At the Heart of It All
life is not kind, the world is not safe
I’m currently reading this lovely oral history of Dazed and Confused, one of my all-time favorite movies. The cast and crew, at one point, reflect on the fact that there’s some real darkness in the film, concerning the way the teenagers treat each other. There’s a sense floating around in the text that this behavior wouldn’t fly today - in practice in the late 1970s or in depiction in the early 1990s. The world has changed.
But of course the world has not changed, not from the way things were in the 90s nor from the 70s, in most important ways. And one way that the world has not changed is that young people still treat each other with casual brutality that stems from the intense self-loathing that powers bullying, the awkwardness of our bodies and selves at that age, and the relentless jockeying for social rank endemic to high school. The vocabulary has changed, and there may be certain new kinds of plausible deniability built in to what were once more nakedly brutal practices. (More naked and thus more honest.) But I promise you that every single day high school students are absolutely savage to each other. What’s more, human nature being what it is, I’m sure that they now do so explicitly utilizing the politicized and therapeutic language that proponents of social justice norms foolishly assume is an antidote to that bad behavior. Because interpersonal cruelty is a universal aspect of the human condition and any philosophy can be bent to its use. This condition can perhaps at times be ameliorated but it can never be eliminated and learning this reality is an important part of growing up. Cruelty is here to stay.
What today’s social justice politics ask for is a world that’s nice, a world that’s safe for everyone all the time. And of course this is impossible. The nice world is never coming. Yes, we need to work to make the world a more equitable and humane place. There are certain areas in that domain where progress is possible. But to say, as many now do, that we need to eliminate bullying, or even eliminate microaggressions, is no less fantastical than saying we need to build spaceships to take us away from this fallen earth. You may as well say we need to eliminate greed or jealousy; these things are part of the basic emotional endowment of being human. People hurt each other out of malice, true, and always will, but much more often they hurt each other because we are clumsy and insensitive creatures by our nature. And our efforts in that regard have consequences. For example, the lab leak hypothesis was forbidden for months largely because it was said that one of the consequences of it being true might be racism against the Chinese. And so a potential truth was traded for the impossible dream of a kind Earth. I think it is fair to say that anti-Chinese racism survived that conspiracy of silence. We make compromises and sacrifices, every day, for this newly mandated, futile effort to make the world nice. We must be allowed to debate them.
No one is against the abstract notion of protection from harm. That effort, in and of itself, is noble. But what we have arrived at now in progressive politics is a grotesque exaggeration of our moral duty to one another, a funhouse mirror version of what it means to be a caring and supportive society. We make promises we can’t possibly keep about protecting the vulnerable and in so doing reduce all who suffer from (the trendy kinds of) injustice to impossibly weak and eternally fragile wards of our benevolence. We speak of ending micro injustice not despite the fact that the macro version spins on all around us but because it does, because we cannot face up to the sheer vast scale of what we will never be able to fix. And in all of this useless effort we have completely evacuated our shared societal vision of two of the most essential elements of being a person: forgiveness and resilience. These are indispensable values in a human world defined by human weakness, but they are inconvenient to those whose personal and professional best interest lies in pretending that human life is perfectible.
You find yourself in life when, under pressures and pain that should break you, you don’t even cry out in pain. Now we tell young people that crying out is their only way to express agency in this world, that crying out is how to be important and special. We have robbed the gift of the inviolable self from a generation in exchange for the promise of a frictionless world we will never, ever be able to give them.
At the heart of human society is a negotiation between safety and freedom. If there is no safety, it’s not a society; if there is no freedom, it’s not human. Deciding the right balance is the basic stuff of politics. Reasonable people can reasonably disagree about how to negotiate one over the other, but they cannot disagree about the fact that it is and must remain a negotiation. My problem is not just that the forces of social justice have decided that we must choose safety over freedom over and over again, that they have put their thumb so firmly on the scale that they advocate for a world where any perceived harm, no matter how small, is always seen as a justification for demanding that everyone else give up some freedom. My problem is that they don’t want all of us to get to take part in the choosing. If you favor freedom over safety, they will call you an abuser, a gaslighter, a misogynist, a fascist, a white supremacist; they will try to divest you of your job, your friends, and your reputation - which of course is an imposition of their “safety” onto your freedom. The fundamentally dishonest nature of the social justice conversation is that its advocates refuse to grapple with the fact that they don’t advocate for anything but demand everything. They seek to do with power what we are trying to do with discourse. But this conflict is inherent and eternal and all of their political and economic and social power can’t stop them from having to live with the inevitable communal demand for freedom that will eventually arise. For all of their privileges they do not enjoy the privilege of hiding from this war.
The forces of reaction do not need to win for your meticulously crafted fortresses of therapeutic language and HR politics to fall. Chaos alone will do that. Are you giving the next generation the emotional tools they need to survive when they do?
The world is harsh and lonely and we learn only through pain. But, if we are allowed to, we do learn. You can grow to endure this world better than you did before, but you will always be battered, every single day and for the rest of your life. You can resolve to be a helper, a healer, a friend, but you can’t save anyone else, as human life is not about being saved. We as a species are muddling along, wounded but alive, as tough as we allow ourselves to be, and as the woman said, all beyond saving by children.