Bring on the Extinction Burst!

Fireworks over Kristiansten Festning, New Year 2010

Recently, in an interview with Esquire, comedian Chris Rock said he believes racism in the US is nearly dead. Esquire‘s Scott Raab had remarked:

Like many nice Caucasians, I cried the night Barack Obama was elected. It was one of the high points in American history. And all that’s happened since the election is just a shitstorm of hatred. You want to weigh in on that?

To which Chris Rock responded:

I actually like it, in the sense that—you got kids? Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism’s almost over. Because this is the last—this is the act up before the sleep. They’re going crazy. They’re insane. You want to get rid of them—and the next thing you know, they’re fucking knocked out. And that’s what’s going on in the country right now.

I believe futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler would agree. In their book The Third Wave, for example, they present the history of the human race as a series of major cultural shifts that each changed the very nature of our civilization. The first wave was the shift from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian civilizations. That one took about 30 thousand years to spread, and by making food more reliable, it provided a basis for rulers, soldiers, and scholars. The next wave was the shift to industrialism, taking only 300 years to spread, and bringing further advances to food production, as well as other goods. More recently, we’ve been transitioning into an information age, and it’s sweeping the globe in a mere 30 years.

One important note about each wave is that the transition is disruptive, making many people (especially the more conservative among us) uncomfortable. An even more essential note is that history demonstrates that each new wave inevitably prevails over the previous one. Look at the American Civil War from this perspective, and the agrarian South was doomed to fall before the industrialized North. (My apologies to all my Kentucky and Tennessee kinfolk, and to my many friends farther south, but it happened everywhere else on earth, too.)

Looking at the Tea Party myself, as well as at the more reactionary Republicans outside that movement, I see an entrenched Industrial-Age mindset fearful of the change the Information Age is wreaking. Of course they’re upset. Naturally they’re fearful. It only makes sense that they’re pitching a fit.

Which brings me to the title of this post. The behavior Chris Rock describes has a clinical name; it’s called an Extinction Burst. Let’s say you’ve decided that your child is now too old to be forgiven a tantrum. “I’m sorry,” you say, “but that behavior will no longer be tolerated. Whenever you throw a tantrum, we’re just going to ignore you until you decide to behave more maturely.” Psychologists (and experienced parents) will tell you that instead of rationally giving up on tantrums at that point, the child will actually throw more of them. It’s Pavlovian. The brain is so used to the action’s prior effectiveness, that it will repeat the behavior even more frantically, until the realization finally sets in that it no long works.

In the meantime, the adult response is to wait patiently, confident that this immature behavior will extinguish itself, and that children generally do grow up.

Photo by Tormel

3 Comments

  1. Overpopulation, pollution,climate change, water and food shortages, these things will only get worse and the Conservatives will eventually have no choice but to adapt and change to survive….how many of us will , remains to be seen.

  2. I’d be a liar to say I’m not nervous too. But for what it’s worth, the Tofflers would say that fear itself is merely evidence of the tumult of change we’re living through. The future tends to have a way of sorting itself out. I believe by remaining calm and adult, we can point the way to a quicker, less troublesome transition. So have hope, my friend.

  3. I remember reading The Third Wave as a teen, and thinking it was probably the first “grown-up” book I’d ever read. I wish I could feel that the current anti-union machinations are the dying tantrums of certain politicians, and that an IWW Heaven of Earth is just around the corner, but I fear it is not so.

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