"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

"The Age of Unreason"

In a fascinating and insightful article in the current issue of the Spectator (UK), "The Age of Unreason," Frank Furedi points out that people today willingly turn over increasing amounts of authority to other individuals, a group of lifestyle gurus who teach us how to do everyhing from cooking to raising our children to how to shop:

To this day I am astonished when I hear that sensible, biologically mature adults allow themselves to be treated as if they were incompetent dimwits by a new army of professional surrogate parents. In days of old, traditional authority figures, like priests, instructed us how to behave in public and told us which rules to observe. Today’s experts are even freer with their advice. They do not simply tell us what to do and think, but also how to feel. A new army of life coaches, lifestyle gurus, professional celebrities, parenting coaches, super-nannies, makeover experts, healers, facilitators, mentors and guides regularly lecture us about the most intimate details of our existence. They are not simply interested in monitoring public behaviour but in colonising our internal life.

Furedi does not mention that religious bodies have long told people what to feel, but I think that this observation actually strengthens his argument:

Deference to the authority of the celebrity, makeover guru or healer is underwritten by the decline in the influence of conventional forms of authority. That is why the frequently asserted claim that we live in an age characterised by the ‘death of deference’ bears little relationship to reality. Yes, it has become fashionable to treat traditional forms of authority — monarchy, church, parliament — with derision. Criticism of traditional institutions has become so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism. Scientists, doctors and other professionals have also experienced an erosion of authority. But the diminishing influence of conventional authority has been paralleled by the rise of a new ‘alternative’ one. We don’t trust politicians but we have faith in the pronouncements of celebrities. We are suspicious of medical doctors but we feel comfortable with healers who mumble on about being ‘holistic’ and ‘natural’. We certainly don’t trust scientists working for the pharmaceutical industry but we are happy to listen to the disinterested opinion of a herbalist. And, of course, alternative food and other consumer products gain our confidence because . . . they are alternative.


Furedi argues that the current rise of unreason involves a rejection of science in addition to a loss of traditional religion. Thus Furedi confirms G. K. Chesterton's observation that people who stop believing in God don't believe in nothing, they believe anything:

The cultural valuation of superstition over reason and the revival of ancient forms of mysticism testify to a profound crisis of meaning in contemporary society. . . . So how do we account for the ascendancy of the authority of the life expert and the mystical guru? Some argue that the rise of this authority is a response to the decline of religion and the rise of secularism. It is claimed that without clearly formulated moral signposts people are likely to be attracted to esoteric fads and therapies. However, it is important to remember that secularism and science have been around for a long time. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries society experienced phases of moral confusion. Nevertheless, people often gained a sense of direction from the guidance they received through secular and scientific authority. So it is not just the decline of religion but also of conventional forms of modern authority that distinguishes our times. In previous eras a loss of faith in religion was sometimes compensated for by the plausibility of science, a political ideology or the capacity of a public authority to act in the interests of all.

Furedi does not mention it, but the leveling of social authority probably has at least some roots in technological change. It strongly resembles the phenomenon of leveling of heirarchies in the workplace, where layers of management and authority are breaking down as technology makes it possible for individuals to manage their own work with increasing efficiency and effectiveness, without layers and layers of bosses in place to ensure that everyone does what they are needed to do. One sees a similar pattern in the media: in television, there were once three major voices, whereas now there are literally hundreds of choices. Each major city once had a few big newspapers, which fell to just one or two in most place in the past couple of decades, but with the internet as with cable and satellite TV, there are now a multitude of choices.

This leveling of authorities and media access allows people to rise quickly to public prominence, and those with charismatic personalities can easily spread plausible but wrong ideas widely and rapidly. That is the big danger in this great leveling, and the rise of the lifestyle guru is a powerful reminder that people do need authorities, and that when tried and tested authorities are undone, others will arise. In an antiauthoritarian society, however, these new authorities will have adherence but not legitimacy. Hence, people will continue to search for new authorities when these fail them, but the public will have to do so without sound principles to guide them in their quest:

A civilised and enlightened society requires institutions of legitimate authority, and public respect for them. That is why the attitude of the anti-authoritarian seldom conveys the spirit of critical thought. It is not criticism but uncritical criticism that motivates the current temper of cultural cynicism. The authority cultivated through human experience allows people to gain a measure of control over their destiny. Without such institutions to guide us people have no choice but to defer to Fate and its earthly representatives in the makeover industry.

There are many interesting and enlightening details in Furedi's article, and I encourage you to read it.

22 comments:

Tlaloc said...

I think I've mentioned it before but the Neil Postman book Technopoly also touches substantially on this topic (as well as several others). It's very worth reading.

Matt Huisman said...

A few more key excerpts:

The cultural valuation of superstition over reason and the revival of ancient forms of mysticism testify to a profound crisis of meaning in contemporary society.

The internalisation of this vocabulary is encouraged by a culture that continually presents human beings as vulnerable and powerless people who can not be expected to cope with life’s challenges. We don’t just need healers to draw out the toxins from our body. We need to defer to lifestyle gurus and relationship experts who can protect us from ourselves.

This crisis of meaning is real - and the secular answers are not satisfying. It turns out that the truth of who we are is so frightening that many will choose to cede control to someone else, anyone else, rather than deal with it themselves.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Criticism of traditional institutions has become so prevalent that it bears all the hallmarks of classical conformism.

I have discovered through copious personal experience that the one surefire way I can reduce a casual acquaintance to speechless bafflement is to admit that I am an orthodox and obedient Roman Catholic who believes the Church contains the deposit of Truth to which I owe assent. When I further confide that this includes Mulieris Dignitatem, Humanae Vitae, and Donum Vitae the bafflement usually morphs into frank disbelief. These are people who will freely admit they believe that crystals will heal an illness, it is possible to talk to dead pets via a psychic, or their second cousin was strip searched by four aliens in a spaceship. And I'm the kooky one.

Tlaloc said...

"It turns out that the truth of who we are is so frightening that many will choose to cede control to someone else, anyone else, rather than deal with it themselves."

I don't think it has anything to do with the truth being scary, rather it's simply the path of least resistance. It's always easier to let others think for you rather than being responsible and making up your own mind.

It's easy so we do it, and we've continued doing it until the process of decision making and the idea of personal responsibility is almost alien to us.

Unfortunately this process I believe also causes a great deal of harm to our self control. Afterall when we give up decision making we attenuate the mental connection between our actions and our responsibility for those actions. I was just following orders, sir!

This of course nicely plays into my conception of anarchism. The key is to get people to recognize that our current way of life is vastly unhealthy. The only way to recover from this unfortunate social mistake of the last ten thousand years is to get people to not accept that they should indeed be told what to do on every matter. That they must themselves decide what is right and accept the consequences for following or straying from it.

James Elliott said...

Now this is an interesting discussion rife with possibilities! It opens up whole kegs o' worms with regards to morality, authority, individuation, religion versus secularism, and mass movements. Thank you, Mr. Karnick!

I think the people who have mentioned technology are definitely on to something here. The rapidity with which we are able to access information, the way we are inundated and bombarded with input sans substance, creates a busy, distracted populace with the attention span of a flea. This sort of society, one that is so preoccupied with the very business of nothingness, is ripe for the picking by the charismatic and the fanatical (whatever the cause). People in such a situation look for instruction rather than reason. It is not for nothing we have the term "sheeple."

Coincidentally, I just finished "The True Believer" by Eric Hoffer, my new favorite thinker, last night and I think it addresses the substance of this post quite well.

This crisis of meaning is real - and the secular answers are not satisfying. It turns out that the truth of who we are is so frightening that many will choose to cede control to someone else, anyone else, rather than deal with it themselves.


Curious. What "truth of who we are" are you alluding to? I am genuinely interested in your perception of humankind. Your contention is a perfect argument for how religion gets started in the first place.

Hunter Baker said...

I think the reason we have the rise of so many domestic and spiritual experts has to do with the breakdown of family and community. I remember what a neighborhood was like growing up in the seventies and I know what it's like now. Big difference, at least among the white folk. Everybody is sort of on their own. We have friendships based purely on election rather than naturally being acquainted with almost everyone in our geographic area. We move around so much that extended family is not as available to help. The neighborhood church is no longer a center for us. We commute to exactly the right church that fits our preferences.

I'm not being condemnatory, but the result is a different kind of life. There is no "thick" community around to teach, guide, help, and sustain. And we aren't really home to develop it anyway. The result is that we have to outsource almost everything but the bare essentials. Thus, the rise of the expert in areas where everybody used to know what to do via transmitted family and community wisdom.

Matt Huisman said...

It's always easier to let others think for you rather than being responsible and making up your own mind.

It seems to me that the reason we look to others for direction is that we are intuitively aware of our own limitations. We just don't have the answers, and we know it. You may be right that most people choose the path of least resistance and latch on to any new story, but it seems to me that this is merely a tactic to avoid the harder reality.

Humans seem incapable of escaping the notions of guilt and meaninglessness - yet they resist any authority that tells them that one or the other is true. Enter the guru, who blends a mixture of competence and superstition in a new and whimsical way to a generation desperate for a diversion.

Matt Huisman said...

Curious. What "truth of who we are" are you alluding to?

Let's say that the thought that we might just be dust in the wind is not terribly comforting.

Your contention is a perfect argument for how religion gets started in the first place.

Agreed. Of course, it could just be the truth.

James Elliott said...

I remember what a neighborhood was like growing up in the seventies and I know what it's like now. Big difference, at least among the white folk. Everybody is sort of on their own. We have friendships based purely on election rather than naturally being acquainted with almost everyone in our geographic area. We move around so much that extended family is not as available to help.

This is an extremely important point and bears consideration by all, no matter their religion or creed.

Tlaloc said...

"I think the reason we have the rise of so many domestic and spiritual experts has to do with the breakdown of family and community."

Hunter, while I agree with the rest of your post I think you are making a small mistake at the beginning. It's not that the the breakdown of the old social order led to the explosion of authority but rather that it simply changed how we chose who was an authority. In the older system we might have revered someone closer to home but we were still all to ready to bow down at the alter of the expert.

James Elliott said...

Humans seem incapable of escaping the notions of guilt and meaninglessness - yet they resist any authority that tells them that one or the other is true...

...Let's say that the thought that we might just be dust in the wind is not terribly comforting.


Shame on you for referencing such a horrid song. =) I find the entire notion of guilt to be predicated on a movement's need for control. Guilt is a uniquely human construction designed to keep humankind obedient to an authority beholden to its dogma rather than its followers.

I definitely agree that the idea of meaninglessness and oblivion is existentially dissatisfying and terrifying. This leads people to create systems that either prevent them from considering it or offer a comforting alternative vision.

It's the rare person who can act in the face of the paralyzing knowledge that all we have is the world we create for those who follow and can do so with a basic and fundamental respect and appreciatin for the faculties of humankind.

Tlaloc said...

"It seems to me that the reason we look to others for direction is that we are intuitively aware of our own limitations. We just don't have the answers, and we know it."

Ah but there's a middle area between surrendering your decision making to another and making decisions completely unilaterally. Take for example the following three examples:


Bob wants to build a wind turbine. His neighbor Sally built one that works quite well.
1) Bob asks Sally to tell him what to do and he does it.
2) Bob asks Sally what she did and then he decides whether to do the same thing.
3) Bob ignores Sally and tries to build the turbine completely on his own.

The first choice means giving up decision making to an authority. The third path means remaining ignorant of those who know more than you do. The second choice is, well, just right. It allows for the sharing of knowledge while keeping personal responsibility.

Tlaloc said...

"I find the entire notion of guilt to be predicated on a movement's need for control. Guilt is a uniquely human construction designed to keep humankind obedient to an authority beholden to its dogma rather than its followers."

I disagree, guilt is an internal result of actions that are against our moral code. This process of believing in a code and rewarding or punishing ourselves for our actions according to tat code is the model that has then been corrupted to form societies. The internal moral code is replaced with the external code of laws. The internal guilt and pride mechanism is replaced by external law enforcement.

Matt Huisman said...

Ah but there's a middle area between surrendering your decision making to another and making decisions completely unilaterally.

Well, I agree with your 'middle area' concept in principle, however, I suspect that the line between #1 and #2 gets a little blurry sometimes. But when you get to the big questions of life you find that more and more people are choosing #3...for no reason in particular other than that it allows you to avoid dealing with guilt or meaninglessness.

Matt Huisman said...

Shame on you for referencing such a horrid song.

As Tom Frank would say, 'What's the Matter with Kansas?'

[What am I saying! Don't answer that.]

Matt Huisman said...

I find the entire notion of guilt to be predicated on a movement's need for control. Guilt is a uniquely human construction designed to keep humankind obedient to an authority beholden to its dogma rather than its followers.

So now that you are aware that guilt is merely a tool used by 'The Man' (did I really say that?), do you find that you no longer deal with guilt? Tlaloc argues that guilt is a response to a self-constructed moral code - I, of course, reference natural law; but the point is that we dust particles can't seem to avoid this guilt thing. I'm just not convinced that it's all the result of conditioning/environment.

It's the rare person who can act in the face of the paralyzing knowledge that all we have is the world we create for those who follow and can do so with a basic and fundamental respect and appreciatin for the faculties of humankind.

If I may ask, how do you recommend that we face this paralyzing knowledge?

James Elliott said...

If I may ask, how do you recommend that we face this paralyzing knowledge?

Acknowledge it, accept it, move on. I will be dust, oblivion, nothing more than a memory to those who knew me. Scary, but there it is. I accept this. I will, instead, live on by creating a better world for my progeny and my fellow humans. Immortality is not in the soul, but in the lasting effects of our works. Hop to, young man, as my grandfather used to say.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sartre dealt with it by becoming nauseous. Such a miserable cuss he was.

BTW, I ran across this, by a fellow named Michael Kelly (not the late great Atlantic editor) and had to pass it on:

The ground war in Afghanistan hotted up yesterday when the Allies revealed plans to airdrop a platoon of crack French existentialist philosophers into the country to destroy the morale of Taliban zealots by proving the non-existence of God.

Elements from the feared Jean-Paul Sartre Brigade, or 'Black Berets', will be parachuted into the combat zones to spread doubt, despondency and existential anomie among the enemy. Hardened by numerous intellectual battles fought during their long occupation of Paris's Left Bank, their first action will be to establish a number of pavement cafes at strategic points near the front lines. There they will drink coffee and talk animatedly about the absurd nature of life and man's lonely isolation in the universe.

This is only one of several Psy-Ops operations mounted by the Allies to undermine the unswerving religious fanaticism that fuels the Taliban's fighting spirit. Pentagon sources have recently confirmed rumours that America has already sent in a 200-foot-tall robot Jesus, which roams the Taliban front lines glowing eerily and shooting flames out of its fingers while saying, 'I am the way, the truth and the life, follow me or die.' However, plans to have the giant Christ kick the crap out of a slightly effeminate 80-foot Mohammed in central Kabul were discarded as insensitive to Muslim allies.

connie deady said...

I have discovered through copious personal experience that the one surefire way I can reduce a casual acquaintance to speechless bafflement is to admit that I am an orthodox and obedient Roman Catholic who believes the Church contains the deposit of Truth to which I owe assent.

I remember what a neighborhood was like growing up in the seventies and I know what it's like now. Big difference, at least among the white folk. Everybody is sort of on their own. We have friendships based purely on election rather than naturally being acquainted with almost everyone in our geographic area. We move around so much that extended family is not as available to help. The neighborhood church is no longer a center for us. We commute to exactly the right church that fits our preferences.

Neither Kathy nor Hunter obviously live in Northeastern Pennsylvania. People here live in the same neighborhoods and go to the same churches, the Italians to the Italian Catholic, the Lithuanians to the Lithuanian Catholic, the Lebanese to the Lebanese Catholic church. All holds bazaars in summer. Community, identity and the pre-eminence of the Catholic Church still rule.

All that said, I agree with most of the thoughts that we have lost something very valuable these days.

James Elliott said...

Thanks for that last post, Tom. That made my day.

James Elliott said...

This was an interesting discussion, thanks all. Have a good Turkey Day and I'll "see" you next week.

Oh, and don't listen to this guy. He's just plain wrong.

Jonathan said...

-- As Tom Frank would say, 'What's the Matter with Kansas?'

-- [What am I saying! Don't answer that.] --

Nothing. They are the most underrated Progressive Rock group period.