Nostalgia is a strong feeling. And a story that evokes that feeling can capture our attention like no other. Quite often though we inherit this nostalgic feeling. Not as a result of direct experience as one would imagine, but rather as a story passed down from family or movies.
You might hear your grandfather being nostalgic about his adolescence, depicting a rosy image of the past with a longing for the good old days. You might accept that as fact and conclude, that a particular time in the past was indeed better than today.
This is a common experience we have but it lies in a fallacy of the mind. A phenomenon known as rosy retrospection is a cognitive bias that makes us view the past more fondly than the present. A nostalgic feeling is often paired with this and it is only natural for the two to blend together. So we end up with the nostalgic feeling without the actual lived experience. We then go around, spreading them as common truths without further thought.
One could argue that this is a defense of the mind so it won’t linger on the past and be able to move on. But it is funny how many rosy stories are out there and how much of a central role they play in many layers of our culture.
Nostalgia binds and blinds
Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has quoted in one of his lectures that morality binds and blinds.
He was referring to the fact that if we group ourselves around a certain belief, we form a tribe that has a deep connection all due to this one binding force. In practice, this means we can trust each other and work together towards a common goal. This though blinds us to anything that contradicts the gospel of the group, making us vulnerable.
Follow the sacredness and around it, you’ll find a ring of motivated ignorance. If you know what a group holds sacred, you’ll know where they are blind to reason. — Jonathan Haidt
Nostalgia binds and blinds too.
Collective nostalgia works in a similar way to collective intelligence. The latter leverages the work of many minds, to fulfill what no single mind could ever do. The former though leverages the result of many minds carrying a nostalgic image of the past. This then becomes the base template for movements, groups, ideologies, and subcultures.
You can probably break this fallacy for one person but it is next to impossible to do so for large groups. If a group is blinded by a strong idea and a nostalgic story, its mission becomes unshakable. The network effect of ideas will produce highly driven individuals and the emotional hook of the story will keep them blinded.
Besides movements, it powers many parochial everyday stories as well that persist with great success. That the old days were the good days. That earth is a friendly place to live by default, without human intervention. Hunter-gatherers were the happiest people ever in comparison to today’s stressed ones. And so on.
So what is the end result of all this?
Much like the nostalgic feeling black and white photography offers, we build black and white narratives and we advocate black and white solutions to problems that are multi-dimensional in nature.
We are blinded by stories made of false memories. And both our beliefs and vulnerabilities rise in intensity as time passes. Such stories are extremely resilient and Lindy-complete(see Lindy effect). The more they are out there the more likely they are to stick in the future.
Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of how this plays out.
The vegan dream
One such heaven-on-earth scenario created by collective nostalgia is the vegan one. Some people imagine living in a world where we are all vegans respecting all life on earth by not consuming meat. Living a simpler life, more aligned with nature, and with the least environmental impact possible. To live as it was intended by nature. Great in theory. But often the people who say this also say things that defy logic and often lose touch with reality. They become unable to evaluate real-time feedback, from another person or even their own bodies.
You might state that they seem overly ill, and unnaturally skinny with them saying better ill than be a gym bro. Have hair falling, experiencing constant brain fog, or suffering from severe acne, and say that this is just a detoxing period. Sure might be. But at which point do you start worrying? What event in the real world can pull you back to reality and remove the blinders of a pretty story?
They will often get offended and act shocked when you point out the fact that their natural diet made them essentially a supplementarian.
On the flip side, people who started the carnivore diet, report feeling good straight away. Countless testimonies(often from ex-vegans) show consistent levels of high energy, recovery from autoimmune diseases, and overall improved health. Yet vegans will say “oh you feel good now but you will have a problem in the future”. This is quite a flawed and contradictory statement. How come you feel terrible today but will feel great in the future? And how come the other person feels great today but will have some health problem in the future?
It doesn’t work like that. Nothing works like that. You don’t feel good eating junk food for example. They might be tasty and addictive but you don’t feel a sustained period of wellness. The joy is short-lived and health issues are on their way. Same with alcohol. You might enjoy the dizziness and lightheadedness it offers you but the next day you will feel terrible. The feedback is fast and it is up to you to listen.
And how exactly are you respecting all life on earth by destroying your health? Ultimately, if feedback from reality doesn’t compute, they pull the virtue card. They signal their elevated morality and comment on how bad of a person you are, all the while they are dying in slow motion.
The siren of collective nostalgia is so loud in this case that you can’t even hear your body’s scream. It turned a dietary choice — whether it suits you or not — into a religion.
In political delusion
Once collective nostalgia finds its way to politics, it becomes the bread and butter of authoritarians. It becomes prone to a certain kind of rhetoric that can easily be channeled into populist uprisings of some sort. And especially if directed to the younger generation, its persistence is remarkable.
When you are young you don’t have the concept of future consequences instilled in you. You don’t take into account where actions of today can lead in the future so you become more risk-averse. You are more likely to be willing to overturn society and not preserve the good things we have accomplished so far as a species.
There is an argument to be made that socialism has a strong appeal toward the young for this very reason.
But once you get older and have experienced the consequences of wrong choices, you start to take into account the future more. Once you have a family and kids you are more inclined to think twice because now you have something to protect. Planning the revolution is not a priority since you heard the same promises many times. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it, so you move away from the ideology — or become less vocal and more nuanced about it.
If you’re not a socialist before you’re twenty-five, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after twenty-five, you have no head.
In his essay The Use of Knowledge in Society, Friedrich Hayek steelmanned his case on why economic central planning can’t work.
One reason is that you can’t track market prices and human action on a large scale. You would need to exert control far beyond the economic realm to achieve this and still to no avail. What kind of economic planning could possibly monitor all economic activity, in real-time?
Hayek’s main argument is that a pricing mechanism has to work organically by market forces and not in some kind of “intelligent design“ way. In other words, you can’t design such a system because you could never attain valid information about the economy. And without that knowledge, you can’t make any meaningful adjustments to control it. The factors to do so are simply too many.
You could disagree with Hayek’s overall philosophy and have compelling arguments that some amount of regulation is good. But his argument against central planning is difficult to push under the rug.
This alone is enough to conclude that the economics of socialism can never work. It is not an ideological difference but a purely informational one, deep down to the system level. You might be able to engineer the outcome in an economy of five people. But there is no way to build a top-down system with millions of actors engaging in economic activity and derive any meaningful action point. In complex systems scaling is a huge challenge.
If you can’t recreate something conceptually in your head, you don’t have a solid understanding of it. But because you understand it doesn’t mean you can actually implement it successfully. Much like we know a ton about the human body but we can’t create a human in a lab, other than to let it be born by the process nature crafted.
Logical as it may seem, this has little effect in persuading the Left of this reality. They continue to believe in socialism’s visible hand and continue moving the goalpost of what socialism is and isn’t. The nostalgic end goal overrides any logical explanation. The narrative is that strong.
(vegan environmentalists are often in favor of socialism. But they seem to ignore the environmental destruction that occurred in such a system)
In the same way, socialism sounds tempting, the Right leverages the same dynamic which can potentially lead to nationalism. Now for the benefit of the nation, people start nodding positively their heads at the mistreatment of others and showcase horrible behavior.
Probably the most chewed-up image we have is that earth is a friendly place, ideal for humans to inhabit. It is not. Not for you, not for animals or even plants. The vast majority of animals that have ever existed on the planet have gone extinct without any human intervention.
If you didn’t have the technology to create clothes or heat you would have died from cold. If you didn’t have engineering you would be at the mercy of extreme weather events(tornadoes, floods, etc.). If you didn’t have available medicine you would have died from easily preventable infections and diseases.
We somehow imagine hunter-gatherers living in harmony with nature. Sitting around fires, sharing stories, and eating from the trees. This is far from the truth though because, for most of human history, we were trying to survive. To escape nature’s brutality and hardship.
Earth is not a friendly place and it is not here to sustain us. Quite the contrary. If it was friendly for habitation by default, there wouldn’t have been any need for evolution by natural selection to occur.
“Today, almost the entire capacity of the Earth’s ‘life-support system for humans’ has been provided not for us, but by us” — David Deutsch
Such stories foster the narrative that human intervention is inherently bad. This results in stifling innovation and essentially making you live like a 13th-century peasant.
Static and dynamic societies
Collective nostalgia needs a certain kind of environment to flourish. And once it grows it tries to self-preserve.
In his seminal book The Beginning of Infinity, David Deutsch went into great depth talking about static and dynamic societies. On the differences between the two and what makes a society become one or the other.
A static society produces mechanisms — in the form of traditions — that prevent change, so it can remain static. Practices like witchcraft, religion, and taboos, arise and thrive. And they work as a defense against any practice that will allow a culture of criticism to emerge.
Allowing a culture of criticism will make its members question and eventually abandon these practices. By applying criticism and error correction a society will become more dynamic and less static. This allowed us to break free from nature’s tyranny after all.
There is this notion that some cultures of the past were better off and that people within those cultures were happier than us. This is quite a deceiving and easily refuted argument if you imagine an individual’s life within a static society.
You would have to suppress your curiosity for anything new since it would make you criticize the old. Doing so might even be life-threatening, in some cases since it would upset the tribe and shake the waters too much.
If you prevent an individual’s aptitude to create new knowledge, you are actually condemning them to live with the same problems. Same diseases, same superstitions, same taboos. Such an individual can’t ever be happy.
Collective nostalgia needs a static society to develop just like a virus needs a humid environment to spread. And once its narrative is composed, it becomes a doctrine that is quite hard to refute. In time all clues are lost in the mystery so you can’t fact-check. The nostalgic appeal of it is all that remains. And that is what is passed down from one generation to the other.
Mystery beautifies, and mystery lost in time beautifies absolutely.
With that being said, should you rip emotion out of your system and act in a way that is strictly orthogonal?
Not at all.
But observing others in their bubble might help you be aware of your own, and hopefully, pop it someday. But it is hard.
Collective nostalgia might be so evident from the outside yet still hypnotize you. It can give you the illusionary confidence that you are acting on first principles and with a robust moral standing.
Riding collective nostalgia without ever questioning it will make you senseless. You will end up fighting for an emotionally charged fantasy that you can’t let go of. Much like the bizarreness of keeping your dead dog in the freezer because you can’t face the reality of its passing.