The Myth of the Good Old Days

A lot of people seem to believe that there was such a thing as “the good old days,” when people had better morals and society was more ethical. Heck, even the quality of music was better. But my question is this: if morals have been declining in this day and age, when was it ever higher? Can we really name a time when there was less injustice, criminality, and corruption?

It may seem that way looking back on it, but that’s just confirmation bias: younger people didn’t live back then, so they see and know only the good stuff. Older folks see it better because it’s less unfamiliar and chaotic then the rapidly changing world they live in now. There’s always been bad music. There’s always been infidelity. Drug abuse and teen pregnancy isn’t new, while divorce would have been just as high in the past were it legal (spousal abuse and patriarchy have been prevalent throughout history).

Indeed, I appreciate you raising the point. I should have clarified (there’s only so much I want to right in a status update :P)

The 1950s seemed idyllic, and gets cited a lot as one of the high points of our society. But that’s mostly if you were a white heterosexual male. The era of our Founders seemed more virtuous political, until you factor in the treatment of Blacks, Natives, and women (to say nothing the understated political problems that bedeviled that period too). And medieval times should be an obvious nonstarter: we reveled in public executions and even tortured animals for entertainment (slowly lowering a live cat into a fire was pretty popular in continental Europe).

Part of the problem is data overload from mass media – they don’t call this the Information Age for nothing. We’re so connected to everything that goes on everywhere that we’re exposed to a lot more bad news then we once were. Crime seems bad because we actually have journalists and news reports to inform us about things that may have once been unknown. Natural disasters and wars seem more common for the same reason. For most of history the average person didn’t know what was going on beyond his little town, let alone halfway across the world. Again, it’s just confirmation bias.

It’s also the result of our tendency to see things in a linear way, so we think humans are either progressing or degenerating. But it’s never just one or the other. Every generation struggles with new problems, old problems, or old problems that have been altered by different contexts. We improve in some areas, worsen in others, or stay the same in still others. Complexity is the nature of human minds and thus human societies. There’s very little black or white in any of our collective endeavors.

8 comments on “The Myth of the Good Old Days

  1. It’s sad, but here in the US, it seems the majority of the voting population wants to drag us back into the past, instead of figuring out ways to make a better future. Maybe when enough of these old farts die off, we’ll finally be able to get something done – haha.

  2. Pingback: Sunday Link Roundup | Brute Reason

  3. I love this! I feel like people are constantly talking about how good everything “used to be” but I think that they’re glamorizing the past and glossing over any bad things that happened. I could go on, but it’s probably a little much for a comment!

  4. Refreshing to see someone questioning the “good old days”. This from a “tired of the – good old days baloney” 70 yr. old. Thanks.

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