Rural America’s Rejection of the Creative, Inclusive Society

Context

Let me begin by saying that I grew up in a small midwestern town, that I finished a Ph.D. at a prominent, very left-leaning research university, and that for the past five years or so I have considered myself to be an independent. I stand neither on the left nor on the right, believing with Hegel that they are both “one-sided,” and yet because the left has a near monopoly on intellectuals, I address them most often. In this post, I try to show how the relationship between the university and a particular conception of society furthered by the university has been rejected in the American Presidential Election held on November 8, 2016.

There are, of course, many ways of interpreting the election. Some say that the election of Donald Trump represents a rejection of neoliberalism, others of the liberal democratic order. These as well as other reasonable interpretations I have no truck with, and I have no reason to believe that they don’t get some things right. Nonetheless, I am choosing another target to aim at: the left’s conception of the good society. It is this that rural folks have rejected.

The First Part: The Inclusive Society

And what is that conception? For starters, we should note in general what the leftist project has been. The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton nicely suggests that it’s two-fold according to Alan Jacobs in a recent book review: a commitment, Jacob writes, “to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and [a commitment to] to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.” In my view, the first has been largely lost in the developed world or at least in the US while the second commitment has become much more prominent.

Now, since the New Left movements of the 1960s, political activists have slowly been shifting their attention (in Nancy Fraser’s terms) toward recognition. It seems to me that the major aim is this: to achieve equality is to have one’s identity or identities recognized by the social order. Perhaps it would be good to call this, following the work of Charles Taylor, an expressive conception of equality: I am equal just in case I am able to freely express my most salient identities, provided that these fall within a particular suite of sociologically determined categories.

What sort of society, then, is it in which each person is equal just to the degree that he or she is free to express his or her most salient identities? This would be what I’ll here call the inclusive society. A society is inclusive, on this view, if each person feels safe to express his or her chosen identity or identities and if each of those identities is recognized by the larger public.

I believe this is the first part of the picture, and it would help to point out how over time there has been a proliferation of identities. Initially, the salient sociologically construed categories were religion (?), nationality (?), race, class, and gender. Then came sexuality or sexual orientation. Then came some identity associated with ableness. More have been added since. To say that some concatenation of these is my identity is just to say that I belong to the groups that recognize these identities and that I am recognized in some more abstract sense by members of the inclusive society who do not themselves claim the identity or identities that I do. In this society, one feels “seen” or feels “invisible.”

The Second Part: The Creative Class

To see the second part, we need to refer to Richard Florida’s work, specifically his The Rise of the Creative Class. Originally published in 2002, the book sought to show that the class driving the new economy would not be agriculture or manufacturing or service but rather the creative types working in “creative industries” such as Internet Technology, finance, entertainment, advertising, branding, academia, social innovation, the arts, entrepreneurship, and design. Its further claim, consistent with the seminal work of Jane Jacobs, was that these creative types operated, and would continue to operate, in the heart of cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Copenhagen, living in close proximity with one another. The proximity made serendipity possible and allowed new ideas to take shape and spread.

It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that those working in the creative industries are college-educated, often at our elite public and private universities, and therefore that many of them have adopted the inclusive society as their living political philosophy.

My proposal, born not just of my training in the humanities spanning two decades but also of my experience working at several organizations, is that we can put these two together. The creative class is largely concerned with, while being made up of, those already committed to the goal of greater inclusiveness (or the twin goals of inclusiveness and creativity). Hence, the sort of society that is brought into focus, and is deemed to be desirable, is what I’m here terming the creative, inclusive society.

Rejection of The University

I argue that those predominantly rural folks, the ones who largely voted for Trump, were rejecting this vision of the creative, inclusive society. To say that they were rejecting this vision of a good society is not to say yet that they were, or are, bigoted, racist, sexist, and so forth for having rejected such a vision. Some may be, but that’s beside the point. To say no to something or to negate something is not necessarily to claim that the contrary is true. Rather, it can mean claiming that something else, something heterodoxically different from what’s on offer is to be endorsed, and this is what occurred.

I take it that, given that these ideas about the creative, inclusive society flowed from and continue to flow from the humanities and social sciences in the university, this should be regarded as impugning much of what goes on at a university today. It’s just not the case that the university’s values are those of the rural folk living throughout the plain states.

For them, other virtues such as self-sufficiency, industriousness, and proper pride as well as other values such as self-respect, admiration, and the opportunity to generally lead a dignified, as opposed to a degraded, life surely play a far greater role in the everyday lives and aspirations of small town people. A dignified life set among family members and neighbors who respect them would at least move us in the right direction of understanding a competing inchoate conception of a good society, one no doubt based on human excellence and on getting what one deserves. On this score, hear Michael Moore speak in their voice about the horrors of neoliberalism:

They’ve lost their jobs, the banks foreclosed, next came the divorce and now the wife and kids are gone, the car’s been repoed. They haven’t had a vacation in years, they’re stuck with the sh***y bronze plan where you can’t even get a f***ing Percocet. They’ve essentially lost everything they have except one thing […]: the right to vote. They might be penniless, they might be homeless, they might be f**ked over and f**ked up – it doesn’t matter because it’s equalised on that day.

To confirm my claim that the university’s commitment to propagating its vision of the creative, inclusive society is not at all what rural folks would themselves espouse, consider the #NotMyPresident demonstrations, the unthinking moral indignation of them all. Where have these taken place? Predictably, in Austin, Texas; in Boulder, Colorado; in Berkeley, California; in Storrs, Connecticut: in short, in the very college cities whose outlook has summarily, swiftly, and forcibly been rejected.

Our Socratic Moment

Socrates is my hero because, with greater determination than anyone else, he insisted that those in power and those claiming to have knowledge don’t actually know what they’re talking about. Those in the media who have been university-educated should swallow Socrates’s medicine. They don’t know what they’re talking about, and during what I’ve elsewhere called The Great Muddle nor do we; we don’t really know how to live today. Just muddling through, we have no reason to act in a knee-jerk way, claiming some moral high ground, calling foul, or assuming that red state denizens are fools or rubes. It is rather, on this interpretation, that they rejected the very conception of the good society that the university continues, without deep self-examination, to advance. It is high time that we called that picture of a good society into question, holding it up so that we might examine it as well as ourselves.

Philosophy and Linguistic Tyranny

Philosophy is no match for linguistic violence. Aggressive assertion bordering on the ad hominem can only elicit meditative silence or, egged on into heedless reaction, mad rhetorical venom. Philosophy not only cannot compete but also dies when language gets armed, and armed language cannot be disarmed by the probing question.

Moral probity and great earnestness, both taking shape in the question, collide with their other and then crumple up upon themselves whenever the respondent’s words are shot through entirely with contempt, a vicious and partially disguised form of hatred. Self-righteousness, impatience, fury, exasperation, disbelief all conspire to make any point–his–forcefully final.

A liberal person ceases to be liberal once he becomes a linguistic tyrant, rejecting any and all questions. Everything but what he asserts without challenge is a waste of his time, but he is too polite to let you know.

Richard Rorty, the great philosopher of conversation, was once asked what he’d do if he were faced with a Nazi. “Shoot him” was his coy yet candid reply. By which he meant that there are clear limits to the possibility of genuine dialogue, of speech, and don’t kid yourself, huh, into believing that careful, reasoned discourse shall open a man’s closed and festering heart. Should you try, he’ll laugh you down, calling you an ineffectual bloviator whose central task, by his lights, is obfuscation and inaction for to him all houses are burning down right now and the world is in the midst of one grand conflagration. If you’re thinking and not acting, insisting on thinking before acting, then you’re one of the enemies. You, being a philosopher, are a damned fool, a ninny, a hindrance, and he doesn’t, and won’t, suffer fools lightly.

This is not the end of the story since philosophy, being partially about reasoned discourse into what we do not know, is also constitutional. Zhuangzi’s epigram from somewhere deep in his great Daoist work The Inner Chapters is: “To argue is to miss the point.” To hold silence when confronted with another’s linguistic violence and indeed to try one’s best not to spread animosity and sow discord thereafter is a gift one gives to others even if they do not know how great is the gift they are receiving.

In Matthew 5:43-8, Jesus makes the most paradoxical, demanding claim imaginable, urging us not just to “love our neighbors” but to “love our enemies.” What, weirdly, would it mean for philosophy to love the bullshitter who cares nothing for the truth as well as the linguistic tyrant whose force forecloses philosophizing? Is that even possible?

Why Spreading Disquiet is not OK

I

What does a Buddhist view of dukkha have to say about an area of ethical life that, albeit nearly everywhere evident, goes largely unremarked upon? Let me turn to the first two Noble Truths in order to set up what I wish to argue.

The First Noble Truth is that life as we know it is dukkha (unsatisfactoriness, disquiet). Life as we know it, life before setting and without ever having set a foot onto a Buddhist path, is full of pain, suffering, unrest, ill-at-easedness. This metaphysical premise is, I take it, based on very keen and insightful empirical observations.

It is not true, of course, that at any instant someone is feeling disquieted, but it is true that someone will continue throughout his life to face disquiet. This is guaranteed since ilness, injury, aging, and death assure us that it shall be so. Another major metaphysical premise concerning impermanence is tragically posed against the Second Noble Truth, which is that the cause of dukkha is tanha (clinging, attachment and aversion, “thirsting”). We cling to what shall pass on, and we hold aversions to those some phenomena that come into existence. We are in big trouble, it seems.

II

This is enough to set up the following discussion, which is what is of most concern for me. I notice how often someone’s afflictions, being voiced, thereby harm others, and this somehow passes below our concern about ethical life. We pay close attention to wrong action and its connection with guilt; to feeling shame due to the way in which we fall short in the eyes of others; even, in the Christian tradition, to the sorts of unsavory thoughts we have, about which a Christian can be quite torn up. Yet we seem to think nothing of how our presences can inflict harm on others. We don’t seem to think it matters that not taking care of ourselves, we can make for foul company and, in turn, can ooze foulness onto others. We take matters much too lightly in not having a rich and subtle enough ethical vocabulary to say that this, actually, isn’t OK.

The philosopher Graham Priest, in “Compassion and the Net of Indra,” a chapter in the collected volume Moonpaths: Ethics and Emptiness (Oxford University Press, 2015, 221-39), makes this plain, reiterating the Buddhist argument that (a) I am implicated in others’ dukkha and (b) I can implicate others in my dukkha. So:

[D]isquiet in others occasions disquiet in other sentient creatures of sufficient awareness, such as me. In one way, we are all very familiar with this phenomenon. Negative emotions of others, even of those we simply pass in the street, tend to be communicated to us. We naturally respond to fear, hostility, anger, in a like manner. Fear in others can trigger a wave of fear in us; the hostility of another triggers a hostile response; and so on.

And even further: “I take it,” Priest concludes, “that disquiet in others does affect us, even if we are not conscious of this” (my italics). If Priest is right, then others’ disquiet can adversely affect us knowingly or, indeed, unconsciously because such disquiet can leave us feeling fearful, hostile, angry, and unnerved.

III

“So what is so troubling about all this anyway? It happens all the time.” You answered your own question. What is so troubling about this just is that it happens all the time. And, as I have already suggested, even more pernicious is that our ethical lives remain impoverished to the extent that we don’t believe that it’s an intelligible ethical claim to say: “Quit your careless bitching. Stop your inconsiderate complaining. Enough with the spewing. Next time check yourself before you enter the room.”

What now strikes me as being even more disturbing is that we have built a modern culture on the presumption of self-importance, on the idea that it’s a good idea to spew your shit, to get it out there, to unload, to vent your spleen. What you’re going through matters. well, sure, up to a point. But how you’re going through it is what really matters.

Now, if Buddhists are right and I’m inclined to think they are, then all of this in modern culture is pretty much backwards. One should take care of one’s thoughts, one’s actions, and one’s speech. Vigilantly, very vigilantly. One should blush, to say the least, whenever one discovers that one is thinking, speaking, or acting based on a high degree of self-importance. One should be very, very observant and mindful when it comes to the sorts of things one thinks, says, and does, not to mention the way in which one’s presence is felt. And it should be entirely apt for others to make a potent, intelligible ethical claim that you’re not keeping your shit together and it’s spoiling things for everyone else.

If you wish to investigate why you are disquieted in a disinterested, inquisitive manner, then–marvelous!–all to the good. If you wish to ease yourself of your attachments and aversions, then so much the better. Otherwise, best to keep your dukkha to yourself for fear of spreading this noxious odor, this dangerous toxin….