Democracy and despotism in a digital age.
America is in the midst of a nervous breakdown.
Between the psychological damage caused by government-imposed lockdowns, the stress of an economy flirting with recession, and our increasingly acrimonious domestic politics—amplified by the social media panopticon—there is ample cause to question the state of the American psyche. In the past, our political and cultural leaders would call for toughness and stoicism in the face of adversity. Today, however, our ruling class dismisses and condemns these virtues as “toxic masculinity,” extolling, instead, displays of victimization and vulnerability.
Modern America is becoming increasingly defined by a burgeoning victimhood culture. Even athletes, once models of perseverance and resolve, are now celebrated for bowing out and choking under pressure. The champion in this event is Naomi Osaka, whose every unraveling is lauded by reporters as a bold act bringing attention to the issue of mental health in sports. A healthy society would have scorned Osaka into re-conformity with the expectations associated with her ostensible status as a world-class athlete and, in doing so, would have benefited both her and society itself.
The importance of stable cultural expectations and norms and their correlation to individual mental well-being is attested by Philip Rieff in his 1966 classic of sociology, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. Rieff distinguishes between the kinds of social “commitment therapies” that had been the norm in all traditional cultures and the individualized “analytical therapy” that is dominant today. Rieff sees cultures, at least traditional cultures, as systems for helping the individual cope with nature and society. Such cultures commanded us to suppress certain behaviors that might otherwise have been natural and instinctive, and they did so for the sake of integrating us as fully as possible into a social world:
All such systems of therapeutic control, limiting as they do the area of spontaneity, are anti-instinctual; what we mean, ordinarily, by cultures, are just these systems. We call these systems “therapeutic” because these controls are intended to preserve a certain established level of adequacy in the social functioning of the individual, as well as forestall the danger of his psychological collapse.
Accession to cultural demands is not burdensome. When a culture is vibrant, participation in it is rewarding. By willfully being brought further into the communal fold, an individual engages in a kind of gratifying moral triumph in which he overcomes the anxiety associated with the pushes and pulls of the sensuous self. As Rieff explains, when an individual is psychologically distressed, “community cures through the achievement by the individual of his collective identity,” by committing oneself “to the symbol system of the community … by whatever techniques are sanctioned (e.g., ritual or dialectical, magical or rational).”
Key to the operation of such classical “commitment therapies,” is that the process for attaining psychological health and what a specific culture see as morally good are one and the same. Participation in religious rituals both cures and purifies. Various dances, exorcisms, cleansings, and purges produce the catharsis necessary for the individual to feel whole again and, at the same time, to be re-integrated into the community of which he is a part. The Catholic practice of confession is an archetypal example of a beneficial commitment therapy. It is superficially similar to our contemporary practice of analytical therapy, and yet, by confessing his sins, the Catholic gets right both with himself and with his community through God.
Contrast this with the analytical model of therapy that began with Freud and persists in a variety of forms to the present day. In most contemporary Western societies, a set of compelling cultural norms no longer binds us. Individuals are left to their own devices in seeking out remedies for their misery, alienation, and other psychological distress. “When so little can be taken for granted, and when the meaningfulness of social existence no longer grants an inner life at peace with itself, every man must become something of a genius about himself,” Rieff explains—no easy feat.
Even when a particular individual can master the Herculean task of finding his personal pathway to equanimity, there is no guarantee doing so will leave him in a harmonious relationship with his social environment. Freud’s radical innovation, Rieff argues, was to divorce an individual’s pursuit of well-being from the pursuit of any higher aim or larger communal purpose. Well-being, then, becomes an individual project and an end in itself, which is why, after Freud, it is possible to be psychologically healthy without being morally good. In any Freudian or post-Freudian schema of psychological well-being, Rieff explains, Adolf Eichmann could have been a perfectly well-adjusted individual if his efficient discharge of facilitating the deaths of countless Jews was motivated by a normal sense of wanting to please his superiors and do a good job. By contrast, the acts of a virtuous figure such as Mother Teresa, i.e., her obsessive mission to help the dying, might have been viewed as mania or unconscious compulsion, demanding treatment.
Another problem arises when each individual is left to fend for his personal well-being in isolation and in a manner that is not necessarily linked to wider, socially sanctioned moral ends. If there is no longer a clear time, place, and manner in which we can all alleviate our troubles (as well as expiate our sins), then one individual’s approach to the pursuit of psychological wellness may strike another as offensive, inappropriate, or morally objectionable. When we no longer have clearly marked outlets for distress, many of the outlets we find are likely to distress others. When we can no longer distinguish where the public park ends and the public toilet begins, our entire public sphere turns into a cesspool. When there is no established place to offload emotional baggage, the entire public sphere begins to reek of emotional vomit.
This is how we get a culture that encourages pro athletes like Naomi Osaka to make public exhibitions of their distinctly unprofessional emotional fragility, and that encourages students and employees to have meltdowns in their classrooms and workplaces. It is how we get an epidemic of incivility driven by individuals who no longer make any effort to control their emotions and restrain their rudeness and profanity in public spaces. It is how we arrive at a juncture where the purported pursuit of happiness by some individuals, such asthose who desire to transition to a gender different from the one into which they were born, strikes others as pathological. As such, the decoupling of “well” and “good” wreaks havoc on our ability to issue society-wide prescriptions to which we can expect an overwhelming majority to accede.
There is a substantial social cost for all of us when emotional displays in the public sphere are no longer regulated. It is impossible to maintain an orderly and productive classroom or workplace when anything one says might offend someone’s sense of propriety, derailing the discussion or interaction. Still more problematic is that when there is no longer a predominant cultural nomos that governs our conduct, we no longer have the moral authority to correct or discipline those who step out of line.
What was truly shocking about the notorious Yale shrieker video was that Nicholas Christakis—the Yale professor and administrator who was the object of Jerelyn Luther’s profane tantrum—stood by and did nothing as a student yelled at him to “be quiet” and berated him. Adding insult to injury, Christakis was thereafter essentially forced to resign from his administrative position at Yale, while shrieker Jerelyn Luther went on to graduate and proceed to Columbia Law School, where she has since been honored with a “diversity fellowship,” commemorated by a Tweet from the law school itself.
It is the job of cultural elites, Rieff argues, to transmit a culture’s system of moral demands. When authority figures no longer have the stomach to exercise their authority, and when powerful institutions act to enable transgressors instead of punishing them, a culture is near or at the stage of collapse. Understood in this light, our crisis in mental health goes far deeper than Covid, social media, or any transitory political tremors, whether domestic or foreign. It goes to the very heart of our continued viability as a culture. It is not just individuals among us who have grown out of sync and have become afflicted by a psychic and spiritual malaise for which they can find no obvious cure. The damage is civilizational.
Turning back the clock on our creeping malaise is no easy task, but it is necessary if we hope to rescue the nation—and its children—from total disintegration. It must be possible to restore respect for authority without succumbing to authoritarianism and to instill a sense of cultural shame and standards without trying to model society on an imaginary Golden Age. It must begin with families and schools, with our silent majority — those who still believe in our longstanding ethos of dignity and stoicism in the face of adversity — to come together and respond with strength that commands respect in the face of our cultural elites’ insistence on absurd and sanctimonious displays of weakness threatening to bring us as individuals and as a society to our knees.
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