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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Climate Change: Is our social world "heating up"?

I'm prone to dismiss the endless media hype of the angry Americans who were confronting congressional Democrats at the "town hall" meetings on health care back in August or telling pollsters this month that they are less trusting in the federal government doing the right thing than at any time in history.  Politics after all has a long history of hyper-ventilating and the media has long thrived on it.  But is the "anger thing" in politics part of a larger trend toward our social world heating up more with emotions, especially the emotion of anger?  May be I've been influenced by teaching Durkheim recently in my course on Punishment (he is the great social theorist of social heat) and I'm way of out of my domain here sociologically speaking, but here are a few observations and theories that might prompt the more knowing among you to set me straight on this.
  •  One of my undergraduate Legal Studies students is doing an honors thesis on the amazingly heated comments that readers leave the comment fields of respectable online newspapers these days (both here and in South Korea).  I don't remember any comparable public expressions in my youth that weren't spray painted on the walls of Chicago's many viaducts.
  • Corporate choices, whether by "free" internet service companies like Google (read Miguel Helft's article about Buzz NYTimes) or three dimensional service providers like JetBlue Airlines (marking the anniversary of last year's Valentine's Day snowstorm public relations disaster; read Susan Stellin's article about how airlines have responded in the NYTimes), seem to unleash massive amounts of fury by affronted customers.  

Ok, I get it, the internet, twitter, facebook, cell phones, all make it possible to express this seething emotion, perhaps it was there all along?  But I don't remember seeing it even close up.  The only time I ever saw my father, who had a temper, get that mad at corporate conduct was once when a Brinks Truck blocked his exit from a parking place (and he was a Marxist for much of his life). 

So here is an alternative theory.  Our contemporary lifestyle is more and more penetrated by commercial relations.  We don't just turn to companies to purchase the products and services needed by our relationships, baby carriages, washing machines, etc, we rely on them to sustain those relationships in their most basic and vital dimensions.  This has opened a vast new terrain for profit and allowed the creation of flexible high speed life styles that allow for enormous productivity, but it has also opened a vent to some very deep and ugly emotions.  Will these inevitably "heat up" our social and political climate?

Posted by Jonathan Simon on February 13, 2010 at 12:18 PM in Jonathan Simon | Permalink

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