Why is Everything Now ‘Unprecedented’?

Just once, I would like to get through one day without hearing the word “unprecedented.” And I wonder, is that just the media trying to get a click, or is the world truly that terrible?

Take the Olympics. In my lifetime, I’ve never seen an Olympics like this one. Empty stands. Athletes having to leave within 48 hours of their last event. Opening and closing ceremonies unlike anything we have ever seen. It’s, well — unprecedented.

The weather is unprecedented. What is happening in politics is unprecedented. The pandemic is unprecedented, at least in our lifetimes. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m watching a blockbuster where the world will eventually end — but we just haven’t got to that part of the movie yet. I feel the palpable sensation of teetering on the edge of a precipice. And I’m pretty sure it’s happened before.

Take the lead-ups to the two world wars, for example. If you plot a timeline of the events that led to either July 20, 1914 or Sept. 1, 1939, there is a noticeable acceleration of momentum. At first, the points on the timeline are spread apart, giving the world a chance to once again catch its collective breath. But as we get closer and closer to those dates circled in red, things pick up. There are cascades of events that eventually lead to the crisis point. Are we in the middle of such a cascade?

Part of this might just be network knock-on effects that happen in complex environments. But I also wonder if we just become a little shell- shocked, being nudged into a numb acceptance of things we would have once found intolerable.

Author and geographer Jared Diamond calls this “creeping normality. “ In his book “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” he used the example of the deforestation and environmental degradation that happened on Easter Island — and how, despite the impending doom, the natives still decided to chop down the last tree: “I suspect, though, that the disaster happened not with a bang but with a whimper. After all, there are those hundreds of abandoned statues to consider. The forest the islanders depended on for rollers and rope didn’t simply disappear one day—it vanished slowly, over decades.”

Creeping normality continually and imperceptibly nudges us from the unacceptable to the acceptable and we don’t even notice it’s happening. It’s a cognitive bias that keeps us from seeing reality for what it is. Creeping normality is what happens when our view of the world comes through an Overton Window.

I have mentioned the concept of the Overton Window before.  Overton Window was first introduced by political analyst Joseph Lehman and was named after his colleague, Joseph Overton. It was initially coined to show that the political policies that the public finds acceptable will shift over time. What was once considered unthinkable can eventually become acceptable or even popular, given the shifting sensitivities of the public. As an example, the antics of Donald Trump would once be considered unacceptable in any public venue — but as our reality shifted, we saw them eventually become mainstream from an American president.

I suspect that the media does the same thing with our perception of the world in general. The news media demands the exceptional. We don’t click on “ordinary.” So it consistently shifts our Overton Window of what we pay attention to, moving us toward the outrageous. Things that once would have caused riots are now greeted with a yawn. This is combined with the unrelenting pace of the news cycle. What was outrageous today slips into yesterday, to be replaced with what is outrageous today.

And while I’m talking about outrageous, let’s look at the root of that term. The whole point of something being outrageous is to prompt us into being outraged — or moved enough to take action. And, if our sensitivity to outrage is constantly being numbed, we are no longer moved enough to act.

When we become insensitive to things that are unprecedented, we’re in a bad place. Our trust in information is gone. We seek information that comforts us that the world is not as bad as we think it is. And we ignore the red flags we should be paying attention to.

If you look at the lead-ups to both world wars, you see this same pattern. Things that happened regularly in 1914 or 1939, just before the outbreak of war, would have been unimaginable just a few years earlier. The momentum of mayhem picked up as the world raced to follow a rapidly moving Overton Window. Soon, before we knew it, all hell broke loose and the world was left with only one alternative: going to war.

An Overton Window can just happen, or it can be intentionally planned. Politicians from the fringes, especially the right, have latched on to the Window, taking something intended to be an analysis and turning it into a strategy. They now routinely float “policy balloons” that they know are on the fringe, hoping to trigger a move in our Window to either the right or left. Over time, they can use this strategy to introduce legislation that would once have been vehemently rejected.

The danger in all this is the embedding of complacency. Ultimately, our willingness to take action against threat is all that keeps our society functioning. Whether it’s our health, our politics or our planet, we have to be moved to action before it’s too late.

When the last tree falls on Easter Island, we don’t want to be the ones with the axe in our hands.

One thought on “Why is Everything Now ‘Unprecedented’?

  1. I learned a couple of new terms/facts thanks to this post – creeping normality and the Overton Window. Very interesting post.

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