Unifying Our Idea of Social Progress

Created April 15, 2022

Welcome to this week’s Bill Harvey Blog.

The most powerful cultural change driving world and personal events today is the underlying sense of loss of belief in the American Dream.

I’m paraphrasing the words of Walker Smith, former President of Yankelovich, for many years the most psychologically sophisticated research company serving the marketing field, speaking today at the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) annual AUDIENCExSCIENCE conference.

What is or was the American Dream and how could it account for what is happening outside the US today? Because Walker was not just talking about the USA.

The American Dream has always meant the hope, aspiration, and expectation that each generation would be better off than the preceding one.

This idea did not necessarily exist before the USA came about. In the Middle Ages, the prevailing feeling was that things used to be better in the ancient world’s Golden Age, and that was now all gone forever, never to return. 

The Renaissance opened the door to art and science and technology in ways which restored the human race’s belief in itself. This led into a period we call the Enlightenment which then lost touch with the human spirit and curled back into the awe-neutralizing world we live in today, formed in the Eighteenth Century. 

The democratic revolutions in America and France were a turning point that restored the zeitgeist of hopefulness about the future, revivifying the optimistic inspiration of the Renaissance. For more than 200 years the American Dream inspired people around the world to work harder and smarter and with more inspiration to shape a better world for their children and secondarily for themselves.

And now it appears that Walker Smith is right, there is a prevailing tacit sense of disillusionment, tacit in the sense of not being expressed as directly as he expressed it today to me and hundreds of other leaders of the world’s marketing and media intelligentsia.

Walker showed compelling survey results to back up his point. In countries where most progress has been made toward economic success, social justice and the dignity of the individual, he showed that after decades in which most people believed their kids would have it better than themselves, today the majority believe that the kids will have it worse.

A later speaker at the conference showed a verbatim comment made by a Gen Z person indicating “I no longer trust government, other people, or the world.” 

Both optimism and pessimism are biases, less desirable than objectivity, but between them, one helps and the other hurts, because any mindset becomes self-fulfilling prophecy, it’s the way our minds work. Pessimism forces us down into the pit we feared. Optimism gives us back the natural zest for life and enables us to overcome – anything.

Data shown at the conference confirms that Gen Z (people born since 1997) are far above average in holding brands to communicate, by their actions and authentic words and images, that brands recognize their purpose is to make life better for everyone. And yet now these idealists are already experiencing the disappointment in their own golden dreams, all too soon, all too soon.

We can’t let this go on.

What gutted our confidence?

Walker had pointed us at the Starting Points of a generation, telling us that each generation reflects what the Cultural Tent Pole events were when they came into the conversation.

For Gen Z, the oldest of whom is now 25, when they were first starting to use media they heard about the war on terrorism, and the US limited ability to dial back violence everywhere. As they grew up, they saw a growing divide along partisan lines within the US, mirrored around the world. The idea of limits was reinforced and the idea of possibilities was diminished. The split into red and blue idealists played out as one side limiting the other side from being able to make improvements.

They may have consciously ignored most of this while playing expressively within their social media communities, but nothing could have protected their subconscious minds from imbibing these toxins.

Unifying our ideals and values is necessary if we are to protect Gen Z and all future generations from reruns of the worst of history.

We have the power. We have to use it constructively. We need to unify our idea of “What IS social progress?”

Social progress starts with the criterion that one’s own descendants should have it even better than we do. That is the most unifying ideal of all. We should all find it easy to agree on that if nothing else.

Avoiding Derailment

The idea that everyone should benefit runs into major difficulty when it is looked at through the lens of a person who feels threatened. That person does not want a level playing field because they already feel cheated and are therefore naturally skeptical about the idea that they should support other people more than they have been supported.

The person who feels threatened is probably subconsciously feeling a sense of inferiority. In our materialistic culture the need to take work that is uninspiring leads the average person to live out a life of quiet desperation (TS Eliot) conducive of a sense of inferiority and of throwing one’s life away. So that there is a very large pool of people who instinctively flinch away from taking care of other people because they feel someone ought to be taking better care of them. 

The sense of inferiority was historically an albatross that Russia still bears. But the dissatisfied and resentful chords in the human chorus are not limited by geography, these poisons to the spirit are everywhere, and reduce openness to ideas about sharing with those even worse off than ourselves. Only those who feel good about themselves subconsciously and consciously can authentically support the idea of equality.

This does not mean putting the movement toward equality on hold. I personally feel that the momentum toward equality is now established, by the efforts of millions of people from Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King and on and on, including the people of show business, and Gen Z will make it happen if we don’t complete the job, but we will. 

Instead, what I’m suggesting is that we don’t confuse the issue by too quickly bringing in more specificity, as we re-establish the unifying notion of a better life for our kids. All of our kids. That would defeat the drive to unity, a message in a bottle in all languages, e.g.: Rodovoi. Danketsu. Tongyi. Aikyam. Yachad. Henosis. Our objective here is unity in re-establishing the universal dream of human social progress. Today, in the present context, it can only be founded on one remaining point of solidarity: our children.  

So, as we sew up the ravaged flag of idealism and courage facing the future, in the complex world of motivations, we can’t go too far too fast. Start with the one universal common ground: our children. We must make a better life for them. We cannot, for whatever reasons we concoct with our brilliant rhetoric, justify anything less than a commitment of our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor (Thomas Jefferson) to this unifying ideal. This is the philosopher’s stone by which to navigate the rest of the journey. 

Because we must first re-establish unity of realistic idealism before we can turn to specifics.

Take the present most divisive issues and give them a rest. Let your hearts and minds discover what else there is to be said, with positivity, constructiveness, and encouragement. What will help make for a better world for all the generations to come. Words and feelings and actions that bring us together again. Don’t skip to step two, please, focus on step one.

Love to all, 

Bill

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