I have changed my mind a great deal on these matters since I committed to writing about them. Here, I think about the cultural trends indicated by some of these things.
Slight spoilers, below, for the show The Expanse.
I have been in an education program (to become a certified public school teacher) for what seems like forever now — starting around five years ago, and interrupted, for two years, by COVID. I took a year off at the start because nearly all of the classes seemed like culty circles for vague and sometimes hysterical notions of social justice that struck me as unhinged. I recognize that there is great injustice in society, and that there are many legacy effects of racism, and that these matter. I am not sure that the social justice crowd, at the storm-trooper level, has a good theoretical armature on which to rest any kind of emoting or insurrection, or a very clear (much less unified) notion of a causal pathway between what they do in the classroom and any kind of political or cultural outcome. I suppose that such is the case for any crowd these days. In the training programs which I’ve seen in the public schools, I have not seen them achieve any kind of increase in genuine understanding and sensitivity; I have only seen people recalibrate which parties and mascots they are to affirm and give allegiance. It doesn’t affect their salary, doesn’t require any sensitivity on their part, it only affects what is taboo, only affects which paraphernalia they put on their cars, which verbal gestures they offer. I am rather skeptical about the prospects of this movement. The only people who seem to benefit unambiguously are the stakeholders of reactionary semi-conservative movements who get to rant about how “critical race theory” and “Marxism” are supposedly infiltrating our schools. (Adults can barely talk coherently about CRT or Marxism, whether pro or con; do you really think these have a deep effect on the schools, which have standardized tests to worry about?)
It didn’t really occur to me what was happening behind all of this until recently.
The insight occurred in class last semester. One of the activities that was being suggested was to rewrite or inscribe ourselves on the stories we read. (Harry Potter re-written so that, say, Ron is Harry’s love interest, &c.).
It struck me that this reflects a kind of fundamental exhaustion, culturally. We have nothing new to say, no shared vision that could inspire and unify us along a common goal.
We see this in Hollywood, with the endless reboots. We see it in the scouring of books to turn into streaming shows. Game of Thrones is more realpolitik shock porn than anything else. Even The Expanse (also sourced from books) offers a plausible prediction of fragmentation in the near future, rather than a story we could tell ourselves to unite and inspire us. The stories we tell are usually like Reacher or Outlander: fun, but an escape, and not even necessarily insightful, if even accurate. They are, at best, time-bound, speculative, and tendentious.
This is the case with the social justice crowd, no less than the conservative crowd. Kids’ shows may be a good example of the economically-driven cultural fragmentation through social differentiation. There are things that may, at first, resemble exceptions to this from a social justice take, like Netflix’s The Dragon Prince. That show expresses many of the ideals of the social justice crowd. It is, however, still entertainment.
What is missing, culturally, is any notion of a shared goal, anything that could unite us, any story that could gather the many together into one, in a shared project. —and it is not clear what such a thing could be that would arise organically, rather than be imposed from without.
In The Expanse, the Martians have something like this, generated by shared need. They need to turn Mars into a habitable, flourishing place. Everyone is working, in some fashion, to achieve this goal, particularly in light of the military might of Earth. It is a matter of survival, and a dream of thriving, of a garden. This goal unites all Martians. Then the ring gates open, people can travel through them to distant planets that do not need enormous, coördinated efforts to become habitable and flourishing, and the imperative to labor together is gone, and the cohesion of Martian society is lost, and the culture falls apart.
“Domestic cozy.” We all seem to want not to generate some grand cultural project. We’re too tired. There is no shared horizon. We have lost a shared sky. Instead, we want to have a living room. We settle for that. The stars of any sky are not visible because we only see the ceiling of our domestic interiors. We want every group to have their own cozy space. There are no more rules for shared space; there are no universals that could provide them. There are only local rules, only house rules. We cannot negotiate with other houses, other domestic spaces. So to speak, there are only subreddits, and moderators of subreddits. There is simply, in lieu of a grand cultural project (like Christendom, or Islam, or the Martians of The Expanse), just a proliferation of identities, and living rooms (safe spaces) for these identities. Echo chambers. These spaces metastasize.
Intimacy is only within such spaces, or within a coalition of such spaces.
We cannot go back to older universals (even if the older universals —like our heritage from Christendom— have a defining power over our shared space and our secularized aspirations), but there is a problem, here, since we have no available universal on the horizon that could unite and coordinate a shared public space. In the absence of the universal, in the wake of “the death of God”, we are left in a place of exhaustion, where little houses make house rules, and militate against anyone who will not honor their house flags as being just as worthy as all other house flags.
For all of its ambitious statements about justice and truth, I suspect that the social justice movement fits within this trend, which explains why it is so factious. It fits this trend, all while dressing up some kluge of various house rules as universal statements, and the reactionary right wants to pretend that this is not where we are, that there is still an older universal that is universal.
Maybe it is eschatological; maybe there is some other horizon that is presently concealed from us.
Header image found here.