Philosophy, Politics, recent, Top Stories

Between Discipline and Chaos

“Anyone capable of living outside a city,” wrote Aristotle, “must either be a beast or a god.” Before taking offense or pride in that aphorism, the rural should know that the Greek for “city” here is polis, and the polis of classical Greece was not a city in our sense. It was smaller than a nation, to be sure, but unlike London or Washington, it was a sovereign state. Every human individual, Aristotle is saying, must live within such a group—whether it be a tribe or an empire. To lack such a polis, to live truly alone, would require the independence of a wild animal or the self-sufficiency of a god.

We need groups to survive; we need someone else to do our hunting or growing, someone else to make our clothes and build our houses, someone else to fix our furnace and perform our surgeries. But the polis does more than help us survive. It encompasses the family, the school and the broader culture, all of which shape who we become. Without such groups, and especially the state that orchestrates them all, we cannot reach our potential. Left to ourselves, ironically, we could not become individuals.

But even if Aristotle was right, such groups can also inhibit us, stifling our individuality. This was a common fear of 19th century thinkers, who witnessed the encroaching conformity of modern life: democratization, industrialization, the homogenization of opinion through the distribution of newspapers. John Stuart Mill deplored this insidious pressure. “It practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression,” he wrote in On Liberty (1859), “since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”

This enslavement began with “a State education,” which Mill called “a mere contrivance for molding people to be exactly like one another.” Once they graduate from basic training, however, they still need to be finished. Their conformity continues into adult life thanks to “an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation.”

Two decades before Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville saw gentle and voluntary subjection as a persistent danger for modern democracies. “After having thus successively taken each member of the community in its powerful grasp and fashioned him at will,” he wrote in Democracy in America (1840), “the supreme power then extends its arm over the whole community.” It softens, bends, and guides citizens by “a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.” This popular tyranny he dubbed “soft despotism.”

When this subjection has extinguished individuality and eccentricity, when everyone has been “reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals,” only then can they be granted every Enlightenment right and freedom. In other words, democratic citizens are grateful to be paid handsomely in a currency they will never spend.

Two decades after Mill, with the industrial revolution now disrupting the continent, Friedrich Nietzsche turned these English and French prose critiques into the German poetry of Zarathustra (1883): “One must have chaos in one to give birth to a dancing star,” so “the time is coming when man will give birth to no more stars.”

This future time Nietzsche foresaw, an era of social tyranny and soft despotism, would be the time of “the most contemptible man,” the now-famous Last Man. Society will then be perfectly ordered; the last men will look back on the injustices of the past—the public hangings, the sexual misconduct, the offensive jokes—and the smartest of them will declare that “formerly all the world was mad.” Now, “everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same: whoever thinks otherwise goes voluntarily into the madhouse.” Or at least makes a public apology, loses his job, and disappears from view (for a few months, until everyone has moved on to the next scandal).

Here, then, is a paradox: If Aristotle is right, we need groups, and above all the state, to become who we are; yet if Tocqueville, Mill, and Nietzsche are right, modern life stifles our individuality. Assuming that all four of these thinkers are correct, this essay tries to resolve this paradox. How do we become ourselves, recognizing that we need institutions to do so, while also understanding that modern institutions have been designed to frustrate that very goal? This essay tries to answer that question. To do so, though, we must first understand our precise predicament.

Michel Foucault’s understanding of the Enlightenment provides a powerful explanation. In Discipline and Punish (1975), Foucault argued that in the 18th century European societies, and thereby their successors across the globe, began to see themselves as subjects of “discipline.” Before, citizens had to be regulated by force and intimidation to preserve civil order. Now, they were formed and corrected throughout their lives—in schools, hospitals, barracks—so as to be self-regulating. A constant surveillance now afforded maximal control not only of citizens’ external behavior but also of their inner life.

This novelty was clearest to Foucault in Jeremy Bentham’s design for the “Panopticon,” a new sort of prison that put cells in a circle around an observation tower. Because the cells would be backlit by the sun, while the warden remained forever in the dark, he could see them, but they could never see him. They would never know when, or even if, they were being watched. Eventually, there would be no need for a warden. Experiencing years of such surveillance, prisoners would become their own wardens.

Foucault already thought, thanks to the proliferation of institutions such as schools and the explosion of regulations for everyday life, that we moderns live in a sort of panopticon. Had he lived another thirty years, though, he would have enjoyed the perverse pleasure of seeing the 21st century as the climax of his story. Every class now lives a good part of their life online, where the solitude and independence necessary for resistance to soft despotism, social tyranny, and discipline dissolves in a deluge of righteous opprobrium.

Without cultivating leaders to whom such solitude and independence are familiar, whole societies now move in blind unison toward goals barely understood. This is most obvious on Facebook, where circles of friends confirm each other’s biases. It is least evident on Twitter, the wild west of social media, where vicious partisans are so entrenched in their views that even counterpoint can confirm bias. On Facebook we can be driven by the likes of our friends while on Twitter we can be driven by the disdain of our enemies. All the while, we keep supplying corporations (and in some cases political parties) with the daily hauls of data they are using to accumulate powerful knowledge.

According to Foucault, such knowledge is powerful not only because it makes individuals susceptible to discipline; it is powerful especially because it creates the very individuals over whom discipline will exert control. People start to regulate their own thoughts according to the implicit rules of social media. So it comes to pass that every citizen—both poorly educated laborers and highly educated elites, those on the left as well as the right—assume discipline through surveillance, conformity, control, and obedience in a manner so subtle it is considered a natural and inevitable part of civilized life.

Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror elaborates this discipline in several episodes, but especially “Nosedive.” In the not-so-distant world it imagines—already achieved in some ways, exceeded in others, by the Chinese—everyone has a social score, constantly revised according to the ratings everyone is giving each other. These scores are visible immediately through eye-implants, which work for the visual drama of television, but are not necessary for its realization in our present lives. It is enough now that we check our accounts as often as we do. The effect is the same: We regulate ourselves according to the praise or scorn we receive from our online audience. “No herdsman,” spoke Zarathustra, “one herd.”

So we don’t need to be tyrannized by men in jackboots; we are daily disciplining ourselves beyond the wildest fantasies of Bentham and the other Enlightenment thinkers. But it’s not quite enough. Twitter mobs are not satisfied by online derision. Destroying someone’s reputation will never be as pleasing as a drawing and quartering in the town square. To satisfy the mob, then, the punishment must be carried into the meatspace where it will really hurt. Careers must be ruined, the contagion must be expelled, and the punishment must not be limited to the virtual world. The latest instruments of surveillance may be new, but their allure is rooted in primal behaviors. We all feel it, even as we disown its fulfillment. Everything and everyone must be disciplined.

The best illustration of this momentum comes from the place where you would least expect it. Universities are supposed to be havens of free thought and free speech, and yet on many campuses the ideal is under siege. The worst threats do not come from social-justice warriors inspired by postmodern philosophy or conservative snowflakes taking their cues from television demagogues—although each pose their own, very real problems—but instead from the assumptions shared by those on the left and the right.

Adopting Foucault as their patron, more often than not, thinkers on the left—who form the majority of the professoriate in the humanities and social sciences—compromise their resistance to discipline when they become trapped in the view that every human being is but the sum of social categories. If the identity of everyone is determined by the overlapping groups to which she must belong, not by the thoughts she alone thinks, no room remains for her to create herself as a unique individual. Pursuing equality with zeal, these partisans confuse equal outcomes with equal opportunities, and are rarely satisfied unless natural differences have become taboo.

The situation is no better on the right, where embattled thinkers reject fundamental challenges to their views with vague allusions to postmodernism. Pursuing freedom with zeal, they confuse their own circumstances with universal conditions, failing to see how much preparation is required to benefit from freedom. While the dominant left ignores the individual to promote groups, the minority right promotes an “individual” who is really only the projection of one group’s fantasy. The one is the explicit opponent of the individual, the other its covert enemy. As they squabble over largely symbolic gestures, they cooperate with the most dangerous, hidden trends of academic life: Discipline continues unopposed to throttle it.

Every year faculty must conform their teaching and their courses to ever more absurd “rubrics,” “learning outcomes,” and “assessment tools.” These are usually the diktats of administrators, but sometimes celebrated by the faculty themselves.

It’s all a dream (or a nightmare, as the case may be) that the university will serve the bigger social machine. One big cog, driven by the smaller cogs of departments, professors, students—achieving what? The reproduction of the very power it embodies: The meaningless repetition of empty categories of accreditation, promotion, and whatever can be pawned as “education” on hapless students and their parents or loan-officers.

In such an environment, what can you do to nourish individuality? Resist the discipline, or more specifically, resist the Enlightenment version of discipline exposed by Foucault. Insofar as both the right and the left co-operate in the enforcement of this discipline, when it comes to many of the political debates of our time you will find yourself on the outside looking in. As you begin to reject their alternating appeals to surveillance and regulation, moreover, you will have to learn to tolerate chaos.

Not all chaos should be accepted, needless to say, but does its very existence disturb you? Is your first impulse, in the face of chaos and uncertainty, to imagine a rule, an authority, or an institution that could eliminate it? If so, that’s where to apply your efforts—to moderating that impulse. “As wood is the material of the carpenter,” advised Epictetus, “so the subject matter of the art of life is the life of the self.”

In the Black Mirror episode “Arkangel,” a mother who has been terrified by the short disappearance of her wandering toddler has a chip implanted in the girl that will forever reveal her location. Additionally, the mother can view the world through her daughter’s eyes, monitor all her vital signs—knowing when she has sex, gets pregnant, or does drugs—and even suppress any perception that causes her stress. The daughter then grows up without maturing.

The constant surveillance keeps her away from fear and danger, so she never learns in childhood how to handle the little stresses that could teach her how to handle the bigger ones in adult life. Evoking Oedipus Rex, the episode ends with the mother bringing about the violent disappearance she originally hoped to prevent. It was her fear of pain and chaos that fated her daughter’s suffering and disorientation. If only she had been braver, if only she had been able to foresee the foolishness of trying to regulate everything.

Is any discipline capable of accepting a healthy amount of chaos? Is any group compatible with dissent and innovation? Well, why else do universities exist? At a rudimentary level, they train undergraduates in an accumulated body of knowledge. At this level, some fields produce homogeneous intellects. But at all levels in some fields, and at higher-levels in all fields, the point of the training is to produce individuals who will dissent from received doctrines in order to innovate and discover.

In this way, universities function like institutes of art or music, which fail to be more than trade schools unless their students devise something new. Officially that is what universities strive to do, and in many fields they succeed. But in some, where the strictures of administrative discipline are tightening, dissent and thus innovation become increasingly rare. To resist this discipline requires many virtues, but above all the courage to dissent and the wisdom to innovate. Saying no to orthodoxy is not enough; you must also say yes to what you alone can see.

No human institution can ever secure a definitive interpretation of goodness, and it is usually the ones that claim to have done so that betray their own purpose. But neither should human institutions give up on goodness altogether. Those that devote themselves unequivocally to contemplating it will encourage, if not guarantee, the training of individuals wise and courageous enough to resist the condemnation of political partisans. To cultivate wisdom, courage, and the other virtues, universities must reconnect with a premodern model of education, wherein formation of character was a prerequisite for training the intellect.

But as things stand, individuality is blunted just as the 19th century thinkers predicted it would be, and already was. Mill said of the best and brightest of his day that they “dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral.” And here we are today, most grievously in our universities, where these trains of bold thought are lost when they should instead be followed out to their most ambitious conclusions. In an Academy worthy of the name, our only warden should be the elusive and ineffable Good; our only aim: to give birth to dancing stars.

 

This essay is adapted from “Disciplining the Individual” by Patrick Lee Miller, which can be read in full here. 

Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University.

Filed under: Philosophy, Politics, recent, Top Stories

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Patrick Lee Miller is a philosopher teaching at Duquesne University, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Becoming God: Pure Reason in Early Greek Philosophy (Bloomsbury, 2012), and co-editor of Introductory Readings in Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy (Hackett, 2015). His recent philosophical writing uses Platonism to address current problems such as gender, sexuality, child psychology, pedagogy, virtual-reality, spirituality, indecision, honesty, and liberal government. His faculty page can be found here: http://www.duq.edu/academics/faculty/patrick-lee-miller

27 Comments

  1. E. Olson says

    “In an Academy worthy of the name, our only warden should be the elusive and ineffable Good”

    I have to disagree, because most everyone thinks they are trying to do Good, even if they have to lie, cheat, steal, or kill to achieve it. An academy worthy of the name must instead pursue Truth, even when the Truth will be painful or not good for some groups or individuals. The only way to achieve something approaching the Truth is to be skeptical by seeking to falsify dominant paradigms through open debate among multiple points of view and empirical proofs. The problems of the Academy today are that there are often no significant alternative points of view in many disciplines, and a systematic and brutal suppression of any skepticism or falsification attempts regarding paradigms that are thought to be “Good” by usually Leftist majority. Unfortunately, most of the things thought to be Good by the Left, are typically not viewed as Good by the Right, in large part because most of the Leftist “Goods” are not based on Truth and therefore not empirically justified or “real world” effective, which is why the Left must suppress and punish alternative points of view and stifle debate.

    • Ray Andrews says

      @E. Olson

      But can it be as simple as that? Even Truth — except for, perhaps, the hard datums of physics — is somewhat normative. The Correct, I agree, think that, for example, it would be Good if all Identity groups were exactly the same, therefore, they Imagine that it is True, which is sufficient to make it True. I think you’d agree that we should not say that what we want to be True is therefore True, but what about moral questions? Do we not, for example, tend to say that it is True that we shouldn’t torture animals? We mean that it is Bad to torture animals, but do we not feel that it is deeper than that — that is is True that it is Bad?

      • E. Olson says

        Ray – I think there is a truth out there for most physical and social science issues, which can be demonstrated with sufficient and as unbiased as possible empirical study and observation. For example, I believe that studies unhindered by political correctness could accurately determine what portion of IQ differences between racial groups or genders or individuals is genetic and what portion is environmental, and from such knowledge it therefore becomes much easier to assess whether certain public policies actually work in solving IQ related social problems. Similarly, unbiased studies might also determine the actual costs and benefits of different types of immigration or climate change mitigation, which could again be used to design rational public policies that provide maximum benefits to the nation. The problem today is that such studies aren’t done because of fears of losing your job/status for doing racist/denier/sexist research, or because nobody in sociology, psychology, social work, climate science, or political science really wants empirical answers to such questions because they strongly suspect that they will not like the answers and/or it would put their favored programs in jeopardy. As for torturing animals, I’m not sure there is any mentally sane group that favors such behavior unless it is for purposes of science or human safety such as animal trials for new medical treatments or new safety devices, but cost-benefit analysis for such uses could certainly be done, and I believe in many cases already is. Yet the “truth” in saving many human lives for the cost of a few lab mice, pigs, or dogs is almost certainly not going to please the animal rights fanatics who believe a mouse has equal rights to a human.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @E. Olson

          “I think there is a truth out there for most physical and social science issues”

          I think so too, but it is enormously difficult to keep one’s normative ideas at bey. I correspond on and off with a PhD in sociology named Mike S. He tries to tell me that it is an objective fact that any and all spanking of your two year old angel is proven to be harmful, yet when we look carefully at his ‘data’, we see gross bias. He honestly thinks he is doing science when in fact he is imposing his values on the results. This is not a small problem even for those who really do want to find ‘the truth’.

          ” …who believe a mouse has equal rights to a human”

          And that’s just it: we hold our deep morality as self-evidently True, and that’s with the capital letter. We have little ‘t’ truth of the sort that is reducible to data, but we have big ‘T’ truth that is … well, every religious person knows what Truth is — or what it aspires to be. So did the Greeks. My ideas on this need much more work, but I know I’m not an original thinker on this anyway. Some say that that what is True must be Good. I’m not so sure, but I do say that whether it is Good or not, we should not corrupt what is true because we suppose it is not Good.

          • Stephanie says

            I agree very much on Truth rather than Good as the goal of academic pursuit, and I find it somewhat astonishing that the author contradicted the spirit of his entire piece by falling back on the assumption that has so corrupted academia.

            I’ve been familiarising myself with the climate change literature lately. The scholarship is noticeably inferior to that in my own field. Most workers don’t consider uncertainties in any real sense, let alone propogate uncertainties from the other measurements they use in their models before coming up with a conclusion. Results are usually not discussed critically, they’ll draw lines through static and claim the slight trend is significant. On such flimpsy data we get alarmist claims like “climate change has increased bushfires.”

            I also suspect relevant information is buried or never published. At a recent talk there was a graph from an old paper (at least 10 years old, based on the format) of bushfire occurences in Australia over the previous century, and there was no meaningful change. I can’t find any data on bushfire occurrence or intensity now. The studies that do seem available, on which Wikipedia and newspaper articles are based, are small in number, and based on extremely temporally and spatially restricted datasets.

            My department is being forced to merge with environmental science, despite our widely disparate methods and focus. I think this is their way of introducing the attitude that has infected environmental science into a harder discipline. People have been warning that it’s only a matter of time before STEM is affected, and I think we are there. Academics’ desire to do good has outweighed adherence to the truth, and I think we are in serious trouble.

  2. Erica Ramon says

    While this piece may leave many depressed about the state of academia and society in general, there is hope; as evidence by the creation of Quillette itself; the Heterodox Academy; and the rise of non-apologetic thought leaders like Jordan Peterson and Jonathan Haidt and others.

    The key to changing behaviors of those who are quick to suppress that which they don’t like is to change the conversation and put our case into the context that progressives and/or conservatives believe strongly in. I’ve read Haidt’s the Righteous Mind nearly a dozen times because it provides a roadmap to getting our academies and our communities back to civility.

    Oppressive Socialism is Unfair!!

    Oppressive Condemnation of Conservatives is Unfair!!

    These words (though few) carry powerful connotations and emotions for progressives and force them to immediately draw back; knowing the morality they’ve drawn from for power is now being used as a force against them.

    Which, requires them to think instead of acting like a robotic human straight out of Orwell’s 1984.

    The beauty of this big bold world of ours is that I don’t have to adhere to your social norms. I don’t have to listen to your dogmatic speeches about social justice and racial/income disparities. I don’t have to listen to your ranting about my white privilege and I sure as hell don’t have to listen about how I won the parent lottery.

    Society and the institutions we’ve built up over time are their to provide very wide guardrails for us to live our lives. If you want to be reckless, you can fly up and over those guardrails at which point there is no saving you; you’re on your own. But those societal guardrails are set at the outer perimeter of the bell curve…maybe the 10% of extremes on both side. Operate inside that and you’re solid. The challenge is that the Left has redefined their boundaries where they BELIEVE these rules don’t apply to their extremists while the rest of society knows they’re nut-jobs.

    So the non STEM academics hide behind their ‘institutional power’ to inflict damage on those who dare challenge their extremism. Fact is, they’ve lost perspective and it’s up to the adults in the room (Leadership at University of Chicago) and elsewhere to spank these immature adults back into their rightful place.

    They can still be unique individuals (just like everyone else), but at least the inmates will no longer be running the asylum, and those who think differently than the extremists aren’t run out of town and are encouraged to open their minds, their hearts, and their lives to freedom, liberty and expression of free-thinking that’s critical for learning in the 21 Century.

    • Ray Andrews (rayandrews@eastlink.ca) says

      @Erica Ramon

      The Resistance is gaining strength, as you say. But should we quietly push back, or is open war called for? The Chicago Declaration is surely a declaration of war. One part of me wants to cry havoc and let slip the dogs … but, nuts, that wouldn’t be civil and civility is what we value. Mind, the incineration of Dresden wasn’t civil either …

      • ga gamba says

        The Chicago Declaration is surely a declaration of war.

        You may want to substantiate how the Statement on Principles of Free Expression is a declaration of war.

        After providing the historical background and the usual caveats that certain types of speech, such as defamation and harassment, may be be suppressed, Chicago’s statement says:

        Fundamentally, however, the University is committed to the principle that it may not restrict debate or deliberation because the ideas put forth are thought to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the members of the University community to make those judgments for themselves.

        As a corollary to this commitment, members of the University community must also act in conformity with this principle. Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.

        For members of the University community, as for the University itself, the proper response to ideas they find offensive, unwarranted and dangerous is not interference, obstruction, or suppression. It is, instead, to engage in robust counter-speech that challenges the merits of those ideas and exposes them for what they are. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

        If one is attentive one will see that statement was released in 2012. In 2014 a committee was formed to study the issue and the following year it released the Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression (pdf). It was this that made the headlines.

        Again, the history and the usual caveats, followed by:

        In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or
        deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or
        even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.

        As a corollary to the University’s commitment to protect and promote free expression,
        members of the University community must also act in conformity with the principle of free expression. Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.

        Are all guidelines, policies, rules, and even laws declarations of war? If so, then prohibitions to cross the road against the light is the war on jaywalking. Parents tell their children how to behave on furniture. Is this the war on bed jumping? Universities have rules establishing how attributing other’s work is to be done. Is this calling for the open war on plagiarism? I think calling policies and rules a declaration of war is an over-egg – I don’t take you for a hysteric, at least not yet.

        Chicago’s statement is that each side may have its say. I wouldn’t call this a declaration of war on one side in favour of another; each side is treated equally. The heart of this principle isn’t that though. It’s raison d’être is to prohibit “obstruct[ing] or otherwise interfere[ing] with the freedom of others to express views…” Behaviour that has become normalised over the years. So, if war has been declared as you assert, it’s the war on impeding pavements, blocking doorways, pulling fire alarms (which is akin to shouting “fire” in the theatre), and storming the stage. Certainly, that’s not war.

        I think we can have civility, and policies to that end, without deeming it the war on incivility. I suspect you mentioned war to connect policies on civility to incendiary bombing. That’s quite an over reach. Or, to keep the war metaphor going, it’s the bridge too far.

        • Ray Andrews says

          @ga gamba

          I wish we could finish our disputes properly, the last one (the gas lines) was getting interesting. You’re the sort of guy who might sharpen my thinking. If you ever have more to say: rayandrews@eastlink.ca.

          “You may want to substantiate how the Statement on Principles of Free Expression is a declaration of war.”

          As a figure of speech of course. I don’t think we’re planning to carpet bomb Oxford, but it does seem that their is no accommodation with the Warriors, either they are going to entirely criminalize FOS, or we are going to re-conquer the academy and defeat them. I doubt if you disagree.

          “Are all guidelines, policies, rules, and even laws declarations of war?”

          No, but they are such if there will be a battle over them.

          “it’s the bridge too far”

          Perhaps so. Rhetoric routinely uses hyperbole but one can go too far indeed. What do you think? Can FOS be restored quietly and peacefully? Can the Warriors be restrained calmly? One devoutly wishes it, but calm and restraint have left them in control now, and it seems doubtful that the same technique will prevail going forward.

          • ga gamba says

            I’m an adherent of live and let live. I’m happily content to allow opponents to have their say provided I’m given the same consideration. I like to believe most people think likewise, but my faith in this has been shaken in recent years – I thought this was settled long ago. When authoritarianism takes hold and people are suppressed, that riles me up. Outside of actual war, I have no desire to conquer anyone. Even those in the academe. I simply expect the field of play to be one described in the Chicago statement, which is hardly revolutionary. If everyone could agree to that, I suppose that would go far to establish detente.

            In times like this it’s crucial calmer heads prevail. I suspect many of these tactics are bait to goad an over reaction that’s used by activists and their allies in the press as evidence why their authoritarianism is justified. Yet such duress needn’t be crippling. It’s an opportunity to revise and refine one’s arguments. I think, ultimately, that prevails over the shrieking banshees – provided they don’t seize the armouries. The endeavour isn’t to woo them back; it’s to win over the masses in the middle.

            Re FOS, I’m more closely scrutinising it nowadays, including my own use, due to the rise of ‘words are violence,’ ‘weaponised speech,’ and even ‘militarised police’ because many take these literally and not figuratively. The written word is more difficult for a reader to access because most communication – I recall more than 90% – is non-verbal. Face to face it’s easier for me to recognise whether one’s statement, such as declaration of war, is figurative or not.

          • Ray Andrews says

            @ga gamba

            That was a pleasure to read.

            “I suppose that would go far to establish detente”

            Yes. What more can be legitimately demanded? But they must stop suppressing other views, and that is not negotiable.

            “provided they don’t seize the armouries.”

            They have seized academia, the government, and now, it seems, the courts are about to fall.

            “The endeavour isn’t to woo them back; it’s to win over the masses in the middle.”

            Agreed.

            “The written word is more difficult for a reader to access”

            Yes, but also more susceptible to deliberate manipulation.

    • @Erica
      I sincerely hope you are right. I’m of the mind that insane, politically correct leftism will eat it’s own -as there is ample evidence of, but will it destroy the world as we know it on the way out? I think it’s fifty/fifty right now.

      I have tried and failed many times to spark thoughtful non confrontational discussions on Facebook. They either garner a few snark responses or fly off the rails. It’s worthless and I have stopped using Facebook for anything other than commenting on baby pictures, because who doesn’t love babies???

  3. Pingback: Between Discipline and Chaos – Foggytown's Micro Blog

  4. Ray Andrews says

    Just wondering: at this moment the counter says three comments, but there are only two.

  5. Ray Andrews says

    Since the author is a philosopher let me be pedantic: Is this a paradox? Since the subject is normative, not logical, I’d call it a dilemma.

    But it seems to me that either word flavors the issue as a problem (to be solved). Might it better be viewed as a necessary tension? As the Buddha said, the slack string makes no music, the overly tightened string breaks. I think of the yin-yang symbol. Balance is what is needed. It was the discipline of the classical education that liberated the mind. It is the ‘discipline’ of the thoughtpolice that enslaves the mind — there is no formulaic answer to the question of whether discipline is good or bad. Again, the Buddhist monk seeks liberation through rigorous discipline. This is the nature of things, it is not soluble.

  6. Quiddam says

    That’s pretty dramatic and overcomplicated.

    Children learn self-discipline pretty early on, as they know just because their parents aren’t there does not mean they won’t figure out if you mess up. It’s part of education, and was like that forever. It then goes on from there as the social circle increases, so all your neighbors are constantly spying on you, which means you have to self-discipline.

    It has nothing to do with institutions, politics or whatever else someone might fancy.

    The only difference is not in kind, but in intensity, and also how people respond to it.

    Communication is now faster and mass information can be used by everyone everywhere, so gossip is all the more powerful, and how we view gossip has changed. It used to be a defect of character, now it is either trendy or courageous, so it is a virtue. People buy it, people want it.

    Add to that the stupidity of people thinking they can be public figures by using social platforms without any repercussion that public figures always have, and you get the type of mob lynching we have now. It is compounded by people asking for diversity and pluralism in general, which means more people with different “morals”, and all the more reasons to get upset about something, since nobody shares anything in common, or very few things, so there is no correct way to do things anymore, everything is bad, which leads to stress, anxiety and superstitions of all kinds.

    Also, Aristotle did not say that out of the blue, it was the basis of politics, but this in turn in based on economy, which is based on the family unit. It all extends from there, and the politics are simply family writ large. Some animals don’t have families, or groups, but humans do, and there is no way around it, a child would die if left alone at birth. This means ways to socially control interactions in one form or another. Without clear guidelines, it is about social coercion and shaming. Its not a problem of institution, it is a lack of institution that causes the problem.

    More to the point, Universities started believing they were some sort of avant-guard thinkers who could think freely and at least at first, “rationally”. But this was all due to self-restraint and good education which was taken for granted. When it was liberalized and people of all classes came into it, they did not have the same background, and the institution itself thought it was above those silly things like discipline or “educating”. So they destroyed their own basis and vocation, and as expected, a few generations later, it is chaos. The reason things like STEM are not yet too affected is because there is few creativity in it, but it will come, it just takes a bit longer. The depravity is there as well, it just does not have a reason to show, or a way to express itself, but it will certainly come.

  7. Kevin Mich says

    A man after my own heart. I wish that I had the time to fire off a brilliant, responsive missive, but I don’t. I wish that I could talk with this man. This is the best article I have ever read on Quillette. I will sleep tonight with clenched hands and dreams of demise. At least there are some men left.

  8. Fickle Pickle says

    No real Academy exists in Western “universities”.
    There is simply an academic reduction of philosophy, a reduction from the Academy suggested in the tradition of Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Pythagoras, and such, where the pursuit of Wisdom, or some higher ultimate Realization, was what it was all about, and where the manifestation of the philosophical state as a disposition transcending opposites was what it was all for. Plotinus in particular was the exemplary example of such Realization.

    What is Truth? What is True Wisdom, and the life of True Wisdom? You wont come anywhere near finding that out, let alone Realizing It in the modern “university” or left-brained mind factories.

    Furthermore what is communicated in these left-brained mind factories?
    To begin with Western civilization has nothing to do with Truth as idealistically defined or proposed by all of the usual Christian suspects.
    There is a thesis emphasized in all the little bits of thought generated in Western “university” education. In that thesis, the human being is described as necessarily mortal, functionally conditioned, and, at best, creative as a social animal.
    Also, the universe is described as materially prior to conscious life, and it is chronically mis-understood without recourse to any esoteric religious and Spiritual propositions.

  9. Fickle Pickle says

    Contrary to all the usual hype about freedom the entire Western cultural project is about gaining power and control over every one and every thing. That power-and-control-seeking project has now reached its globalized cultural zenith. It is also on the cusp of its inevitable catastrophic globalized collapse.
    Have you really read the news and the dark signs of the times!

    The paragraphs below are applicable to Western knowledge in particular, because we Westerners are now seemingly in charge
    All modes of Western religious and scientific knowledge prescribe and limit what is known and define what is allowable to be known. The blue-pill paradigm.

    All modes of Western religion and science are attempts to tribalize, and to localize and control such knowledge The purpose of which is to protect the collective political, social and cultural mode of mind, via acts of will in order to dominate all patterns and subjects that are perceived as threats to collective and individual survival, pleasure, well-being, and independence

    All modes of Western religion and science are systematic patterns of mind that are impulsed to acquire or assimilate particular subjects in order – by objectifying, naming, categorizing, symbolically representing, and systematically interiorizing and enclosing them – to appropriate, exploit, control, replace, and, ultimately, eviscerate and annihilate them.

    We are all Borg now!

    All modes of Western religion and science are tribal artifacts that seek to protect and extend local tribalized collectives by means of idea-invocation whereby every one and every thing are identified as an opponent, objectified as an other, invoked as an ally, indulged and exploited as a captive, and, at last, desecrated and destroyed a via scapegoat ritual as a convicted criminal and victim.

  10. Reluctant reactionary says

    I reject the people as sheeple narrative in the article not withstanding the excellent article on the cultural revolution on these pages recently and a generalised suppression of open speech in polite society. Your average Joe and Jane are still telling crude societal home truths to one another. The fact that they might have to whisper just adds bite to the punch line. I live in hope that given the best jokes are either about our own individual failings or about those who think they have none then a hilarious tsunami of shame is about to fall on those who hector us to be boring and perfect.

  11. The answer is obvious here: the stifling of individuality is a feature, not a bug, of democracy and the notion of popular sovereignty in general (e.g. including Communism and Fascism). If one is governed “by the People” then one will be forced to resemble “the People” as well.

    It would appear that abolishing popular sovereignty would solve the problem of the tension between group identity and individuality.

  12. One of those tedious “everyone is wrong except me” type articles

  13. Between this passage:
    “To cultivate wisdom, courage, and the other virtues, universities must reconnect with a premodern model of education, wherein formation of character was a prerequisite for training the intellect.”

    There is a space…then

    “But as things stand, individuality is blunted just as the 19th century thinkers predicted it would be, and already was. ”

    There is a missing bit of connecting logic.
    Premodern models of education were almost all founded as divinity schools, notable for their very emphasis on conformance to group norms.

  14. X. Citoyen says

    I probably share your outlook and your solution (premodern education—let’s resurrect Cardinal Newman) but not your analysis. Foucault’s force-of-history talk doesn’t persuade me because it has no concrete cause or driver.

    This is not a sociological phenomenon, but a religious movement. Just look at the change in the university as an institution: Universities are being bureaucratized from above by the entities that pay for them (i.e., governments and donors) in accordance with their preferred criteria, namely, value for money through standardized educational services. Unfortunately, the standards for the educational services are coming from the cultural left whose simplistic curricula (e.g., the validation of the individual qua member of a group) and outcomes (e.g., education as social equalizer) are easily distilled into “performance metrics.”

    If you’re wondering what drives the bureaucratization demanded by the top and bottom alike, I say it’s the Cult of Progress—the secularized, absolutized, and immanentized form of Christianity that took over much of the elite early in the last century and that—even as it has waxed and waned—continues to evolve, reconstitute itself, and spread through our institutions. I know, I know, this interpretation isn’t popular nowadays. But it’s the one that seems more and more plausible as time goes on.

  15. blue bus driver says

    The truly free man is free to love
    But is not content until
    Those he loves
    Are equally
    As free.

    And
    Of course

    He loves everyone.

    ……which is to say I concur with the author “our only warden should be the elusive and ineffable Good”

  16. John says

    I find this article a little too negative in its concern about order and chaos and about the propensity of ordinary people to accept a particular viewpoint without question. In relation to chaos and order, both are essential to our existence. Order and conformity are human drives that enable us to manage chaos. Indeed, they are universal drives, which produce matter and its more fluid form, energy. All of this creation comes out of what, superficially or at first, appears to be chaos. This, if true, suggests that what we call creativity is the capacity of the more creative mind to perceive an order in the titrate generated by the constant grinding of chaos and rigid order against one another. The creative individual perceives this order before the rest of us because they are more comfortable looking into and living with chaos. Of course, this may explain why they often do not cope with conformity or discipline and why they often lose their grip on reality and become estranged from all forms of order.

    As for the conformity of the masses, their malleability and quietude is a profound misconception afflicting the educated and high status elements of society. The silent and unassuming undermining of order within society is often overlooked unless the observer spends a lot of time living and interacting with working class people. In my own case, over forty years, I have watched ordinary soldiers and ordinary labourers strip away the pretensions of their so-called betters using savage humour, irony and false politeness. There is no submissiveness to be found amongst them. What is mistaken for submissiveness is their silence on issues which they deem of no significance to their lives or the lives of their family and friends. They regard most of what concerns us here as of little merit in dealing with the world. However, if the concerns here are articulated in a way that engages them, then watch the fireworks begin.

    The debate is what is important and it is the debate, including all the views we loath, that must be preserved and promoted. The way to address this is to take up the challenge and rather than living in fear of what the opponents of open debate may do, start making them start fear what the champions of open discourse are doing.

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