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Soubresaut's avatar

Why are so many issues framed with a "fallen" narrative? And does that framing limit us?

Asked by Soubresaut (13216points) 5 days ago

This may be a bit too lofty a question, but I thought I’d try asking for some jelly thoughts on it anyway.


I was reading a book and ran into a portion looking at a particular study’s findings. It wasn’t so much the findings that caught my attention—the study found inadequacies in certain educational practices—as much as the way it was framed. The specific framing was: ”‘America has forgotten how to raise healthy kids.’”

The study as-described was only looking at a snapshot in time—whether adolescents in various settings (at the time of the study) met certain criteria for ”‘optimally healthy development.’” It wasn’t comparing the development of those adolescents against that of adolescents of previous eras, and so the data alone couldn’t have shown a decline (a “forgetting”). That idea of forgetting seemed to be added by the explanation.

I wrote in the margin of the book: “Have we forgotten, or are we learning that we never knew?” And then I wondered: If the issue is that we never knew, but we assume that we’ve simply forgotten, what does that mean for how we approach the issue?

I’m explaining my thinking here to give a specific example of “this,” but it is certainly not the only example. The archetypal narrative frame of “we are fallen” is quite common—once we were better, now we are corrupt, but (usually) we can be better again. (I’m hoping you know what I mean and can think of other examples of this as well.)


Moving past my specific example and looking at the archetype more generally:

Why do “we” seem so ready to ascribe problems to a “fall,” and in that framing assume there was a time when the issue we’re considering was solved? And if we assume that the solution to problems is to restore or to return in some capacity or other, does that limit our ability to solve issues in meaningful—even lasting—ways? (Whether through a reluctance to seek a novel solution, or in a belief that if something never was “better before,” it cannot be “restored,” etc.?)

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16 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

The same narrative has been driving white patriarchal thinking for the last 60 years. That “things used to be great”. It drives the MAGA bros. It drives the Boomers. It fueled Pat Buchanan’s “culture war”.

But the reality is that things are, for the most part, much better for everyone than they were 20 years ago and certainly better than the Fifties.

seawulf575's avatar

I think that when someone is setting a narrative, they have a specific angle they are trying to push. And part of that push almost invariably has to negate all other options. One of the most expedient ways to do that is to just say it is a “failed” or “fallen” ideal.

Jeruba's avatar

@Soubresaut, I love your question. And you are right, “Things are worse than they used to be” or “Everything was better before” is a culturally pervasive theme, perhaps one that we can thank Genesis for. Or Plato.

I’ll think about your question for a bit before attempting much of a discussion. I have an idea that its roots may be in the essentially theological notion that something can’t come from nothing.

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elbanditoroso's avatar

Go back earlier – it’s traceable to the New Testament stories where there is/was the fall, and Jesus had to die for everyone’s sins.

The theme of fall and redemption is a classic plot dating more than 2000 years. It gets dressed up with different plot lines from time to time, but it’s the same story.

Jeruba's avatar

@elbanditoroso, it’s the Old Testament that has the story of the Fall: Genesis, as mentioned above. And some of the mythology presented in the Old Testament comes from written and oral traditions that are thousands of years older.

Plato and his Ideal Realm offer another take on the same essential idea: degeneration from a higher form.

Evolution takes the opposite view.

janbb's avatar

I have some difficulty with this question and I’m trying to sort it out. I see two different aspects of this concept (at least two.) One is the narrative of personal fall and redemption; think Jesus or Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. (”“It is a far, far better thing I do…..”) I think this theme is so prevalent because it resonates with people and is satisfying.

The other aspect of “fallen” you are touching on seems to be more like “We’ve fallen and we can’t get up again.” That’s putting it lightly but I see that as more of the negative zeitgeist that is active right now and that Trump so successfully built on. I do think there are periods of general optimism in society, perhaps as in America and Britain after WW 2, and periods where a negative outlook prevails and the mood is doom and gloom. Again, one’s personal psyche, as well as race and economic status, has something to do with it but there are times of expansion (the Renaissance, the Enlightenment) in society and times of retreat and negativity.

I’m not sure if I’m making sense or if either of these distinctions pertain to the question you are asking but that’s my stab at it.

LostInParadise's avatar

IQ scores rose steadily and universally during the 20th century, before tapering off. This rise has been called the Flynn Effect after the psychologist, James Flynn, who studied it. The usual explanation given is that with the rise of technology we have become more accustomed to thinking abstractly. Here is a TED talk about it that was given by Flynn.

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

@Soubresaut Thank you so much for asking this question. I have been thinking about it all morning, and I have only just been able to come to what I think begins to hint at an answer.

“An” answer, I say. This question will have more than one.

I believe that @Jeruba is on the right track. I am seeing something of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. We see only vaguely at some level, and that by freeing ourselves from some restriction, we can begin to view things from a purer perspective and see things in a wholeness. There is a lack on the level we spend our everyday lives. It’s incomplete. We can only get to wholeness by somehow transcending the profane. It’s an idea that perfection is possible, and it does not exist on a level we encounter in an average day.

Before Plato, there were myths. The Greeks had myths about their gods who dwelt in perfection never aging, never dying. I have not made a detailed study of myths and their components, so my understanding is perfunctory. They seem to allude to a divine perfection. On our plane, we can only imagine perfection. We can only make feeble attempts to replicate it here. We do that in many ways. Our most complex way is through governments and all the trappings that come with it.

What I think I’m doing a poor job of saying is we are trying to bring perfection into a plane of existence that will not allow it to happen.

We also have to recognize that the vast majority of users on this site come at this question from an American viewpoint. We are acculturated to believe that we can achieve better through exertion. “God rewards those who help themselves.” I had the good fortune of living many years in Asia, and they do not share this same drive. It simply doesn’t exist. Situations simply are, and we individually have little say in how they may develop.

I want to hear more about @janbb‘s idea that we are in a period of contraction in our optimism.

This is my beginning. I hope there will be discussion eliciting more thought.

janbb's avatar

@Hawaii_Jake To answer your question, I see a negative world view on both the left and the right in America. The left looks at climate change, racism and income inequality as mammoth issues that are not being addressed and they (we) feel the future is a dystopian one. The right harkens back to what they see as the lost glory days of America and think that sexual immorality (i.e. gay marriage), immigration and the browning of pure white America are ruining what America used to be. And certainly, the loss of manufacturing, unionization, viable small farms and rural life contribute to a negative aspect overall.

Looking around the globe, I can’t pontificate as surely, but it does seem that the rise of authoritarian governments casts a spell of sorrow around the world.

Let alone the current pandemic.

But I know Steven Pinker and others have written that we are in – until recently – a time of great progress in the world. I just don’t perceive it in the Zeitgeist.

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snowberry's avatar

Haven’t read the above responses, but it sounds like a twist on how things were better in the “good old days”.

Demosthenes's avatar

I think there are several factors at play. One is that humans are never satisfied with their lives. We’re always imagining how things could be better. We’re always identifying problems that need fixing—that’s part of what motivates us to go on living. But it’s not easy to imagine a better future without precedent, to imagine something better that’s never existed. It is, however, much easier to look to the past and declare that it was superior and that we can go back to that glorious ideal. It gives us something to work for. We can work for some unknown future, but it’s more satisfying to know what we’re working for, to have an example in mind, and that can only come from the past. Of course, the perception of the past as some kind of ideal is skewed by hindsight and rose-tinted glasses, so our desire to return to some ideal may be misguided. But I think it’s hard to escape from this mindset of knowing our lives can be better though the example of the past.

There seem to be three attitudes toward progress: the perception that society is getting better (common, for example, in Europe around the turn of the 20th century but shattered by the disillusionment caused by the barbarity and pointlessness of World War I), the perception that society is getting worse (what I would say is the dominant attitude right now in the U.S. on all sides of the political spectrum), and finally the perception that society has always had its share of bad and good and always will. This is more like my perception, but I can’t summarize it that simply. I’ve come to have that perception largely through my extensive study of world history.

In summary: people are always going to imagine an ideal existence that’s better than the existence they are living right now. Often that will involve returning to some superior past existence, as this is, for the most part, all we have to go on. It’s easier to look back to the record of the past as an example of how we should live than to imagine a future that’s never existed.

Patty_Melt's avatar

I think it is a misconception of necessity.
Schools used to meet educational needs perfectly well.
What has changed is not the schooling, but the needs of the students. So, the system is now less effective not because it has fallen, but because it has failed to sufficiently advance, with the changing needs of the students.

I have been saying for a significant length of time that schools need drastic changes to become current to the needs of the community. The changes are needed from architecture, to staffing, to curriculum, down to every aspect.

It is obvious that school structures do little to nothing to protect anyone from attack.

It is obvious that a terrible number of students are dropping out.

It is obvious that mental health needs are not being met.

To overhaul the entire basic education system would involve huge change and monumental cost, so nobody is willing to take it on, so we continue to slide back and educate our offspring little better than third world achievement.

We are not engaging our students well enough.
We are not protecting our students well enough.
We are not teaching our students well enough.
We are not encouraging our students well enough.

The covid drama is nothing compared to what is needed for our schools.

Soubresaut's avatar

I’m loving reading this discussion, all the nuance and thoughtful insights people are offering. I also hope it continues.

Just a side note, I think a better word for what I was describing is what @Jeruba called it, a “theme.” I can see how, since narratives are crafted by authors, that calling it a “narrative” made it seem like a deliberate thing, and maybe sometimes it is being used deliberately and that’s worth discussing too, but I did mean more a discussion about how this idea became a sort of background, implicitly accepted “theme,” and where we see it crop up in our lives. I think everyone pretty much understood what I was trying to say, and have taken the initial question farther.

I’m still chewing on the question myself, and on what everyone has offered so far. Would be happy to see the discussion continue. :)

Hawaii_Jake's avatar

I realized I failed to address the second question. Does the fallen theme limit us? If we are comparing the present to some supposed ideal past, then I feel confident in saying it limits us. Aching to return often misses the better options ahead.

However, if we are discussing the idea we’ve fallen from perfection, then it seems by definition we could not do better than perfection.

This is still a very complex discussion, and I hope it’s not finished.

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