We have a growing problem. Urban crime was bad in the Eighties, terrorist attacks were no minor annoyance as the millennium turned over, and Mexico’s gang violence has steadily percolated even through small-town neighborhoods… but will the future’s greatest physical dangers be posed by our own children? Our college campuses have become nurseries for pathological introversion and extreme incivility (including overt violence).
I wrote last time about the dissolution of self/other recognition, which might meaningfully be characterized as a morbid slide back into early childhood. Certain young people, especially—but also many old enough to know better—cannot distinguish, apparently, between a source of personal distress and a global crisis. Their preferred method of bridging the gap from the near side of the ego’s deep chasm to the wide world’s busy traffic is, perversely, to lay upon that world the responsibility for a weak will or for poor personal judgment. Thus everyone around them must tread eggshells if they are “unfriended” on social media; all males everywhere are responsible if they wake up without their memory and their panties after a wild party; and mainstream society is positively un-Christian—as a sudden burst of pious inspiration seizes them—if laws impose a minor inconvenience upon their need of a “hygienic procedure” for cleaning out the uterus.
Again, my position is that “they” are “we”, or at least are our children. “They” would not exist in this degraded form if we were not creating and sustaining a degraded environment. What, exactly, are we doing to bring this twilight of insanity down upon ourselves?
I can think of a few things: four, for sure.
1) Contemporary life is too soft on us: it excuses us from confronting basic realities. We all know what a debilitating obstacle is posed to us by a little fluctuation in temperature. Now that our central heating and air-conditioning have groomed us to dwell within a “comfort spectrum” of about ten degrees, any intrusion of forceful weather upon that meteorological safe zone must indict some epochal catastrophe like planetary climate change. So for other aspects of modern living: success has emasculated us. I hear proponents of the MAGA persuasion crow all the time (in ironically rugged, robust language) about the high-tech atrophy of our vigor as if it were a measure of our civilization’s triumph… and I suppose it might be, from a certain perspective. “We don’t need to conserve fuel,” they bluster. “We have shale oil! And look at how free the car has made us, and how many jobs it creates!” But such lavish “freedom” has also made us prone to yearn for or demand frivolities—and even corrupt pleasures—with a passion out of all proportion to the worthiness of what we desire. The rebellious children of the “bring back progress” voting bloc are, of course, still more addicted to imaginary “rights”. Not having an iPhone appears to be a social injustice tantamount to slavery for some people, and catching a few scowls for sporting spiked purple hair is the equivalent of having to wear a Yellow Star. Come on, will you?
2) The cause of highest impact in our collective crisis of incivility, I’m convinced, is the Internet, in all of its “social media” ramifications. A generation of young people has now been reared without an adequate degree of integration into broader society, but seduced, instead, into artificial worlds inhabited by various “human tokens” (profiles, avatars, selfie-plated façades) that may or may not reflect faithfully the real beings projected in them. Retreat into such fraudulent communities is so general that it absolves even passers-by on a sidewalk of having to look up and say “hello” (or to avoid physical collision). It is not beyond the pale of possibility that many college students know no one in the conventional sense. Hence they haven’t learned how to suppress certain utterances that will not be of communal interest or are not cast in terms appropriate for a mature audience. Their “feelings”, naturally, are the source of whatever concern happens to consume them today; and people who do not share this concern are callous and brutal (since everyone in the online group, of course, acknowledges that each personal grievance belongs at the top of the Cosmic Crisis list).
Unfortunately, the electronic god that giveth also taketh away. A spat with an e-friend—or, Heaven forbid, disgrace before an entire e-community—can send the young person’s world into a tailspin. All is over. Life is no longer worth living: the future is sealed. Nothing remains but to pull the plug. We hear or read all too often about teens committing suicide because they have been “flamed on SM”—and the moral of every such tragic story is supposed to be that we must fight online bullying with more seminars, more “awareness”. Malefactors guilty of over-indulging their slanderous thumbs have even, I believe, been prosecuted, sometimes successfully.
Am I the only one who identifies the greater problem here, and indeed the only substantial problem, to be the “victim’s” woeful failure in developing a functional, resilient, mature ego thanks to a brief lifetime spent hypnotically before a screen’s glare?
3) I will surely be derided for volunteering this further point—and readers familiar with my “obsession” concerning the subject will likely roll their eyes… but I’m convinced that we spend far too little time in physical activity. Exercise. I could immediately ramble off the names of three or four major spokesmen for the American Right who routinely scoff at physical fitness as if it equated with some left-wing, New Age adoration of yoga or veganism. To these “philosophers”, unnecessary activity seems to imply a rejection of technological innovations like the elevator or a voice-commanded Siri or Alexa. It’s anti-free enterprise! It’s un-American! Eventually (and sooner rather than later), our rugged-individualist cream puffs are going to have to decide if they want artificially engineered organs replacing vital portions of their abused and malfunctioning bodies… or if they believe that such engineering may intrude upon the spiritual territory that they claim to hold dear. Many will work out some kind of compromise in their thoughts, which will naturally spill into their jabber within minutes; and virtually none of them will notice that, in the process, their worldview has fused with that of their enemy-unto-death, the utopian progressive.
Indeed, there may be no more graphic and more specific case of “conservative” America ideologically plunging into the swirl of young-progressive socialism and dehumanization than we find in this contempt for the body as it is—as God has given it to us: a delicate ally whose proper care and maintenance teaches us a discipline of the soul. In fact, speaking of a bridge from the internal subject to the social object… your body is a dress rehearsal for building such bridges, is it not? Yours but not yours, obeying but betraying your commands, it needs to be flattered, bullied, cajoled, and overruled at various moments so that your true intent may translate into an undistorted action. It doesn’t belong to the World Beyond… but it is the ambiguous doormat of that intimidating mansion.
Much of our present misery appears to spring from an utterly inept identification of body and soul. You are what you look like: your sex, your height, your racial or ethnic characteristics. No wonder so many young people grow suicidal when they peer into the mirror, or else struggle to maintain a false visual persona on the Internet! No wonder we all seem so preoccupied with having our DNA tested!
And then, when the verdict cannot be finessed as we would like, the gush of anxious hormones within us is responsible for our mood. Pills, bring us pills! Political Left and Right apparently select from different menus, but everyone places an order. The face in the mirror isn’t responding when we tug the reins: we must stir some magic potion into its feed. Whether you consume legal or illegal anti-depressants, however, you are addressing the cracks in your soul’s temple by hanging pictures over them.
I’ve often been shocked at the number of young people being treated in some fashion for depression. I ask them if they exercise at all—if they bike or play tennis—and the answer is always negative. The electronic black hole into which they have been sucked causes much of the paralysis, as does the broader servicing of all wants and needs by gadgetry: in other words, this crippling flaw in our culture is actively nourished by the previous two. I might add (if doing so will not make a socialist of me to eyes that see only in black and white) that Numbers One and Two above are themselves fueled by the “creative genius” of the capitalist spirit—which, while powering our mainstream like a mighty dynamo, does not appear to have found a reliable source of profit in our eternal spirit.
4) This brings me to my final culprit: the collapse of our culture’s spiritual scaffolding. I am not going to write anything so insipid as that Americans don’t attend church with their erstwhile regularity. That would be the parent’s explanation of what has happened to his child—but here I am suggesting that the parent look to his own practice. What, exactly, is this “church” whose negligence is so often cited as the reason for our degeneracy?
The contemporary American church disdains none of the digital sophistication that riddles other aspects of our life as it woos visitors—especially, yes, young visitors. The services I have observed at my son’s church (a very prosperous one) impressed me on two scores. First, the expertly manipulated lighting and the music seemed to lure participants into subjective fantasies of ecstasy normally attributable to drugs in the harsh brilliance of day. Second, the purpose or “mission” of the church was very distinctly oriented to social welfare: relief for the Dominican Republic, offerings for underprivileged school children, and recruitment of racial/ethnic minorities for the church’s membership. Not necessarily bad objectives… but when did the church become an appendage of our paternalistic central government? At what moment did this high-tech service encourage reflection—honest and intense self-examination—during a sustained silence? I witnessed various opportunities for writing checks and for feeling good with a little “go, team” fist-pumping. When was death stared in the face? Where was the message that our mortal life doesn’t really matter except as a proving ground for and a window upon the transcending life of the eternal spirit? Where was the discussion of how poverty is sometimes to be embraced, or how the gift of sympathy may be worth more than material largesse?
Such an interpretation of Christianity renders it very hard to distinguish from other varieties of collectivism—and collectivism isn’t a successful integration of self and other. It is a complete absorption, rather, of the former by the latter. Yet at the same time, “religious experience” of this order seems almost solipsistic. The other has to exist so that the self may feel worthy by serving it; and an other that needs to be waited on hand and foot like a mute paraplegic is a mere egotistical construct, not a distinct human creature who will prosper spiritually from the encounter. The term I hear frequently used to designate such clumsy gestures at social conscience is “virtue signaling”. Precisely. You’re telling the world in semaphore that you are a marvelously decent, caring person: you’re not perceiving, assessing, and addressing specific realities with respect to their full impact on your neighbor.
My son isn’t much interested in this particular church, for which I am grateful… but I’m also distressed that he may not find a better option. I have rarely succeeded in doing so myself, in our land of plenty.
Dads and Moms, if you want to know why your bouncing babes are now overturning squad cars and demanding that wealth be confiscated and redistributed, maybe it’s because of the morally bankrupt “social justice” sermons you made them sit through during their formative years. Or maybe it’s simply because they nonsensically conflate violence with peace as they struggle to find a script that projects them as concerned adults. When the chasm between self and other is negotiated with disastrous ineptitude, such whopping contradictions are not unusual.
Getting back on track is going to require effort of a kind and magnitude that seem well beyond human capacity… but through God, all things are possible. American mainstream practice is not that god, though it was once kept helpfully on the straight and narrow by a more mature spirituality.