If you step back and think about it, the normal man can probably list a dozen things he cannot say in public that he grew up hearing on television, usually as jokes. Then the jokes were no longer welcome in polite company and soon they were deemed “not funny” by the sorts of people who worry about such things. The same was true of simple observations about the world. Somehow noticing the obvious became impolite, then it became taboo and finally prohibited.
The reverse is true as well. Middle-aged men can probably think of a dozen things that were unimaginable or unheard of, which are now fully normal. Of course, normal is one of those things that is now prohibited. It implies that something can be abnormal or weird and that itself is forbidden. The proliferation of novel identities and activities that demand to be treated with dignity and respect is a function of the old restraints having been eliminated. When everything is possible you get everything.
The strange thing about all of this is there is seemingly no point to it. The proliferation of new taboos was not in response to some harm being done. In most cases, the taboos are about observable reality. The people turning up in the public square with novel identities or activities demanding respect did not exist very long ago. If they did, not one was curious enough to look into it. The public was happy to ignore people into unusual activities, as long as they kept it to themselves.
Of course, none of what we generally call political correctness is intended to be uplifting or inspirational. The commissars of public morality like to pretend it is inspiring, but that’s just a way to entertain themselves. These new identity groups are not demanding the rest of us seek some higher plane of existence or challenge our limitations. In fact, it is always in the opposite directions. It’s a demand to lower standards and give up on our quaint notions of self-respect and human dignity.
In the Demon In Democracy, Polish academic Ryszard Legutko observed that liberal democracy had abandoned the concept of dignity. This is the obligation to behave in a certain way, as determined by your position in society. Dignity was earned by acting in accordance with the high standards of the community. In turn, this behavior was rewarded with greater privilege and responsibility. Failure to live up to one’s duties would result in the loss of dignity, along with the status it conferred.
Instead, modern liberal democracy awards dignity by default. We are supposed to respect all choices and all behaviors as being equal. There are no standards against which to measure human behavior, other than the standard of absolute, unconditional acceptance. As a result, the most inventively degenerate and base activities spring from the culture, almost like a test of the community’s tolerance. Instead of looking up to the heavens for inspiration, liberal democracies look down in the gutter.
Dignity comes from maintaining one’s obligations to his position in the social order, but that requires a fidelity to a social order. It also requires a connection to the rest of the people in the society. In a world of deracinated individuals focused solely on getting as much as they can in order to maximize pleasure, a sense of commitment to the community is not possible. Democracy assumes we are all equal, therefore we have no duty to one another as duty requires a hierarchical relationship.
In the absence of a vertical set of reciprocal relationships, we get this weird lattice work of horizontal relationships, elevating the profane and vulgar, while pulling down the noble and honorable. The public culture is about minimizing and degrading those who participate in the public culture. In turn, the public culture attracts only those who cannot be shamed or embarrassed. The great joy of public culture is to see those who aspire to more get torn down as the crowd roars at their demise.
The puzzle is why this is a feature of liberal democracy. Ryszard Legutko places the blame on Protestantism. Their emphasis on original sin and man’s natural limitations minimized man’s role in the world. This focus on man’s wretchedness was useful in channeling our urge to labor and create into useful activities, thus generating great prosperity, but it left us with a minimalist view of human accomplishment. We are not worthy to aspire to anything more than the base and degraded.
It is certainly true that the restraints of Christianity limited the sorts of behavior that are common today, but he may be putting the cart before the horse. The emergence of Protestantism in northern Europe was as much a result of the people and their nature as anything else. Put more simply, the Protestant work ethic existed before there was such a thing as a Protestant. The desire to work and delay gratification evolved over many generations out of environmental necessity.
Still, culture is an important part of man’s environment and environmental factors shape our evolution. It is not unreasonable to say that the evolution of Protestant ethics magnified and structured naturally occurring instincts among the people. With the collapse of Christianity as a social force in the West, the natural defense to degeneracy and vulgarity has collapsed with it. As a result, great plenty is the fuel for a small cohort of deviants to overrun the culture of liberal democracies.
Even so, there does seem to be something else. Liberal democracy has not produced great art or great architecture. The Greeks and Romans left us great things that still inspire the imagination of the man who happens to gaze upon them. The castles and cathedrals of the medieval period still awe us. The great flourishing of liberal democracy in the 20th century gave us Brutalism and dribbles of pain on canvas. The new century promises us primitives exposing themselves on the internet.
There is something about the liberal democratic order that seeks to strip us of our dignity and self-respect. Look at what happened in the former Eastern Bloc countries after communism. Exposed to the narcotic of liberalism they immediately acquired the same cultural patterns. Fertility collapsed. Religion collapsed. Marriage and family formation collapsed. These suddenly free societies got the Western disease as soon as they were exposed to western liberal democracy.
The reaction we see today is not due to these societies being behind the times, but due to seeing the ugly face of liberal democracy. It is much like the reaction to the proliferation of recreational drugs in the 1970’s. At first, it seemed harmless, but then people realized the horror of unrestrained self-indulgence. That’s what we see in the former Eastern Bloc. Their leaders still retain some of the old sense of things and are trying to save their people from the dungeon of modernity.
That still leaves us with the unanswered question. What is it about liberal democracy that seems to lead to this loss of dignity? It is possible that such a fabulously efficient system for producing wealth is a tool mankind is not yet equipped to handle without killing ourselves. Maybe we are just not built for anything but scarcity. Want gives us purpose and without it, we lose our reason to exist. Either way, without dignity, we cannot defend ourselves and the results are inevitable.
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