Completing the countercultures

Galleon Goteborg reconstruction sailing by London Bridge
Galleon courtesy George Owens

The countercultures of the 1960s-80s took attitudes to boundaries as their central themes. The monist counterculture—the 1960s youth movement—wanted to eliminate all boundaries and level all distinctions; the dualist counterculture, or religious right, wanted to make them absolute.

Meaningness suggests that oppositions between such mirror-image pairs of confused stances can be resolved by complete stances that correct their metaphysical errors. Specifically, monism and dualism share the mistaken idea that boundaries must be perfectly crisp. Participation, the complete stance regarding boundaries, recognizes that they are always both nebulous and patterned. (I’ll explain all this jargon shortly.)

Below, I apply that conceptual framework to two illustrative countercultural battlegrounds: gender and national borders. These are clear, easy, and important examples because:

The same style of analysis would apply to many other contentious topics. The aim here, though, is not to resolve any concrete issues, but to show how the framework applies in general.

This may seem academic, because after the countercultural era ended most people rejected its most extreme monist and dualist positions. However, it has continuing relevance to our current culture war, which is partly a legacy of the countercultures. I will also preview the ways subsequent modes of meaningness have moderated and complicated the monist/dualist conflict.

Additionally, monism and dualism are confusions of meaning that everyone sometimes falls into personally. Even if this page had no relevance to contemporary politics, seeing how monism and dualism played out decades ago may help understand them psychologically.

Boundaries are nebulous yet patterned

Confused stances are defensive responses to nebulosity. “Nebulosity” is the unstable, uncertain, fluid, complex, and ill-defined nature of all meanings. These properties often seem unwelcome. The lack of any solid ground makes it difficult to build a durable personal identity, social structure, or political movement.

Confused stances are attractive because they deny nebulosity, and attempt to fixate meanings: to nail them in place so they will behave themselves. That is impossible, so the confused stances are all factually wrong and harmful. The culture war “values” issues are exceptionally nebulous, which makes the denial especially counterproductive here.

I have suggested that monism and dualism are the central themes of the two countercultures. These two confused stances concern boundaries: both physical boundaries and the boundaries between categories. Monism denies boundaries and distinctions; dualism fixates them as perfectly sharp.

Boundaries are generally nebulous; they represent real patterns, but are not objectively fixed. So, monism and dualism are both wrong.

Mandelbrot fractal
The boundary of the Mandelbrot fractal is literally infinitely complicated

Boundaries are not merely existent and nebulous, they are complicated. If you imagine putting one under a metaphorical magnifying glass, broadening out and fuzzing the line, you would see the elaborate swirling patterns of sameness and difference in the vicinity: both within and without.

Close to the boundary, it becomes impossible to say which side some items are on. Some also pass through freely; whereas others are stopped. Typically boundaries are selectively permeable.

Both monism and dualism deny complexity, which is part of their appeal. They promise simplicity and clarity. But they can do that only by hiding the variability and ambiguity of reality. It is this complexity which the complete stance recovers.

However, they are both also partly right. Monism recognizes that boundaries are never absolute; dualism recognizes that they are important, and can’t (and shouldn’t) be wished away. It would help cool the culture war if each side could concede what is right in the other’s fundamental stance.

Complete stances neither deny nor fixate meanings. They recognize both nebulosity and pattern: the fact that meanings are, to varying extents, also reliable, distinct, enduring, clear, and definite.

I call the complete stance with regard to boundaries “participation.” It is simply the recognition that boundaries are always both nebulous and patterned. That combines the valid insights of both monism and dualism; which is what makes it “complete.” (The title of this page is a slight pun: ideally, I would like to see the complete stance finish the war between the countercultures; in theory it could do that by including what is right in both of them.)

At an individual, psychological level, the fundamental method for resolving a confusion of meaning is to look for unacknowledged nebulosity; to notice why it is unwanted; to watch how patterns of meaning are fixated and denied in order to avoid recognizing nebulosity; and to work out what it would imply if this nebulosity were acknowledged as inherent and unavoidable, but not a defect in the fundamental nature of reality. “This nebulosity is not a cosmic problem”—maybe not much of a problem at all!—is a summary of all the complete stances. The fluid mode extends this method from the individual to the social and cultural level.

Nebulosity and pattern are both obvious everywhere, so the complete stances are obviously right (and the confused ones are obviously wrong). However, the confused stances are more appealing, so we keep returning to them.

The seeming clarity of the confused stances is particularly appealing—ironically—when you feel stressed and therefore confused. The culture war is stressful; when you feel confused and threatened by challenges to your “values,” you retreat to a simple, extreme view that you know is wrong, but that seems defensible in its absolutism.


Second-wave feminism emerged during the countercultural era. It focussed initially on workplace equality, and broadened into a general equality movement. The theme of equality—sameness—resonated with the monist counterculture. The two joined in an alliance which evolved into the mainstream left.

Second wave theorists mostly argued that gender was a lie: an imposed and arbitrary social and cultural fiction with no basis in reality. They denied the existence, or at least the legitimacy, of any difference between male and female—sometimes even at the crudest biological level. Even to this day, there are gender-studies professors who claim that it has no physiological or genetic basis whatsoever.

Symmetrically: dualist theorists insisted that men and women are properly, essentially, immutably, and totally different; and that society and culture must reflect and enforce the boundary between them. Even to this day, there are religious leaders who claim that on October 27th, 4004 B.C., God decreed the gender roles of 1950s Topeka Kansas as universal and eternal.

During the countercultural era, when we tried hard to reject rationality, these extreme claims seemed somehow plausible. Once the era ended, the spell broke. Gender can’t be wished away, nor is it ever an entirely hard and fast division.

On average, the sexes are distinct from each other in many ways, but individuals of each sex span the range of variation. Men are diverse; women are diverse. Most men are obviously men and most women are obviously women. Some people don’t fit neatly into either category, for various reasons. There is no essential characteristic that makes someone definitely male or female, masculine or feminine. Most people are reasonably comfortable with the somewhat-different expectations contemporary society and culture have for men and women. A minority find them burdensome. No one conforms to them perfectly consistently—nor can, nor should.

This common-sense understanding, that gender is a strongly patterned but nebulous distinction, is the unexciting core of a complete stance. Most people now accept it—implicitly, at least. Both countercultural approaches are obviously wrong. Despite some irritations, the mingled ambiguity and definiteness of gender isn’t a big problem for most people most of the time.2 It’s mostly only professional ideologues and committed amateur culture warriors who still promote absolutist monist or dualist views.

Since the end of the countercultural era, subculturalism and atomization have further complicated the meanings of gender. The lesbian sex wars split countercultural second-wave feminism into numerous subcultural third-wave sects, which took diverse stances on the metaphysics of gender, with further contributions from LGBTIQA movements. In atomization, intersectional fourth-wave feminism lost coherence, and deploys whatever shards of contradictory, shattered subcultural ideologies are convenient in the moment. I will discuss these developments later in the book.

And what of the fluid mode, which supposedly reflects the complete stance? I’ll give a brief account here, which may seem incomprehensible at this point; the fluidity chapter should make it clear.3

Let’s go back to the metaphor of putting a boundary under a magnifying glass to see the details of its complex nebulosity. On the micro scale, gender manifests in a pattern of interaction between specific people in a specific situation at a specific time. Observed carefully, one sees that what counts as a masculine or feminine way of interacting is a continually renegotiated, ongoing accomplishment of the participants. This does not mean it is arbitrary; indeed, it is responsive to the particulars of the situation in exquisitely fine detail. It is also, usually, so routine that it goes unnoticed. It is only when it breaks down that the nebulosity of gender comes momentarily into consciousness—before participants more-or-less skillfully repair the breach and restore its ordinary smooth operation.

This micro-level continual re-accomplishment necessarily orients to macro-scale universalist ideologies. In no social situation can we be entirely unconscious of numerous, diverse theories of what all men and women always are, or always ought to be. We can never act without some awareness of how our actions will be interpreted as meaningful according to those accounts. However, our micro-scale activity—what we say, how we say it, our body language—is never governed by any of these ideologies. They are social facts we have to work with, but not systems of rules we could conform to, even if we wanted to. Besides their extensive contradictions with each other and with obvious realities, they are not specific enough to guide action in concrete situations. They require extensive interpretation in order to become relevant. Yet we cannot choose not to perform that interpretation.

Because gender is patterned, we can never be perfectly free of it—as many second-wave feminists hoped. Because it is nebulous, we can never perfectly embody it—as many religious conservatives hoped. Between these extremes, there is an open space, in which we can take a comfortably playful attitude to choice. We all continually construct gender together; we may as well enjoy making it a collaborative work of art when we can.

Although almost no one maintains a hardcore monist or dualist gender ideology consistently, there’s always a tug toward them, because they simplify thinking. When trying to win an argument, it’s always tempting to say “well, there’s no real difference between men and women, so…”; or “despite shared humanity, men and women have totally distinct proper roles, so…”—and people do say both these things frequently. It would be helpful to accomplish a cultural consensus that we don’t believe these things, so we should stop saying them and acting as though we did.

That would help clarify specific conflicts, because monism and dualism obscure the practicalities. Although some gender issues are important practically, the culture war imposes imaginary additional meanings to co-opt them as ideological battlegrounds, fought from essentialist monist or dualist positions, making them into Giant Referendums On How The Other Tribe Is Wrong About Everything.4 In the 2016 trans bathroom controversy, for instance, this was clearly deliberate: an engineered conflict, designed to increase ideological hostility among voters.

Dropping monism and dualism would still leave plenty of room for disagreements; but they would have to be argued on specific, practical grounds, instead of abstract, metaphysical ones. The complete stance itself answers no practical questions. It leaves open issues such as “what constitutes workplace equality” and “who uses which bathrooms.” However, it points out that these issues don’t have to be so goddamn serious, and that the big-picture ideologies are all quite childish and silly.

Trans issues have come to new prominence in American politics in the past couple of years, with the “TERF wars” and court battles over bathroom use. Trans people are also theoretically interesting for forcing metaphysical questions about gender boundaries: what does it even mean to ask whether they are male or female?

Most people are willing to admit that trans people have some characteristics of both genders, but many also insist that the essential determinant is one particular characteristic. That’s the “real” one. What makes that one special?

Some dualists5 would like to point to some physical characteristic, like maybe the Y chromosome, as essential. But what basis is there for that? The Bible has nothing to say about chromosomes; this can’t be a religious claim. Y chromosomes correlate statistically with penises, social dominance, and various other typically-masculine characteristics. However, there are some people with Y chromosomes whom everyone believes from birth to be female, because there’s no indication—physical or mental—of masculinity, apart from the chromosome itself. And vice versa.6

Some monists would like to say that, since there no differences between men and women other than what is oppressively imposed by culture and society, you are whatever gender you say you are, and everyone must agree and treat you that way. Just as progressives were coming to a consensus on this point, it got complicated by an apparent analogy with Rachel Dolezal, who is trans black. Her career as an NAACP chapter president and university Africana Studies teacher was disrupted when her white parents pointed out that she was born white, with blue eyes and blond hair, and has no black ancestors. She continues to insist that she is really and essentially black because she self-identifies as black, and feels black on the inside.

Some social justice activists agree that she is, indeed, authentically black, and transracial identity is totally valid. Most do not. Many transgender people have written essays arguing that any claimed parallel between transracial and transgender identity is spurious. I’m sympathetic politically, but philosophically I think this is a hard case to make.7

Recognizing that gender can’t simply be wished away, I think it is reasonable to balk at the idea that someone is of a particular sex simply because they say so. On the other hand, recognizing that there is no objective fact about what sex anyone is, I think it is reasonable to agree that anyone who passes as a particular sex might as well be treated as being that sex for most purposes. Further, as far as those who present androgynously or as “none of the above,” we might do well to say “whatever!” and let them get on with it. One is entitled to disapprove of “deviants dressing wrong” privately, if that is your opinion, but eccentric attire is rarely adequate grounds for public censure. (“This nebulosity is not a cosmic problem!”) In all three cases, insisting that there is some Ultimate Truth of gender that must be obeyed is metaphysically unsupportable, and also seems petty.

It would help if we could agree that gender is a private matter, thereby restoring part of the public/private boundary that the countercultures destroyed. Although the public/private boundary is necessarily nebulous, other people’s ways of doing gender are mostly none of your business. This is obvious as a criticism of the right, but it applies equally to the left. For example, some leftists are harshly judgemental of women who choose to be supported by their husbands; this is wrong.

Sovereignty, borders, and war

The concept of a sovereign state was invented in the systematic era. Its Westphalian model is an epitome of dualism. It holds that there are precisely-defined, permanent borders between states. Every square inch of land is part of exactly one state, and shall remain so eternally. The government of a state holds sway uniformly at every point within its borders. It has no right to exert any influence beyond its state borders.8

This is highly unnatural; choiceless era kingdoms worked quite differently. Borders were mostly vague and shifting, and while the king’s rule may have been absolute in the capital, his power faded gradually, informally, with distance. The main job of a king was to meddle in the affairs of neighboring kingdoms, which led to wars and/or border adjustments.

The Westphalian system was invented to prevent war.9 The First World War marked the end of the systematic era, and the beginning of the era of crisis and social breakdown. Not only did Westphalian sovereignty fail to prevent the World Wars, it arguably caused them.

The dualistic Cold War profoundly shaped the countercultural era. Opposition to the Vietnam war—a proxy battle of the Cold War—was one of the main drivers of the monist (hippie/student radical) counterculture. The Reagan administration’s anti-Soviet military buildup was one of the main drivers of the dualist counterculture.

A monist approach would eliminate national boundaries. Wars are between states; without countries and borders between them, there could be no wars. Lennon’s lyrics for “Imagine” express this view; his last line, “the world will live as one,” is the epitome of monism. I do say he was a dreamer: countries and borders cannot be wished away.

Nor are they ever entirely hard and fast divisions. Many states attempted isolationism in the mid-20th-century, but it is impossible. Only North Korea even pretends now, and it is heavily dependent on China.

Beginning around the end of the countercultural era, which coincided with the end of the Cold War (1991), diplomats and international institutions quietly revised the system of international relations, to reflect the obvious reality that states and borders are patterned but nebulous. The European Union (1992) developed a model for blurred sovereignty, with borders that remain existent but enormously more permeable than previously. The World Trade Organization (1995), and the series of treaties it sponsored, greatly increased both the permeability and complex selectivity of borders. The Rwandan (1994) and Bosnian (1995) genocides changed the minds of many anti-war leftists, and de facto established the principle that the great powers have not only the right but the responsibility to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign states to prevent humanitarian catastrophes. As dualists had always insisted, bad guys are bad and can’t be wished away; and wars can be fought for noble causes. More recently, failures in the Middle East have convinced many rightists that—as monists had always insisted—many wars cannot be won by military force.

Maybe it counts as success that in the current politics of the developed nations, global trade and immigration have mainly replaced war as the political issues concerned with borders.

This new era of international relations remains a work in progress, and probably always will. It has gotten many details wrong; but the principle that national borders are both nebulous and patterned is significant progress. As with gender, the meanings of national boundaries must be continually renegotiated, and interpreted in specific situations with reference to multiple ideologies. Almost everyone now does accept that national boundaries are both necessary and necessarily permeable. The Westphalian framework lingers as a ritual fiction; or as a subordinated system to which the new de facto non-systematic international relations are meta.

Popular ideologues sometimes talk as if totally open or closed borders were feasible options. And even the more careful pundits often frame the fight as quantitive: a more open border, or a harder one? Such rhetoric appeals to monist and dualist sensibilities, but is unrealistic, unhelpful, and nearly meaningless. Workable answers concern the complex pragmatic specifics of how borders operate. Which people, goods, services, money, and armies are allowed to cross, for what reasons?

Later in Meaningness and Time, I will discuss how the subcultural, atomized, and fluid modes regard nation-states.

  1. 1.I’ve suggested tentatively that the culture war may be primarily about reproduction, with the rest mere decorative obfuscation. And, regulating gender roles seems to be mainly an indirect way of regulating reproduction.
  2. 2.The word most is important. Suffering can be extreme for those who accept the nebulosity of their gender, but find it rejected by others; and for those who recoil from, and cannot accept, the nebulosity of their own gender, or that of people they care about.
  3. 3.This account draws heavily both on ethnomethodology and on Kegan’s account of “stage 5” as context-responsive non-systematic activity that is meta to multiple formal systems.
  4. 4.I’ve taken this trope from Scott Alexander’s “Five Case Studies On Politicization.”
  5. 5.Gender essentialists include both some conservative Christians and some radical feminists, who have allied on many sexual deviance issues since the mid-1970s. I have to admit I find this very funny.
  6. 6.The biochemical mechanisms that typically result in either a “male” or “female phenotype” are extremely complicated and currently not fully understood. There is definitely no single “master factor” that determines maleness or femaleness in humans.
  7. 7.All the attempts I read actually argued instead that claiming to be black when you were born apparently white is morally wrong, because you aren’t really black; whereas claiming to be female when you were born apparently male is not morally wrong, because you are really female. This simply assumes by fiat the conclusion it then claims to prove.
  8. 8.The Westphalian scheme has never been descriptively accurate—never mind prescriptively adequate—even for the core European countries that invented and adopted it. The Channel Islands and Andorra are two entertaining anomalies. The Channel Islands are legally part of Duchy of Normandy, which has not existed for many centuries. They are not part of the United Kingdom, although they are self-governing possessions of the British Crown, and Queen Elizabeth II is their Duke. (Not their Duchess. I imagine there is an excellent reason for this.) Islanders are legally both British citizens and EU citizens. The Channel Islands are legally part of the British Islands, but not part of the British Isles (please don’t confuse these!). They are not members of the European Union, but remain part of the European Community, which hasn’t existed since 1993, but which continues to grant them important legal trade rights from beyond the mortal veil. There’s much more, but it starts to get complicated. Andorra is legally a Parliamentary Co-Principality, with the President of France and the Bishop of Urgell in Spain as Co-Princes. It is not part of either France or Spain. The President of France, ex officio Prince of Andorra, is a reigning monarch, unelected by his or her subjects (but elected by the French people). Then it gets complicated.
  9. 9.It takes its name from the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the catastrophic Thirty Years War—Europe’s worst before WWI, with many millions left dead.