Jesus said it first but Abraham Lincoln said it best: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”
We live in divisive times, with multiple challenges. But the greatest threat to our civilization is not climate change (as damaging as that may be), nor is it growing inequality or reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.
The astonishing divide in mainstream values, often attributed to populism, could soon shatter civil society, leaving our nations virtually ungovernable.
The idea that mild and gentle Canada also suffers from these problems is shocking. Surely white nationalism and growing intolerance are American in origin or other peoples’ problems, not ours?
But the statistics speak for themselves. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes reached historic highs in 2017, up 47 per cent over the previous year. And what’s that Nazi Swastika doing flying in a Saskatchewan village?
The reasons for this are many, including the poisonous effects of social media and fake news.
Maybe the social tolerance we once believed was commonplace never really existed; perhaps it simply took the means to rant anonymously to unleash the angry Canadian beast.
That’s a compelling argument but social media is simply the means – the problem lies deeper. In the past few decades, there’s been a complete U-turn on the Western idea of progress.
According to Robert Nisbet, no single idea has been more important than the idea of progress. The author of History of the Idea of Progress concluded, “Simply stated, the idea of progress holds that mankind has advanced in the past – from some original condition of primitiveness – is now advancing, and will continue to advance through the foreseeable future.”
This idea of progress has deep roots in Western life and culture. From the classical philosophers of ancient Greece, through the rise of science, the Italian Renaissance, the 18th century Enlightenment up to the late stages of the 20th century, an unbroken chain of belief has existed that, “what one does in one’s own time is at once tribute to the greatness and indispensability of the past, and confidence in an ever more golden future.”
Throughout most of Western history, progress was rooted in respect for reason, and the advance of knowledge and science.
The astonishing technological advances translated into constantly improving methods of production and economic growth.
Improved living conditions followed, while a slow but steady advance in the relative empowerment of the individual reformed our societies, translating them from an oppressive feudal despotism to the relatively liberal democracies we enjoy today.
In other words, change was seen as a social good. It was just assumed that every new generation would have a higher standard of living than their parents.
But, according to Nisbet, all that began to change in late in the 20th century: “The revolt against rationalism and science … and the astonishing growth of subjectivism – of preoccupation with one’s own self and its pleasures – is different in kind from anything the West has know before.”
The idea of society advancing and strengthening individual rights has been replaced with a contrary notion that society is the oppressor of natural-born rights; particularly the rights of minorities such as women, people of colour, Indigenous peoples and others.
In other words, the Western past is not a proud record of human achievement and societal advance – it’s a catalogue of abuse.
The consequences are readily apparent. The shocking rise of identity politics has shattered social unity, the collective ‘we,’ which seems to be unraveling like a cheap carpet.
The idea of one nation has been replaced by a growing list of victimized sub-groups who can point – all too clearly – to historical grievances that support the case for their systematic oppression.
While there’s no denying the legitimacy of these grievances, the unintended consequence of minority identity politics is the development of an increasingly angry and self-centred white identity.
Populism is driven by a large and growing portion of the society rejecting the new oppression narrative and rebelling against the abandonment of the Western idea of progress.
The political consequences are troubling: the rise of populism has fuelled U.S. President Donald Trump, Brexit and may soon turn – full force – upon a struggling Liberal government in Canada.
Regrettably, intolerance and civil strife will continue to increase and – in extremis – could lead to a complete societal breakdown.
To offset this trend, we’d better rediscover our collective identity and reinvigorate the idea of progress before it’s too late.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.