Thought is the attempt to understand the good, beautiful, and true in an orderly way. Man is naturally reasonable and oriented toward those things, so it’s a normal part of life. Even so, it depends on conditions that may not be present. It requires calmness and steadiness of attention, a world that is understood as stable and meaningful, and a willingness to let truth rather than desire or power be the guide.
Those conditions may disappear, so thought cannot be taken for granted as a presence in social life. That can cause problems, because it’s hard to carry it on ourselves when it’s absent from the world around us. We can’t pursue the good, beautiful, and true effectively without discussing them with others who join with us in the pursuit, and share enough expectations, beliefs, and memories to “speak the same language.” That’s how issues develop and come into focus, and traditions of inquiry and action grow up that accumulate insights and bring them into a usable system.
Today the conditions that support thought are being destroyed, often intentionally. Calmness and steadiness of attention are constantly disrupted by electronic communications. That’s partly our own fault, since we are addicted to distraction, but partly the fault of institutions and the PR men, propagandists, advertisers, and spin doctors they employ to keep us confused and pliable. It’s also due to the setting in which public life is carried on. Marshall MacLuhan thought the electronic media would bring us a global village. Instead they’ve brought a global mob. A village has an informal structure and way of life that’s evolved to work for its members, so it’s capable of good sense. A mob doesn’t and isn’t. That’s why what’s called public discussion today so often resembles a lynching.
To make matters worse, accepted understandings are shifting in a way that makes thought pointless. To say that the world is stable and meaningful in some determinable way is now considered fundamentalist. It’s like saying my answer is right and yours is wrong, and if you disagree you have to be silenced. Such claims threaten a public order based on a conception of freedom that tells us, in the Supreme Court’s words, that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” So they must themselves be silenced.
Abolishing stable and determinable meanings has further consequences. It means that the interpretation of the world that becomes the basis of social cooperation, and so is authoritatively treated as true, is a human construction for human purposes. The result is that power in the service of desire becomes the source of what must be treated as reality. If the powers that be decide “gender” must be treated as a social construction or personal determination that’s what it is, so if Bradley Manning says he’s Chelsea Manning it must be so. To disagree, to say that things are what they are without regard to political considerations, is to reject Choice, Change, and Hope, or so it is thought, in favor of the perpetuation of traditional stereotypes and power relations.
As to tradition, today’s outlook opposes it in principle. It wants all rules to be explicit, universal, and demonstrable, while tradition tells us what to do without fully explaining why. Also, traditions are of various kinds. Specialized inquiries can be supported by special-purpose traditions, like the sociological tradition, but thought that deals with the whole of life requires a tradition that does the same. An overall tradition of living, though, is always the particular culture of a particular people, and as such involves boundaries and loyalties that don’t include everybody. Such traditions are now considered exclusionary, oppressive, and almost certainly racist. It follows, from the current point of view, that all particular traditions and cultures must be eradicated, or at least made nonfunctional and merely decorative, a matter of ethnic cuisine and holiday customs. People should get their serious ideas about what’s what and how to live from expert professionals who claim to base their assertions on neutral science.
Where do all these tendencies come from, and why do they persist? There are many sources, and I can only mention some of them.
One cause is the radical flattening of social life. Market and state are the only institutions recognized as authoritative today. All others have been absorbed into them or done away with, at least as a practical matter. The academy is becoming a business or a colony of the state. Church and family are viewed as private associations, the nature and value of which are wholly determined by the individual goals of their participants. The result is that public discussion reduces more and more to the terms most readily understandable by the two public authorities left standing: money and force, what can be bought and what can be legally imposed. More complex and subtle concerns drop out of the picture.
Another is that nobody influential really wants people to think. Why should they, when thought makes life complicated for those at the top? The media want entertainment addicts who are easy marks for advertisers. Politicians want an electorate willing to support men and measures that are dubious at best. And the education industry wants to turn out useful workers, compliant citizens, consumers who make harmless choices, and “critical thinkers” who simply accept whatever officially recognized experts tell them.
Another cause of the rejection of thought is that it sticks up for itself, so it’s elitist and exclusionary. It claims its own authority, refuses to get with the program, and relies on particular viewpoints and traditions, so it’s anti-democratic and even antisocial. And besides, it notices patterns and comes to conclusions that are sometimes troublesome. For such reasons it can have no public existence in a democratic society that makes inclusion and celebration of diversity its supreme standards. In such a society we have to avoid distinctions and watch what we say, and we won’t do that adequately unless we watch what we think.
The result of all these tendencies is that thought is disappearing, even among its official custodians. To verify the point, consider any number of recent controversies, for example the flap among respected journalists regarding the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Also consider the irrationalism of much academic discussion in the humanities, which reduces disputes to rhetorical expressions of the will to power, and the willful philistine ignorance of many prominent natural scientists who want to advise us on matters such as philosophy and theology.
So what should we do, if we want to retain our humanity and escape growing mindlessness? What’s needed, it seems, is withdrawal from the network of distractions that surrounds us, recognition of principles higher than desire and success, and an overriding loyalty to institutions that are independent of market and state, refuse to make utility, efficiency, and equality their supreme standards, and have an essential orientation toward the good, beautiful, and true.
Those institutions prominently include Church, family, and the academy as traditionally conceived. Since they are independent and oriented toward goods that transcend money and power, they are in a position to provide an independent forum for disinterested consideration of basic issues, and give people a dignity and self-confidence that does not depend on career. That is why issues such as religious freedom, the nature and status of the family, and political correctness in the academy have been central to the culture war.
That struggle is one aspect of the current tendency to reduce the whole of human life to a single system based on global commerce, bureaucratic administration, careerism, consumerism, and maximum equal preference satisfaction as a supreme ethical standard. Other social principles are considered irrational and disruptive, so they have to go. Everybody has to get on board with the effort, since opposition would debunk its claim to create a system of freedom that gives everyone what he wants, so thought has to go as well. And that, at bottom, is what we are seeing around us.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared May 8, 2015 in the Catholic World Report and is reprinted with permission.