I’m a big fan of the TV show Mad Men, which takes place in the midst of the Madison Avenue advertising agencies back in the ’60s and ’70s. Sure, I enjoy the drama and the “cool factor” of Don Draper and his cavalier ad team. But for me, the most fascinating part is all of the cultural norms of the time that seem fairly shocking now, only a few decades later.
Of course, there’s all the drinking and smoking in the office, but beyond that, the way that non-Anglo employees and the women in the workplace are treated would today be grounds for a lawsuit, if not public shaming for such brazen chauvinism. The thing that’s hard to remember is that, although we see such behavior as morally offensive today, it was simply normal back then.
It’s not unlike comparing how we read the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman today with how folks would have understood it back then. To us, it seems like Jesus is, well, being kind of a jerk. He not only denies the outsider the help she seeks, but he also refers to her as a dog. Yet this would have been as normal in the culture of his day as someone’s throwing around the “N-word” a few decades ago, or asking any woman passing through the office to fetch you a cup of coffee.
“It’s strange to consider how profoundly these cultural norms change,” said my wife, Amy, after we watched a recent Mad Men episode. “It was just what everybody did in our grandparents’ day, and now it’s just hard to imagine.
“I wonder if there’s anything about our culture today that our grandkids will be shocked by,” she said. So this got me thinking. Though it’s harder for us to see while we’re in the midst of history being made in the present, in decades to come, I think (or in some cases, I hope) we’ll look back at norms that will be hard to believe were tolerated.
Immigration — At present, this is one of the most polarizing issues in our social and political landscapes. However, younger people today who are being born into a more culturally pluralistic reality likely will not concern themselves as fiercely with the us/other dichotomy on which this argument leans. As the “us/them” accedes to a greater “we,” this debate will seem increasingly anachronistic.
LGBT Equality — Science has fairly well settled the issue about whether our sexual orientation is fundamentally based in our genetic coding, although the cultural acceptance of such truths is — as it tends to be — many years behind the evidence. But even among evangelical Christian circles, younger Christians are far less concerned about the moral questions around same-sex couples than their older counterparts, and as these younger leaders come into positions of power, the lack of equal justice for all of God’s children will be the remaining sin with which we must content.
Debt — I remember, as a teenager, having a series of panic attacks when I realized that I would not likely exceed my father’s earning potential. Since then, I’ve spoken to countless others in my generational cohort who had a similar experience. But this false expectation that has been a part of the “American dream” is based on a combination of profligate consumption and unsustainable debt from which we must be collectively liberated. Younger people today tend to be far less concerned with how much they can make in their job, endeavoring instead to find a vocation that is personally fulfilling. And perhaps, in time, they will also see such indebtedness for the true enslavement that it is.
The Environment — When I was a kid, my friends thought it was weird that I took my bike around to nearby construction sites to pick up discarded aluminum cans. Actually, I did it at the time only for the few dollars I could earn at the recycling center, but by high school, recycling began to be the rule rather than the exception. Now, it’s hard to conceive of tossing paper, glass, and aluminum in the garbage heap; it’s become as common to recycle today as it did in my childhood not to toss littler out the car window anymore. But given the environmental crises facing us, our present use of water, energy, and other precious material resources will seem shocking to subsequent generations. We will have to learn to do more with less.
Health Care — This may be my most idealistic prognostication, but I do believe that, at some point, we will begin to untangle the knot that is our current health care system. Though it may come to some degree in the form of a shift in public policy, my money is on the advancement of modern medical technology to address costly health issues more proactively and to provide systems of health maintenance that are both more affordable and sensible than the present reactionary health care system.
There will always be new “normals” that will be challenged and deconstructed by those who come along later, and though I prefer to avoid the modernist trap that history is always progressive, I do believe we are both consciously and unconsciously working toward a common good. A collective shift in perception of this handful of issues likely will be essential in achieving such a vision.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado, with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of "Banned Questions About The Bible" and "Banned Questions About Jesus." His new memoir on faith, family and parenting is called PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.
Photo: Lev Radin/Shutterstock