Though it’s chic in these tabloid times to fixate on the outrage of the day (a tweet, a gaffe, the actions of a store clerk somewhere), the current political and cultural unrest sweeping America is not unanticipated and can be connected to deeper intellectual trends. For instance, Aristotle long ago found that a prosperous middle class strengthened political stability, so it’s not too surprising that undermining the position of the economic middle will in turn destabilize a country.
But we don’t need to turn to only ancient philosophy to see warnings and prophecies about the present discontent. Many trends that have flowered in the 21st century were spotted in the 20th. For instance, in 1998 Michael Sandel claimed that a politics without a robust sense of the public good would soon degenerate into tabloid politics and tribalism. In 1989, Charles Taylor released Sources of the Self, one of the more ambitious works of Anglo-American academic philosophy in the last few decades. Taylor’s behemoth weighs in at about 600 pages, so it’s almost impossible to do it full justice here. Essentially, it offers a survey of the various intellectual trends — from Augustine to Locke to the Romantics — that laid the foundations for modern notions of selfhood. At the end of this survey, Taylor reflects on a habit of mind that may help explain some of the toxicity of current cultural debates.
Taylor says that the idea of moral improvement — of “far-reaching moral commitments to benevolence and justice” — persists in modern culture, but we need to look at the deeper moral sources for this commitment. In Taylor’s account, earlier arguments on behalf of such universal benevolence were premised on God’s universal love for all people. Conversely, he warns, there could be something corrosive about arguments for moral improvement that are not informed by a sense of the profound dignity and lovable-ness of all people: “There is something morally corrupting, even dangerous, in sustaining the [moral] demand simply on the feeling of undischarged obligation, on guilt, or its obverse, self-satisfaction.” If moral improvement is only about hatred of vice (and not the love of others and the good), seemingly moral crusades can in fact become merely tribalistic sorties against those people you view as vicious. That is, culture war replaces moral improvement.
Taylor’s outlining of the bigger social stakes of this moral corrosion very likely responds to the radicalism of the Sixties, though it also eerily predicts the “Great Awokening” of today:
Many young people are driven to political extremism, sometimes by truly terrible conditions, but also by a need to give meaning to their lives. And since meaninglessness is frequently accompanied by a sense of guilt, they sometimes respond to a strong ideology of polarization, in which one recovers a sense of direction as well as a sense of purity by lining up in implacable opposition to the forces of darkness. The more implacable, even violent the opposition, the more the polarity is represented as absolute, and the greater the sense of separation from evil and hence purity. Dostoyevsky’s Devils is one of the great documents of modern times, because it lays bare the way in which an ideology of universal love and freedom can mask a burning hatred, directed outward onto an unregenerate world and generating destruction and despotism.
While it may in part be informed by efforts to redress real injustices, “wokeness” can also degenerate into a form of aggression, directed at the purportedly “privileged” other. It’s telling how often “woke” discourse shifts into the language of denigration and exclusion, in which someone is not allowed to enter a debate because of some identity characteristic, in which referencing someone’s identity category (often “white male”) becomes an excuse for ridicule, and so forth. As this BuzzFeed article from 2015 demonstrates, the “woke” enterprise can include both legitimate efforts to create a more sophisticated cultural awareness and displays of deep animus.
The crusade of attacking “privilege” can serve as a shortcut to legitimating aggression, justifying harm to some in the name of “justice.” (Coincidentally, many of those who attack “privilege” also happen to benefit from displacing the “privileged.” That perhaps is one of the reasons why cultural politics are so “woke” in many areas of the culture industry — publishing, academia, and the like — where resources are so scarce.) However, the premise of building “social justice” through harming one group is almost certain to lead to increased cultural conflicts.
Cultural controversies are not the only instances of the dangers of losing a sense of universal human dignity. In recent years, partisans on both sides have at times been seduced into the belief that political victory constitutes inflicting pain upon their opponents. In certain sectors of the pro-Trump world, defense of the president merely becomes a list of grievances against his opponents — the “lamestream media,” “NeverTrump,” and other opponents of a MAGA utopia. Only in a cultural discourse centered on animosity could “triggering the libs” be viewed as much of a political victory.
In recent years, partisans on both sides have at times been seduced into the belief that political victory constitutes inflicting pain upon their opponents.
Trump’s opponents face the opposite temptation: to think that denigrating the president, his family, his supporters, or Americans “on the wrong side of history” offers much of a solution to the challenges we face. In prominent outlets, column after column consists of merely a catalogue of anti-Trump insults, as though just the right combination of references to Cheetos, McDonald’s, and comb-overs will cause Trump to resign, install Hillary Clinton in the White House, and initiate a universal brotherhood of mankind. Assailing the person of the president and the character of his supporters (as racist monsters who are the dying gasp of white supremacy) does little to address the real problems that helped make Donald Trump president in the first place. There’s also little evidence that trying to destroy Trump through insults is a very effective political strategy; so far, it’s proven more effective at dragging down President Trump’s opponents than the president himself. Moreover, the constant — albeit mannered — aggression of such relentless attacks can be normatively corrosive. Filigreed insults can do no less damage to worthy sentiments than the crudest bombast.
A sense of the inherent importance and value of each person — deferring the effort to conjure demons in order to anoint cardboard paladins — helps ensure that a quest for moral improvement does not merely become a shtick of moralistic denigration. Taylor notes that religious narratives of human dignity can offer a counterbalance to the temptation of moralizing vitriol, though it is possible to offer a secular account of human dignity as well.
In any case, sustaining such a narrative of human dignity could be a way of nurturing comity and sanity in our politics. Viciousness in the pursuit of virtue can very much be a vice, and acknowledging the inherent human value of even those who seem depraved can indeed be a virtue.