Have we become too rational? This charge has been leveled at western society since the enlightenment. Critics believe that the age of reason and the advances of science can never accomplish ends like art, ethics, and morality. They point to the current paradigm as evidence of its failure. This position ignores the fact that even during the enlightenment, enlightenment values were not universally accepted. As soon as the enlightenment began, so too did its counter-movement, romanticism. The culture that has descended is the result of this constant interchange. This is particularly pronounced in the United States as it’s early settlers were composed of many of those who were most dissatisfied with the enlightenment.
To the present day, we remain a country of hopeless romanticism. While present since the beginning, the 1960’s saw a revival of romanticism that has become the dominant philosophical underpinning of all political movements since. In their now famous Combahee River Statement, a group of black feminists defined identity politics and foreshadowed the political expression of all to follow:
“We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
Identity politics is most often used as a pejorative, but the belief contained in the above passage is shared by a white supremacist and a black panther alike. Guns, gender, the vast majority of political issues dividing the culture are predominantly identity oriented.
The vast majority of opinions on said issues are little more than identity signaling or counter-signaling. In other words, I’m with you, or I’m against you. One can observe how often the contemporary debate of any hot-button identity issue is often devoid of policy. These debates largely function for its participants to seek and receive validation from an in-group of which they seek inclusion. We all live in communities that exert influence on us to conform to its norms. Anyone who has lived in different regions of the country can speak to the malleable nature of any norm.
Living as I have in California, Michigan, Montana, North Carolina and Washington one learns quickly that the self-professed identity of people in different regions often times do not map on to one and other. Even words like Democrat and Republican mean very different things to people in different regions. Most California Republicans are far more liberal than their Montana and North Carolina contemporaries. Same with the converse and the other party. Often times the only thing uniting members of identity groups like Democrats and Republicans is the self-profession of the identity. Learning how to navigate through regional ideology through means other than virtue signaling and conformity is only possible for those who have had to adjust to the experience of shifting norms and identity claims. Those who have spent their entire lives within one set have the hardest time understanding their claims are not universal. Hopeless romantics.
An easy rule of thumb for spotting a hopeless romantic since they call themselves a range of things depending on where you are… any opinion one takes without extensive consideration is likely to be little more than identity signaling. This isn’t good or bad per se, it just is. Just about everyone does it in some form or fashion. The sports fan is probably the most benign example. Fans of different teams read the same stats and come to wildly different conclusions. Who’s right? It isn’t so much a matter of right and wrong as it is a matter of validating one’s status as a member of the group. People don’t tune in to sports programs for accurate predictions. The pundits have a horrible track record but they fill the psychic needs of fans every day so the entire charade continues unabated. This is a largely harmless enterprise as it pertains to sports but the model, unfortunately, has been replicated so many times that a sports debate show is an apropos representation of discourse in our culture. Two people loudly representing opposite ends of a binary dichotomy excluding the middle. Embrace debate they say on ESPN.
The values of the romantics are subjective truth & internal experience and the through-line of identity politics is to focus on one’s own oppression over the oppression of others. Identity politics in all of its forms across the political spectrum is further evidence we are not rational agents weighing issues. We are more accurately hopeless romantics so rapt in our own feelings of identity we cease to relate to others who profess different identities.
Garbled relativist is the most common symptom of hopeless romanticism. Garbled relativists are scattered throughout our political spectrum. Despite clearly identifying and expressing a preference for a particular party, their views on a host of policy matters shift with the political landscape. They have been both for and against a host of issues from leaking classified information, debt spending, sexual proclivities, use of force, law and order, etc… From Snowden, to Clinton’s emails, to Comey’s memos, garbled relativists are incapable of holding a consistent position. Ask a garbled relativist a simple question like, “Are you against sexual assault?” They will be unable to answer or will answer inconsistently depending on the identity of the accused.
Ironically, while they see themselves as opposed to members of other identity groups, in reality, the deep commitment to subjective truth and internal reference points that they all share would make them all great members of any cult. Put another way, they would all make good North Koreans if given the opportunity. Authentic belief and action are not desired. The ways in which they are similar to their supposed enemies far exceeds their differences.
Consciousness is subjective experience plus integrated experience. Different philosophical camps tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other. Our current understanding of consciousness is showing that to do so in either direction obscures reality. If we want to address the moral and ethical questions of our time we will first need to shed the baggage. Rationalism and the values of the Enlightenment are a tool (let’s call it your hammer), just as the subjective experience and the passions emphasized by the Romantics are (let’s call it your brush). Hammers aren’t better than brushes. Brushes aren’t better than hammers…you actually have to learn to use the right tool all by yourself. Only one isn’t going to get much of anything done well. If you are painting a canvas (answering a moral or ethical question) don’t use your hammer. The composition will suck. Conversely, if you are building a house (making something) put away the brushes and get out of your feelings before you just make a mess of things.
There is a general tendency in Western thought to break things down into parts of the whole, seek to understand the parts individually, then work to understand the whole from the sum of the parts. This approach works to solve some problems but in the East, a different orientation is used. They see inseparable parts making up one unified whole. The breaks and delineations we often make in the West would have little significance to someone not brought up in our culture. This relates to this topic of reason vs emotion. Which is better? Wrong question. They are inseparable parts of the human condition.
Instead of thinking of the enlightenment or romanticism as “failing” one can see them as logical reactions to one and other, wholly dependent on one and other. The obvious shortcomings of each mode suggest that neither the age of reason nor it counter holds the answers to our ethical and moral questions. Only when man takes full responsibility for his existence, understands and embraces the totality of what it is to be human will we break out of our current slumber.