One of the characteristics of this age, whether we are looking at the health of people or of society as a whole, is the problem of inflammation. If this is not something we tend to think about often, it is certainly not an original observation, in that an entire book was spent talking decades ago about the problems of inflammation that result from the body’s prolonged resistance to what was happening inside of it. Indeed, the praise that is actively given to certain kinds of resistance in various corners means that not only is our age an age of inflammation but it is likely to remain so. As we begin it is worthwhile to note what inflammation looks like when it comes to both physical and social health, as it is a response by the body (or the body politic) to what is perceived as a threat, and when done too many times for too long, it can have crippling results, even if it useful if done at the right times for the right reasons.
A great many health problems result in large part from inflammation. The issue isn’t so much the acute inflammation that is the result of the body’s response to injury, but the more chronic affects of inflammation that happen because the body never stops resisting to what it perceives as a threat. Again, this can happen on an individual level as well as an institutional or societal level, and the results are the same, in that a great many of the problems of the contemporary world are in fact problems of chronic inflammation, whether it involves the issue of arthritis (including gout), lupus, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or Alzheimer’s disease, among others. Likewise, a great many of the problems of our contemporary world, be it demonstrations, the rise of anti-immigrant or populist sentiment, or rioting against those who are corrupt elites, are all aspects of inflammation in the social sphere. Sometimes there are genuine injuries in the body or the body politic and inflammation is a proper short-term response to such things in order to help deal with the problem, but the problem is when such a response becomes a chronic condition of the body, because it means that either the person or the society is constantly inflamed and constantly being irritated by what is going on inside of it, to no good end.
The key to inflammation is that it is a response of resistance or injury. When the body receives a cut and blood cells are sent to the location of the cut and there is swelling as the body seeks to defend its integrity, this is an appropriate response. When the body treats its own body parts (as in lupus) or chemicals that are continually present in the body like uric acid crystals (as in gout), the inflammatory response is not only not helpful but it can be crippling in nature. The same is true on the social level. To the extent that the inflammation of people against bad government policies leads to a short-term and targeted response to express the dissatisfaction of the people, or to repair the damage of war or natural disaster, inflammation is not a bad thing, but if it becomes a continual irritation present in a given society, then the health and viability of the body politic is threatened because the body is never given a chance to rest because it is always irritated because there always appears to be some threat, be it the actions of an oppressive government or the corruption of political and social elites or the presence of dangerous and threatening outsiders, or hostility between rival factions and groups.
The effects of prolonged inflammation can be deeply tragic for people as well as societies. For people, those whose bodies become trapped in inflammatory responses tend to suffer crippling pain, incurable chronic conditions, and frequently early death as a result of their continually being inflamed. Nor are the results better for societies, as the results of chronic societal inflammation include the destruction of social cohesion and the inability of government or other institutions to unify a populace or to provide for necessary social infrastructure, leading to continual failed states and immense and widespread suffering from people who have to deal with chronic internal violence and a lack of unity with their neighbors. After all, once an inflammatory response is turned on and feels successful, as was the case in, say, the Boston Tea Party or the Sicilian Vespers, it is hard to know when to turn such a response off and to avoid hostility and resistance when one is dealing with what one finds unpleasant.
To make this worse, it must be admitted that some things are worth resisting. Whether we are dealing with tyrannical government policies or corrupt behavior on the part of societal elites or moral decay, there are things that are worth resisting on an individual and collective level. There are things worth being irritated and frustrated about. The problem becomes figuring out how to do this without destroying the physical body or the body politic with a continual state of irritation that makes it increasingly difficult for people or society to function or survive at all. It would be one thing if one was going to be hostile to inflammation altogether, but it is sometimes necessary for short periods of time in some circumstances. The problem, as is frequently the case, is that it is all too easy to use inflammation too often and for too long, and to be inflamed against imaginary threats that are only present in one’s own paranoid mind. And that makes it something that is both necessary but also necessary to regulate and to keep under control.