Paradigms always shift. And they do so suddenly.
Change does not occur gradually, like the gentle slope that greets novice skiers. Change, instead, comes in fits and starts, like the steps of a staircase. The forces that drive that change push and push against the inertia of the past, and then finally break through, lifting – or dropping, depending on your point of view – society to a different place.
We’ve seen that close to home, in an America that seems radically different than the one that we knew just a few years ago. Patterns of behavior have shifted, and what was once unlikely is now common; what was once unthinkable is now a weekly headline.
Consider the headline-grabbing behavior of the mentally ill and drug-addicted who inhabit the streets and back stairs of America. (And no, these issues are not limited to big cities – they are concentrated there, to be sure, and so are much more noticeable, but the mentally ill and drug-addicted are everywhere.)
There was a time, not long ago, when a combination of shame and guilt constrained the behavior of those two groups. Their own sad subculture helped keep them in the background, away from the eyes of most of us. But as their numbers grew, and their problems festered, they suddenly no longer felt they needed to hide their afflictions. If an unbalanced individual felt the need to scream in the middle of a public park in front of city hall, well, why not? And if a drug addict needed a fix, why not right here, right now?
That change of behavior is a paradigm shift. The willingness of the mentally ill and drug-addicted to be up front with their problems, to shove them in the face of the rest of society, is new to America. But just because the behavior is new doesn’t mean the issues are new. It took decades of marginalization for those two groups to recognize that a) they needed help more than condemnation; and b) the police and courts really had few options when it came to controlling their behavior.
So now we see homeless encampments in big cities, open drug use in rural areas and behavior that used to be shameful or guilt-inducing now offered as part of a normal day.
Here’s another: It was not that long ago that politicians or embattled officials or large corporations would consider a “no comment” answer as an admission of guilt. It never was, of course, and the public never had a “right to know.” But the culture of journalism and public discourse all but demanded that politicians and bureaucrats and big business answer questions about their behavior.
All along, though, there was really no way to force anyone to answer any questions about anything short of a subpoena, but the culture’s paradigm of call-and-response demanded answers. In the last few years, though, that paradigm has shifted dramatically, and now it is much more common for those asked hard questions to simply not be available or not respond than it is for them to step up in the public eye and try to defend themselves.
The list, of course, could go on. Mass shootings, once unthinkable, are now common occurrences. Sexual harassment, once winked at, is now a firing offense. Police use of physical force, once commonplace, must now be clearly justified.
All of these patterns of behavior are part of a larger societal shift, and one that has happened, it seems, in the blink of an eye. But all have been brewing for years, if not decades, and it’s as if one change made it easier for the next, and two changesthen produced four.
And in the end, what we have, what we are living with, is a paradigm shift in American society, in American norms.
It is, as Aldous Huxley pointed out long ago, a brave new world that we live in. But, as he also pointed out, it’s not necessarily a better one.