Archive for November 17, 2011

Why Mature Societies Are Always Doomed

November 17, 2011 29 comments

Have you ever wondered why “mature” and “older” cultures are often incapable of improving or evolving into something better suited to the present? You can see this phenomena in cultures and nations as diverse as Japan, Korea, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Italy, France, Germany or England. They just can’t seem to move on from some point in history.

I have previously written about how societies are negatively impacted by the sclerosis of customs and mores . But how do they reach that point anyway? To understand this phenomena one has to first appreciate the real nature of customs, mores and why they are so dangerous to societies that have accumulated a lot of them.

Customs, mores and institutions come into being to facilitate social functioning. However they are, by their very nature, rooted in a very narrow set of social conditions that gave rise to them. They work well in the begining but become progressively less useful as that society moves further away from the set of conditions under which they were formed. The problem then is not the existence of customs, mores and institutions per se but their persistence past their point of usefulness.

Consider Japanese society.. its customs, mores and institutions are based on a world that ceased to exist over 150 years ago. It is no longer an insular society of a few katana-wielding nobles abusing a population of rice eating subsistence farmers. But is obvious that their worldview has not changed since that era. The sheer number of inscrutable customs and mores which have no relevance to the world we live in might appear charming to an outsider, but are destroying their society as we speak. The same can be said of Korea, China or any other east-Asian country with similar worldviews.

In my opinion, outdated customs and mores are toxic to societies in the following ways-

1. Customs and mores that are not helpful in the present still occupy the time and “mind-space” of people. Living in a society with many traditions and customs forces people to devote a lot of time and energy to worthless endeavours such as complex greetings, social cues, gift-giving and other social rituals which do not make them happy or improve social functioning in a changing environment.

2. Systems with tons of legacy customs and mores adversely affect the ability to make major changes and people are left patching up the mistakes of their ancestors while pretending that they are not fixing mistakes. The high rates of domestic savings in Japan, systems of hiring workers, institutions are the product of an era when those ideas worked. But those very attributes have failed them in the last 20 years.

3. Legacy customs are mores make societies spend their time and resources rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic, in addition to the previously mentioned fixing of mistakes, and loudly proclaiming that all is well even as they are visibly engaged in trying to patch the holes in a manner that is likely to fail. This state of affairs also bolsters cognitive dissonance in the population making reform or change even harder.

4. Such societies are too sclerotic to support those who could institute real reform or change. Instead they spend considerable effort persecuting people who even dare to point out the obvious, let alone try to fix them.

5. While they can often survive longer than expected, just like dodos, these dysfunctional systems are very fragile. They can therefore collapse without any warning, or serious challenge, largely because they cannot withstand stresses which nominally functional systems can endure.

Every second wasted on legacy customs, mores and rituals is time forever lost from doing something that might work better or be more relevant.