Entitlement, Fear, and Change: The Nihilist Roots of Coercive Moralism, #2
TABLE OF CONTENTS
IV. Activist Motives: Guilt and Immortality
This final installment contains sections IV and V.
IV. Activist Motives: Guilt and Immortality
One thing can be discerned without any difficulty whatsoever: the new coercive moralists are busy telling others what to do. They feel they have a right to demand changes and will non-stop coerce others into tiptoeing around on the dotted lines they believe they’re entitled to paint on all sidewalks.
This tendency to lecture the world from on high rests on two negatively reinforcing foundations: first, the tendency to feel guilty; and second, the dopamine trip that results from feeling that one is writing history and therefore on the “good side.”
With regard to the latter, in a Society of the Spectacle like our social media-hyped intellectual landscape of the early 21st century, events are what makes one’s life count. The ego of activists is closely bound up with what they accomplish. And what better way to reach immortality than by contributing to an event that changed world history? Everyone is all of a sudden Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr– or even better, all three at once. Immortality and moral fame are within one’s grasp, if one only Twitters furiously enough, taking down imagined trespassers against the politically-correct order left and right. This is the ultimate trip for the narcissist mind. The perverse clicks-and-views-and-shares system utilized to hurl such unripe thoughts into the digital world instantly rewards this behavior. When one shouts loud enough, one’s voice will momentarily rise from the global cacophony, and reverberate for a moment around the virtual globe, only to disappear from collective memory as soon as a new coercive-moralistic event comes along. Andy Warhol famously wrote in 1968 that in the future, everyone would have their 15 minutes of world-fame. The future is now, and everyone can inflict their 15 minutes of world-shame.
Everyone, therefore, has a personal destiny. The sense of fate that loomed large and foreboding in Greek mythology has become a product—an everyday commodity that is tracked and expressed in the amount of attention it generates. Hercules and Oedipus and Atlas might have felt the sense of fate as an unsupportably heavy weight on their shoulders, but fate as a commodity inspires vigor and zeal.
Nowadays, we call this “empowerment”. Individuals whose lives would have otherwise unfolded unnoticed are captivated by the feeling that their voices will change the world, that righteous world-fame and inflicting world-shame is within reach, that their voice and perspective is heard, and above all, that their contributions will be remembered fondly. And if this fails to occur, then one can proudly proclaim: “I empowered myself and shared the experience globally!” The grotesque solipsism of this attitude is matched only by its stupefying meaninglessness. We’re all only poor players who fret and strut upon the stage before the flame flickers and disappears forever.
But just as Greek warriors aimed for vindication and immortality through eternal memory, so too has the average individual in the early 21st century a mission to become immortal, and to add his or her name to the long list of people who “changed the world for the better.” The false promise that social media offers them is a chimera, a fluttering image against the background of total annihilation. No matter whether the Earth burns, world-fame by inflicting world-shame is to be had!
If there is one lie, it is that an exception becomes the rule. By imitating figures like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr, one does not achieve automatically the same breakthroughs that they did. And if we all acted like them, the sum total will not by default be a better world for everyone. The fundamental half-truth of morality says: “if everyone did Y, the world would be better.” This is the core claim of moral philosophy down the ages. Ideally, that’s true, if Y really is the right thing to do. The only problem is the cold hard real world. Not everyone acts according to Y, or believes that Y is the highest moral good, and Y isn’t always really the right thing to do. And how to convince them? The elites of our day have opted for passive aggression, slander, virtue-signaling, and coercive moralism to realize their political order. Religious orders of the past have opted for conversion, torture, execution, and threats of eternal damnation. And nation-States routinely resort to retraction of rights, punishments, and fines. The problem is not just the core claim of morality, but the attitude of those who claim to uphold and promote it.
Here, we must re-iterate the problem that Kant ran into: one cannot have a pure moral science without also taking the real world fully into account. The terminology itself reveals something of Kant’s bias: a science is pure insofar as it is a priori, and once contaminated, it has to slog through all the dirty reality on the ground. It is as if one were to hold that biology is an impure science merely because it concerns itself with real organisms.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. Like any science in the broad sense of an organized body of knowledge, morality has to engage with reality and test its claims against the possibilities and limitations of the given situation. This does not mean that one is condemned to a type of passive resignation or quietism. Neither does it mean that a given situation is unchangeable or should not change. It merely means that changes take place in an existing societal-moral context that cannot be forced by coercive moralism and tactics of entitlement. Those who are hesitant or unwilling to change have a voice in the debate too. And even if it is clear that they act on egoistic or other malign motives, then these motives must be closely scrutinized.
In the post-Trump era, this point of view sounds almost gullible, but I believe it to be fundamentally true. If free and critical debate is replaced by social media-driven identity-politics, we end up with a reverse-Trumpism that claims to have nobler goals, yet its own methods bear an essential similarity to the wrongs they seek to overcome. What they conjure up is an imaginary moral and political universe, a closed world that is so puristically ideal that it not only bears little or no resemblance to the real world, but also becomes a crusading weapon for attacking that real world.
Moral and political universe that are puristically a priori are therefore dangerous ideological instruments. They, too, are chimeras, like Platonic Ideas or Hegelian Absolutes. Their very ideality makes them unfit for this world, and at the same time an enemy of this world in all its nonideality. And once a group of people is convinced that they are the apostles of a new Eden modelled after these moral and political universes, they routinely resort to tactics that contradict everything they claim to stand for, but that closely resemble the tactics employed by those they claim to fight against.
So much for the feeling of being on the “right side of history.” But what about the other basic factor that underlies coercive moralism? What is the source of the guilt that underlies it all? In a world that is hyperconnected, we are all the time aware of all the consequences of all our choices. The choice not to become vegetarian, the choice not to drive an electric car, the choice not to take up jogging, the choice not to donate to this or that charity, are all directed back to us.
By this feedback mechanism, the very notion of responsibility is supercharged. We must weigh all our choices, and if we are lucky in some way or the other, then we are relentlessly confronted by “all those who weren’t so lucky.” And then we are asked to reconsider our privilege: it’s a variation on “count your blessings!,” but now in the megawatt range. We are made responsible not only for things that we receive because we worked for them, but also that are just a result of brute luck. Someone who is born into a rich family cannot be held accountable for that fact. Neither can one change the fact that she is born with a white skin, or in a richer part of the world. Yet, even one’s skin color can one make complicit in a crime called “whiteness.”
Just as the online course “Help! I am white!” plays on a feeling of having taken up too much space by simply existing, the politically correct elites of our time play on a guilt trip that is entirely manipulative. If oppression still exists in a five-kilometer radius of you as a white person, then it’s because you simply did not work hard enough to stamp it all out. Because, the lie goes, if you had done your best (or “leveraged your privilege” as the nauseating phrase runs), then racism would not exist anymore. And if every white person acted on that maxim, then….
Here, the fundamental half-truth about morality surfaces again. The very existence of reprehensible phenomena like racism, sexism, and the ever-growing list of so-called phobias or “-isms” is presented as the consequence of a personal choice or the personal refusal to make a choice. In the same way, vegan people can present you with a variation on this thesis: because you still eat meat and use animal products, there is animal cruelty. And if everyone stopped eating meat, then….
But because of you (and, by implication, all other people just like you!) the problem still persists, and therefore you are personally responsible for its continued existence. One’s personal choice is weighed against the ideals of a different political universe, the core values of which you do not necessarily have to agree with. But if you actually dare question the legitimacy of the claims advanced against you, then you instantly become “part of the problem.” And by doing so, you can easily be slotted into the categories of “enemies of the people” or “undesirables.”
The very thesis, “if you acted like X, Y would occur,” is the classic case of a deepity.[i] A deepity is an assertion that possesses two characteristics simultaneously: it is true, but trivial; and if it were literally true, then the consequences would be Earth-shattering. The best example is the assertion “love is just a word.” Yes, the word love is just a four-letter word, but the phenomenon which it signifies is something far greater and bears little resemblance to the four-letter signifier. If the phenomenon “love” were just a word, then the world would indeed look very different.
In the same way, if the assertion, “if you acted like X, Y would occur” were literally true, then yes, the world would look different. The deepity is trivial in its truthfulness—it is trite and uninformative. But it is fundamentally unable to express the thorough non-ideality of the world itself. The person uttering the deepity and actually believing in its usefulness describes a mere ideal world, a mirage with little sense of reality.
All this does not mean that ideals are worthless. On the contrary, many moral breakthroughs were realized by imagining a world that was different from the one from which the assertion was made. But the deepity plays a deceptive trick: it makes the non-ideal appear as ideal – or even as truth itself. Consequently, those believing the deepity go around acting on a deeply mistaken assumption: namely, that the deepity is actually true, and that the (ideal) content of its assertion can be unproblematically applied to the (nonideal) world at large.
Activism of this type provides the politically-correct with an indulgence. By lecturing others, and coercing them, their guilt is cancelled, because they mercilessly expose the evil enemy wherever they find him. After Nietzsche (or at least, according to their image of him), they self-identify as the great explorers of humanity’s deepest recesses, uncovering biases, unconscious prejudices, and micro-aggressions left and right.
And in doing so, they conveniently don’t have to engage with the dirty work of really combating racism, or by really overcoming sexism: they can have their ultra-puristic “pure science of morals.” But at the same time, they can stay in their comfortable echo chambers, their safe spaces and their one-line forums, where they collectively curse those who do not share their vision of a new political universe organized along politically correct lines. Those who question them are merely immoral obstacles between the realization of a brave new world they are creating and founding, and the current reality.
For people with this level of entitlement, the existence of opposing opinions must be a bitter pill to swallow. And so, they routinely make exceptions to their own rules: once you are an enemy of the people or an undesirable, human dignity is not for you. You have forfeited it, because you are “part of the problem.” The very routine with which they forsake their own teaching should worry us: what use is a representative or official who routinely changes the rules of the game? Was this not exactly the charge leveled at the Trump administration—and rightly so?
In the meantime, our politically-correct elites have made so many exceptions to their own professed rules, that they have ceased to be exceptions. The fallacious coercive moralist logic which entails that everyone must be made personally responsible for making certain fundamental moral and sociopolitical problems vanish overnight drives a coercive moralist crusade that is the diametric opposite of genuine open debate.
In a series of gestures that are nihilistic to the core, lecturing and forcing others into practicing puristic virtues they haven’t freely chosen has become the weapon of choice in a world that’s mercilessly reflexive. If God is Dead, everything may be permitted, but if God is resurrected in various coercive moralist creeds, then new systems of guilt, exculpation, and indulgences have to come into being as well. Never before was it such a busy time for the moral theologian, and never before were so many people priests of a new creed. The problem is that under all these new coercive moralist creeds, nihilism thrives. It is the dark underbelly of coercive moralism, but at the same time that which coercive moralism requires in order to thrive and justify itself. Its vindictiveness stems from an inability to confront the complexity and speed with which modernity develops, and the nihilism that drives it from below. By failing to confront the vertical dimension of meaning or meaninglessness (sometimes called “the abyss”), the only alternative is to lash out in another direction.
Paulo Freire aptly called this phenomenon “horizontal violence,” directed against one’s neighbors and all those trapped in the same predicament, because the situation is essentially unmanageable. We cannot passively get rid of our existential Angst: we have to work through it. But it seems that a new generation of activists feels entitled to an Eden without a Fall; a Heaven without a Passion; bliss without suffering; and radical improvements without working for them.
Is there a remedy for all this? I’m not sure, but one thing seems certain: a close analysis of this cultural phenomenon is necessary, as is a robust critique of the demands it poses. Those who shout loudest are not by default right; and those who claim to represent the oppressed must be held to the same moral and political standards as everyone else.
If nowadays, the moral theologian has more than enough work, then so has the philosopher. Our politically-correct, neo-puritanical culture requires a thorough examination, before we engage in shouting matches and playing the coercive moralist game. That only radically deepens the nihilism we’re already struggling to the death against.