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Of “Nostalgic Spasms”


In Taming Lust, a brief study of the prosecution of bestiality in early America, Doron S. Ben-Atar uses the phrase “nostalgic spasm” to refer to a sudden shift in social norms that looks back in light of changes. Such “spasms” come in times of social change, he suggests, and demonstrates with his book how in moments of social change an older generation can grasp its power in a last-ditch attempt to stop oncoming change. It is a process we see repeated throughout history: moments of social shift occurring but only after actions of incredible bigotry and cruelty. With each change in social perspective an old view is tossed away.

Critical to these shifts are the individuals involved in making new ideas reality. Too often we look only at the actors involved with the winning side. History is, they say, written by the victors and such limited consideration is evidence of its truth. Who creates the change? Both the actors whose new ideas become enacted and the losers whose old, out-dated ideas are discarded.

In changing our social norms we look away from old ideas. In transitioning to new ideas we discard old views and shift power from those who held these views to those with new ideas. Abstraction may lead us to only view these changes from the perspective of the idea: the women’s right to vote became enacted or civil rights were extended to African-Americans. Changes, yes, but abstract ideas that only become reality when people work (and often die) to make them reality. Human beings move ideas from abstract ideas to actual policy.

Often people claim an “evolution” of thought with new ideas. The right for same-sex couples to marry is a contemporary issue where people often cite an “evolution of perspective” in explaining their delay in drawing conclusions. President Obama is one individual who has cited such evolutions. Herein is the older generation gradually coming to terms with new ideas. For some this evolution is difficult, but for others its simply too much. For those whose perspectives cannot accommodate a change in norms the “nostalgic spasm” might seem critical. Rapid action to block a social change often occur in areas where values are deeply embedded in the community. Severe punishments for crimes typically treated less severely or the creation of new, more strict rules and punishments reveal the spasm in action. Moral panic might explain their actions, but in their works we see both reaction and change. Though their fight to keep things the same hurts many, time cannot control the change. Unfortunately our greatest social changes come with painful baggage. Before we have great change we have the panic of the powerful whose last grasp for power provides them with the ability to instill a brief, painful period of suffering. Such actions are dual symbols: the older power fading and the dawning of the new ideas to come.

 

 

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