Wreckage: the culture war

Wreckage in a sea battle

Both sides of the culture war now believe they are losing.

Both sides are wrong: they lost decades ago.

We all lost.

You don’t need me to tell you that politics has become dysfunctional. That it is polarized by a culture war. That too many people are turning to extremism because their governments can’t get anything done.

Both American countercultures have been dead for more than a quarter century. However, they are still locked in combat as decaying kaiju zombies: the culture war. Their trail of collateral damage scars our social landscape.

Or, as I put it in the introduction to this chapter, the countercultures were galleons built to escape the conflagration of systematic civilization. But galleons are archaic, clumsy, ornately ridiculous vessels, ill-suited to contemporary conditions. With the rejection of rationality, they came unmoored from their foundations. They drifted, collided, and battled, until finally breaking up. Now the wreckage is sinking.

The left and right of current American electoral politics are direct descendants of the 1960s-80s monist and dualist countercultures. In the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump’s signature issue is “build a wall”—a concrete manifestation of dualism, whose concern is to harden boundaries and sever connections. Clinton responds by advocating “building bridges” instead. She means that metaphorically,1 as a statement of monism, the impulse to eliminate boundaries and connect everything. I think, though, that this may be the last American national election to be fought along the monist-dualist axis.

Overview of this page

The sections of this page are:

We are doing politics wrong
The culture war blocks sensible solutions to urgent and important social, cultural, psychological, and practical problems.
Baby Boomer bafflement
Many people get stuck in the “native mode” of their twenties. The culture war is mainly fought by those who participated in one of the countercultures back in the day, can’t understand why it failed, and are still trying to make it work. This section also summarizes the rest of the page as a series of bullet points.
Let go of the sacred myths of your tribe
The culture war chooses symbols and myths, rather than pragmatic issues, as the battlefield. Sacred abstractions make compromise difficult—but, fortunately, they are not what anyone really cares about.
Why are THOSE PEOPLE so awful?
Because they, like you, are fighting about identity, status, dominance, and tribal survival—not, as both sides claim, “values.”
Disentangling the culture war
If both sides understood what they actually want and care about most, it would help resolve the conflict.

We are doing politics wrong

The social world is going to hell. I don’t need to list the disasters happening just today; check your social media feed for full details.

Politics is supposed to be the way to deal with vast problems and impending catastrophes. It is totally not working. It’s the problem, not the solution.

This is obvious and uncontroversial. For instance, throughout the past five years, polls have found that less than 20% of Americans have approved of the job Congress is doing. Less than 10%, sometimes! Democracy is, by definition, not functioning when most people disapprove of the government. The two Presidential candidates are both loathed, to an unprecedented extent. The major parties, though supposedly representing the monist and dualist value systems, are both widely considered to promote little more than the interests of their corporate donors. Media coverage of politics is awful; deliberately making everything worse in pursuit of advertising dollars. The electorate is hyperpolarized, and Democrats and Republicans hate and distrust each other more than in decades.

This seems to be approaching a breaking point: in many parts of the world, extremist parties, bizarre policies, and absurd candidates are gaining momentum. This reflects not a public desire for extremism, but a revulsion with dysfunctional politics-as-usual, and recognition that fundamental change of some sort is urgent.

Campaign poster: Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords

Tragically, the oppositional attitude of the counter-cultures, and their mirror-image structural duality, was a perfect fit for the American two-party system. In the “Great Rotation” of the meanings of left and right, “values” captured the political process. That removed many important issues from democratic consideration—because they aren’t about “values.” This is, I think, the root cause of current political dysfunction.

It has also been terrific for the ruling class—both politicians and plutocrats. When politics is mostly about sex, drugs, religion, and cartoon frogs, it is much easier to cut backroom deals that capture regulatory agencies and redirect trillions of tax dollars to business interests. So long as a policy question does not line up with the monist-vs.-dualist axis, it is not “political” and therefore can be sold to the highest-bidding lobbyists.

For the past decade, globally, macroeconomic policy has been run largely for the benefit of the financial industry, at an enormous cost to everyone else. This is not a right-vs.-left issue. It is not even a rich-vs.-poor issue. It’s an everybody-else-vs.-the-financial-industry issue. How can subsidies in excess of a trillion dollars a year persist, with no popular support from either the right or the left? Because it’s not about “values,” it is “not political” under the current definition of politics. The Great Rotation removed the single most important policy issue from the democratic process.

Baby Boomer bafflement

The culture war persists largely because most Baby Boomers2 do not understand why their countercultures failed. Although the countercultures have been over for a quarter century, participants on both sides do not accept this obvious fact, and are unwilling to draw any conclusions from it. This refusal is what animates the undead Japanese movie monsters—or, to switch metaphors in mid-ocean, it is the reason doomed navies are still fighting from sinking wrecks.3

Many participants still have a wistful certainty that someday, somehow, the glorious counterculture of their youth will rise again, and its eternal truth and justice will triumphantly replace the corrupt mainstream. (This requires deliberately not-noticing that there hasn’t been a mainstream for decades.) They maintain a rosy nostalgia for the hippie or Reagan eras. They cherish salvation fantasies for the future “after the Revolution,” or “when we take back America.” This is entirely unrealistic, on both sides.

Both sides resent the other as the apparent explanation for their own counterculture’s failure. I suspect one reason the culture war has heated up dramatically in the past few years is that Baby Boomers realize they will pass out of public life over the next decade, and now is their last chance to impose their values on everyone else. It’s the final, desperate push before their time runs out. Realizing that victory is unlikely within their lifetime accounts for some of bitterness of the war.

Maybe understanding that opposition from the other tribe was not the reason for failure can help overcome polarization?

  • Your counterculture did not fail because the other counterculture opposed it. (They did, but that’s not why.)
  • Your counterculture failed because the majority did not agree with it.
  • The majority rejected your counterculture because it was plainly wrong about many things.
  • It would help if you understood how younger generations relate to meaningness; they are right that some of your main issues are illusory.
  • You need to let go of the sacred myths of your tribe. Decades ago they inspired genuinely positive social change, but now they produce only frustration and hatred and stalemate. Everyone born after 1970 thinks they are idiotic. You are stuck pretending to believe, but even you secretly know they aren’t true.
  • Your counterculture and the other one also agree about many things!
  • Some of what you agree about is wrong; you should admit that and drop it.
  • Some of what you agree about is right; you should work together to support it.
  • Much of what you imagine you fight about is symbolic, not substantive. Your advocacy of these issues is mostly a statement of tribal identity, and claims for high status within your tribe.
  • When your symbolic issues blow up into actual political conflicts, often you are fighting to establish tribal dominance, not to accomplish pragmatic improvements in society.
  • If you understand what you really disagree about, and why, you may be able to find pragmatic compromises, instead of both sides demanding total victory.

Let go of the sacred myths of your tribe

Both countercultures were eternalisms: claims about the Ultimate Truth Of Everything that explains all meanings. Eternalism is always harmful: it makes you stupid (because the Eternal Truth is not always so); emotionally, morally, and socially immature; and vicious when you feel you have to defend it even in cases where it’s obviously wrong.

Both countercultures were attempts to rescue eternalism from the threat of nihilism. Both failed, because eternalism can’t work. But when the only alternative seems to be nihilism, any amount of pretense, deceit, and distortion seems justified in defending even a failed eternalism.

The countercultural eternalisms function much like religions, even when, on both sides, they are largely non-theistic (“political correctness,” patriotic nationalism). They are grand narratives that start from the sacred principles of monism and dualism, and elaborate into vast mythologies that are supposed to make the central Truth believable. But the mythologies themselves are not believable,4 and both Truths are false. Continuing to pretend you believe them is morally wrong, not only—but not least—because that pretense has ruined politics.

Some of the hardest-fought culture war battlegrounds are not about “values” as such, much less policy proposals; they are over symbols. That’s what makes it a culture war. Here’s Scott Alexander, in “Five Case Studies On Politicization”:

The Red Tribe and Blue Tribe have different narratives, which they use to tie together everything that happens into reasons why their tribe is good and the other tribe is bad.

Sometimes this results in them seizing upon different sides of an apparently nonpolitical issue when these support their narrative; for example, Republicans generally supporting a quarantine against Ebola, Democrats generally opposing it. [A quarantine is a boundary—the essence of monism vs. dualism.] Other times it results in a side trying to gain publicity for stories that support their narrative while sinking their opponents’ preferred stories – Rotherham for some Reds; Ferguson for some Blues.

When an issue gets tied into a political narrative, it stops being about itself and starts being about the wider conflict between tribes until eventually it becomes viewed as a Referendum On Everything: “do you think the Blue Tribe is right on every issue and the Red Tribe is terrible and stupid, or vice versa?”

Some examples are entirely symbolic.5 A Boomer/countercultural example was flag burning; everyone seems to have lost interest, but that was huge on several occasions over several decades. Current Millennial/atomized examples are the fights over pronouns and dead gorillas.

More typically, symbolic politics contest issues that have some practical importance, but not nearly enough to justify the effort that goes into them; or in which symbolic meanings overlay and distort an underlying practical matter. Abortion—“a condensation symbol for changes in women’s roles, the family, and acceptable sexual behavior”6—is an example I have used repeatedly. I’ve done that because it’s perhaps uniquely central to the culture war.

To be fair to the right, I would like to give an example from the left that is equally important and equally distorted, but I can’t think of one. Gun control is similar in being mainly symbolic: primarily of the culture war itself, but also race, gender, community, and the proper relationship between individuals and the state. However, both left and right are at fault for distorting guns’ meanings and magnifying them far beyond practical import.7 Recycling is a left-only structural parallel to abortion—a moralizing “condensation symbol” for monist conscientiousness—but no one actually cares about it.

Keystone XL was less central than abortion, but still “a top-tier election issue for the 2014 elections for the United States Senate, House of Representatives, governors in states and territories, and many state and local positions as well.”8 In case you missed the fuss, Keystone XL was a proposed oil pipeline. The environmental lobby, and the American left in general, devoted extraordinary efforts to preventing its construction. As far as I can tell, the possible environmental consequences were minor; there are many more important environmental policy questions which the movement has fought much less hard. Although notionally environmentalists’ concern was possible spills, everyone understood that Keystone was symbolically about global warming, and therefore really about global warming—even though everyone also understands that in practice it would have had almost no effect. Other policies affect carbon emissions far more, and might have been altered with far less effort. So why did the left choose to draw a line in the sand at Keystone XL?

In “The toxoplasma of rage,” Alexander suggests an explanation.9 Advocacy groups deliberately choose bad examples because those generate the most controversy. The one they promote is obviously wrong, so the Tweedledum side objects loudly. However, the general principle is considered correct by everyone on the Tweedledee side, so they feel they have to defend it. Their specific arguments are perforce lousy—even if the principle is right—so Tweedledum senses blood in the water and closes in for the kill. But the underlying, broader issue seems critical, so Tweedledee will defend the unconvincing symbolic example to the death. The brutality of the ensuing battle generates huge publicity for the cause. (And also, to be cynical, donations to the advocacy organization, and advertising revenue for the media that cover it and fan the flames.)

If you want to signal how strongly you believe in taking victims seriously, you talk up the least credible case you can find. A rape that obviously happened? Shove it in people’s face and they’ll admit it’s an outrage, but they’re not going to talk about it much. There are a zillion outrages every day. A rape allegation will only spread if it’s dubious enough to split people in half along lines corresponding to identity politics. People start screaming at each other about how they’re misogynist or misandrist or whatever, and your Facebook feed gets hundreds of comments in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS about how my ingroup is being persecuted by your ingroup.10

Wreck of the Birkenhead: rescue from a sinking ship

For both sides, it is obvious that the other mythology is false. That eternalism is a sinking ship. It’s about to disappear beneath the black waves of nihilism.

Secretly, both sides also know their own mythology has been shot full of holes, too. It is taking on water at a terrifying rate—but from the splintered deck you stand on, it looks less bad than the other.

I call out to you:

It’s a pile of water-logged junk; the rest will sink soon; why don’t you come join us in our fleet of nimble new watercraft?

I would like to encourage stuck-in-the-past counterculturalists to learn the later modes of meaningness. Then you can engage with this world, as it is, instead of trying to live in fantasies of what should have happened, decades ago; or maybe will someday happen, if only your counterculture triumphs.

The subcultural mode of relating to meaningness developed effective solutions to many of problems the countercultures tried, and failed, to address. Subculturalism gave rise to other problems, some of which the atomized mode addressed effectively. We now live in a world shaped by these movements.

Many counterculturalists can’t even see the central problems of meaning that younger generations face.11 Looking through a countercultural lens, the only thing that matters is whether the monist or dualist values overpower the other set. From that point of view, the social, cultural, and psychological concerns of younger generations are trivial—because younger people mostly don’t care about monism vs. dualism. But these new problems of meaning are generated by the world we all live in; and they are inescapable, except by retreating into fantasies of total countercultural victory.

Why are THOSE PEOPLE so awful?

They actually are awful. It’s not just that they are the Other Tribe.

Or, at least, they are acting awfully. They are behaving atrociously because they, like you, are fighting about identity, personal adequacy, dominance, and tribal survival. And they, like you, recognize they are losing. When you feel that you are losing a life-or-death struggle, you abandon rules of engagement; any atrocity is justified.

During the countercultural era, political conflict concerned substantive social issues, and genuine differences in values. Nowadays, the zombie culture war is mostly about identity—trumpeting loyal membership in your political tribe—and about your status within that tribe. That means participants have little motivation to engage in actual political struggles. What appears to be politics is often ritual posturing, communicating to one’s own tribe, rather than engaging with the other one. When culture warriors pretend to promote the old myths, everyone knows they are unworkable, so this is mere theatre.

Both countercultures, back then, tried to make membership in the counterculture the main source of identity and of community. This worked badly; the countercultures were too big to function well that way. However, may of the participants still do identify closely with their counterculture, and do still try to take it as their community, or extended family.

On that basis, anything that contradicts the mythology is taken as a personal attack on one’s self, and as violence against one’s clan, rather than disagreement about issues. Unfortunately, this perception is often justified. When the two sides of the culture war do engage, it is mainly just tribal conflict. It’s meta: a fight about the fight itself. The big question is who is going to win, not—as in the ’60s-80s countercultural era—“how can we change society for the better?”

James Davison Hunter coined the term “culture war” in a classic 1991 book. He wrote:

Each side ardently believes that the other embodies and expresses an aggressive program of social, political, and religious intolerance. According to their respective literature, each side has wittingly or unwittingly spawned a political agenda that is antidemocratic and even totalitarian in its thrust.

Both claim to speak for the majority, both attempt to monopolize the symbols of legitimacy, both identify their opponents with a program of intolerance and totalitarian suppression. Both sides use the language of extremism and thereby sensationalize the threat represented by their adversaries.

Perceived threats typically engender a sense of cohesiveness among the threatened members. In the act of opposing an adversary, the community expresses a common moral indignation, and asserts its moral authority anew. Thus, not only is the community drawn together, united as a collectivity, but it is reminded of its heritage, its duty, and its mission to the larger world. Standing against an adversary is the ritual reaffirmation of the community’s identity in the face of what may be a far greater adversary, its own internal moral disintegration. It is part of a natural collective response to the threat of the community’s own structural insecurity and moral instability.12

As I wrote earlier, the moralization of politics has been a disaster. It is reinforced by the two-track class system, which relies on the illusion that you are morally superior to everyone in the other tribe.

When everyone in the other tribe is eeeeevil, they cannot be trusted to honor a compromise. The war can only be a bare power struggle for domination; for total victory; for the outright elimination of the other tribe. Not, in America at least, a literal genocide: but many on both sides of the culture war believe that the country can only be saved when everyone who holds the wrong ideology has been bullied into holding the correct one.

In America, surveys show that both sides are increasingly fearful of the other, and increasingly angry at them. Each side’s perception that their tribe is besieged, threatened, and may not survive, is entirely realistic. Both are probably doomed. Frantic bailing keeps the wrecks above water—but Generation X mostly doesn’t care, and the Millennials are not organized enough to keep ships afloat after the Boomers are gone.

At risk of sounding preachy: all this is Buddhism 101. Confusion leads to fear; fear leads to anger; anger leads to aggression; aggression leads to more confusion, fear, and anger; those lead to death and damnation.

Standing down requires breaking the confusion/fear/anger/aggression cycle. This page and the next try to address the confusion part—which, according to Buddhism 101, is where it always starts, and has to end.

Disentangling the culture war

The culture war can be fun—when you feel like you are winning. Then, there is no motivation to negotiate, compromise, or look for mutually acceptable solutions. However, both sides feel like they are losing much of the time, and most people probably recognize that the culture war is harmful, and should, ideally, somehow, stop. On the other hand, the other side is obviously hateful and wrong, so that doesn’t seem realistic.

Anyway, straight-up compromise is mostly impossible, because there are sacred values involved, and you can’t compromise about sacredness.

Progress has to come from better understanding of what both sides actually care about. That must be disentangled from claims they feel they must defend because it’s part of their contrived mythology. I believe that each tribe’s account of its own values and interests is wrong, so both tribes misunderstand not only what the other side wants, but what they want themselves. When that is clarified, both sides may find that many concrete issues, which they had infused with abstract sacredness, are not critical after all. Having discovered their actual interests, they can negotiate pragmatic solutions.

I don’t have a full understanding of either tribe’s values and interests, but I hope to contribute some insights. I also suggest that recent empirical studies of how people hold sacred moral, political, and religious values have much to offer. I would point to work by, for example, Scott Atran on negotiating with fundamentalists, Jonathan Haidt on the moral psychology of liberals vs. conservatives, and Jason Weeden and Robert Kurzban on political motivations.

It might seem idealistic that either side would be willing to make a serious effort to resolve the culture war. Perhaps so; but it’s important enough that we ought not to rule it out. However… time may have run out. The current culture war is led by Baby Boomers, whose age may make them resistant to new ideas; and anyway they will be aging out of power soon. So maybe it doesn’t matter! On the other hand, a new “echo” culture war has emerged recently, conducted largely by Millennials over social media. The atomized, echo war has some—not all—of the same dynamics as the countercultural one, so some of the same resolution methods may apply.

Much of my analysis is on the next page, “Completing the countercultures.” I apply the fundamental method of the Meaningness book: understanding a conflict in terms of confused stances, disentangling their fixations and denials of meaning, and thereby shifting to a complete stance. That is a bit abstract. The remainder of this section makes some other, tentative, basic suggestions that are not particularly connected with the Meaningness framework.

Disentangling morality from politics would be enormously helpful. This might require a better popular understanding of the functions of morality—both its legitimate and its illegitimate ones. In the culture war, moral judgement functions mainly to maintain self-esteem through self-justification and tribal identification, including demonizing the other tribe.13 That is, you try to convince yourself, and your community, that you are a good person because you are On The Right Side, and you loathe the other tribe more than anyone. Besides the harm done, this actually doesn’t work very well. Self-righteous contempt delivers a momentary confidence boost, but in the long run hatred doesn’t feel all that great. Also, it forces you into constant anxious competition to see who is best at proclaiming tribal dogmas. There are other, better bases for self-esteem. Could we make this common knowledge?

Research14 suggests that the differences in values between the tribes are much smaller than both think. Most supposed conflicts in fundamental values are actually disagreements about concrete issues (is euthanasia OK? is cultural appropriation OK?) that were given symbolic significance through mythological reasoning. Research finds that there are differences in fundamental values, but they are only matters of degree: differing emphasis when evaluating competing moral considerations. For example, Haidt and his collaborators found that conservatives give greater weight to purity, as a fundamental principle, and progressives give greater weight to care for others. (The division between pure and impure is a dualist concern, and connection with others is a monist one.) But everyone recognizes the significance of both.

Arnold Kling, in The Three Languages of Politics, similarly suggests that progressives are primarily concerned with oppression, conservatives with civilization vs. barbarism, and libertarians with freedom vs. coercion. When each group talks politics, they make claims exclusively in terms of one of these moral axes, ignoring the other two. Consequently, they talk past each other; no one hears arguments from the other groups.

On this account, progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism are all simplistic: they sacrifice moral accuracy for ideological consistency. It is much easier to make moral judgements by taking only one of three factors into account—but you will often get the wrong answer.

Kling’s framework gives me hope: everyone can agree that oppression is bad, civilization is good, and freedom is good. There is no fundamental values conflict: conservatives do not favor oppression, and progressives do not favor barbarism—despite accusations from the other side in both cases. And no one favors coercion for its own sake. In some concrete cases, there are tradeoffs between the considerations; these can be negotiated only when all are recognized and understood.

Several empirical studies suggest that opposing political groups can come to understand each other if they learn to talk in terms of the other side’s preferred fundamental values. Not only that; they can often even change the other side’s mind that way:

We presented two messages in support of same-sex marriage. One message emphasized the need for equal rights for same-sex couples. It is framed in terms of a value—equality—that research has shown resonates more strongly among liberals than conservatives. The other message was designed to appeal to values of patriotism and group loyalty, which have been shown to resonate more with conservatives. (It argued that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans” who “contribute to the American economy and society.”) Conservatives supported same-sex marriage significantly more if they read the patriotism message rather than the fairness one.

In a parallel experiment, we presented two messages in support of increased military spending. One argued that we should “take pride in our military,” which “unifies us both at home and abroad.” The other argued that, through the military, the poor and disadvantaged “can achieve equal standing,” by ensuring they have “a reliable salary and a future apart from the challenges of poverty and inequality.” Liberals expressed significantly greater support for increasing military spending if they read the fairness message rather than the patriotism one.15

That’s Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg, in “The Key to Political Persuasion,” summarizing their “From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence?.” Scott Alexander riffs on another of their papers, on persuading conservatives to care about global warming by using the language of moral purity.

As Willer, Feinberg, and Alexander all note, few people are currently either willing or able to switch moral languages.16 (Partly because political arguments are not meant to persuade the other side: they are meant to demonstrate conformity—or, even better, virtuosity—to your own.) What would motivate more people to learn? Can we agree to reward members of our own tribe for calming down the other?

The ability to coordinate three incommensurable moral systems, or to explain a topic in terms of a system other than your own, may require ethical meta-systematicity. That ability is, unfortunately, uncommon. I’ve also called it “ethical fluidity,” and it’s closely related to the complete stance and the fluid mode. Elsewhere, I’ve suggested the possibility of developing a curriculum that helps people develop meta-systematic cognitive ability, and to transition into fluidity.

Perhaps you’d like to try an exercise? One that might help develop meta-systematic skills, and perhaps propel you toward fluidity?

  1. Write another brief argument—a few sentences—explaining why legal same-sex marriage is a good thing, in terms of the values language preferred by social conservatives: decency, loyalty, sanctity, purity, respect. Make it significantly different from Willer and Feinberg’s “proud and patriotic, contributing to America.” (This is easier than parts 2 and 3: some social conservatives do support same-sex marriage based on fundamental conservative values.)
  2. Write an argument explaining why same-sex marriage should be prohibited, in terms of the values language progressives prefer: oppression, care, fairness, equality. (This is more difficult, but it’s entirely possible—although I doubt you could convince many progressives.)
  3. Explain why same-sex marriage should be prohibited, in the values language libertarians prefer: freedom, procedural justice, rationality. (This question is extra credit for advanced students!)

(This is an “ideological Turing Test.”)

In “The illusion of understanding,” I reviewed research that showed that people think they understand politics much better than they actually do. Experimenters asked people to explain how a proposed policy, which they favored, would work. (Rather than to explain why it is Right!) Mostly, they couldn’t, which led them to realize they didn’t know.

The result was that they expressed more moderate opinions, and became less willing to make political donations in support of the programs, after discovering that they didn’t understand them as well as they had thought. I find this cheering.

Weeden and Kurzban, in research summarized in The Hidden Agenda of the Political Mind: How Self-Interest Shapes Our Opinions and Why We Won’t Admit It, find that differing pragmatic interests explain Americans’ political opinions better than differing ideological “values.” Supposed moral considerations are often just rationalizations for advocating government policies that will benefit you and your community (often at the expense of many or most other people).

Their discussion of sexual politics inspired mine in “The personal is political.” Analyzing politics, as I did there, in terms of three competing reproductive strategies may help both sides of the culture war understand each other’s interests, find unexpected areas of agreement, and negotiate pragmatic truces where there are genuine conflicts.17

To recap, the three strategies are:

  1. Opportunistic mating without marriage, and with minimal parental investment—especially, minimal support by fathers. This is most common among the underclass and lower working class.
  2. Early marriage (teens or early twenties); many children, starting shortly after marriage; emphasis on life-long monogamy; and high total parental investment, spread over many children. This large-family strategy became typical in the upper working class and lower middle class.
  3. Marriage and children delayed to late twenties or into the thirties in order to accumulate resources (university education and establishing a career); multiple sexual relationships before marriage; fewer children; highest per-child parental investment. This is typical of the upper middle class.

I found that setting aside “Biblical values” rhetoric, and understanding social conservatism as self-interested advocacy for government support for the large-family strategy, makes me more—not less—sympathetic. I don’t want a large family, but I can now see why people who do would adopt “moral” views that had previously made no sense to me. I don’t have a problem with their pursuing that strategy, so long as they leave others alone to pursue different ones.

Relatedly, Charles Murray points out that upper-middle-class liberals conform to key conservative values better than conservatives do: honest hard work, stable marriages, responsible parenting, and functional community. He advocates that they “preach what they practice,” rather than promoting an ideology that excuses and promotes dysfunctional behavior in the lower classes. This also makes sense to me.18 It could be helpful for both conservatives and liberals to admit that strategies 2 and 3 have much in common, and have things to learn from each other.

On this analysis, both conservatives and middle-class liberals deliberately conflate strategies 1 and 3. It’s rhetorically convenient for social conservatives to lump together everyone else, indistinguishably, as sexual deviants. However, the typical sexual behavior of people pursuing strategies 1 and 3 is entirely different. Middle class liberals, when having casual sex before marriage, are usually careful not to get pregnant; the same cannot be said for the underclass. Conservatives choose, unhelpfully, not to recognize that sexual permissiveness has different consequences for different groups.

At the same time, liberals’ admirable concern for the oppressed leads them to express solidarity with members of the underclass pursuing strategy 1. This may blind them to the realities of underclass dysfunction—notably including the bad consequences of teenage pregnancy and single-parent families. The incentives faced by people pursuing strategy 1 are radically different from those in strategy 3—more different than either is from strategy 2. Pretending otherwise, however well intentioned, does no one any good—including not the underclass themselves.

If it is true that the fundamental issue dividing social conservatives and liberals is early marriage and large families vs. late and small, there are genuine differences of pragmatic interest. Both will naturally want the government and other institutions to support their own strategy. However, if both sides recognize that this is what they really disagree about, perhaps they can agree to let each other get on with their own strategy, and to allow an even playing field rather than demanding policy preferences for their tribe.

  • 1. Which is unfortunate, considering that America needs concrete bridges quite badly. A 2013 study by the American Society of Civil Engineers found that more than one in ten of the country’s existing bridges were not structurally sound.
  • 2. Identifying the Baby Boom generation with counterculturalists is a convenient oversimplification. The monist (hippie) counterculture was almost entirely a Baby Boomer phenomenon. However, the youngest members of the demographic baby boom, born in the late ’50s and early ’60s, were too young to participate, and are not culturally Boomers. The dualist (Evangelical) counterculture was led by the generation before the Boomers. It attracted many Boomers, but also many from the first few years of Generation X, who were born in the second half of the 1960s and came of age in the early 1980s, when the Reagan Revolution was at its peak. Polls find that many of them still identify strongly with the dualist counterculture. However, most people in Generation X overall were, and remain, subculturalists.
  • 3. Jonathan Haidt and Sam Abrams write, in a recent article on political dysfunction: “The end of the Cold War coincided with the baton pass from the Greatest Generation to the baby boomers, who may be more prone to hyper-partisanship. Political views of people in their 50s and 60s are strongly affected by the events they experienced in their teens and twenties. The Greatest Generation – shaped profoundly by the two world wars – entered public life psychologically prepared to put national interests above partisanship, particularly when faced with external threats such as the Soviet Union. But as the last members of that generation retired from public life in the 1990s, they passed the baton to a generation whose political instincts were shaped by the internal American culture war that began in the 1960s. The baby boomers developed their political identities by fighting one another.”
  • 4. The collapse of belief in all grand narratives is the defining feature of postmodernity. The countercultural mode was the last gasp of modernity, and the subcultural mode was the first phase of postmodernity.
  • 5. This does not mean that the underlying issues are unimportant, or that they are not worth fighting over. However, I would suggest that it is more productive to contest a relevant policy proposal, rather than a symbol.
  • 6.Abortion Politics as Symbolic Politics: An Investigation into Belief Systems.”
  • 7. For an unusually sophisticated discussion of the ethics and politics of gun control, see the “No Silver Bullet” special issue of The Critique, with fine contributions from both sides.
  • 8. According to Wikipedia.
  • 9. Alexander doesn’t discuss Keystone XL, but other controversies in which advocates chose peculiarly unconvincing examples to fight over.
  • 10. From “Toxoplasma”; lightly edited for concision.
  • 11. This whole discussion comes out of my experience of trying to explain to American Baby Boomer Buddhists why their invented religion seems irrelevant and silly to Generations X and Y. I’ve found that most younger Buddhists immediately understand and agree with my critique. Most in the Boomer generation can’t hear it. There are exceptions, though! I don’t mean to condemn the whole generation.
  • 12. Quotes from Hunter lightly edited for concision.
  • 13. In The Moral Fool, Hans-Georg Moeller writes: “Morality is the condition of the market of social esteem. Morality is neither customary behavior nor a set of principles, but the actual social differentiation between those who are deemed good and those who are deemed bad or evil.” And: “Morality is not so much an inner conviction that prevents people from doing bad things as a rhetorical device that helps them justify their actions before and after they act. In fact morality often leads people to commit extreme acts in the name of good—that others will view as bad or even evil. The Zhuangzi observes that this is the primary effect of morality. A society in which there is a lot of moral talk will not have fewer crimes. All the moralists in the world have not, so far, prevented war and murder. There is no correlation between more moral talk and a better world. Moral language, in fact, seems to be part of the problem, not the solution.”
  • 14. This discussion is subject to the caveat that social psychology is currently (2016) experiencing a crisis of replicability. Common research methods have been found to be unreliable, and it appears that much of what was thought to be known in the field is not true. I’m not close enough to the field to have an opinion about which of the studies I cite are likely to hold up.
  • 15. Quotes from “The Key to Political Persuasion,” lightly edited for concision.
  • 16. Relatedly, research by Haidt, and by Willer and Feinberg, shows that liberals and conservatives believe they understand each other’s values much better than they actually do.
  • 17. This analysis is highly tentative and may be entirely wrong; but perhaps even then it can show the form of a resolution of cultural conflict through understanding.
  • 18. This does not imply that I agree with most of what he says, there or elsewhere.


This page is in the section Countercultures: modernity’s last gasp,
      which is in The history of meaningness,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The next page in this section is Completing the countercultures.

The previous page is Why both countercultures failed.

This page’s topics are Countercultures and Eternalism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.