The all too human condition of alienation today is often mistakenly associated with existentialism and modernism. We’d like to think that we have moved beyond it, that it’s merely academic phenomena from our intellectual past, and that malaise and ennui are conditions exemplified by the likes of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. Because we keep advancing along some linear timeline, we tend to disregard that past and consider ourselves “evolved.” But this is not so. We may not call it alienation or even acedia, which dates all the way back to our Christian desert fathers and mothers, but the condition—particularly as it has been ignored—has grown like the weeds in the once well-tended garden.
Today, we call it atomization. We believe it is especially driven by technology. But it’s not simply the machines that are creating human automatons. We have allowed the machines to create and shape our metaphysics. Part of the problem is that we have lost the threads between different spheres of life. There is no longer a difference between the public and the private self. Such notions are absent from the intellectual discussion.
People do engage with one another, but just like the endless stream of tweets, the discourse is shallow, uninformed, and narcissistic. Do we really expect to create a culture that thrives on creativity in an environment that is this toxic? Are we really that blind to the reality of a constant feedback loop that is clearly shaping an insane society that cannot sustain itself any longer?
Politics is one of the essential spheres of life. Even if we don’t consider ourselves overly political, as citizens, we engage in politics in one form or another. What happens when this particular sphere is overtaken by irrationality and corruption? A citizen will either acquiesce or fight. But what kind of life is one of submission or perpetual reaction? Either way, creation loses, and destruction wins.
Talk about the state of discourse in the United States may seem stale and unimportant. We have bigger proverbial fish to fry, you might say. But if we consider ourselves human beings (that is, neither gods, nor beasts, nor machines), then we have to accept the responsibility for our thoughts. Change can happen in many ways. Revolutions may not necessarily mean literal, physical war. But if we expect that this chaotic society will balance itself out through what passes today as discourse, then we are partaking in a complete delusion.
Ideology is at the heart of this problem. It used to be that the only ideology we needed to fight against was Marxism, but now our discourse is governed by a variety of equally worthless ideologies. Open-mindedness does not exist. False conservatives are still trying to conserve conservatism, ignoring the practical side of politics. Leftists are not governed by ideology anymore but by sheer madness. In addition, people who supported Trump appear to be unsteady because the leadership either is not there or is scattered everywhere.
Society is shaped both individually and collectively. This means that the mind and worldview (Weltanschauung) can be created either for the benefit of an ideological totalitarianism (destruction of the human spirit) or for the benefit of creativity and flourishing during which the individual and the community work in concert. We must take seriously the reality that an engagement with intellectual corruption and fakery will result in what British political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, calls “corrupt consciousness.”
Reason and humility need to be brought back into the discourse. We shouldn’t only react but instead deliberate and even attack, if we need to. In Rationalism in Politics, Oakeshott writes that “Deliberation is necessary before an identifiable political situation can even appear. But it is required, also, in the choice of the response to be made to the situation . . .”
It may be highly idealistic on my part to expect a radical change in our intellectual discourse. But a continued pessimism, which too easily turns into despair, will continue to prevent us from creation and real participation in the political and public square. We cannot lose our own sense of reason because that is the moment when we become part of the mob. The result of that is quite clear: political life as it’s intended no longer exists. If there is no true political engagement, then the meaning of citizenship itself is on the shaky ground, if not actually erased.
No matter where along the political spectrum one falls, it seems there is no unifying sentiment for the spectrum. We face an endless echo of dispersed voices, speaking entirely different languages lacking any internal logic. Reasonable voices tend to be suppressed because mobs will always be louder. Unless we bring reason into politics and discourse, and solid intellectual leadership emerges, then we will continue to stumble through the staircase of the Tower of Babel, wandering the spaces of incomprehension, chaos, and alienation.