On murmuring, alienation, and institutional failures

The philosopher David E. Cooper’s massive doorstop, World Religions: A Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), does have a leitmotiv. It is the “problem of ‘alienation’ or ‘estrangement.'”

By these terms, they [Hegel and Marx] meant the sense which many human beings–all of them, perhaps, at times–have of being ‘strangers’, of not being ‘at home’, in the world. Reading philosophers from all times and climes, I am struck by the accuracy of this perception of the central inspiration behind philosophical speculation, by the constant recurrences–from the earliest Indian thinkers recorded to twentieth-century existentialists–of the theme of alienation. We can ask of our primitive ancestors, ‘Staring at the sun, the sky, were they aware of their own being, and if so, what did they think?’, but without much hope of an answer. We might, though with rather more confidence, guess that when people did become ‘aware of their own being’, they became conscious, at the same time, of its strangeness, of respects in which, for all their affinity with the animal and wider natural world, they were also set apart from it. For with self-awareness, there would also have come the emergent appreciation of being a creature that can reason and deliberate, make free choices, enjoy beauty and feel resentment, care about the past and the long-term future, string meaningful noises together, depict the world of nature in coloured powders or movements of the limbs, and perhaps receive intimations of a purpose lying beyond the world: an appreciation, in short, of the many ways in which a human being belongs, or seems to belong, to a unique order of life. (5)

You, dear reader, have been patient, having listened to me speak aloud for over a week about St. Benedict’s concerns with murmuring. The reason that an individual murmurs, we can now see, is that he is alienated or estranged from that institution to which she belongs and not in spirit alone.

For a time, the murmurer will perform like a zombie, going through the motions after having lost her faith. There are only 3 possible explanations for her zombie-like state: 1) she has been poorly educated; thus, the task of re-educating her with the view of overcoming her sense of alienation; 2) her superior has been mistreating her, so the superior must be dealt with in some reasonable fashion; or 3) “something is rotten in Denmark,” the result of which is that the institution must be reformed or pulled down.

Today I have my eye on the third case, the case in which something is, as a matter of fact, rotten in Denmark. More often than not, the murmurer becomes so alienated from the institution that he must leave it behind. On occasion, however, his murmuring rings loud enough to bring down the house.

The Failures of an Institution: A Synoptic View

In rough and ready terms, institutions can be alienating accordingly.

1. They can be either ‘too sticky’ or ‘too runny.’ Earlier this summer, I summarized Francis Fukuyama’s observations about the problem of “stickiness.” At that time, I wrote,

Institutions are conservative with respect to change. They are “sticky,” writes Fukuyama: i.e., risk-averse, change-resistant.

Changing external conditions can cause unadaptive institutions to decay or collapse. “[T]he fact that societies are so enormously conservative with regard to institutions means that when the original conditions leading to the creation or adoption of an institution change, the institution fails to adjust quickly to meet the new circumstances. The disjunction in rates of change between institutions and the external environment then accounts for political decay or deinstitutionalization.” (452)

Too-sticky institutions cannot meet head-on the challenges posed by changing social, economic, and material conditions. Conversatism with respect to change, which in the past had been an abiding virtue inasmuch as it had secured the institution’s vital link with the past, with its traditions and customs, can also be the cause of its downfall in the present. If the world is changing for the better and the institution can’t keep up with emerging life needs, then it is bound to fall apart.

On the other hand, an institution may be “too runny” in the sense that it lacks the “social glue” or “integrity” to maintain the institution as an institution. For any number of reasons (not least being insufficient funds), the entity may be here today, gone tomorrow. Perhaps we could dub the “runny” case the Tale of the Towheaded Start-up!

2. They can lack intrinsically worthwhile final ends.  Business terms such as  “mission statement” or “company vision” may not be suitable substitutes for teloi if only because they may neglect the question of whether the final end is of independent weight and importance. Poor final ends may be any number of things ranging from evil to trivial, from deceptive to deleterious. Given time and further reflection, the murmurer can account for his alienation. “I can’t see that what I’m doing makes any contribution to the common good. The reason is that this institution’s actions do not aim at satisfying basic human needs or higher desires. So far as I can tell, there is no way in which we can go on like this. I must leave, or the institution must change.”

3. They can fail to support good social practices. Good institutions are seed beds for good social practices. The institution of marriage is the soil in which particular marriages can grow and flourish. An institution such as marriage may have a fine and beautiful final end–call it love–and yet, in its current instantiation, it may neither permit nor encourage all the activities we associate with being a good couple, all the planting, observing, cultivating, and harvesting, all the practices that are necessary for the possibility of this marriage being a good marriage.

On first acquaintance, the conclusion may be puzzling: it is not the case that this marriage is rotten, but it is the case that the institution of marriage can lack the right spirit.

Summary of the Series

Day 1: “Why We Need Good Authority.” I describe the structure and quality of good authority and good obedience. As the title suggests, I also make the case that we can’t do without good authority if we want our lives to go well.

Day 2: On Murmuring as a Clue to the Problem of Authority.” I cue into murmuring as a primal urge of disaffection and alienation. I then lay out 3 possible explanations for someone’s murmuring.

Day 3: “On Murmuring, Education, and Love.” I examine the first case. A person’s murmuring stems from her improper education. What does good education look like?

Day 4: “On Murmuring, Bad Authority, and the Abdication of Responsibility.” I explore the second case. A person’s murmuring is a sign that the authority figure is not exercising legitimate authority.

Day 5: “On Murmuring, Alienation, and Institutional Failures.” I discuss the third case. A person’s murmuring implies that an institution isn’t working.