Society’s High Stakes, High Tensions, High Hopes

A Reflection from C-Span’s BookTV

“We’re at a point in the course of social evolution when the demands of survival converge with the higher ideals of humanity and the well-being of human society.”

That’s an observation at the close of A New Reality: Human Evolution for a Sustainable Future, a book begun by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk and completed by his son, psychiatrist Jonathan Salk.  The recently published book, which has nothing to do with polio or the father’s career in medical research, offers a scientifically guided look into societal forces that help to explain our polarized culture and the stultified state of conversation in the public square.

I didn’t read it but did respect the author on BookTV.  Jonathan Salk’s comment resonates with me because his (and his late father’s) perspective complements social science-informed answers to the two-part question I love to ask: How did we get to this point of sharp division and uncivil discourse, and how do we get beyond it to a state of more constructive communication?

Here’s what I take away from the comment, which Salk read to his audience. The tension level in our exchanges of information have been ramped up because we believe the stakes are much higher nowadays in our interactions as individuals and groups. Discussions with political and policy implications–which we must conduct in order to be a sustainable society–not only engage our higher ideals and our visions of human well-being, but also engage our survival instincts in more intense, visceral ways.

A critical mass of people today feel they are in crisis, in one way or another. We sense a vacuum where previously our shared values, our families and faiths, our civic institutions, our economic conditions and cultural traditions, and other connective forces helped make sense of reality and reinforce our own self-confidence.

Salk describes our current times as “a point of inflection” between two “epochs,” each of which has its own basic values. Also, the first epoch is a setting of rapid growth and perceived abundance, while the second is one of slower growth and greater constraints. The two value systems are different in some basic ways, and they both have committed adherents.

I would say that, when these adherents interact with each other, they now see the other value system as a source of competition or threat, and this threat often seems existential in nature. They feel backed into a corner because, in lieu of connective forces that offered a hope for cooperation and mutual enlightenment and a productive pursuit of happiness, adherents caught in a vacuum must fight for what they have selected as their remaining sources of self-confidence.

We need to get past this inflection point in order to reach a new stability, Salk says. As I understand his argument, this might be aided by a more overarching existential threat, such as global climate change, which prompts us to see that our real hope for survival lies in banding together against a common enemy.

At no point in his BookTV presentation does Salk speak in confrontational terms involving enemies or alliances, and indeed I believe he is a person of peace who sees the human intellect’s capacity for reason and civility as a vehicle for gradually passing through this inflection point of deep change.

I share this same basic hope that we can get beyond this tense time of transition. But I wonder if this book explores considerations that reach into other aspects of human interaction which go beyond science (without in any way mooting its reasonable approaches).

My addendum to the book would warn that our culture must offer us positive alternatives to an alliance-and-enemy mindframe, to the bifurcation of old versus new, to the cultivation of conflict and existential threats as the basis of news and entertainment, and to the vacuum of values that leaves many people grasping for any self-defined anchor in a stormy sea of angst.

Values that will bring us into a new stability are not new concepts waiting to be discovered. We will have to be willing to look back toward at least some values that have been proven to offer peace and help us transcend feelings of isolation and danger. We will have to be willing to teach each other and learn from each other in renewed conversations based on truth and trust.

Faith in something–indeed, someone–bigger and more complete than ourselves will also help. Many people testify that God has taken them through inflection points in their own lives. He asks us always to be receptive to positive change and conversion in a process of continuous quality improvement that is certainly compatible with scientific thinking.

News media and all venues of information and conversation will find themselves more compatible with scientific reasoning–and with the values that can carry us through profound social changes–if they rely less on doctrinaire labeling, deconstruction or destruction of insights from the past, and the weaponization of self-confidence. These are obstacles of small-picture, fragmented thinking that can make important inflection points impassable.

#DRIBDRAB — I didn’t read it but did respect the author on BookTV.


About Bill Schmitt is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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