Bent on evil: How do we explain human culture run amok?
The other evening on our (almost) daily walk, my wife mentioned a recent talk given by a public librarian who was expert on fiction for teens. One of the points made by the speaker was that the overwhelming majority of the books that came across her desk featured gender-confused young people who needed to be encouraged to find themselves so they could be happy.
My more perceptive better half also noted that this massive and nearly immediate corruption of mainstream publishing dovetails rather neatly with the findings by Brown University’s public health professor Lisa Littman, to the effect that gender dysphoria among teens is most frequent primarily in communities dominated by wealthy, liberal parents who themselves champion what we might call “all the right causes”. In other words, Littman’s findings (for which she was almost immediately berated) suggest that the gender dysphoria we hear so much about is at least arguably largely induced.
This is hardly surprising. Anyone who has observed mainstream education right up through college—or anyone who has significant teaching experience—will understand that almost every cause or concern large groups of young people latch onto is “induced”. Teenagers are very malleable, especially under the influence of those who contrive to make them feel “grown up”. That’s why it is so important to form them consistently until they have completed the internalization of significant values.
And that is also why the State wants control of your children: We are fighting a values war.
A self-destructive society
These particular examples are just two of, say, a zillion ways in which our society is not only self-destructing but being pressed to self-destruct through the power of the dominant culture. Our cultural elites set the tone for just about everything and then insist, through their influence over government, education and media, that everyone else must be continuously instructed about what they are to think. This in turn creates a mob mentality through which history is erased, unfashionable ideas are suppressed, unfashionable people are marginalized, and good parents have less and less influence over their children.
But what interests me most here is that such obviously self-destructive social practices can be so widely perceived as good. If we were to land on a distant planet and discover the heirs of an historically highly successful culture bent on killing their offspring, destroying their marriages, creating confusion about the differences between male and female, encouraging every form of sexual experimentation, reducing family stability, and investing millions in utopian fantasies which undermine the very nature of the citizenry, we would instantaneously conclude that this was a society unaccountably devoted to its own destruction.
Yet we live in precisely this sort of culture in which most people advocate manifestly self-destructive ideas and goals as good. What we are witnessing is nothing less than a colossal and continuous denial of reality. How are we to explain such apparent blindness?
I believe there are four interrelated explanations. The order in which they should be listed varies with our perspective at any given moment. A different sort of essay might answer the question of why successful cultures or civilizations seem always eventually to deteriorate. This would require an analysis of the links among human success, human pride, and human rebellion against reality. But here I am going to look at things from the perspective of our own culture—a human culture that is already pretty far gone.
1. Being culture bound
Since every human person is to a considerable extent inescapably culture-bound, the first thing we notice about a destructive socio-cultural milieu is that it causes most people to follow unreflectively the values of their dominant culture, no matter how often these values may shift. It is precisely one of the strengths of a serious Christian commitment that it provides us with a way of transcending our human culture and examining it in the light of God. But at the same time, the influence of a sick dominant culture works powerfully against the ability of members of any religious group to take a transcendent understanding seriously, as something which should purify and transform the culture in which they live.
Strong subcultures can form people for resistance, but the dominant culture is, for better or worse, dominant, and can only be improved through tremendous effort and sacrifice. It is a matter, after all, of continuously swimming upstream. (As Chesterton pointed out, if we see an animal drifting constantly downstream, we know it is dead.) But this raises the question of how we know what the dominant culture is? There is no easy answer, and yet a moment’s reflection reveals that all but the most isolated persons know so quickly and easily what they are supposed to think that it seems almost instinctive. Call it, then, the instinct of self-preservation, through which the human person becomes sensitive to thousands of signals, small and large, which suggest approval or disapproval by “those who matter”.
It is difficult to overcome shifting cultural prejudices. Without grace and instruction only a very few clear-headed persons of tremendous integrity manage it at all. And where grace is not sought and integrity is weak and a culture is already fairly far gone, it is not surprising that being culture-bound is the first and swiftest reason that “everybody” mindlessly favors one ridiculous attitude or cause after another, no matter how destructive these may be.
2. Our need for affirmation
Closely related to being culture-bound is our need for affirmation from others. Quite apart from the more venal aspects of seeking affirmation, which play a significant role in our social and financial success, every human person craves recognition and affirmation from others, and especially from those who matter in any given culture. In our weakness, we take this as a measure of our self-worth. When I spoke of personal integrity and the operation of grace in the previous section, it was an indication that it takes either a rare natural strength or a serious quest for Divine help for us to be comfortable with ourselves if our worth is not affirmed by others—again, especially by the most successful members of society, in whose glow we long to bask.
In a way, the need for affirmation is simply a more personal and perhaps even more interior symptom of the motive which fosters our tendency to be culture-bound. Everyone wants to be considered “OK” by those around them, and especially by those who are perceived as having status, as being admired, or as “setting the tone”. This is a feature of human nature which, without the aid of grace, easily degenerates from friendship into mere “niceness” and even into sycophancy. It tends to color almost everything we do. In the absence of attractive and admirable leaders who are bucking a trend—and these are fairly rare—this thirst for affirmation usually leads us to reject even our own better judgment.
This again explains how it is that we can be so very malleable when it comes to the instinctive adoption and even defense of the most worthless leading ideas of the day. Moreover, it almost seems that the more educated we are, the more we have been formed to regard those a little further up the tree of influence as the ultimate sources of wisdom. As a group, scholars appear to be peculiarly susceptible to the affirmation bug. Their very reputations depend on peer review, which must not be impeded by anything so ephemeral as truth. My point is that in the self-perpetuating power of academia, we see our own insecurity writ large.
3. Psychological defense mechanisms
Under the first two headings, we have moved from the external pressures of the herd to the interior pressures of its members. Perhaps we can go still deeper into the question of how the individual person can so reflexively praise the most destructive drivel while condemning what even a small child ought to be able to see as solid good sense. This brings me to our personal psychological defense mechanisms.
I understand this better than I did when it first crossed my mind about fifty years ago. When my “aha” moment came I had been struggling with the question of why our intellectual classes were almost universally unable to condemn the demonstrably gross evils of Communism. I realized then, sometime around the age of 20, that the answer was fairly simple: People who have rebelled against both religious truth and the natural law cannot bring themselves to clearly evaluate and condemn even very grave evils that are advanced in the name of the emancipation of man. Why? Because to condemn such evils is to admit that there are transcendent norms for differentiating between right and wrong—and it is precisely this that must never be acknowledged.
I later realized that this is Psychology 101. We will see in the final section something more about how this plays out spiritually, but here it is sufficient to recognize the psychological defense mechanisms which protect us against threats to our good self-image. There are many of these: “Projection” is a prime example. We all have a strong tendency in any argument, external conflict or interior turmoil to “project” our own failings onto others. It is the other who is irrational, or insecure, or mean-spirited, or unfeeling, and so on. It may even be the other who is “insane”. It is certainly the other who is wrong. But the particular defense mechanism I have in mind here is called “Denial”. It is the refusal to examine a touchy question when we are vaguely aware that it might require a change in our own attitudes or own way of life, and in particular when it may require the painful separation from our sins.
4. Darkening of the Intellect
Now we can turn to the interplay between the human intellect and the human will to see the deeper personal dimensions of the problem under consideration in this essay. That interplay is illuminated still more by the question of how we respond to grace.
To begin, we see that the intellect is supposed to guide the will. Some idea or course of action is set before us, and the intellect’s role is to assess the validity of the idea or course of action to determine whether it is true or false, good or evil, prudent or imprudent, appropriate to our situation or not, and so on. These analytical conclusions are presented to the will, which, by virtue of its strength in controlling what we do, should move us to act accordingly, including either resisting or encouraging any desires which may spring up one way or the other. The more experience we gain with the proper use of both intellect and will, the greater our facility becomes, and the better we become as persons. But if the will rejects what the intellect proposes, and insists that we act contrary to a proper analysis (contrary, indeed, to good sense), then we act destructively and become worse.
We can also see, in the order of grace, how God respects our freedom. Initially, we will typically receive a grace which enables the intellect to more surely assess some prompting, but we are not thereby compelled to do the good. If our will assents, we will be given the grace to act appropriately. But if the will refuses, this grace will not be given. Moreover, if the will becomes so prickly that it instantly refuses even the grace that is offered to enlighten the intellect in its judgment, then soon we will habitually lack this initial grace. Moreover, in a reversal of roles, the dissenting will demands of the intellect that it no longer propose what it has discerned as good but instead use its powers to justify the course the will has chosen.
This is yet another psychological defense mechanism. It is “rationalization”—a kind of ill-motivated mental obfuscation which is both a symptom and a cause of what Christians call “the darkening of the intellect.”
We grasp at last, then, the massive power of sin to darken the intellect, which is the root explanation for how such a great many otherwise apparently intelligent people can be absolutely blind to the massively destructive consequences of the ideas they accept and the causes they promote. Nothing less can explain the situation in which we find ourselves today in a post-Christian culture, or the situation in which so many pagan societies have found themselves over the centuries. Satan, as you can see, has a lot to work with.
Now, it is my purpose here only to explain the incomprehensible, to explain how the vast majority of people in the West right now manage to avoid conclusions perfectly obvious to the meanest intelligence. In other words, it is not my purpose to explain how to solve the problem, at least not beyond what is also obvious, that we must do everything possible to renew the Church before we are likely to open floodgates of grace wide enough to overflow the willful denial of reality which blinds our culture as a whole.
It must be either this or some dramatic material disaster which can bring many to a greater sense of their dependence on God. But, alas, it is not Christian to desire natural calamities to fall on others in the hope that supernatural good will result. Not even if we can so easily project all of our shortcomings on “them”.
For I tell you this, says Jesus Christ: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trodden under foot by men” (Mt 5:13). Our task is to redouble our prayers and efforts at Catholic renewal. In the very next verse we learn that, to illuminate all in the house, we must first remove the bushel basket of sin which conceals the light of the Church.
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