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Frustration in Modern Society

thinking1Frustrated?  Anxious?  Busy?  Angry?  Exhausted?  Welcome to modernity.  The modern psychic condition is distraught, distressed, frayed at the edges.  A crisis may loom around every corner.  We await the next occasion in which our nerve ends snap.  What’s gone wrong?  How has modernity failed us?  I have more possible answers than I have time to propose them.  Let me suggest a few.

Amidst our relentless modern pluralism, it’s not hard to be confused.  There can be a dominant tension between what we do and what we think we ought to do.  So many problems; so many complex solutions.  So much theory, so little time to digest it.  We can stall in theoretical fog.

We face numerous alternatives, a smorgasbord of cultural points of view, a potpourri of opportunities.  The modern revolution has given us whole new takes on science, thought, politics, economics, sociology and religion.  We’ve left the traditional world far behind.  We’re faced with the often very stark differences between tradition and modernity.  One consequence of our embrace of the modern revolution is the lost habit of engaging that difference.

Among the alternatives facing us is the opportunity to abandon our traditional identity.  We can now live entirely free from our own history.  A handy habit if there are aspects of our past about which we harbour a sense of guilt.  The memory wash seems to suggest that we can wipe the moral slate clean of our past indiscretions.  We can trade it for the chance to create a new identity: innovative, progressive, guilt-bound no longer.  But creating an altogether new identity is a daunting task.  We begin as actors unsure of our parts.

Most helpful to our psyches in this state of opportunistic void, it seems to me, is at least the possibility of a conversation with tradition.  We can consider what such an exchange might tell us about compatibility or difference, or indeed about ourselves.

I suggest we can ‘lose’ our modernity in two ways.  One way is to discover what lingers in our modern thinking that actually reaches back to pre-modern times.  When we look back to a time before the revolution swept away all before it, what can strike us is the continuing relevance of past ideas and experience, despite the modern habit of dismissing them.  Another way we can ‘lose’ our modernity is to view it through a critical lens, as if a newfound discontent with it sets us at least temporarily outside of its sometimes inescapable and unquestioned influence.  We can change the monologue of modernity into a dialogue with tradition.

Thanks in large part to the 17th-century French philosopher René Descartes who was very committed to thinking for himself, the modern sense of self is rather intensely self-absorbed.  Added to this is the fact that the democratic revolution and its code of rights has released the hounds of individualism.  We seem to be awash in freedoms that were unavailable to us in the hierarchy of the old order.  Many of us don’t want to go back.  We can keep the remnants of our history safe and silent in a glass case where it can’t mock or trouble us – or so we think.

In carrying on independently of and separate from our own inheritance, even our own community, we leave behind what represents the wisdom of the ages prior to our modernity.  On our side of the democratic, scientific and philosophical revolution we inhabit a strikingly different ‘worldview’ than our predecessors.  So we have replaced a perhaps naively embraced conservative and communal ethic with an ethic that presents itself as subjective, inventive and utterly pluralist.

This ethic is an aspect of modernity that has indeed released a lot of remarkable energy.  Lest we flounder in the freedom of our unlimited possibility, however, we have available to us traditional voices that have much to tell us.  Without abandoning our modern world and what strikes us as helpful and even exciting about it, we owe it to ourselves to have the conversation with our own past.

This two-sided psychic space has oftentimes been referred to as ‘post-modern.’  By uttering the word, we indicate that we are leaving the confines of the modern world and taking ourselves to a psychic space that begins to reframe our history and discover our real uniqueness.

Don’t get me wrong.  We’ve made considerable technological progress that indeed makes many of our lives seem easier and better.  I’m pleased about the rights revolution.  I’m no monarchist.  But my rights don’t give me my identity.  Let me repeat that: my rights do not give me my identity.  They identify me with the commonality rather than with my uniqueness or eccentricity.  That I can only discover by digging underneath the slick confines of so much modern sociological theory.  If all politics is local, so, ultimately, is all culture, community and identity.  A more beneficial view of post-modernity would take us back to the abidingly personal realms of community, neighbourhood, family and personal character.

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Travelling Through Trumpland

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor refers in his book The Sources of the Self to the ‘affirmation of ordinary life.’  He sees it as a central facet of our modernity.  The phenomenon, he argues, is in part a consequence of modernity’s break with hierarchy, tradition, and elites.

Psychologists argue that the need for affirmation is elemental.  This need is captured by the term ‘confirmation bias’ as Daniel Kahneman uses it in his recent bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow.  We have an elemental need, or automatic inclination, the argument goes, to gather evidence that we are ‘right’ in our preconceived notions of what is actual or true – no matter how far-fetched our predispositions happen to be.  But, with no objective standard by which to measure the accuracy of our views, we are playing a solipsistic game.  The gains in psychological confidence to which we aspire will be forever frustratingly fleeting.  We create our own continuous need.

Adding to our frustration is that fact that our secular society makes affirmation particularly difficult.  There are no stationary standards.  Someone always moves the goal posts.  This year’s good enough is next year’s also ran.  We can present ourselves in the latest fashion in order to make us feel trendy.  We can root for the home team in the hopes that they will win the big prize.  We can vote for a party that may just form the next government.  But with no objective standard by which to measure such supposed achievements, our gains in psychological status don’t materialize.  Well, there’s always next year…

These days we greet this need for affirmation nowhere more directly than in the relations that the new American President cultivates with his loyal followers.  As has been much remarked, the need on the part of the President and his followers to be ‘right’ is wholly irrational.  His tweets and sound bites prompt immediate reactions of anger, grievance, resentment and blame.  The President’s every nod to the predicament of his supportive audience is a recognition that he feels their pain.  (I feel their pain too, but I don’t get any credit for it, because I’m not the President.)

In truth, the sympathy conjured up by such affirming gestures (either real or feigned) can be a powerful elixir for what ails you.  The American election result, frequently supposedly to have been achieved against all odds, attests to this.  Thank goodness for the needs of his loyal followers that the President also happens to be a relentless tweeter.  The appearance of continuous attention serves to help massage the sense of continuing grievance.  It scratches the constant itch.

The problem with ‘confirmation bias,’ however, and the constant need for affirmation – apart from the constant feeling of failure in successfully addressing it – is that it is short on self-awareness.  Here the voice of the classical Greek philosopher Socrates and his bias towards the ‘examined life’ would recommend that we pause in our footsteps.  His Greek self-awareness is built on both an intimate and thorough reckoning of our own circumstances and a recognition of our own character.

What would make us so empty that we feel the need for constant affirmation?  What personal void are we wanting to fill?  Things should have turned out better for us?  What boat did we fail to board?  What flight did we miss?  Charles Taylor’s response to this gnawing and persistent sense of grievance in a recent interview on the CBC’s ‘The Sunday Edition’ with Michael Enright is ‘citizen efficacy.’  Its loss, the feeling that there is nothing we can do to improve our circumstances, is the source of a widespread modern feeling of helplessness and despair.

Its partial cure, he claims, at least as he admits in his own case, is political activism.  One voice of grievance meets another in empathy until a critical mass is born, and a change in social circumstance and effect is achieved.  Meanwhile, the demands of such involving and committed work leave the need for ‘confirmation bias’ way behind.  The affirmation is in the activity itself.  The frustrating and overly passive habit of a thousand daily tweets is a world away.

So here’s to the socially committed.  Consider this your affirmation, a need which you will shortly have no need to placate as you work with spirit and verve toward the world you want and away from the world of endless tweets and a stasis that looked for a moment as if it had no chance.