The obvious example that might pop for people is “OMG, Trump was an unprecedentedly bad President!” Maybe so, but Trump is essentially just Andrew Jackson for 2016–2020. (Or, hell, Andrew Johnson!) People with Trump would talk about Presidents and morals too, i.e. “being Presidential.” Well, many Presidents had secret girlfriends. Kennedy and LBJ were two of the more impactful Presidents of modernity in terms of influencing modern America, and … both pretty much hit on anything that moved, best we can tell. So is/was Trump unprecedented? In some ways, yes. In many other ways, he’s just the modern continuation of other trends we’ve seen.
Same vein: we talk about how it’s “unprecedented” that a small amount of people control the conscious public square narrative, i.e. in this case it’s Dorsey and Zuck, and Dorsey was (bad optics!) at a resort in French Polynesia during the Capitol riots. But as Kara Swisher explains on this episode of “The Good Fight” podcast, it’s always been like that: when TV was the essence of media, TV networks were largely controlled by 10–11 white guys who all lived in the same zip codes of Manhattan. It’s not an unprecedented situation so much as we just changed the zip code where the power emanates from.
COVID? We had something like that 100 years ago, and things that almost scaled like it virtually every 10–12 years since.
Mass layoffs? That happens all the time. Companies are run by cost-cutters. As automation scales hand-in-hand with greed, it will happen more.
Partisan bickering? Uh, from 1861–1865 we fought against each other, like literal brother vs. brother. It’s happened before. Even in the 1960s to 1980s, we had one class screaming about XYZ and another class screaming about ABC, and it seemed like never the twain shall meet.
Simon Sinek, who I used to love but now semi-loathe, has also said this: “These are not unprecedented times.” So have some academics, even noting 2020 was basically 1968 with faster-moving tech. Some site called Madison Main has weighed in too, saying “unprecedented” is overrated as a term.
Is this a call to maybe study history more? Perhaps. Is it a call to stop using words to inflate situations because you’re nervous about how to deal with them? Also perhaps. But none of these moments are truly unprecedented in nature, no.