For quite some time now I’ve been mulling over how to talk about one of the strangest features of our era—the way that certain very simple kinds of reasoning have abruptly dropped out of use among precisely those prosperous, well-educated, well-informed people whom you might expect to cling to them no matter what. Fortunately a trio of chance-read articles handed me what I think is the thread that runs through this particular labyrinth. My longtime readers will probably already have guessed that the articles in question are an odd assortment, and indeed they are—a closely reasoned essay by a philosopher in a highbrow magazine, a blog post by a lesbian theology student, and a harrowing account on a social media forum by a young woman who watched her boyfriend descend into a very peculiar kind of madness—but taken together, they point to one of the least recognized and most crucial features of the crisis of our time.
Let’s start with the philosopher, Alan Jacobs, whose essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus” appeared in The New Atlantis two years ago but only came to my attention last week. Among the many virtues of this essay is a fine description, neatly set out, of the kind of collapse of reasoning I have in mind. Jacobs writes:
“I should probably translate this into the first person, because I am in part describing an experience I had three years ago when Ta-Nehisi Coates published his celebrated Atlantic essay ‘The Case for Reparations.’ Talking with some friends on Twitter, I said that I thought the essay made an overwhelmingly powerful case for the ongoing destructive consequences of the era of slavery and its aftermath in Jim Crow laws and beyond — but also that Coates never actually got around to making a case for reparations as the best way of addressing this tragic situation. What I heard from my friends was, ‘You’re denying the reality of racism.’ And nothing I said thereafter could shake my friends’ conviction that I had simply rejected Coates’s essay tout court.”
At least in theory, it’s not that hard to think one’s way through the distinction between ends and means, between describing a goal and suggesting a way of getting there, or between agreeing that something is very wrong and accepting that a given program is the best way to fix it. Jacobs’ friends apparently couldn’t manage these relatively simple acts of thought. What makes his account so telling is that so many of us have similar stories on offer these days.
The comparable story in my case, the one that convinced me that something had gone very, very wrong in the collective thinking of our time, came in the months after the election of Donald Trump. Faced with the awkward fact that millions of Americans had embraced Trump’s candidacy, a great many of those who voted against him insisted that the people who voted for him must all have been racists. It didn’t matter that this bit of liberal hate speech was childishly easy to disprove; it didn’t matter that plenty of people far more influential than I will ever be discussed in detail the issues that led voters to gamble that a Trump presidency would be less disastrous for them, their families, and their communities than four more years of the failed bipartisan consensus he overturned; it didn’t even matter that the upper Midwest demographics that gave Trump the presidency were exactly the same demographics that put Barack Obama into the White House eight years before.
If you pointed these things out to people who parroted the “they’re-just-racists” line—and yes, I did this rather more than once, online and off—what you got back (or at least what I got back) was the famous thousand-mile stare of the true believer, followed by a repetition of the same canned talking point you were trying to challenge. Nor did it do any good to point out that the Democrats needed to win back the very voters they were dismissing as racists if they wanted to keep Trump from being reelected in 2020, and yelling a provably false insult at these same voters was not going to further that cause. When I did that, the response I got was, you guessed it, another thousand-mile stare, followed by another repetition of the canned talking point. It was all frankly rather eerie to watch.
In his essay, Jacobs offers what I think is an accurate diagnosis of what’s behind the weird paralogic on display in this sort of interaction. Drawing on the ideas of the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, he suggests that very broadly speaking there are two ways of making sense of the world—two cores, in Kolakowski’s terminology—that play crucial roles in every human society, including ours. One of them is the mythical core, the other the technological core. (That latter term is to my mind almost wilfully perverse, as technology is far and away the most common theme of modern mythological thinking, but that’s the label Kolakowski chose.) The technological core is the set of behaviors and understandings that enable us to manipulate the world; the mythical core, by contrast, is the set of behaviors and understandings that reach back toward the nonrational roots of human experience.
Jacobs’ suggestion is that a great many people these days have lost track of the “technological core” and are thinking entirely from within the “mythical core.” From that mythical mode of thinking, such practical considerations as distinguishing between a problem and a solution, much less figuring out why someone voted the way they did and finding ways to get them to change their minds, never enter the picture. Jacobs points out that “woke” culture on campus and elsewhere relies instead on archaic mythological concepts of defilement and taboo. Wrong opinions and the people who hold them must be excluded from the community, because they carry so terrible a miasma that all who come too close to them risk becoming accursed: that’s the logic of “safe spaces” and the flight from “triggering.”
I think Jacobs is quite correct in this diagnosis. To take the discussion further, though, it’s going to be necessary to revisit some of the ideas he borrowed from Kolakowski, and seek an understanding of myth and reason in modern society that’s at once more nuanced and less limited than the one Kolakowski offers.
Let’s start with the mythic side of the equation. What exactly is a myth? The Greek word μυθος, muthos, originally just meant “narration,” and only later took on the sense of the narratives that matter: the stories that tell us where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. The root meaning remains central: a myth is a story. It has characters, a setting, and a plot; as Mark Twain said of all good stories, it goes somewhere and does something—and where it goes and what it does are central to its function in human life.
When you were a small child, dear reader, did a parent read the same story to you at bedtime, night after night? If so, you experienced mythology in its native habitat. The repetition of familiar stories is a central part of childraising in most if not all human societies, because it’s from these stories that children absorb crucial attitudes and values concerning the personal, social, and natural worlds they inhabit. These stories, in turn, don’t communicate these things in a rational, discursive way. They communicate, rather, through imaginative participation. Children—and adults, too!—who are caught up in a story experience the events of the story in the first person; the struggles and sorrows of the protagonists are their struggles and sorrows, too, and the triumphs likewise; they absorb, through the participatory experience of the tale, insights into what it means to be human that can be caught in no other way.
That’s one side of the equation. Let’s go on by discarding Kolakowski’s misleading use of the term “technological,” and refer to the other side of the equation as the pragmatic side. Where the mythic mode of human experience is participatory, the pragmatic mode is instrumental; it’s the mode we use when we want to make things happen, to act on the world rather than participating in what it happens to be doing. Watch a bird fly past when you’re thinking in the mythic mode and you can participate in the sense of soaring freedom the sight brings you; watch the same bird fly past when you’re thinking in the pragmatic mode, and you start trying to figure out how wings work.
If I understand Kolakowski correctly—and I’m quite willing to accept correction here if I’m wrong—he saw his two cores as distinct. By and large, you approach the world through one or the other. Like his use of the term “technological,” this seems misguided to me, for a simple but profound reason. The pragmatic mode can tell you how to so something but it can’t tell you what to do. It can teach you how wings work, but it wasn’t the pragmatic mode that inspired the Wright brothers to build their pioneering airplanes; it was the dream of flight that came from the participatory experience of watching birds on the wing and brooding over narratives in which human beings did the same thing. Means and methods come from the pragmatic mode of experience, but ends and goals and values come entirely from the mythic mode.
That’s a controversial claim, I know. Most people in the industrial world these days insist heatedly that they don’t believe in myths, and proceed to use the word “myth” exclusively to refer to narratives in which they themselves don’t believe. Yet it doesn’t take all that much effort to learn how to read the mythic narratives that people nowadays use to give meaning, direction, and value to their lives: sometimes in productive ways, sometimes not.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, a school of psychologists known as transactional analysts came up with a narrative approach to neurosis and personality disorders. The very simple version of the story is that they found that people with psychological problems were living out self-defeating scripts: narratives of which the patients themselves were not conscious, but which exerted a potent gravitational attraction on their interactions with other people. If the patients became conscious of the scripts they were acting out, the spell was broken and they could learn less dysfunctional ways of facing life. Transactional analysis fell out of favor once the pharmaceutical industry got its present stranglehold over the healing professions, but its findings remain telling testimony of the power of narrative to shape values and goals in its own image.
Most of us have less problematic relationships with the narratives that shape our lives. We may or may not have a firm conscious grasp what those narratives are, but we know what we value and what gives our lives meaning. Knowing these things, we turn to the pragmatic mode to figure out how to bring these things into our lives. The result is a dialogue between mythic and pragmatic modes, which starts out with the mythic mode providing ends and the pragmatic mode providing means. It doesn’t stop there, though, because pragmatic reflections on what we can realistically accomplish will inevitably shape our ideas of what goals we value, while mythic reflections on what we value will inevitably shape our ideas of what means we use to get there.
(In order to forestall certain common misunderstandings, I should probably mention here that the mythic and pragmatic modes of experience are by no means the only ways that human beings relate to themselves, each other, and the world; there are other modes as well. For example, there is also the erotic mode. Where the mythic mode is about values and meanings and the pragmatic mode is about means and practicalities, the erotic mode is about desires and fulfillments—not just in a sexual context, either, though certainly there among other places. Just as the mythic and pragmatic modes enter into dialogue in a relatively balanced personality, in turn, the erotic mode can join the conversation as well; the erotic mode shapes what we want, the pragmatic mode explores how we might get it, and the mythic mode places the desire and its fulfillment in the broader context of a life’s meaning and value.)
So, among other things in our minds, we have mythic or quasi-mythic narratives in which we participate, which give us our sense of meaning and value, and we have pragmatic concerns we assess instrumentally, which give us the tools and choices we need to act on our sense of meaning and value. In terms of the analysis sketched out here, Jacobs is suggesting that many of the people involved in “woke” culture have lost track of the pragmatic mode when it comes to political issues, and respond to anything involving those issues from a purely mythic standpoint, without benefit of the reality testing and the sense of practicality that the pragmatic mode is meant to bring to the conversation.
The second of the chance-read articles I’d like to mention gives strong support to this suggestion. The author is a polyamorous lesbian theology student concerned with transgender issues (her self-description) who goes by the nom de web Jane, and her blog is titled Topping Violates The Categorical Imperative. (I would love to watch the scholars of some distant future era, unschooled in the self-referential intricacies of online culture, try to make sense of that simple declarative sentence.) The untitled essay of hers I have in mind here focuses on a different dimension of the collapse of reason in modern times—the transformation of protest in the modern liberal imagination from a strategy of activism to a magical act presupposing a covert political eschatology.
Jane’s analysis here is trenchant. She points out that Martin Luther King Jr. and the other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement chose the strategies they did for pragmatic reasons. In order to adopt King as a secular saint, however, while making his legacy as harmless as possible, the corporate liberalism of the post-1960s era redefined the protest marches in terms of a covert eschatology in which the mere fact of “speaking truth to power” magically guaranteed that truth would prevail and power would submit to it. Jane describes it this way:
“And this is what modern liberal politics has inherited — the belief that being right is more important than winning, because somebody, be it the Supreme Court or God, will throw the penalty flag and everything will be set aright. Democrats aren’t trying to win elections, they’re trying to build cases as to why, upon review, they should have won, why they’re right, so that when the ref reviews the play it’ll be awarded to them. But it’s important to note the origins of this approach. White liberal establishments created a Civil Rights Movement narrative that disavowed the masses (because revolutionary populism is dangerous but how could they claim to support civil rights gains if they condemned all of the civil rights leaders and the means by which those gains came about?) and then promptly fell in love with their own fiction. They told each other and us over and over again about how MLK won because he was right, because he was just, and they told it so much that they began to believe it themselves.”
I have one quibble with this description, which is that it isn’t the Supreme Court or God who’s expected to throw the penalty flag. The attitude adopted by social change advocates makes perfect sense if you think through the logic that undergirds the overused phrase “speaking truth to power,” which typically gets deployed these days whenever protesters hit the streets. Back in the Middle Ages, “speaking truth to power” was the job of the court jester, who entertained his masters by saying the things nobody else could get away with saying. The jester could do that, in turn, because everyone at court knew he wasn’t actually a threat to anyone who mattered; he could caper and shake the bells on the end of his stick, and make fun of his masters for whatever sins and foibles they didn’t mind seeing their peers laugh at. His masters, secure in their power, laughed and applauded, and preened themselves on the humility they displayed by letting themselves be upbraided in public. His role, that is, was exactly that more recently assigned by the Davos set to Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg.
The problem with all the fashionable chatter about “speaking truth to power,” in other words, is that this phrase embodies two self-defeating assumptions. The first is that the protesters have sole possession of the truth; the second is that the people they are addressing have sole possession of the power. Successful movements for social change, by contrast, always keep in mind that they only have part of the truth; this keeps them nimble, able to reorient themselves to new ways of thinking about the situation they’re trying to change, and open to finding common ground with other groups in society that might have different truths but could potentially be brought into a mutually supportive alliance. Successful movements for social change also always pay attention to the power they already have, and leverage that in order to exert as much influence as possible over their societies. Abandon both those approaches and you end up in the typical situation of today’s left-wing activists, utterly convinced of their own perfect goodness and virtue, just as utterly convinced that they can get what they want only by getting other people with power to do something, and thereby reduced to throwing self-righteous tantrums at the tables of the powerful in the hope that this will get some scraps thrown their way.
That isn’t a kind of analysis anyone seems to have been interested in exploring in recent decades, though. Quite the contrary, every time I’ve tried to discuss the failure of protest to accomplish much of anything in recent years, I’ve fielded the same response Alan Jacobs got from the friends of his who couldn’t grasp that “the solution won’t work” didn’t mean “the problem isn’t real,” or for that matter the one I got when I pointed out that screaming “Racist!” at people who aren’t actually prejudiced against people of other races isn’t an effective way to get them to listen to you, much less to vote for your candidate. That odd myopia of the imagination, and the self-inflicted defeats it makes inevitable, are relatively new things in our society, though they carry uncanny echoes of certain events elsewhere in history. Next week we’ll go deeper into the labyrinth, with the help of the third of my chance-met essays, and try to make sense of it all.