Teaching Social Diseases

In two of my classes, we’re looking at the  reasons why civilizations decline.  Our case study is the Byzantine Empire, and I gave them a six-item list to work from in order to find examples of each of the following from our textbook:

  1. Corruption, and its related forms nepotism, cronyism and bribery.
  2. Economic mismanagement — building unnecessary infrastructure, overpaying for luxuries, destroying the middle class, or mismanaging the trade network.
  3. Intolerance — deliberately using the majority worldview or mindset as an excuse to marginalize and disenfranchise minorities.
  4. Civil strife — allowing and in some cases provoking citizens into violence against other classes of citizens, sometimes in the mass movements known as civil wars.
  5. Infrastructure deterioration — failing to maintain roads, bridges, harbors, fortifications, military assets, economic assets, and social goods.
  6. Exterior invasion — allowing a foreign group to enter one’s territory in force, replace the existing legal and political system with a different one, and re-direct tax revenue to a new central government.
    …. and I should have included
  7. Environmental degradation — depleting natural resources and natural environments faster than nature can replenish them, or using up non-renewable natural resources entirely.

In class, we then had to distinguish between STRUCTURAL or LONG-TERM PROBLEMS, like the above list, and CRISIS or BLACK SWAN conditions, like the list below:

  1. Plague — highly contagious and fatal disease that existing medical resources cannot cure;
  2. Leadership Vacuum — absence of strong leadership or delegitimization of the existing government by coup d’etat or revolt.
  3. Natural Disaster — economically debilitating wreckage from storm, earthquake, volcanic eruption, land subsidence (the two sunken Welsh cantrefs, for example), drought or flood.
  4. Constitutional Failure — the accepted structure of the government cannot respond to a relatively minor crisis.
  5. Famine — the system of food production and distribution collapses, and people cannot eat.

It’s obviously not an exhaustive list, by any means.  What impressed me was how many examples this class could generate in the time that we had together, and how many of those examples they could find evidence for, in our textbook case of the long decline of Byzantium.

One thing came up though, that I thought was brilliant.  WE noticed that many of the “high-point” leaders of civilizations use their incredible power and wealth and authority to build massive monuments to themselves or their family.  Yet after them, future rulers would build similar monuments that were never quite as grand or amazing, but still challenged the civilization’s abilities to be successful. We recognized that this could take the form of a diagnosis:

  • OCPBD — Obsessive-Compulsive Palace-Building Disorder. In this disease, a culture or civilization becomes obsessed with building grandiose but ultimately useless monuments that strip wealth and material from ordinary citizens, and then require too many resources to maintain.  In version 1.0 of the Manual of Civilization-Wide Disorders (MCWD), this was termed Cheops Syndrome, after the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza.  Other possible sufferers include the Mughal Empire (The Taj Mahal), Classical-era Athens (the Parthenon), Rome (The Colosseum), 18th century France (Versailles), Tang Dynasty China (The Forbidden City) [? not sure of this one], and Easter Island (the Moai statues).
  • EDD — Environmental Degradation Disorder. In this disease, a culture or civilization requires a particular resource or material that eventually becomes so critical that the civilization exhausts all available supplies and loses the ability to procure more via its trade network.  Sometimes combines with local climate change. Examples include medieval Greenland (wood), French-Canadian Acadia (wood),  and Easter Island (wood).

Can you think of other Society or Civilization-level psychological disorders?  Give your diagnosis and possible example civilizations in comments below.  A couple of rules:

  • You have to have an acronym.
  • You can’t use any modern civilizations, or factions thereof, as examples. It’s not fair to use my blog for conservatives to bash liberals or liberals to bash conservatives.
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