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A couple of weeks ago I ended my post Low Doses of Harm with a quote from a concerned dog owner. The owner was voicing their opposition to a proposed halal butchery by arguing that just walking by it would put their dogs in an unsafe environment. Boonton speculated in the comments that I shouldn’t take this concern at face value. That this individual was just “posing”. Which is to say that the argument they were making for pet safety was just a cover for their real concern which was probably more about not liking slaughterhouses or maybe Muslims.

This is certainly one possible explanation for the statement. As shocking as it might seem, people do lie, and furthermore they use those lies in a cunning fashion to disguise their true motivations. Which in this case may have been something other than making their dogs feel safe. Accordingly, Boonton argued, while it’s true that you would not have heard this argument at a city council meeting 50 years ago, that it’s nevertheless not an example of something new and strange, but rather an example of something which has been going on since humans first developed language, and not a cause for any particular concern.

As I said all this is possible, but even if it’s the case that the concern for their dog’s safety is a cover for something else, it’s interesting that this was the lie they choose to tell. A good lie has to sound plausible, it has to fit the expectations of the people you’re telling the lie to. And apparently the idea of their dogs being in an unsafe environment just from walking past the butchery was either exactly how they felt, or close enough to how people are expected to feel in this day and age that it passed without being obviously ridiculous. As even Boonton admits concerns have changed, and change can be good or bad.

Indeed, I have mentioned the quote from the dog owner, and the story behind it, to many people outside of my blog readership. And all of them found it both believable and extreme. Part of why they found it to be believable was that it was an example of a problem they were already concerned about. Now I know I just described confirmation bias. But that doesn’t preclude the possibility that there’s a problem. What’s interesting furthermore is that several of the people I told had no problem with even fairly controversial examples of so-called “political correctness”, but nevertheless viewed this as “going too far”. When I questioned them more closely it seemed to come down a dislike of treating pets in a fashion similar to children. Also a couple of people brought up the problem of fake service animals.

In other words there are several possibilities:

There’s Boonton who argued that it wasn’t a problem at all.

There’s the people I just described who feel like this story does match a real problem they’re seeing, but that it’s a narrow problem. One that could perhaps be solved by a few additional laws, and a slight change in the culture. Or maybe it’s a problem that will continue to get worse, but other than becoming increasingly annoying, there’s no point at which it becomes catastrophic.

And then, there are people like me, who want to see everything as part of a larger trend. A trend like safetyism, or of people declining to have kids and putting all of their energy and affection into their pets, or of increasing selfishness (it doesn’t matter how many people would benefit from the butchery, it would inconvenience me). I freely admit that there is a failure mode in which people attempt to connect too much together, and that seeing the fall of civilization in a complaint over a halal butchery might be the silliest position of all.

Certainly there are people who see vast conspiracies based on small pieces of evidence. Though I would argue that there is a difference between something requiring the conscious coordination of more than about a dozen people. (Say arguing the moon landing was a hoax.) And emergent cultural trends that move society in a negative direction, but, that aside, it is worth asking am I just a low-grade conspiracy theorist?

I have talked to a few conspiracy theorists at some length about the various conspiracies they champion, and without exception they seem especially fixated on a handful of items they just can’t get past. For one 9/11 truther I talked to it was the collapse of WTC 7. Another gentleman, who believes the Moon landing was faked, considered the automated tracking shot of the final capsule liftoff proof positive of shenanigans. It just felt unquestionably fake to him. (I did look into that, it sounds like it wasn’t easy, but nothing about the explanation struck me as implausible either.)

I personally don’t believe in any big conspiracies, which is not to claim that there aren’t conspiracies. I think there are, but to be successful they need to operate at a much smaller scale than the ones that get all the press. That said, despite not sharing any of their beliefs, conspiracy theorists and I do have one thing in common: we see certain things in the world that absolutely convince us there is something deeper going on. These are things I can’t reconcile with a rosy picture of the future. And the point of this post is to examine some of these things. Stories and data I’ve come across recently that convince me that there is something big happening behind the scenes. Things that I can’t get past. Things that make me confident that the narrative that everything is better than it’s ever been is wrong, or if correct, only temporarily so.

As I pointed out in the beginning as I relate these examples you have three options. First, like Boonton in his comment from a couple of weeks ago you can decide that there is nothing especially unusual about the story. That at best it’s a different expression of something which has been happening for a long time (like lying about our true motivation), but definitely nothing to be alarmed about. Alternatively you can decide that the things I’m talking about do point to a real problem, but a minor one. A problem which will either correct itself in time or which is correctable with only small adjustment to customs and/or laws. Finally you may view things in the same light as I do, as strong evidence for a negative trend which seems likely to get worse, and in the process cause severe problems.

I’m going to start with the story that gave me the idea for this post. A couple of months ago I came across an article in Slate about the practice of puppy play. And I’ll put in a warning, if you’re easily offended, you might just want to skip to the paragraph that starts “The next example”.

Here’s how Slate describes puppy play:

When at their leisure, some queer people socialize and sweat it out at LGBTQ badminton games. Others enjoy hearing a reading at the local queer bookstore. And for still others, the best way to spend free time is rolling around on floor mats with each other while wearing puppy masks, collars, and tail-shaped butt plugs, barking and sniffing like real pups. Known as pup play, this is a brand of BDSM role-play where people imitate adolescent canine behavior in order to get off. When done with other pups, it’s considered a “mosh,” and it happens regularly at leather bars all across the country. For some, pup play is just for Saturday nights. But could the fetish lifestyle offer more than just a good time?

As I said, reading this article was the genesis of what eventually became the post you’re reading. Specifically the idea that I could look at something and think, “Well if that isn’t evidence that something is seriously wrong with the world I don’t know what is.” While at the same time not being entirely clear on what made it so alarming. I mean sure it fits into the general category of sexual activities that have nothing to do with procreation. But it’s not like the total fertility rate of homosexual men was all that great to begin with. The angle where they pretend to be dogs is also unusual, but I was already familiar with furries before reading the article, so that wasn’t anything particularly new or shocking either.

I think a big part of it was how matter of fact the article was. You can imagine the same story being written up on Breitbart or some similar culturally right-wing site in a breathless revelatory fashion, with lurid descriptions of:

tail-shaped butt plugs

outfitted in leather puppy masks, which are called “hoods” in the scene

[their] three-page fetish family chart

There are the two alphas…who are the leaders (similar to a drag mother in a drag house…

a handler (a figure who, elsewhere in the scene, typically “owns” and protects his pups).

one omega pup, Pup Arco, a submissive who services the pack in exchange for protection from unwanted attention within the community;

And yet, if you haven’t guessed, those are all quotes from the Slate article. Additionally consider the source. Slate is not some niche LGBT focused publication. It’s basically the internet’s version of Time or Newsweek. I suppose, you could make the argument that it’s a little bit edgier, but it’s still effectively, a general interest magazine.

All that said, I expect that, similar to what happens with conspiracy theorists, that there will be many people who will dismiss the visceral concern I experienced as meaningless, and not see any problem with the activities described in the article. Still others might view it as a minor problem, one which revolves more around cordoning off adult activities from children, than any prohibition of the activity itself. But for me, it is not an exaggeration to say that the article appeared like an Old Testament prophecy come to life and proclaiming that the end was near. It’s safe to say I definitely had a “What is going on?!” reaction.

The next example, which I have mentioned before, is the stunning number of under 30 males who aren’t having sex. (It’s nearly tripled from 10% to 28% in the last decade.) I’m not going to spend as much time on this one because I’ve already covered it, in fact I ended up making a bet the last time I discussed it. But you can once again see the same thing at play. There are certainly people who are going to think that this is no big deal. In particular they may see widespread pornography as a perfectly acceptable substitute for sex. I think this is profoundly misguided, but once again it’s territory I’ve covered in the past. But the point is, there is an argument to be made that there’s no reason to be alarmed by this statistic. Some might even welcome it as a positive step along the lines of defanging the patriarchy. Who knows.

Beyond that there are those who certainly see this as a problem, but not a catastrophic one. My sense, in fact, is that most people would say that the biggest problem is avoiding the radicalization of these involuntary celibates (an issue we’re already struggling with). And if we can avoid that, that there’s very little else about this trend which should cause any concern.

And then of course there’s me (though I assume I’m not entirely alone). I find this increase, particularly over such a short time, to be extremely alarming. But maybe it shouldn’t be. The Japanese have arguably been dealing with a similar situation in the form of what they call Hikikomiri. These are individuals who at some point while growing up decide that they’re going eschew all social contact and seek extreme isolation, even confinement. Which one presumes also includes foregoing sex. As of 2010 the estimate was that there was 700,000 of these individuals, with another 1.55 million on the verge of becoming Hikikomiri. Of course there are ways in which this comparison fails. The Hikikomiri have an average age of 31, and are fairly evenly split between the genders, while we were talking about men under the age of 30. On the other hand whatever is happening with the Hikikomiri appears more severe. But the larger point is that so far Japan hasn’t collapsed, and in fact seems to be doing pretty well.

I guess we’ll see. In the past young men with nothing to do have fueled a lot of social unrest and even revolution, but perhaps all of their energy is being channeled into video games. Which once again would seem to be cause for concern, but maybe I’m making too much out of the vast and precipitous increase in sexless young men. Still, this is another case where I think we should all be asking, “What is going on?”

Part of the problem with the increase in involuntary celibacy, is that men seem to be taking it in the teeth on a lot of fronts. And I know that there are valid cases to be made that women and minorities, etc. have been taking it in the teeth for most of recorded history, but one would hope that progress isn’t a zero sum game where for one group to do better another group has to do worse. But you may be wondering what else I’m talking about, where else is something bad happening to men or at least disproportionately to men? Well, to move on to our next example: drugs. The opioid epidemic seems to hit men much worse than women. For instance, if you look at overdose deaths from opioids it turns out that men are twice as likely as women to die from an overdose. But that fact is alarming only because so many people are dying.

Have you seen a graph showing the spike in deaths from synthetic opioids? It’s genuinely insane. Essentially it went from 3,000 in 2013 to 30,000 in 2017. That’s a 10x increase in four years! If that rate continued basically the entire country would be dead less than 15 years from now. Obviously it’s not going to continue at this rate, but what rate is it going to continue at? Even if it leveled of instantly that’s still pretty bad.

This enormous spike in deaths from synthetic opioids would be bad enough if that’s all we had to worry about, but overdose deaths from heroin and prescription opioids might also still be climbing, or maybe they’ve levelled off at a mere 15,000 deaths a year, each. (And yes I’m being sarcastic.) It’s too early to tell, but on top of the opioid problem, although you can’t overdose on marijuana, the CDC reports that deaths from synthetic cannabinoids tripled in a single year between 2014 and 2015. I couldn’t find more recent numbers, but it does seem like a problem that’s likely to get worse given reports in other sources that synthetic use and associated reports of illness therefrom surged in 2018. Finally it turns out that meth has come roaring back, with overdose deaths from that drug increasing 18-fold in this decade, which is not as bad as the synthetic opioid increase, but it’s not great either. Finally it turns out that there’s been a big spike in overdose deaths from cocaine as well and 15,000 people a year are also dying there as well.

Just as I was putting the final polish on this, I came across a unified chart with overdose deaths from all of the drugs I just mentioned (other than synthetic cannabinoids). Eyeballing the start date in 1999, I’m going to say that there were 10,000 overdose deaths. The number for 2017 is 89,000. That’s a 9 fold increase over less than 20 years, across a broad range of drugs. I ask again, “What is going on?!”

As long as we’re on the subject of drugs, I was actually considering doing a whole post on them, but I have no idea what to do about the problem. Most people agree that the War on Drugs has largely been a failure, though it also feels like it hasn’t been quite as “warlike” since maybe the Obama election? Which corresponds to all the rises I’ve been talking about. So maybe it was working? Sort of? On the other hand there’s the approach of countries like Portugal, which decriminalized possession of drugs, and redirected resources to treatment. Which has long seemed like a good idea to me, but even so that policy has indisputably increased drug usage, and when you’re talking about drugs like fentanyl and meth, my guess is that usage rate and overdose rate are strongly correlated. Also, there are many ways in which the US is not Portugal.

Thus far we have sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Or rather a lack of sex, drug over doses and a weird fetishished version of rolling around like puppies. Perhaps I’m just an alarmed mother from the early 70s, rather than a low-grade conspiracy theorist. Either way, there is a big collection of potential things to be worried about, well beyond the three I just mentioned. But I understand if, looking at any example in isolation, you decide that it’s harmless; or worrisome, but easily dealt with. (Though there is always the chance that something is actually the tip of the iceberg.) All this said, while I do have some deep worries over isolated phenomenon, it’s really things in combination where I think we end up with a potential for catastrophe.

By way of illustration, as scary as fentanyl is, it’s really the fact that overdose deaths are basically up for all drugs, that worries me. And moving beyond that, drug overdose deaths are just one element in the broader “deaths of despair” category. (Another area where men are being hit particularly hard.) And once you start combining things together in this fashion it’s harder, for me at least, to shake the feeling that something big is going on.  

I suppose the point of this post is to be largely confessional. Specifically a confession that there is an element of emotion and visceral alarm to my worries about technology, progress and modern culture. I hope you believe me when I say I really want the future to be as great as Steven Pinker promises it will be. For that matter I want the present to be as great as people tell me it is, but when I look out on the world I see an increasing number of things that make me ask, “What is going on?!?!?”

As you may gather I feel like some things are moving in the opposite direction from what we would hope and expect. On that theme I’m going to go in the opposite direction as well, rather than asking for your donation I’m going to give away two $10 Amazon gift certificates to the first and last people who email me at wearenotsaved AT g mail and reference this message. How will I determine the last person? I guess you’ll find out.