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Either Sun Tzu or Mark Twain or Michael J. Fox once muttered may you live in interesting times under their breath to some bad guy and damn, did that stick.
These times feel so interesting that Dictionary.com named unprecedented the People’s Choice Word of the Year. I am not sure what the actual award is, but sources say it may involve a lifetime supply of cake for everyone who says it, which may explain why everyone’s saying it. All. The. Damn. Time.
Another big reason things feels unprecedented is that we aren’t very good at looking at our past. And surely that’s something we should do before we decide if something has, ehmm, happened before.
The last few months feel unprecedented for a few reasons:
A global pandemic killed millions and shut down whole economies
We went through a dramatic shift in how we work, learn, shop and communicate
Our political divide feels wider than ever
Tensions are rising among global powers
Our wealth gap seems greater than ever
Murder hornets are coming
There is no denying that these are scary and responsible for a lot of human suffering. And they are sort of unprecedented. But only sort of -- only in their specifics. Not in principle.
Let’s use the first three examples to explain what I mean.
1. A global pandemic killing millions.
When we look for historical precedent for the COVID pandemic, we usually start and end with the Spanish Flu. Yes, it really sucked: 50 million dead (!), 500 million infected. But it happened in 1918 and it has Spain in the name so it’s easy to dismiss it.
What we forget is that until very recently, dying from infectious diseases was the norm, not the exception. First, there have been several major pandemics since the Spanish Flu that we just forget about like the Asian Flu in the 1950s and the Hong Kong flu in the 1960s, that killing 2 million and 1 million people respectively.
Second, infectious diseases go far beyond pandemics. Outbreaks of cholera, typhoid fever, yellow fever, pneumonia, diphtheria, polio, measles were a very common, expected and deadly part of life as little as 50 years ago.
Most of us know our mortality rates have dropped significantly over the last century. But few realize that almost all of the improvement was driven by our ability to eradicate infectious diseases, dropping from 797 deaths per 100,000 people in 1900 to 34 in 2014. That’s a 96% drop.
As Morgan Housel puts it in his post,
“We are medically more prepared to fight disease than ever before. But, psychologically, the mere thought of a pandemic has never felt so foreign, so unprecedented, so upending. What was a tragic but expected part of life 100 years ago is now a tragic and inconceivable part of life in 2020”
2. “But COVID changed everything about our lives! Surely that’s unprecedented!”
It certainly feels like it, doesn’t it?
But pandemics that drastically changed daily life were common throughout history, from the Plague of Justinian in medieval times, to typhoid outbreaks in 19th century New York to SARS in the early 2000s.
And if we look beyond literal shutdowns to major events that transformed everyday life even as they were happening, the examples are countless.
Let’s take one: WWII. Life during the war changed abruptly in all sorts of ways. People who lived in rural areas struggled to feed their families and had to move en masse to cities to find jobs. Millions of Black families, mostly living in the South before the war, made their way to Northern cities to start new lives.
Millions of women had to look for traditional jobs for the first time as husbands left for war, changing perceptions of the role of women in the workforce (eg. Rosie the Riveter). The rationing of food, gas and clothing forced Americans to change their diets, their movement and their lifestyles drastically.
Even fashion changed, as dresses shortened and vests and pleats disappeared to conserve wool and cotton.
Today, digital tools let people stay in touch with friends and family, keep jobs and companies running, find romantic partners, even eat restaurant-quality food (delivered). Maybe the only unprecedented part is how little has changed in the grand scheme of things, compared to past events of similar magnitude.
3. Ok, but surely we are more divided than ever?
Eight in 10 Americans believe the US is becoming more and more polarized. One third fear we are on the cusp of civil war. But believing we are uniquely divided today suggests there were eras when we weren’t. It’s dangerous nostalgia.
First of all, the US was so divided a few generations ago that the country went to war with itself. The good news, though, is that once the Civil War ended, so did most political tension in this country.
Totally kidding. Partisanship only thrived, feeding off of humans’ innate need to define their group by vilifying the other. The period of McCarthyism, when Republicans literally arrested and imprisoned suspected leftists, stands out specifically but not uniquely in a large catalogue of extreme political division.
If anything, the data shows that partisanship is on the decline today. In the 1950s, 75% of Americans identified themselves as Democrat or Republican. Today, only 60% do. There are more self-identified moderates today than either liberals or conservatives. We are just as likely to take political beliefs into account when choosing a life partner now as we were in 1939 (in 17th and 18th place respectively… which, yeah). And the level of cultural division, which often undergirds political beliefs, has remained largely stable over time.
Why does it feel like everything is unprecedented?
There’s no denying that for most people, things feel unprecedented. Why is that?
I can think of a few reasons (encourage you to leave any ones I missed in the comments):
The full stomach doesn’t believe an empty one.
It’s an Eastern European saying that has to be pronounced with a thick Slavic accent regardless of the language you say it in.
The fact is that things have been getting better for a long time. We are living through the most prosperous and safest period in human history. Crime rates are down across the board. So is mortality. Absolute poverty is the lowest it has ever been.
And because most of us don’t know war, starvation or infectious diseases first hand (pre-COVID), it takes an impressive feat of empathy and thorough study of history to imagine, for instance, what the black and white subjects of Depression-era photos — dirty, disheveled, so unlike us, so foreign — must have felt like living through their harsh realities.
Most of us don’t bother with that. So when we are hit upside the head with a pandemic, we feel like no one in history must have been through the fear, the uncertainty, the anxiety or the pain of it.
We don’t study enough history.
Even if we could better relate to the common humanity of generations past, we often lack the historical color needed to paint a relatable picture. I was a history major and I still suck at this.
But I can say for sure that studying the detail of history taught me both how similar we are to the humans that came before us in our anxieties and ambitions, and also about how much better our world is today in countless ways. Realizing, in detail, how much shit people have lived through really gives you some historical perspective.
The Media Needs To Make Money.
News producers and publishers have long ago realized they can build successful businesses on top of an important evolutionary quirk we humans share: we focus in the face of perceived danger. We are so hard wired for it that no amount of crying wolf can change it.
And so they learned that if they cry wolf all the time and just change up the content, they’ll have our attention. And attention can be monetized to sell insurance and Kit-Kats and such.
The wolf cries that scare us the most are the ones that seem least familiar. And what better way to make things seem new and unfamiliar and scary than to frame every event as completely unprecedented? That’s breaking news culture. And that’s how we end up with stuff like this:
So what if things aren’t actually unprecedented? Does it matter?
Yes, it matters. For a few reasons:
Pretending things are constantly unprecedented lets us off the hook too easily.
No one saw this coming! It’s not our fault! *shrug*.
If, as a society, we believe this pandemic has no historical precedent, then we probably could not have prepared for it.
But we could have prepared for it if we recognized the inconvenient truths of past events and listened to the voices of people who have been warning us to prepare for this for decades.
Pretending things are constantly unprecedented takes away our power.
Recognizing it has precedent is important not only to understand what went wrong and fix it, but also to review the thought process that made us ignore all the evidence — and that will help far beyond our epidemic preparedness efforts.
Not only are most things not unprecedented, but as we go through life, it’s useful to start categorizing events as another one of those (to steal Ray Dalio’s phrase), by reflecting on our lives and our understanding of history. It’s actually really empowering: it gives us empirical proof that we — either literally us or, certainly, humans just like us — have been through stuff like this before. The past has got our back.
Pretending things are constantly unprecedented leads to life on high alert, all the time.
It’s like a day in the life of a gazelle in one of those David Attenborough documentaries: always on the lookout, never knowing where or when any one of its countless natural predators might strike.
If we have the choice, that’s no way to live. And we do have a choice: let’s expect things to change, but also let’s recognize the continuity of history. It’s so rich.