I Fear the Future

 I fear for the future.

Teaching security, I’m often asked what I see as the biggest threat to the future. Most expect my answer to be some technological change or another state. But, what I answer is my biggest fear is we have a generation that is too easily offended and does not understand how rough the world can be.

This column will probably offend.

Fear component one. I teach at a major state university where you would expect that students have a grasp on history. WRONG! Almost anything beyond their attention span (the last 5 to 6 years) is outside their knowledge base.

Fear component two. Presentism is interpreting the past based on current attitudes and values and has become the standard for my students to the degree that Orwell could not have predicted. For example, a few years ago, I was talking about the role of the hegemon and mentioned that slavery was a universally accepted institution until the British, the hegemon at the time, decided that it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, some of my students interpreted this as my supporting slavery, so I had to defend what I said to my program director. Fortunately, he was a historian and said I was factually correct.

Fear component three. The assumption of universal values. This is especially a problem for students whose experience is predominately upper middle class. They don’t understand the appeal of populists, nationalists or any other value system that is not theirs. So, if I say that much of the world still does not accept same-sex marriage or homosexuality, they call them backward or ‘stupid.’ Far be it from them, in accepting diversity to accept that cultural and historical views are not in line with current points of view.

Fear component four. Failing to understand that hard power is the way for most of the world. Last year, I was teaching a conflict course, and students asked why I thought Putin would invade Ukraine (this was before the fact). I bluntly answered, “Because he can!” Europe could not stop him, and Biden had demonstrated that the US did not have the will when he said we would not send troops. I am teaching the same course this semester, and students still don’t understand that force is a necessary component of the world.

The bottom line is that the West has raised a generation of Eloi while the rest of the world is still the Morlocks, and no degree of wishing will change the eventual outcome.

Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —