I finished Part II of this "thinking out loud"-style series by suggesting two things.
The first was that the Wokist devastation of our society suggests our society's original rules set the boundaries of tolerance too far apart. The space thereby created allowed this ruthlessly intolerant, totalitarian ideology to take root and spread. As predicted by Karl Popper's Paradox of Tolerance, Wokism is now exterminating the very tolerance which allowed it to thrive in the first place. It permits no other rival ideologies. It is our own Islamic fundamentalism.
The second thing I suggested was that too much tolerance not only permitted this intolerant, totalitarian ideology to take root and spread, but was, in fact, the very thing which created the demand for it.
If this second suggestion sounds familiar, it might be because the German-Jewish psychologist Erich Fromm wrote a book about it eighty years ago. In Escape from Freedom, Fromm argued that while modern liberal democracy has freed man from the strong, inherited social bonds and obligations of pre-modern society, that freedom has left him isolated, disoriented, directionless, insecure, anxious, and feeling powerless.
One response to this, says Fromm, is a turn toward authoritarianism. The ailing modern man seeks to exercise authority and control over others as a way of imposing order on a world he now finds unnervingly chaotic. At the same time, he seeks out some supreme authority to submit himself to, who will control and direct him. That supreme authority could be either a person, or a set of abstract ideals (say, a "one true truth" ideology).
Another response is a turn toward destructiveness. This occurs because as ailing modern man seeks to impose order on chaotic life by exercising authority and control over other entities, he will always encounter entities he cannot control.
But the existence of things he cannot control amounts to a humiliating symbol and reminder of the powerlessness he seeks to overcome. Therefore, what he cannot control, he must destroy. Only then can he feel potent—valuable and worthwhile—again.
A third response is a turn toward conformity. This occurs because modernity's extraction of man from natural layers of social embeddedness amounts to identity deprivation. It destabilizes, diminishes, even fractures his sense of self. Yet without a strong self, orientation within the world—navigation of it—becomes impossible.
Now anxious and insecure, the ailing modern man eventually seeks out a robust self by immersing himself in some greater collective whole. The price of his full absorption into that whole is the extermination of any part of himself at odds with the whole, along with the instant, uncritical adoption of that whole's pre-existing thoughts, words, and deeds.
What it believes, he now believes. What it wills, he wills. If it changes its mind, he changes his mind. He has become the thing itself. He has become everyone else in it. His individual self is now the collective self, and vice versa. There is no distinction anymore for anyone involved. Fromm calls this automaton conformity.
His salvation from distress has come through the eradication of his own uniqueness, and his rebirth as an automaton conformist united with a greater whole. The same is true of every other automaton conformist who has absorbed himself into that greater whole.
What this means is that preservation of the collective whole of automaton conformity becomes the most important duty of each person involved. Without the constant fuel provided by the conformist whole itself, all the new identities would collapse. Ailing modern man would find himself right back where he started—in pain, and alone.
As a result, members of the whole all perceive any appearance of any non-conformity—any free thinking, for example—as a clear and present danger to themselves. Each expression of non-conformity must be exterminated by any means necessary. No sense of fairness or proportion obtains; no specific protocol applies. The only thing that matters is preventing a return to the original distress. That requires the ruthless, collective enforcement of automaton conformity.
This enforcement begins within. Each member seeks to identify and exterminate thought crimes within himself as effectively as possible, even before scouring the world outside.
After all, if tolerated, the non-conformist thoughts within might grow. Quickly enough, they would dissolve the new identity. Expulsion from the group would occur. The distress would return.
Moreover, if shared, non-conformist thoughts would poison others and destroy the collective whole. That in turn would destroy all the identities dependent upon it. Everything would fall apart. Eternal vigilance—and instant, ruthless extermination of any threat, no matter how small—is the means to prevent psychological, emotional, spiritual agony. Toleration cannot be tolerated.
Modern commentators sometimes describe this phenomenon as a "purity spiral". What Fromm would say is that yes, it is a purity spiral, but it is also something else. It is first an ongoing improvement of self-defense protocols—an expression of the will to survive, and thrive, and avoid the distress inevitably created by a surfeit of freedom.
Fromm suggests that in freeing people from traditional sources of identity and meaning, modern society creates isolated, anxious, insecure individuals who, in response, desperately try to escape that freedom, and even destroy it.
I've expanded on Fromm's ideas here, but that's a fair representation of them. I raise them because they plausibly identify the psychological drivers of Wokism.
What Fromm's views further suggest is that beyond things merely "going wrong", there might have been serious structural defects in the original conception of liberal democratic order itself. That is, he implies that when it comes to human beings and their social environments, there's a sweet spot between freedom and its absence, and we're not in it.
Fromm's diagnosis is worth taking seriously.
What about his proposed solution?
I'll take that up next time.
Mark returns this evening for another edition of Mark Steyn's Passing Parade
Tal will be back here next week to continue the conversation. If you can't wait that long, he'll be performing alongside Randy Bachman tonight over at Bachman and Bachman, starting at 9pm ET.
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