World changing: top down or bottom up?

My flimsy excuse for posting this on a writing blog is that one thing science fiction writers do, a lot, is invent strange cultures and describe how they change. And too often the changes are not convincing; they amount to everybody saying, “Oh, now that you explain it, I can see that how we’ve always done things is counter-productive. Let’s all revise our norms and expectations overnight.”

You know, the usual reaction is going to be more like, “But that’s how we’ve always done things.”

Consider three test cases.

I expect we’ve all seen pictures like this, illustrating stories about the Taliban’s series of decrees aimed at driving women – which means the whole of their society, really – back into the Stone Age. And I know there are some of us old enough to remember the pictures of girls in Western dress in Kabul circa 1970.

Now take Turkey. Kemal Ataturk was a national hero and he did his best to drag Turkey, kicking and screaming, into the modern world. It’s been sliding back into Islamism ever since he died.

What happened? It’s what didn’t happen. Changes that were imposed from the top never reached the mass of society. A few elites enjoyed a brief spring of freedom, but as soon as the politics changed, the societies oozed slowly back to where they were.

It’s depressing, if you think the changes were good ones and that the societies are worse off for rejecting them.

On the other hand…

I feel that normal people in the USA are now being battered by a series of changes demanded by a hysterical, clinically insane elite. And you know what? I don’t think that will last. The majority of people in this country are still sane. We don’t want our children sexualized or our communications censored.

Yes, it’s really hard to change a society by orders from the top. And sometimes that’s a good thing.

25 thoughts on “World changing: top down or bottom up?

  1. All true, I think, but one hates seeing the ruin that results, both from enforced changes and lost opportunities.

    Only the ability to read and a community of readers with access to lots of counterexamples can actually have an impact, and if you outlaw education, that won’t happen. Which is why the damage that’s been done to education in our own world is such a ticking time bomb…

  2. For another example – Christianity in the Baltic states. Anthropologists and others discovered that people were leaving offerings and performing rites for local nature and fertility spirits in the late 20th century. It seems that since Catholicisim and even more so Lutheranism, then Orthodoxy, then atheism, were ordered onto the people, resistance was tied into local identity and very old religious practices. (The reverse of the “observant non-believers” of Poland.)

    Also, the “there is no G-d” people are far away. Crop success is very local. So why not leave a little something to keep the pests out of the grain?

    1. Useful to compare and contrast the more effective evangelists, too– you can’t just paint over stuff, you have to *shift* it.

      1. And even than the old faith can still affect the new. I’ve noticed increasing numbers of Korean churches here in Pennsylvania, at least in my neck of the woods. And it seems like a lot of them are Charismatic/Pentecostal. I wondered about that until I learned that the ‘native’ Korean religion is a sort of shamanism with a lot of ecstatic behavior (I.e., dancing, singing, inviting gods and ancestors to speak through you) in their worship.

        1. :nods:
          The ‘trick’ is … argh, what’s the line?
          :goes and looks up:
          In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.

          The less you have to change, the better folks will be able to adapt.

            1. :heart:
              I’m glad you think so, too. 😀

              Trying to follow it has a secondary effect– you focus on the ideals, and the essentials, and what you owe others in trying to join with them in what is essential.
              Not on your authority, or power, or other traps to folks who are trying to Do Good Things.

    2. So how did Christianity eventually take hold in those states? Was it due to repeated top-down commands, or was there a bottom-up conversion phenomenon over hundreds of years?

      1. According to Per Beskow, it started trickling in with Byzantine influenced Vikings, mostly in Estonia and Lithuania. But the main arrival came during the Northern Crusades, from 1120-1300, with the Teutonic and Livonian orders. This led to a Germanic Catholic upper class, and a syncratic native peasant class. The locals blended Catholicism with older traditions, especially north of Lithuania. When Lutheranism replaced Catholicism, the locals kept popular saints days and chapels. Through out the various official faith changes, the syncratic practices of honoring local spirits and fertility and healing deities remained. [See: Heiki Valk, “Christianisation in Estonia” in Carver et al *The Cross Goes North* (2003)]

        1. It does get humorous to read how the locals who once fought against Catholicism ended up fighting /for/ it against their turned-Protestant German overlords a few centuries later.

  3. I agree. Culture is sticky even when it’s stupid. Consider the lengths the British had to go to to stamp out Suttee in India.

    When you think about it though, it would have to be that way wouldn’t it? Otherwise every new fashion that came along would completely alter the entire culture. Humans wouldn’t survive that kind of uproar on a constant basis. Nature is harsh, culture is how we deal with it. Something as simple as pot decorations last for hundreds, even thousands of years.

    Current WIP is using that inherent conservatism as a plot point, as it happens. ~:D

    “Why are you guys so chicken usually?” wondered Ginny quietly. “This worked out really well.”

    “Why don’t you like to kiss girls?” asked the dragon with a raised eyebrow. “It makes you cringe, doesn’t it?”

    “Yeah, but we’re humans,” Ginny objected. “We have like a million conflicting rules running in our squashy brains all the time. Some of them are actual chemistry!”

    “We dragons are ridiculously old,” countered Toyotama proudly. “If a thing is never done, it usually will continue to not be done. Because it simply isn’t done, my dear. Rules like that approach the laws of physics in their absoluteness. That it is arbitrary and counterproductive is irrelevant. Usually, changing those things requires someone like Great Até the Goddess of Ruin to come along and kick over the Imperial applecart.”

    “Very funny,” grumbled Até. “Lippy kids.”

    1. Have a character like that. While their core problem has a few straight forward solutions, they don’t know that, and what they do know is things like that have resulted in spectacularly bad outcomes for everyone involved, so there is no reason for them to think that if they just push it further, the result would actually be better.

      Afterwards they have a bit of a meltdown oscillating between realizing this could have been over ages ago, if they had just known, and fearing it’s about to come back with a bloody vengeance.

  4. The end of witchcraft trials was top-down. And took a long time. And was punctuated by lynchings.

    1. Punctuated by lynchings and murders down into the 1920s in some places. I.e., the once-infamous ‘Pennsylvania Hex Murders’.

      In the 50’s down in the Mexican Yucatan witch-killings and vengeance-killings by relations of dead witches got so out of hand in the Mayan villages that the local murder rate was 50 times that of the USA at the time, and seven times tat of the rest of Mexico.

  5. Fifty years ago when I was in high school there was a book about revolutions which basically said that the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions were real because they followed a (the) pattern and the American revolution wasn’t one because it didn’t follow the pattern. BUT the pattern was that after the revolution the pendulum would swing and you’d just be back where you started.

    It drove me insane because somehow we did actually change something and didn’t go back to kings, yet we were defined as not being revolutionary because we stayed different. But it is a moment in time that could be studied to see how it ended up permanently changed.

    1. Ah yes. It goes back to the French (and in the US the Beards and Richard Hoffsteader) who argued that only class revolutions that completely eliminated the old landowning pattern and economic relationships were “real” revolutions. To be fair to Beard and Beard, they didn’t go quite that far, but they were the ones who argued that the American Revolution was actually conservative in the 20th century sense, because the landowners and economic elites stayed in power once the dust settled and the Constitution was ratified. A “real” revolution requires the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie and so on. It wasn’t until the 1960s that a renegade French historian (who knew his stuff inside and out, backwards and forwards) dared challenge the European consensus. In the US it was the 90s, with T.H. Breen’s *The Marketplace of Revolution* and similar works.

      [Flees stage left, pursued by a soapbox]

      1. Oooh, that is interesting– I could actually defend the US revolution not being a revolution, because it wasn’t trying to overthrow existing situations– it was demanding that existing agreements be honored, and explained that at great length.

        It’s annoying, but still interesting. 😀

    1. Funny you should mention that! Thinking about this stuff reminded me to re-read it. Still a great book.

      Although speaking of culture shifts… it was written in what, the mid-sixties? And reading it now, I’m gobsmacked at the extent to which the main characters down their liquor. “We need to flee and hide from the agents of the state.” “Sure thing, let’s just have another bowl of whiskey first.”

      1. I did Christmas with the family for about a minute and it wasn’t as bad as I expected. But an eye opener was my mom reminiscing about how much alcohol was part of the culture into the 70’s. I’m surprised I wasn’t born with an olive in my hand.

  6. Changing the way women dress and interact with men, while not touching their culture is madness. I remember spend a week teaching a science class with some recent immigrants/refugees. They girls were dressed like other girls, other than their hijabs.

    But, how they behaved made my jaw drop. They hadn’t had actual experience with being around men they weren’t related to. They stood REALCLOSE to the boys, and sometimes rubbed right up on them. In the halls! In public!

    The American girls were horrified! They didn’t attribute their actions to inexperience with males. They thought of them as floozies (to use an old word).

    The girls weren’t used to having to manage the way they behaved. That was their chaperone’s problem. They had never developed the tools for male-female interactions in a world in which women were responsible for their actions.

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