August 19, 2015

Well, the good people won the culture war. Why are we still so awful?

"Why does contemporary culture so often seem indistinguishable from a Puritan society where everyone is constantly sticking their noses in everyone else’s business?"

This is Freddie de Boer's question in an interesting essay in the Observer. Contemporary culture, in this reading, is one in which "the left," broadly speaking, has in essence won the culture war against the forces of darkness and ignorance. But why in God's name, then, do we still behave pretty much exactly like the intolerant bastards we defeated? It's almost like nothing has changed after all.

The thing he is describing is real, and genuinely ironic considering the rhetorical posturing of "progressives" over the years as against their busy-body opponents' refusal to "stay out of our bedrooms" and their attempts to censor and pillory everyone for impropriety of various kinds. But it seems to me this can only come as a surprise to one who has drawn the wrong lesson from the puritanism and witch hunts of the past. This wrong lesson is that the cultural "good people," meaning we, were by definition in the right (i.e. righteous) simply because of belonging to our own reference group, and that because of this proper cultural-political identity we would never stoop to such nefarious tactics and behavior. That's what the bad people do, and the good people like us, who are wise and righteous, are and will always be far above it.

The right lesson is that, there being nothing new under the sun, this phenomenon can occur whenever any social grouping feels they are in control and can get away with policing and inflicting cruelty on others. People enjoy cruelty; they don't as a rule feel much empathy towards their hated cultural rivals. Tolerance is an unnatural condition among humans, an ideal that must be fought for again and again, no matter who happens to be in charge. "Winning" (or the perception that you have won at any rate) is what entices the "good people" to indulge in the behavior of the "bad people," with very few capable of taking enough of a step back to spot the ugliness that has revealed itself in their own souls. The proper lesson is, in other words, that the good people and the bad people are, in the way that truly matters, the same. Unfortunately, people tend to resist this lesson without being aware that that's what they're doing.

As I have put it before (in the original case sparked by the instance of blue state cultural partisans willing themselves into the idiocy of pretending to think that the Tuscon shootings were caused by Sarah Palin and her maps): of course you think the other side does it all the time while your side does it hardly at all; thinking that is part of "it."

The ugliness is part of being human and cannot be escaped or expunged. What you can do, though, is to be wary of and extremely cautious around people in any large group who think they are "winning" -- winning is where cruel irony, and sometimes atrocities, thrive.

Posted by Dr. Frank at August 19, 2015 09:50 PM