A type of story is told about how something is unleashed on the world and how it has downstream effects that change the world. Pandora’s box, the story of Prometheus, and the lineage of Cain are all examples of this story. It is a known phenomenon that we’ve summed up with the idea of opening a can of worms.
Usually, these stories are a metaphor for technology. Once a particular technology is invented, the changes brought by that technology cannot stop it. Its effects are unleashed on the world. The technology creates an inflection point that, once reached, cannot be returned. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.
One such inflection point was the creation of the atomic bomb. Never before has man had the ability to destroy the world so quickly. The ability to do that changes the very nature of geopolitics and trickles down to affect just about everything. Even if you wanted nothing to do with atomic weapons, it does not matter. Everyone’s experience of existence has changed.
Nuclear weapons are an extreme example of this story. A more concrete example is that of the automobile. The invention of the car was a pandora’s box. It radically changed the world. At this point, the change has come to completion. But imagine living in the early 1900s when the car was still novel, and suppose further you were anti-car. Just because you didn’t buy a car doesn’t mean that the invention of the car didn’t radically alter society in your lifetime.
Before the invention of the car, man was limited in where he could go. This led to compact neighborhoods with most amenities within walking distance. The creation of the car changed all of that. Suburbs, commuting, the interstates, asphalt roads, strip malls, fast-food chains, etc., all became possible and necessary because of the car. The invention of the automobile fundamentally changed the structure of our society.
While the pandora’s box story is often used to describe changes in technology, it can also describe changes in tradition.
Good tradition is both transcendent and pragmatic1. A society’s traditions are usually a reflection of its underlying philosophy. Not only do traditions reflex eternal truths, but traditions are also a culmination of lessons learned by a people. The classic example is how certain eating and cleansing rituals prevent diseases. These traditions are often prescriptions for how to live a good life.
It is almost by definition that a change in tradition would follow a pattern similar to the story of Pandora’s box. But not always. How pragmatic are eating rituals in the era of antibiotics? It’s possible a tradition can be a vestigial organ; it was previously necessary, but now it’s a remnant of a bygone era. This appears to be true of at least the more pragmatic aspects of a tradition.
However, a change to tradition of a metaphysical or transcendent nature will undoubtedly have a profound effect on that society. Imagine if society decided to change its understanding of justice, freedom, or equality. These are foundational concepts in society. To change one of them would change everything. A change in the metaphysical underpinnings of society will almost always unleash a pandora’s box of changes on that society. Metaphysics are just that important.
In 2015, the United States legally changed the definition of marriage. It became legal for people of the same sex to marry. This was a change to our tradition that was metaphysical. The relationship between man and woman is foundational to the western tradition. It goes back to for sure Aristotle and definitely to Adam and Eve.
To the left, marriage was a vestigial organ. But it contains the very definition of love and the definition of man and woman. If two people of the same sex can marry, then it calls into question the very nature of those sexes. If marriage has no gender-specific meaning as it does now, gender has no specific meaning.
The legalization of gay marriage was the opening of a pandora’s box. Some religious and political conservatives at the time recognized this. Here’s an article from 2013 mocking conservatives for thinking that legalized gay marriage would lead to bestiality and degeneracy.
This was almost tens of years ago. Were they right?
Well, the percentage of LGBT adults has doubled in that time. There are ongoing trans debates about whether children should be put on puberty blockers. And there’s the growth of the furry phenomenon where people dress up and act like animals. They say it isn’t sexual, but we all know it is very sexual.
These are the problem of a society that doesn’t have a metaphysical understanding of man and woman.
Rush Limbaugh in 2013 mused:
Definitions of family, what constitutes families is now wide open, and pretty soon you’re gonna be able to marry your dog, your dog’s going to be an official member of your family and will qualify for benefits.
He seems to have been proven right, although probably not how he imagined.
I realize after writing this sentence that this is, in fact, a very debatable and profound assertion. What I thought was a throw-away line is actually something rather heavy. Let’s just roll with it for now.