By David Hegg
I almost entitled this column, “Why marketing departments hate history,” but I thought that might be a bit overstated. The truth is our nation has become a society of malcontents, and in large measure it isn’t our fault. We’ve been trained to think wrongly about history, and specifically, we’ve been duped into seeing progress as a stand-alone virtue.
Progress is certainly something we all believe is good, and even essential for individuals, families and societies. Who doesn’t want a better life next year, and to leave a better nation to our children? Who doesn’t want better products, healthier food, more efficient systems and new areas of real knowledge? And yet, our dedication to progress as good has caused a serious warp in our thinking.
Progress is really just a subset of the study of history, and yet when the new, the latest innovation becomes an end in itself, and is severed from that which has come before, the desire for progress turns into an ugly arrogance.
In most fields, the contributions of those who came before us are honored, and understood as the basic foundations, and necessary steppingstones to the innovations and improvements of today. This is true in the military, where those who fought in past wars are studied, and appreciated for their pioneering efforts.
The same is true in the great sports programs as well as the great academic programs of our best universities. They still applaud the discipline, courage and achievement of those who have come before, humbly understanding that their own accomplishments were enabled only as they stood on the shoulders of their predecessors. Even cutting-edge musicians today will gush about those who were major influences on their lives and sound.
But, in a consumer-driven society, appreciating the past too much is a problem. The problem is that you may not understand just how much you need to throw out last year’s model to buy the new and improved version. And so the marketing folks have had to create a new view of progress, one that is built on the presupposition that what was pretty good yesterday is, in comparison to today’s model, obsolete and only sported by losers. They have become very good at feeding our passion for progress so as to create an ever-present sense of dissatisfaction with the product we are currently using. We need the new and improved version, and we need it now.
Now, I’m all for new and better. But what I see happening as a result of the constant bombardment of marketing propaganda is a subtle yet deep-seated sense of historical arrogance becoming pervasive in our society. The emerging generation hardly knows, yet alone honors, the contributions of the past. It is as if nothing really significant ever happened before they came of age, and started texting and tweeting on their smartphones. Having been raised on a steady diet of advertisements trumpeting the latest and greatest innovations, these mega-consumers believe anything with more than two years of history falls in the loser category.
OK, so I’m an old guy, and I’m painting with too broad a brush. But before you write me off, understand that progress is best understood as understanding, honoring and building on the past rather than denigrating it for being old. And this ought to apply to human resources as well.
In societies that venerate “being” over “doing,” age is seen as an asset. But in our doing-oriented society, age is too often seen negatively, as an obstacle to creativity and innovation. Old phones, old computers and old people are increasingly seen as unnecessary because we forget that the new versions of almost everything actually owe their very existence to ideas and courageous actions on the part of those have come before us. We’ve simply got to stop having an existential view of history that sees everything through the lens of now.
Progress is not beneficial simply for what it produces, but more for what it teaches about the relay race that is human history. We can never forget those who handed the baton to us even as we prepare the next generation to take it and run. To denigrate the past not only denies us its benefit, it also dishonors the whole race. And while new products can help us all, let’s not be so arrogant as to think that the new could ever arrive without all of the handoffs of those who have lived and run with courage and purpose in years past.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.