What Went Wrong in the 21st Century? Part 1

Ladies, gentlemen, and others, thank you for having me here. Let me begin with the central tragedy of the 21st century. They called it the Quiet Despair. Despite all the advances in technology, medicine, and economics, this mental crisis spread unimpeded. In fact, it was the exuberance over self-driving cars, CRISPR gene-editing, and low unemployment rates that masked this ebb of the soul. The generation that grew of age in the first decades of this century was immersed in prosperity, yet that only exacerbated their growing sense of helplessness. That is not to say that every single person of that generation found themselves in the grips of depression. There were a few individuals here and there who wrote with at least some optimism for the future. But this species-wide existential crisis exerted a large enough effect that we still feel its echoes today.

We in the 22nd century often mistake the crises of the 21st as unique to that century, as if cause and effect existed solely between two dates on a calendar. To understand the 21st, we must understand the 20th. I would posit that the same ailment that plagued Ernest Hemingway plagued the rest of humanity well into the future. This century, the 20th, was marked by an epidemic of violence. Again, we cannot reduce the totality of a century into mere themes. Yet, just as we cannot ignore the mass suicides in the previous century, we cannot ignore the massacres in the preceding century, because these phenomena tend to spread like a plague over space and time. In the aftershocks of the world-wide wars, a great upheaval occurred. Empires disintegrated. New nations sprung like flowers in bloom. New modes of thinking appeared. We took the first steps towards unity, albeit towards blocs with mutual hostility to each other. Now was the chance to free ourselves from the chains of the past. We failed. The degradation of unity began at the close of the Cold War. By then, only one single hegemon remained, and it took it upon itself to solve the world’s ailments. This was the first mistake.

It is perhaps trite to say that humans tend to build communities. But we do, and the irony is that we lose something when they become too big. Lacking a shared language, a shared religion, or a shared tradition, members of these types of multicultural communities tend to detach from each other. The enclaves of the world-wide communications network only exacerbated this phenomenon. Understanding this, the hegemon attempted to impose shared values across the entire globe. These came in various forms: human rights acts; encouragement of certain types of governments; international treaties; and each of their variations. What they didn’t understand was that no one wants to be dominated by a single culture. They didn’t intend for this to happen, but it did. Ironically, while the hegemon failed to flatten the world in its ideology, it also neglected to nurture the culture of its own citizens. It realized this too late, when the people had already segregated themselves into squabbling tribes. The slow decline began. It may seem that I’m being polemical against a country that has provided so much prosperity to the world. That is not so. While we acknowledge our debt to the former USA, we must also acknowledge the critical mistakes it made in order to create a better future.

The first fracture came near the end of the second decade of the 21st century. A small, but growing movement, known as populism, spread amongst the richer states of the world. This rising sentiment clashed tremendously against the sentiments of the old order. They advocated separation and an inward focus on the nations. The second mistake was thinking that this approach was the solution. The clashes between the old and new movements only accelerated the community’s disintegration. Like our ancestors, each siloed section of each nation fought over the metaphorical watering hole. The tribalists thought that this state of affairs would strengthen each of their respective groups. Rather, they weakened the institutions that bound the state together. The courts, the social services, the representatives in government, and all their permutations oriented towards the favored tribes. That was the catalyst for the Quiet Despair.

Apathy can overcome even the most impassioned ideologue. When the promised economic and spiritual uplift did not come, even towards the favored groups, the people became disillusioned. Official statistics demonstrate this phenomenon. Suicide rates rose. Social participation declined. Self-reported measures of well-being fell. All this happened even after the tariffs, the closing of borders, and the shunning of those who did not fit in. By the end of the century, the so-called Millenial generation, their children, and their grandchildren fell into a psychological black hole. Imagine what it was like to be there. Every day, they were browbeaten by the forces of separation. Every week, they were bombarded by reports of waves of suicide. This was the great withdrawal. Now, I’m not saying that we were facing extinction, but I do not exaggerate when I say we were on the verge of a social Dark Age. You can see it in the images from that era. People immersed in their smartphones while surrounded by family. The mocking of genuine pleas for help on social media. The obsession with personal brand. Eventually, the disconnect enveloped large swathes of the population, who tried to escape either through suicide, through passionate anger, through mindless entertainment, or through descent into apathy. Governments polarized and fell apart. Inequality grew. Violence reigned. Although different in method, this phenomenon was as devastating as the Black Death in Europe so long ago.

We were lucky to escape from the spiral of depression, not out of enlightenment, but out of sheer horror. The tragedy of the 21st century still lingers over us still. Just as the despair of the 20th century resurfaced in the 21st, so does that century impart its tainted history into the present. The seeds of discontent still wait under the surface. We must be vigilant. However, if we want to truly avoid disaster, we must look for solutions with clear minds and gracious hearts. The promises of both a unified world order and a fractured world order have failed. We must abandon both of those approaches.

We must do what we do best: build communities. Not through the singular vision of a hegemon, but through a community of communities, each with an equal share of responsibility. The impetus for the rebellion was a sense of disconnect, a shunning of certain groups by the wider community. Now, others may argue that this trend in the 21st century was a well-deserved balancing of power, that those who felt helpless should have shut up and taken it because of the actions of their ancestors. That is a gross unfairness. We must not, we cannot, punish individuals for sins they did not commit. That is not building community, that is warfare. This is not a zero-sum game. Everybody has value, and everybody deserves respect. Let us be kind to each other. Thank you.

-Erika Katsuhito, Social Commentator, University of Leeds, 2211

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