You’ve probably heard or read one version or another of the short essay “The Paradox Of Our Age” (or “Paradox Of Our Time”), and — depending on the context in which you heard it — it might have seemed poignant. It’s often attributed to the late comedian George Carlin, who is now too dead to defend himself, but fortunately he responded to it before he died, and Snopes has also debunked this rumor. But it keeps making the rounds.
As Snopes noted, the original piece was published in 1995 by a Dr. Bob Moorehead*, then the pastor of a church in Seattle. His essay differs from almost every version I could find on the internet, which I found ridiculously attributed to the Dalai Lama, The South African Board of Jewish Education, a Columbine high school student, and others. To me, this proves again that the internet’s problem isn’t too much information, but too much incorrect information.
(* Yes, “Bob Moorehead” is a funny name. And yes, it takes one to know one.)
But I didn’t come here today to dispute the authorship of the essay. What I wanted to do is debunk the content of it, including the title. I’m reminded of the famous Princess Bride quotation: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” None of the sentences in the essay represent paradoxes, whether reading the shorter internet versions, or the longer original writing by Moorehead. “This statement is false” is a paradox. Also a paradox is a time traveler who goes back to a time before his own birth and kills an ancestor. Another fun one is this: “God, being omnipotent, is the greatest possible being. Can he create a being greater than himself?”
Beyond the title, though, this essay — in all its forms — is nearly meaningless when actually examined. The entire theme is “times were better before now”, a common-but-mistaken concept which gives rise to political slogans like “I want my America back” and “make America great again”. The idea is that there was a better time — you remember it, don’t you? — when things were not so complicated as now, when people were nicer to each other, when the world wasn’t quite so dangerous or scary.
I don’t think a term has yet been coined for this failure of reason, but it’s pretty easy to spot once you’re aware of it. The breakdown in thinking begins when people remember their own childhood days and conflate them with broader society at the time, arriving at the false conclusion that “today is worse than back then”. While it isn’t true of everyone, many of us had childhood years that were idyllic compared to our current adult lives. Though we all have traumatic or stressful memories from childhood, we’re rarely thinking of those when we begin a sentence with “When I was a child…”
Every single time someone has claimed “things are getting worse in this country”, and I’ve pressed them for concrete evidence of that, their argument has failed because they’re making a false comparison between (1) their own sepia-tinted childhood memories from a specific place and time to (2) bad things they’ve learned about broader modern society as a whole. I know how it works because I used to do it too. One thing that helped cure my own misconception was reading old newspapers; another was reading history in general.
And not only the overall theme, but every line falls apart when examined.
When Moorehead says “more medicine, yet less wellness”, he fails to define what he means by wellness, but it is indisputable that the global population as a whole is healthier than it used to be. Life expectancy is way up, both in the U.S. and globally. Around the world, poverty has sharply declined, and infant mortality rates are dropping significantly too. Food production per capita has risen. The death rate from cancer has declined significantly in the U.S. Access to clean water is increasing, quick global responses to outbreaks like Zika and Ebola were unimaginable 50 years ago — today we can stop many “epidemics” before they reach our shores, incidences of new cases of AIDS are down, and so on.
And all that is just in response to one line in the essay.
Another one: “we’ve done larger things, but not better things”. Note that one part (“larger”) is measurable, while the other part (“better”) is subjective and dependent on personal taste, and neither are specified, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks from her own brain. Personally, I think we’re doing larger and better things than we used to.
And when he says “we’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul” it starts becoming nonsensical. Cleaning the air (curtailing pollution) is measurably and verifiably good in every way, yet he presents it as an empty accomplishment. The “soul”, on the other hand, isn’t known to exist and isn’t verifiable in any way.
So, we see that the title is false, the theme is based on faulty reasoning, and every line falls apart under the most basic examination. As Carlin said: “not only bad prose and poetry, it’s weak philosophy. I hope I never sound like that.”