.
You may, of course, think that it is better to accept gay marriage. But the argument was that "new" ideas give an advantage to the society that embraces them, that lead it to inevitably defeat the society that does not. There is a huge difference between "society X will defeat society Y in combat because they have better weapons" and "society X will defeat society Y in social conflict because I like society X better".
Yes, guns are "newer" than spears, and guns give the society that has them a military advantage over the society that does not. But it hardly follows from that that every "new" thing gives an advantage to the society that has it. Some new ideas give a competitive advantage. Some new ideas prove to be huge mistakes. Many new ideas give no particular advantage in any sort of competition between cultures. Rock music is newer than jazz, but it is not at all obvious that a society that plays rock will inevitably overcome and conquer a society that plays jazz.
Indeed, many "new ideas" prove to be passing fads. When I was a kid, mullets were the latest new hair style. Crew cuts were considered old-fashioned. But mullets did not take over society and crew cuts die out. Thirty years later, I still see plenty of people around with crew cuts. I almost never see someone with a mullet.
© 2015 by Jay Johansen