A couple of weeks ago, using same-sex marriage as an example, I wrote about how quickly moral perceptions can change.
My point was that surely there is something in our culture -- an attitude or policy -- that we accept without thinking today, but will in 20 years seem as outrageous, cruel or absurd as overt anti-gay prejudice seems today.
Then along came Mr. Chick-fil-A to provide an example. His company pledges “to treat every person with honor, dignity and respect -- regardless of their belief, race, creed, sexual orientation or gender.” Twenty or 30 years ago, this would have placed Chick-fil-A on the forward edge of corporate tolerance.
Now, because he has said a few words against same-sex marriage, Mr. Chick and his company are in the doghouse big-time. My Bloomberg View colleague Josh Barro argues persuasively that opposing gay marriage is unavoidably anti-gay. My only point was: Let’s not get too self-congratulatory. Who knows what shift in moral attitudes will make us look back in horror and perplexity at some views we hold today? I offered a few obvious examples -- using other animals as food was the main one -- and invited some more creative suggestions from readers. This is a report on the response.
First, thanks to everybody who offered an example. Many of them covered familiar ground, such as global warming or gun control or drug legalization or the Middle East. They amounted to assertions that, “In 20 years I will have been proved right about Topic X.”
The notion that there are issues on which the other side will be drowned in a tidal wave of facts seems a bit naive at a time when millions of Americans still think President Barack Obama was born in Kenya. A new consensus also seems unlikely on issues -- abortion, most obviously -- where both sides are counting on the other side’s doubts to fall away at any moment.
Some predictions lacked much of a sense of moral urgency. For example: “My nomination is the idea that TVs, phones and computers are separate devices.” Yes, but will addressing this false trichotomy make us better people?
My favorite suggestions were issues which, though perhaps small or unexpected, had a definite ethical or moral component and left me thinking, “My God, I never thought of that.”
For example, someone suggested front lawns. In 20 years, will it be unthinkable that valuable water (not to mention time and patience) will be wasted on giving every house a small square of green to nurture? As I write, on a cold, rainy August day in the Pacific Northwest, this issue doesn’t seem all that pressing. It probably looks different in the rest of the country.
Or how about women’s high-heeled shoes? The ancient Chinese practice of foot binding is regarded today as unbelievably barbaric. The corsets and suchlike Victorian devices to narrow a woman’s waistline don’t score much better on the moral hindsight scale. Yet fashion dictates to many women that they risk broken bones, endure pain or at least walk awkwardly in order to squeeze their feet into somebody’s idea -- often their own, if “Sex and the City” is to be believed -- of a beautiful shoe. What were the 1960s all about if half the population still puts up with this?
Here’s a great one: “voluntary submission to noise that ruins your hearing.” Or involuntary, for that matter. The level of ambient noise keeps rising; all those “shovel ready” construction projects from the stimulus a few years ago seem to be operating at peak noise level. Baby boomers, now paying for a lifetime of rock concerts, are adding loud music to the long “Do as I say, not as I did” list for their children.
Individual automobile ownership may not be illegal in 20 years, one reader suggests. But it may be rare and perhaps tainted with social disapproval as being hoggish and deeply ungreen. Telecommuting (that is, working at home) will increase. Public transportation will never take everybody wherever they need to go, or even close, but Internet-based pseudo-taxi and short-term car rental services such as Uber Technologies Inc. and Zipcar Inc. will fill in the gap. Having your own car will be something like having your own plane, or at least your own chauffeur, today.
In 20 years, will we all be carrying a national identity card? This is one of those issues, like abortion, where some people see it as a utopian vision and some as a dystopian one. I’m closer to the first view. They can implant a chip in my thumb or scan my iris any day if in exchange I never have to deal with forgotten passwords, lost credit cards, long lines at airport security, complicated forms to get my birth certificate, and so on.
One reader says that fiberglass insulation is as dangerous as asbestos and will be regarded as such in 20 years. Could this be true?
Another says: “It could be that Mr. Kinsley will be completely discredited as a polemicist of any note whose ideas and questions for discussion will be forever ridiculed.” I wish I could predict that in 20 years, rudeness on the Internet will be considered just as impolite as rudeness to someone’s face. But I doubt it.
(Michael Kinsley is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Today’s highlights: the editors on questions raised by New York’s charges against Standard Chartered Bank and on how the free market can help control the deer population; Caroline Baum on Milton Friedman’s relevance today; Ezra Klein on Washington’s captivation by a flawed tax idea; Laurence Kotlikoff and Scott Burns on the new $11 trillion rise in U.S. debt; Caleb Scharf on how black holes influenced the evolution of life.
To contact the writer of this article: Michael Kinsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Michael Newman at email@example.com.