Whichever period of time one happens to be born into will set the stage for everything afterwards in their lives. It is the great contextual painter for our lives, where our beliefs, identities, attitudes, worldviews, and dreams are incepted, cultivated, and reinforced. I wonder about the distinct differences I have noticed in many people a generation or two older than me. These are people who were seemingly raised in the same areas as me and yet harbor very different worldviews. Time seems to be a dominant factor here for why this seems to be. Time acts as the grand catalyst, the bringer of influx, the facilitator of great potential change to a given area. So, what has time done to mold people in a particular way?
Now when I say what has time changed, I mean I mean what has time changed specifically over the last fifty years, from my grandparent’s upbringing in the 1950s to mine in the 2000s? This question fascinates me. In noticing my own personal exposure to say my parents and grandparents and the people around their age, I seem to notice trends in attitudes, beliefs, and dispositions that are markedly distinct from today’s young adults. This may seem obvious, for generational distinctions have probably always existed, but there is something oddly specific about the past fifty years that makes these distinctions particularly poignant.
I have noticed patterns of behavioral changes and attitudes towards different things like race, sexuality, and politics change over time, at least in my own personal exposure to people. Now this is not to say that these generations are monoliths of the same people with the same carbon copy set of beliefs and attitudes, I recognize the immense diversity within generations. What I am speaking of is the exposure I have personally had to people in rural/small town inhabitants in eastern Tennessee. You know, people who are mostly conservative, patriotic, and religious. Within this sample size of the population, there are cultural trends I have picked up on that I wish to discuss now. Cultural trends that vary, sometimes greatly, between older and younger generations.
These trends include changing attitudes in morality, in worldviews, in open-mindedness, etc. Specifically, there are attributes to younger people that seem to be more open minded to a variety of cultural differences and lifestyles, they may be more easily exposed to different ideas, more willing to try new things, and more understanding of people of different religions or sexual orientations. Many of these younger people are also far less likely to be religious zealots who participate in bombastic proclamations of xenophobic, religious fanaticism. My main factor of discussion here in the changing and opening of minds in this fifty-year timespan is, put simply, exposure.
When I say exposure, I mean exposure to new things. This can be exposure to new people (culturally, religiously, racially, ethnically), new places, and new ideas. What has changed in the past fifty years is the sheer amount of diverse exposure the average person has grown accustomed to. There is obviously more exposure in larger urban areas but it has bled out into the smaller towns and rural communities as well.
I think there are three main factors I can come up with at the moment to suggest why people are far more exposed to a wide array of ideas and customs now. Those being the completion of the interstate system, the internet/social media, and globalization at large.
The first factor is the completion of the interstate system. The interstate system and the collateral expansion of infrastructure around it was initiated only in the 1950s and main sections were not completed until the 1970s, and on even into the 1980s and 90s. So, think about that, this coupled with the fact that there were far less cars when my grandparents were growing up meant that travel to and from different regions was far less efficient and viable. When I think back to my grandparent’s growing up in the 1950s in Sweetwater, a tiny rural town in eastern Tennessee, I think about how much more isolated and limiting their world was than the average young person of today. We tend to take the interstate system for granted now but it is still a relatively new system.
The simple structural complications of travel in that time and place meant that far less people went in and out of town, especially people of varying religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds. There was very little exposure to anything other than white, conservative, and Christian. Now my grandparents turned out to be very open-minded people later in life but they seemed to be the exception to the rule, having met many of their older peers. Many did harbor racist, xenophobic, and homophobic attitudes. This gets back to the factor of exposure, or lack thereof, which can and does still reinforce people’s ignorance today, albeit perhaps not as much.
It is important to understand this exposure concept when understanding many older people, especially from rural backgrounds. It is also important in understanding members of certain racist or xenophobic groups that still emerge today. If we can shed some light into how certain ignorant beliefs propagate, we may can find some compassion with people instead of mere contempt, which doesn’t serve any greater purpose for constructing change.
Lack of exposure is a huge factor in constructing beliefs of an “other” or “out group”. It’s a deep seeded psychological tendency that can be easily overcome and yet is very easy to sink into if one isn’t vigilant and mindful. Without exposure to people in a particular group, it is easy to vilify, to demonize, and to dehumanize these specific people. Being surrounded by like-minded people who share these sentiments only serves to create echo chambers that bolster the beliefs more into the psyche. It is known that exposure to different people alone can greatly change one’s attitudes of hatred or stereotypical sentiment. It seems to me that it was much easier to harbor narrow-minded beliefs in the rural south before proper infrastructure was in place that ensured adequate circulation of different people’s and ideas to and from regions.
The second factor is the emergence of the internet and social media in the last twenty years. The internet has ensued that ideas can be shared on a level unpresented in human history. Now with the prevalence of cell phones, easy access to the internet for today’s young people can naturally expose them to a much higher number of different peoples and ideas than generations of the past. I can also speak from personal experience, since many of my own beliefs came from consuming media on the internet, watching YouTube, reading blogs, listening to podcasts, audiobooks, and browsing endless sites and forums filled with diverse information and people.
Even if one isn’t necessarily interested in knowledge or expanding one’s mind, browsing the internet and social media is still going to naturally expose people to new ideas they couldn’t have gotten otherwise, at least not at this pace. Now the water gets muddied when considering the modern onslaught of disinformation, fake news, and the many echo chambers and confirmation bias practices that propagate the innerwebs. Still, it’s hard to deny the fact that different beliefs, opinions, and practices are spread far more effectively than even twenty years ago, forget fifty years. Information is everywhere now, it’s pervasive and accessible on a scale far beyond the imaginations of someone in my grandparent’s time. This has to count for something on a collective level in terms of exposure and beliefs that are forged as a result.
The third factor is more meta than the previous two, but I think the overall shift towards globalization in the last thirty years is shifting consciousness slowly but surely to a global perspective. I think the vast global networks of trade, customs, and ideas have slowly eroded the idea of the nation-state in the collective minds of our society (The rise of Trump is in part a return to nation-state mentality and a direct counterreaction to globalization). In addition to that, perhaps globalization is a major factor in why patriotism has taken a dive. From my experience, the most patriotic and America-first-minded individuals tend to be older. Perhaps it is more common in older generations. I can’t say for sure but I have noticed that devout forms of patriotism are less common in younger generations, at least it seems that way. I have noticed its prevalence more in rural communities versus cities as well.
The expansion towards a global network of communication, cooperation, and trade coupled with the increasing capabilities to share information through technology is slowly shifting our consciousness, broadening our horizons and increasing our collective scope of empathy from the nation to the world. One can hope at least. Again, this comes back to exposure changing consciousness. Globalization, for all of its flaws, at least has the capacity to let it change us for the better in terms of expanding our historically short list of who is worthy of being called a fellow human beings. And again, there is a growing backlash to globalization and many young people are sympathetic to narrow-minded ideologies and agendas. I don’t deny that but it seems to be the pendulum attempting to swing the other way again, the overall trend is still one of growing cooperation, as resistant as many tend to be.
The world has changed drastically over the course of a half a century. Cultural isolation is becoming less and less common through the factors mentioned above and with that, hopefully a broader understanding of our collective humanity. I would like to hope that mass exposure will eventually win out in creating more open-minded and empathetic communities. I also recognize that it could just as easily go the other way, and we could retract back into our small world filled with confirmation bias and bigotry.
It will be interesting to see how history unfolds in this unpresented time of change and potential. Perhaps our consciousness will eventually catch up with itself and we can learn to actually be human to one another. Efficient infrastructure, technology, and globalization certainly are doing that to a large extent, I have seen it first-hand with the changing times, but only time will tell if we are truly ready to evolve into a cooperative global society or if we will once again sink back into the muck of war and division. I have to believe we are better.