Monday, 19 December 2016

Personal Story: How I Came to Have a Problem with Contemporary Morality

This is an article where I recall my experiences realising something was wrong with the culture.

By the time I realised something was wrong, it was clear to me that it had been building for a while. I had no recollection of feeling anything unusual as a teenager, or even as late as my mid-twenties, so it must have begun sometime after that. Probably soon after, as I had recently turned thirty and it had clearly been building for some time. That was as much as I could narrow it down.
But what was it? Looking back, I could roughly identify four stages of development.
First, a gradual change in my consumption of various media and entertainment products. I began to turn away from the things I had enjoyed in my younger years: movies, television, books, music. I also began to actively seek out products outside the mainstream. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, beyond the fact that I was getting older and wanted to spend more time on other activities.

Then, as this continued, I began to notice a palpable discomfort, not only during the increasingly rare times that I consumed these products, but also in my everyday life: movie billboards on the street, music videos playing at the gym, conversations with everyday people. The things I had tried to avoid were gradually making their way into every part of my life, and with it came an increasing discomfort that had begun to follow me around. Still, though, I don’t recall thinking too deeply about this. My behaviour was mostly reflexive and I was preoccupied with other things.

After a while, my discomfort morphed into anger. I began to feel that I was under attack; that my discomfort was being caused by someone with a deliberate agenda and a systematic approach. In hindsight, while I don’t recall much conscious reflection, the pieces were starting to fall together in my subconscious. I began to sense that there was a pattern to all this; that all the disparate aspects of the culture surrounding me were pushing in the same direction. A direction which I now perceived as an attack. So I began lashing out. In discussions with friends and family. On the internet. But mostly in my own head.
And then, finally, things started to crystallise. I realised that this was not just as an emotional problem, but an intellectual one. My attention turned from lashing out to looking for answers: who is driving all of this, and what are they trying to accomplish? I had some ideas, of course, but they were quite fragmented; I was still searching for an overarching theme. It seemed to me that there was such a thing, an invisible hand pushing all of contemporary culture in the same direction, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
One day I had a moment of clarity. I was watching Hostel 2, a horror movie about a group of youngsters caught and sold for torture. In hindsight, there was nothing special about this movie; it could have been any of a number of mainstream movies. As I was watching, it suddenly dawned on me: this whole thing is a fa├žade. The filmmakers didn’t just develop a plot and then sneak in a few moral messages, I realised. It’s the other way around. The moral message is the plot, and everything else is built on top of it, to give it the appearance of entertainment.
I realised this because at that moment the moral message became clear to me: a full-blown condemnation of masculinity. Every aspect of the movie, I now saw, was carefully chosen to support this underlying message. The superficial plot. The musical cues. The choice of actors. The symbolism. All carefully designed, with a thin layer of entertainment placed on top. Having realised this, my world began to change. I started noticing the same pattern throughout the culture.
What I had previously vaguely sensed I now saw in detail. And it was everywhere, from movies to television to music to fashion to advertising. The way in which heroes and villains were assigned certain characteristics. The way in which plots would play out karmic justice. The way in which imagery and music were used to stimulate emotional responses. It suddenly seemed so carefully designed and co-ordinated. It couldn’t really be co-ordinated, or even deliberately designed, I thought, yet there was the appearance of co-ordination. And it became even more apparent as I started noticing developments.
It was as if every movie season, every television season, every fashion season, followed a co-ordinated trend. As if they were moving down a path. Things people thought were cool or fashionable weren’t just arbitrary creations by cultural influencers. They were parts of a clear trend, with each step building on the previous. A trend that, while it may have been going on for a while, seemed to me to have undergone a phase shift in the early 2000s, causing me to feel under attack in a way I hadn’t previously.
My focus gradually shifted towards the people involved. I lived in Europe, so my basic notion of the culture was that it was ‘American’. I knew that movies were made in Hollywood, but had not thought too deeply about it beyond that. Yet as I looked more closely things began to emerge.
On the surface, the culture appears quite diverse. The faces of the culture, singers and actors, come from a variety of different backgrounds, and it shows. But singers, especially very popular singers, usually do not write their own songs, and actors certainly do not write their own scripts. They are merely presenting what someone else has written. To understand who is driving the culture one must look to the people behind the scenes: writers, producers, directors, and executives.
And what one finds here, I discovered, is a very homogenous group. Almost exclusively people who come from white, middle- or upper-class homes on the American coasts, especially New York and Los Angeles, and who predominantly have graduated from a small set of upscale universities. Many are Ashkenazi Jews, despite making up a tiny portion of the population. This was an eye-opener for me. But why does it matter? Because, I realised, this explains the remarkable degree of co-ordination that appears to exist in the culture.
There is no deliberate co-ordination of the culture. Rather, it’s the enactment of a particular belief system, a belief system that is dominant in this segment of society. Because such a large portion of cultural influencers share it, they can build off each other’s work without ever having to communicate. And because they effectively control the culture, they function as gatekeepers, ensuring that when people from other backgrounds want access to cultural influence, only those who share their belief system are allowed in.
But why was there this systematic attack on masculinity? What was it in their belief system that was causing this? I had noticed something strange about some of the cultural products. They had a certain feel to them. It wasn’t just that these products were promoting certain beliefs; it was more than that. They seemed personal, in a way I couldn’t quite explain. This was most evident in a certain type of movie that had rapidly gained popularity. Notable examples were Kill Bill, Kick Ass, and Sin City.
What made these movies interesting, I felt, was that they embodied the spirit of the culture, yet did so more openly and more extremely than other cultural products. They were characterised by a very particular theme. The villains were men, typically given very stereotypical masculine traits, both physical and behavioural, exaggerated to make them seem unlikable and stupid. The heroes were women, typically assigned balanced traits to make them seem likable and resourceful.
The plots would typically be the following: the men start out by harming the women, brutally and without justification, after which the women regroup and resourcefully set out to revenge themselves, the movie ending with the men beaten up and humiliated. Now, one might naively expect these movies to be made by women, but that was not the case at all, I noticed. In fact, not only were they almost exclusively made by men, they were almost exclusively watched by men. And not just any men, a certain segment of men. The same segment that made them: white middle- and upper class young men.
But why? The clue lay in how they responded to these movies. It wasn’t entertainment for them. The emotional stimulation was too intense for that, and the symbolism too overt. Rather, it seemed to me more like a sense of obligation. Like they were willing themselves through the movies and were rewarded at the end with a feeling of relief. These movies were devices, I realised. Devices for self-flagellation. Young men would go to the cinema, would identify with the villains through their overtly masculine traits, and then would project on to them as they wronged the female protagonists and were ultimately punished for their actions through physical harm and humiliation.
All of it supported by intensely graphic imagery and immersed in unequivocal symbolism. There was nothing subtle about any of it. And so these young men would leave the cinema saturated from emotional stimulation, but having achieved release. At least for a moment, until whatever it was that had made them crave release found its way back inside them. There was something so very strange about this whole thing. Yet at the same time, so very familiar.
It was a cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, a distinct characteristic of many religions. But there was no religion at work here, at least none that I could see. Yet given the homogeneity of the cultural influencers, there’s something about their belief system that’s causing them to do this, I realised. The narrative of these movies, of men wronging women and eventually being punished for it, seemed like something they had internalised during their upbringing and were now enacting.
It was undoubtedly a common narrative in this segment of society, functioning almost like a religious myth. But why had it become so popular among that group of people, and more importantly, why did the men in this group have such a deep sense of guilt that they experienced such release from enacting it in graphic detail?
The reason for this narrative having such power in that group was that it reflected something much deeper, I realised. At the core of the belief system that dominated this segment of society was a gender-related slant. There was no other way to perceive it, especially when held up against modern developments in evolutionary psychology. Men seem to have much stronger tendencies toward certain types of behaviour: individualism, competitiveness, power-seeking, risk-taking, and aggressiveness, while women seem to have stronger tendencies toward collectivism, collaboration, altruism, restraint, and passivity. And there is no real mystery why these tendencies exist, they are well-explained by evolutionary theory.
Yet it seems clear that the belief system that dominates in this segment of society regards the former as sinful at worst and tolerable at best, while it regards the latter as virtuous. This, I found, is reflected throughout the language and practices of this group of people. Altruism and collaboration, especially, are treated with veneration, while individualism and competitiveness are treated with suspicion or even outright hostility.
It’s no mystery, then, that men raised in this environment intuitively recognise a conflict between the belief system thrust upon them and some of their deepest biological tendencies, and as they come into maturity and these biological tendencies strengthen find the conflict morphing into a deep sense of guilt. Nor is it a mystery that they recognise that their masculinity is at the centre of the conflict and that their guilt is tied to it. And so, finally, it’s no mystery that they so piously embrace the narrative of the foolish and unjust man punished for his sins by the wise and virtuous woman. It gives them a concrete image to project onto as they search for ways to find release for their guilt.
This also explained why I noticed a shift in the culture around the early 2000s: the first generation of people raised in an environment entirely governed by this belief system, from parents to teachers to peers, started coming into positions of influence in the culture. And while popular culture had long before begun inserting these beliefs into their entertainment products, evident throughout the 80s and 90s, this seemed to me to mark a time in the culture where the beliefs increasingly became the product itself, with entertainment becoming a secondary consideration.
Culture used to be this way, of course, when Christianity ruled the Western world, so this was in some sense a return to earlier times. As Christianity had gradually lost its hold on the culture there seemed to me to have been a period where it was less agenda-driven, or at least where there wasn’t a single, dominant agenda, and where entertainment was the main focus. Now it seemed to me that the culture had shifted to again being driven by a single agenda; under the complete control of a single belief system. And now every new movie, every new television show, was an opportunity for cultural influencers to nudge society one more little step in the direction they wanted, with no real resistance.
And following that development seemed to me to be an increasing sense of guilt and self-flagellation among men. It had become a vicious cycle. As these beliefs pervaded the culture men were increasingly feeling a deep-seated guilt about the masculinity, which in turn lead them to themselves echo the beliefs, as part of an attempt to acknowledge and thus find relief for their guilt. As a consequence, the self-flagellation devices made their way through the culture, finding their way in more subtle forms into an increasing number of cultural products, which further perpetuated the cycle. And it seemed to me that this procedure was expanding to other areas.
While masculinity was still the primary marker of guilt, ethnicity became a secondary marker, thus allowing the cultural influencers to draw white women into their circle of guilt. Perhaps most notably illustrated when Quentin Tarantino, the most influential cultural driver of the aforementioned movies on masculine self-flagellation, started making movies like Django Unchained and Inglourius Basterds. His success, I thought, was first and foremost due to an ability to sense building cultural trends and bring them to the forefront, presented through over-the-top graphic imagery.
As I was in the midst of this process, another event was underway: the 2008 US Presidential Elections. Despite not living in America, I had a long-standing interest in American politics. Part of what distinguishes American politics from that of most other countries is that it’s more philosophical, which I found made for interesting debates. So, I followed with interest.
The initial coverage and early debates were somewhat lacking in substance, I thought. Yet as the primaries progressed something strange happened. The media coverage shifted from a mostly dispassionate coverage of the candidates to an increasingly passionate support of Obama. But this didn’t seem to me to have much to do with his policies. His policies, even more so than his opponents’, were quite vague, and that didn’t change much as the campaign wore on.
This was a bit puzzling to me at the time, and I began to feel a certain discomfort. I would open a newspaper or turn on CNN and there would invariably be a report on Obama, brimming with enthusiasm, with just enough restraint to give it a veil of objectivity. But it was clear what the media thought; it shone through in the words they used, the images they showed, the issues they emphasised.
And this was even more true of the European media, I found. They seemed to know even less about Obama’s policies than their American counterparts, yet their coverage would be full of pro-Obama articles attempting to explain how Obama and his policies would benefit America and the world. This, of course, carried over to the population. I noticed that social gatherings would frequently contain enthusiastic conversations about Obama, where people would reference his various policies as the reason for their support, yet upon question they had no real idea of the content of his policies, nor of his opponents’.
I quickly realised during these conversations what was going on: people’s support for Obama had nothing to do with his policies. They were a means of rationalising people’s real reasons for supporting Obama, not just to other people but to themselves as well. The real reasons seemed clear to me: a combination of Obama’s ethnicity and the enthusiastic support of cultural and academic influencers. Yet, for most of these people, those were not acceptable reasons for supporting a political candidate, so they used policies as rationalisation. This led to something of a charade, both in private conversations and in the media.
In some ways, Obama’s election was consistent with what I had noticed in the culture: the subtle use of morality and guilt as a tool of persuasion. As his campaign went on there seemed to be an increasingly emotional attachment. There would be video clips of him delivering a speech in his stilted and slightly awkward manner, during which the camera would pan to the front of the audience to show young white college students sobbing uncontrollably.
When he was elected, there were reports of college students throughout America marching all night chanting his campaign slogan over and over. But what I now noticed went beyond morality itself. There was an attempt to rationalise the morality; to make it seem rational. And this was not just movie directors and screenwriters and the like. This was news media. It was intellectuals. People who, unlike those in the entertainment industry, defined themselves largely through a commitment to truth. Yet there was something very untruthful about these rationalisations.
I realised that this was just the tip of the iceberg; that the rationalisation I noticed during the Obama campaign was just one of an array of methods that secular moralists use to promote their moral beliefs under the guise of science and reason, thus creating the illusion that secular morality is more scientific than it actually is.
As I began to piece all this together, the feelings of anger and discomfort that I had felt for a while came to a head. Finally, I realised what it was that was bothering me: an inner conflict. A conflict that stemmed from trying to reconcile my observations with a belief that I was only vaguely aware that I held. I now understood what it was, as it upon reflection came to the forefront of my awareness.
It was a model; a categorisation of society into two groups of people: religious and rational. There was some history to this. I grew up in a mildly religious home and attended moderately religious schools for a number of years. My exposure to religion was mild enough to not impose itself on me, yet enough to give a basic idea of what it was about. I wasn’t impressed. Fascinated with science, I recall myself shaking my head in religious classes. I declared myself an atheist in my early teens and my parents allowed me to move to a secular school.
And I never really looked back. In hindsight, it’s clear I held on to a certain categorisation of people, formed during my childhood. Religious people were irrational, emotional, prone to misuse of reason and science to fit their beliefs, and driven by notions of guilt and sin. Meanwhile, secular people were rational, unemotional, placed reason and science above any particular beliefs, and were driven by a commitment to truth.
I had gone through much of my life secure in this belief. And while I had been aware that my economic views differed from most intellectuals, I had held to the unquestioned belief that it was just a question of rational discourse. For people free of irrational beliefs, everything can be resolved through rational argument, I had assumed without deeper thought. But I now came to realise that this model was an illusion. There can be no agreement on those types of issues when beneath a thin layer of science and reason are seemingly irrational moral beliefs. Even less so when that layer of science and reason is manipulated to support those moral beliefs.
This is what had bothered me so much about Obama’s campaign. I had waited for a policy discussion, armed with my own ideas on government and economics. But it never came. Instead, intellectuals had simply avoided it entirely, engaging in an emotional and morally-driven process covered under a thin veneer of rational discourse. I now realised that this would always be the case. There would always be another symbol to rally behind, a new moral battle to fight, more guilt to provoke. And through all of this society would continue down the path it’s heading, as government keeps growing and feelings of guilt and self-hatred deepen.
Meanwhile, science and reason would be held up as justification for all this. It was a red herring, I now saw all too clearly. When push came to shove, when issues came close enough to core moral beliefs, science and reason would morph into tools of manipulation for most intellectuals, regardless of their claims to the contrary.
There was something very, very wrong with this whole thing, I thought. This wasn’t what I signed up for when I declared myself an atheist all those years ago. And so, I was forced to reassess my model of society. I did not, as I had previously believed, belong to the group of people I had mistakenly labelled as rational. This group, I now realised, was engaged in a systematic attack on my values, with morality and guilt as its tools, and a veil of science and reason as its cover. In fact, for all its criticism of religion, it was remarkably like religion itself.

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