Upstarts, dissidents and revolutionaries have always been told to be patient, that we all have to work together, that it’s not yet our turn. But that belies the corruption of the very system insurgents and newcomers are often trying to change.
By David Todd McCarty | Wednesday, July 29, 2020
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The idiom itself is so prevalent that even though we understand the reference, we rarely think about what it really means. Of course we understand the idea that older people can be resistant to new ideas, but it’s deeper than that. It’s literally much harder to teach an old dog new tricks for two reasons. One, they are older and fundamentally have less energy and tolerance for curiosity’s sake. But the other reason is that the dog’s brain is no longer developing and will therefore be more resistant to learning.
The older we get, the harder it is to accept change because our brains atrophy over time. The downside of wisdom born of experience, is a failure to recognize the value of trying things that haven’t worked in the past, because you don’t realize that the very laws of cultural physics may have changed while you weren’t looking.
Common wisdom holds that as we age, learning is harder, because we have trouble taking in new information. But it turns out that another major factor is at play, beyond our ability to create new connections, is our inability to weaken established ones.
“When you are young, your brain is able to strengthen certain connections and weaken certain connections to make new memories,” said Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia at Georgia Regents University and Co-Director of the GRU Brain & Behavior Discovery Institute.
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now!”John Lewis, in his speech at the March On Washington, 1963
These old connections, which eventually become difficult to break, are an increased level noise, that interferes with our ability to learn, and therefore change.
It’s less about being able to hear about a new idea, or even our ability to comprehend it, but in our inability to get past the noise of all the other connections we’ve made over decades. Young people can pick up and discard countless ideas, with little effort. It’s why we can learn languages more rapidly and even learn to speak without an accent, if we do so before we reach puberty. Older people have a harder time letting go. It’s harder and harder to comprehend doing something differently, after having developed the habit over time.
Change is hard for everyone, regardless of age, but institutional change is harder still because there are so many mechanisms in place to ensure momentum. In political parties this is even more prevalent because the organization needs to be able to continue operating, regardless of who the participants happen to be at any given time. It’s sometimes called institutional knowledge, or folk memory. Institutional memory is the collective knowledge and learned experiences of a group or organization. It can be essential in passing along critical knowledge from one revolving group to another, to avoid from making the same mistakes over and over again. We learn from failure, but only if the people who experienced the setbacks are there to avoid the same pitfalls. Let’s call it the institutional memory of failure.
The downside of course is that established organizations operate according to different incentives than start-ups. Established organizations focus on the downside of new initiatives because they are risk averse, more concerned with the downside, and more incentivized to maintain the status quo, whereas a startup is all about the upside of new ideas. In a nutshell, the establishment feels they have more to lose than a startup, so they are less willing to try new things. A strong organization can survive that way for a time, but there is always a new startup looking to eat their lunch and eventually you become Blockbuster in a Netflix world and one day some will steal their lunch as well.
In the world of political parties, institutional memory is a key factor in ensuring and maintaining control. Complex power structures, long-serving participants and powerful brokers all give an organization the stability and security it needs to wield power and influence over the long run. But periodically the ground shifts beneath its feet and the old guard must be shaken out of their complacency or risk irrelevance, or worse, elimination.
The idea of party unity, therefore, is the club that the establishment uses to hold back the forces of change, lest they fail to heed the warnings of those who have come before them. Stick together, they say. Follow us, we know the way. Don’t be in such a hurry, they warn, it takes time.
American history, specifically with regards to civil rights and progressive politics, is littered with examples of those in power telling the young upstarts that they are not sufficiently taking into account those who came before them.
Change often does happen slowly, over time, but it’s almost always the case that while someone has been working hard to loosen the lid of the jar, the catalyst for finishing the job is not patience and hard work, but an unforeseen, inciting event.
The shoulders of those who came before them (that they are so conveniently standing upon) are the very thing that gives the newcomer the ability to see the future, but it doesn’t help those below comprehend the vision of those with a new perspective. They simply can’t see it.
We find ourselves at a critical moment in Cape May County, where the youth are once again pushing for change faster than those in power are willing to relinquish it. It’s a typical impasse, a conflict between an established power structure and those willing to scrap the system and start over. If the power structure isn’t willing to bend, isn’t willing to change beyond what they’re comfortable with, eventually the insurgents will take it over, or burn it down.
As Andy Warhol once said, “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
Eventually, it is all nothing more, than a matter of time.