This week, our featured writer is Manfred Wolf, Professor of English (Emeritus) at San Francisco State University and currently, leturer at University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institue. Those several series of lectures are avalable as free podcasts at his website, SuvivalInParidse.com.
Fashion in Ideas
© 2021 by Manfred Wolf, SurvivalInParadise.com
I remember one day in the 1970s turning up on the first day of class at San Francisco State in an outfit that right now I wouldn’t even wear to a costume party: polyester leisure suit, a cowboy-style bandanna peeping out from under a dress shirt, bell bottom slacks, also polyester. What possessed me to wear so ridiculous a get-up that it can still make me cringe? What impression could that possibly have made on my students?
Nothing out of the ordinary. Their other teachers also wore preposterous outfits. One or two colleagues who wore the classic suit and tie now have my (belated) admiration, but that’s really beside the point. We copied each other. We followed the times. We looked around. The ridiculous had become the normal.
We‘re all familiar with the dictates of fashion. The unimaginable becomes standard. Everybody is susceptible. When you imitate your peers, you don’t notice. Where it all comes from is beside the point. It’s fashion. (Please don’t tell me it’s all because clothing manufacturers are greedy. That sort of Follow The Money explanation is always proffered with an air of profundity, but it doesn’t explain anything. The real question is, Why do we fall for their sales pitch?)
Fashion dictates so much: the way we think, the way we feel, the way we look at things.
The changes in fashion largely shape our changes in belief. For instance, recently, one state after another, one country after another, has more or less legalized marijuana. Why? Was there a new mountain of research indicating that it’s not harmful but actually beneficial? No, not at all. The research about it is as mixed as it ever was; the change came about for other reasons, or for no reason, or for the same reason that young women might decide to shorten their skirts. It was time for a change. If alcohol could be legal, so could marijuana, though, note well, that argument had been made for decades to no avail.
At a certain point all the arguments against a movement or idea became irrelevant. The fashionable new idea is suddenly regarded as a great idea.
But whether the ideas are intrinsically good or bad, they have a way of coming and going. Take the notion of free speech. Until the decline of liberalism a few years ago, free speech was thought to be a very good idea, one for the ages. Then some decades ago, hate speech became censured. An argument could be made for that limitation, but then it was followed by “Free speech as long as it doesn’t trigger me and make me feel unsafe.” With that, of course, you hear the death knell of the idea of free speech.
So does that mean that all intrinsically good ideas are doomed too? Does it mean, for instance, that governing with the consent of the governed is lost too? Aren’t some ideas the welcome result of progress? Yes, they are, but they’re equally vulnerable to being swept away by fashion, and will one day have to be re-invented, and, of course, vigorously defended.