Hannah McGill: The present is not so bad

The media makes us more aware of problems such as refugee crises. Picture: Getty
The media makes us more aware of problems such as refugee crises. Picture: Getty
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LET’S end the year on a positive note. Don’t sigh. I’m not talking about the state of forced festive cheer where you glare balefully at your friends/family/television/cat through a booze-sad haze and think OH WELL, ON WE STRUGGLE.

I am suggesting engagement with the possibility that things might not be getting progressively more appalling. It is a truism to assert that we are living in “dark times”; that we are beset by an unprecedented onslaught of crises, and that people in general are more cruel and less co-operative than they were in the past. Social media fosters these assumptions. If you use Facebook, you’ll be familiar with weary comments about how awful things are “these days”. But is there anything measurably worse about current times?

I don’t mean to underplay the prevalence or gravity of modern misfortune. What I take issue with is the defeatist, conservative propaganda that insists EVERYTHING USED TO BE ROSIER and THE DREADFUL PEOPLE OF TODAY ARE WRECKING IT ALL. Why does the compulsion seem to kick in as we age to insist that we once lived in more decent times – whatever miseries and injustices have been overcome since our childhoods?

Lurking within the “things used to be so much better” mentality is not just a disregard for history’s travails (and a disrespect for the people who endured them), but a strange sort of egotism – a conviction that because an end to one’s own time on Earth is hoving into view, so all hope for the planet must also be doomed, while any subsequent generations will be inferior to our own by simple dint of not including us.


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I propose a few different ways of looking at things. The world partly seems crappier because we know more about it; we have advanced communication to such a hectic extent that as well as being able to admire the antics of cats of many nations, we are incessantly informed about the sort of suffering that would previously have escaped our radar.

And while all ages manifest both dreadful and lovely extremes of human conduct, the news agenda favours negative stories. To quote the psychologist Steven Pinker, who argues that the world is becoming progressively less violent: “We never see a reporter saying to the camera, ‘Here we are, live from a country where a war has not broken out.”’ And constant information means increased awareness. A lot of what seems newly awful is coming to light because a critical mass of people know about it, and it’s no longer an option for it to be ignored. There might not be unstoppable linear progression towards peace and joy for everyone, but nor is there much to miss or glorify about earlier phases of history. And here’s a final, sobering thought: there are people busy being young now who will, in their moany old age, hark back to THESE as the glory days. So we may as well begin making the best of them now.

Breaking ranks on top tens

Have you compiled your top ten list of end-of-year top ten lists yet? Positive thinking aside, the mass compulsion to rank the past year’s cultural output can get as irritating as a bad Christmas jumper. Time was when top ten lists were largely the responsibility of professional critics, who knew perfectly well that they were largely a strategy to fill newspaper columns at a time of year when nothing much happens and everyone is too fat to go out and find news. But now that critics are almost extinct and everyone has carte blanche to ceaselessly open their brains onto the internet, the impression has spread that it is a solemn responsibility to make lists of what you like and force them on people. Even if you include some random film that you half-remember and they haven’t seen, it doesn’t matter. Even though it’s probable you’ll list the same ten things as everyone else because there are only ever about ten good things available in any medium in any given year. Nerds and geeks, give yourselves a break. Don’t bother ranking things in an order that can only possibly matter to you. Or include a few titles that you just made up to make it a bit more interesting.

Humanity amid tragedy

When I was a child, my father used to argue, semi-seriously, that none of our family should ever leave the house lest something bad should happen. As a parent myself now, I have sympathy for this attitude. The shocking accident in Glasgow reminds us all that there is no fail-safe protection from misfortune; however careful we are, destruction can still strike. As such, this tragedy would seem to have nothing to teach us – were it not for the warm and giving reactions to it, which have conferred meaning to the meaningless. If that can’t comfort the bereaved families just yet, one hopes it one day will.


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