Don’t Mess With Our Roots
“But the special function of certain Newspeak words, of which OLDTHINK was one, was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.” – George Orwell, from 1984
When two climate-change activists went into a London museum and tossed tomato soup all over Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, they didn’t do their movement any favors. The act struck most people as petty terrorism, like something from the Cultural Revolution. One suspects this is just the sort of antics that have driven thinkers such as traditionalist Paul Kingsnorth away from the environmental movement. More on him later.
Recall that the Chinese Red Guard had been encouraged to destroy the Four Olds: Old Ideas, Old Culture, Old Customs, and Old Habits. Mao had prompted the Red Guard student movement to shore up Chinese Communism, which, at the time, the party viewed as the end of history. The Red Guard wanted to destroy anything that might remind people of society before Mao. So they destroyed art, burned books, and toppled statues.
We are witnessing the return of the Red Guard. But this time, the call for the destruction of the Four Olds issues not from the CCP, but rather from Western universities. It’s no secret the academy is the beating heart of radical social justice ideology, which, today, extends its tendrils into corporations, primary schools, athletics programs, and modern media.
As European intellectuals sympathetic to Marx understood, Mao knew that to indoctrinate a people, you have to destroy their roots. I call these roots the substrata. We find a significant portion of our self-concept in these layers of rootedness. But radical social justice activists view healthy self-concept as a demonic force to be exorcized. To exorcize people’s self-concept, radical social justice activists attack sources of meaning that might challenge their doctrine.
Much of the so-called “meaning crisis” comes from the mass deployment of radical social justice mind viruses that originate in postmodernism and critical theory. The result is an insidious mob psychology that spreads like a contagion. The layers of humanity upon which we understand ourselves and derive meaning can resist change, but radical social justice activists want to obliterate all resistance to change. It matters not that such changes can leave people sick, poor, depressed, or physically altered.
Substrata: Liberalism and Traditionalism
Educational entrepreneur Michael Strong refers to academia as “The World’s Leading Social Problem.” To make his case, Strong points out that nineteenth-century liberals believed in two basic ideas:
An economic system consisting of property rights, rule of law, and freedom of contract led to ‘the wealth of nations’ and was a sound foundation for peace between nations.
Personal virtues such as hard work, perseverance, ingenuity, initiative, self-discipline, personal responsibility, good manners, and wholesome living could put any individual on the path to a life in which he or she could become ‘healthy, wealthy, and wise.’
Strong says these two basic points had been mainstream thinking in the United States and Britain. But, “for the next hundred years, most of the intellectual and pedagogical activity of university professors in the humanities and social sciences was dedicated to undermining respect for those ideas.”
Such undermining persists to this day.
Academics became various flavors of socialist, and many continue to be. Whether Maoists, Marxists, or mendicants of subtler shades of radical social justice, their MO is to undermine liberalism. As critical race theorists Delgado and Stefancic write:
Unlike traditional civil rights, which embraces incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.
These “foundations” are the substrata—part of our American roots in America.
But activists can read between the lines. Step One is to question those foundations. Step Two is to dismantle them. Those rushing to strike at the roots of the liberal order know full well that behind the veneer of concern for marginalized groups lies a will to power. Yet they are the first to refer to everything they loathe as fascist.
Some might argue that true liberalism—a doctrine that holds people ought to live in peace, pluralism, and freedom by rule of law—is wholly at odds with so-called traditional values. Some self-styled classical liberals argue that, when it comes to radical social justice, there’s nothing to see here. Others actively seek to sever the connections among these value systems. But that would be a terrible mistake. At best, it would mean turning a blind eye to the destructive nature of radical social justice. At worst, it would mean people who claim to cherish freedom are hacking at its roots.
Liberals, traditionalists, and practitioners of ancient wisdom clash from time to time. But as the petty terrorists of social justice continue their vandalous march through the institutions, sometimes literally as in the BLM damage of 2020, many will find a common cause in pushing back. As an anarchistic liberal with a techno-optimist streak, I thought I’d never find myself nodding along with Paul Kingsnorth, a reformed climate activist turned Orthodox Christian who occasionally flings holy water at the Technium.
Back in America – now ground-zero for the abolition of biology – thousands of girls are undergoing double mastectomies, and teenage boys are being given ‘puberty-blocking’ drugs designed to chemically castrate rapists. Eleven year old girls are taught that ‘if you feel uncomfortable in your body, it means you are transgender’ – which may explain why, in some classrooms, a quarter of the children identify as precisely that. The concept of ‘trans kids’ – a notion that would have been inconceivably baffling to most people even a few years back, and for many still is – is now being pushed so hard that it starts to look less like the liberation of an oppressed minority than an agenda to reprogramme society with an entirely new conception of the human body – and thus of nature itself.
Radical social justice activists are destroying the biological substrate, much like American iconoclasts are toppling statues of Thomas Jefferson—symbols of our liberal substrate.
Attempts to dismantle our shared historical substrate are one thing. It would be quite another to mess with the family. But Lily Sánchez, writing in Current Affairs, says hold my beer:
The family must be abolished, which means a “breaking open of the family to free and unleash what’s good in it and to generalize that into the social body as a whole. To make the necessary forms of care available to everyone unconditionally.”
See? To unleash what is good about the family, you have to destroy the family; just as to unleash what is good about being a girl, you have to destroy the very concept of a girl as well as girls’ and boys’ bodies. To make a postmodern omelet, you have to break a few…. According to radical social justice activists, these substrata are merely contingent. Chesterton’s useless old fences stand in the way of progress.
But what if I told you that this urge to destroy the substrata might be predictable?
The Integral Heuristic
In Spiral Dynamics—a framework of psychosocial values development first advanced by psychologist Clare Graves—the basic idea is that individuals and groups change over time according to certain life conditions. Some will prefer other stage theories, such as those of Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan. All such theories share the basic idea that human psychosocial development changes according to levels of complexity.
Still, let’s use the Spiral Dynamics framework as a heuristic, along with a sketch of social complexity through time.
According to this model, as civilizations become more complex, people develop different values and modes of cognition. Development has been intermittent and heterogeneous. Still, a few have managed to ascend to Tier Two. Most, though, linger somewhere in Tier One. And when they do, they tend to cling to a monolithic value system. They find others disorienting.
Practitioners of this heuristic emphasize that, instead of wars among value systems, people can learn to transcend and include the values of prior levels. So, for example, a highly rational scientist (Orange) might eschew the beliefs of religious orthodoxy that hold sway in the prior stage (Blue). But the scientist might eventually come to see that there are features of Blue worth preserving, such as respect for elders or guarding certain traditions. In other words, you can transcend Blue traditionalism to see the world through the Orange lens of enlightenment liberalism—but also include Blue’s healthier values.
Integral practitioners such as Ken Wilber have noted the excesses of the Green stage—with its emphasis on hyper-relativism and the rejection of human nature, rationality, and truth. Wilber worries Green can be a psycho-social ditch. He observes that “Mean Green” represents the values of a new Cultural Revolution. Radical social justice, according to Wilber, is an unhealthy expression of Green that militates against the prior substrata. For example, Mean Greens talk about tolerance but only with respect to marginalized groups. They spurn other values. “Inclusion,” far from calling on us to integrate diverse worldviews, is but shop talk for the intersectional props in Green victimhood narratives.
I am sympathetic to the idea that, in psychosocial development, we can retain healthy expressions of prior stages. When I go home to North Carolina, for example, I find myself saying ma’am and sir, despite my letters and laurels. Mean Greens would view this as some abhorrent reinforcement of dangerous gender stereotypes designed to erase the existence of ‘genderqueers’ and ‘two-spirits.’ For example, writes thought policeperson Brooklyn Reece:
The server comes up to you and brings you and your friend cups of iced water. When they place the glass in front of you, they chirp, “Here you go, ma’am!”
A wave of tension and self-consciousness sweeps through you. You consider the situation. Was it the long hair? The earrings? The lipstick? Which feminine-stereotyped accessory gave your server the right to assume your gender identity? When did they ever ask you your pronouns?
Only a restrictive ideology would prompt one to attack OLDTHINK and consider decoupling herself from those culturally evolved layers of her humanity. Perhaps the tribal proclivities of the Purple stage and the dominating urges of Red unconsciously prompt Reece to dismantle and destroy rather than transcend and include.
Still, instead of going to civil war against these zealous Greens, is there a way to help them out of their ditch? After all, once they learn to transcend and include, most Greens aren’t Green anymore.
As quickly as I found myself nodding along with Paul Kingsnorth on protecting our roots, I turned to find him brandishing a machete next to mine.
First, Kingsnorth writes glowingly of illiberal conservative Patrick Deneen who makes incoherent two-steps between the “liberalism” of technocratic progressives and the original liberalism of the American Founders. It’s no wonder then that Kingsnorth has this assessment of liberalism:
The ideology of liberalism has, since it emerged from the Enlightenment, claimed to liberate the individual from oppression. In practice it has manifested as the process of breaking all borders, limits and structures: of bringing down walls. The societies we have built around this way of seeing claim freedom for the individual from society itself, and proffer a radical notion of human nature. Rather than seeing humans as hefted creatures, rooted in time and place, liberalism offered a new conception: detached, sovereign personhood. Humans were now “rights-bearing individuals who could fashion and pursue for themselves their own version of the good life.”
Did I say liberals and traditionalists will clash?
While Kingsnorth rightly notes that radical social justice types are hacking away at the roots of human nature, he turns round and takes a stab at our shared roots (Kingsnorth is a Brit). Integral thinkers won’t be surprised. All too often, even the best first-tier thinkers have difficulty transcending and including. As Kingsnorth has become a valiant knight in Blue’s shrinking kingdom, he sometimes retreats too far into the cramped recesses of that value system.
But not always.
Here Kingsnorth writes admiringly of Simone Weil’s heterodox thinking:
Her attachment was to the eternal things, and she could never be boxed in. She wrote in praise of God, tradition, roots, peoples and culture; but also of justice, freedom of speech and thought, honour and equality. She could be equally scathing about fascism, communism, established religion, liberal elites, capitalism and mass education.
Kingsnorth should not box himself in, either. After all, free speech is a liberal value. And we liberals can be just as scathing about fascism, communism, and mass education to the point that we define ourselves as the opposite of these. Further, original liberalism doesn’t seek to break “all borders, limits, and structures.” Instead, liberalism recommends porous borders that let people organize themselves within communities of peaceful pluralism. As Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:
Wherever, at the head of a new undertaking, you see in France the government, and in England, a great lord, count on seeing in the United States, an association.
Sadly, progressive technocrats destroyed most of America’s great associations in the twentieth century. But technocrats don’t like true liberalism, either. Indeed, they share the same contempt for associations that Lily Sánchez has for the family. In any case, I invite Kingsnorth to witness the beauty that Tocqueville saw when America really lived its liberalism.
Contra Kingsnorth, liberalism doesn’t require a “detached, sovereign personhood.” Our doctrine acknowledges human interdependency while respecting individuals as something other than the chattel of the church, state, or ruling class. Liberalism doesn’t seek freedom “from society itself.” Instead, liberals know that the ties that bind a community are stronger when woven by people who associate freely, as opposed to when zealots have to shame, conquer, and convert them.
Paul Kingsnorth chose to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Surely his faith is bolstered by that choice, as opposed to the paltry faith one might find when baptism seems a better idea than torture. The difference is one of agency, which liberalism offers as a central value. I suspect that if God exists, God prefers us to choose moral acts rather than having goons compel our compassion.
While liberalism carves out space for different traditions, with peaceability as the limiting principle, the reverse isn’t always true. Kingsnorth should therefore take another look at liberalism. He might find roots there. Indeed, he might even find traditionalist roots in liberalism, as Edmund Burke did. As Daniel Klein and Dominic Pino explain:
“Conservative liberalism” is a suitable name for Burke’s outlook. In that expression, “liberalism” is the noun. It is primary. It communicates something about the house people are to make their homes in. The adjective, “conservative,” curbs the enthusiasm of liberalism but enhances its wisdom. Conservatism makes liberal principles more practical, pertinent, and robust. It grounds the arc of liberal civilization; it spans continents; it can endure.
While I am not a conservative liberal, I can see the value in Burke. At a minimum, liberal doctrine is commensurate with traditionalism insofar as liberalism seeks to integrate other value systems peacefully.
Surely, therefore, Kingsnorth can do better than to get his assessments of liberalism from close-minded theocrats like Patrick Deneen.
The essence of liberalism is this: Don’t hack at my roots, and I won’t hack at yours. We might share some roots, you and me. If so, let us work together in peace. If we do, an ordered ecosystem might just spring up with plenty of soil left for others to grow in their way.
One can only admire Kingsnorth’s work because it’s clear he’s grown. He writes beautifully and persuasively. I see why there are certain features of life he wants to sacralize. That is why I want him in the trenches next to us as we face down the radical social justice activists of Green. Those who learn to transcend and include healthy first-tier values will ascend the spiral together. When we do, we will figure out how to mute the destructive aspirations of Mean Green (or Fundamentalist Blue or Greedy Orange). Maybe we can help those under the spell of radical social justice to leap from Green to Healthy Yellow.
And in the process, we ourselves might recall what is true, beautiful, and good in Green.
“Ideas have sex,” said fellow liberal Matt Ridley famously. The incredible bounty we enjoy each day is a consequence of this fact of human nature. Humans have ideas and we transmit them to each other. Sometimes we adopt them and, perhaps more rarely, we hybridize our ideas to create something new. Each novel genome confers advantages or disadvantages within certain life conditions. This is perhaps no truer than in the domain of cultural evolution.
One of the great liberal thinkers, Friedrich Hayek, taught us this. And if we squint hard enough at Hayek’s theory of cultural evolution, we will see the wisdom of rootedness just as Kingsnorth did in the work of Simone Weil. Here’s a summary of Hayek in my own words:
People transmit memes. Sometimes we adopt and imitate sociocultural memes. Among the most important memes are common rules and cultural norms that allow people to predict what others in their group will do. This provides order. Common rules and norms preserved over time become traditions. These are selected for and tested by our life conditions, which include competition with other groups. Traditions we might have imitated or adopted differ from instincts that evolved through biology. Sometimes this fact can make for conflicting internal thoughts or difficult external allegiances. Still, traditions can confer advantages to groups. Those traditions maintained through group selection can be superior to individual reason in certain respects because culture carries tacit adaptations to life conditions that a single mind could never apprehend. Though the precise mechanisms of biological- and cultural evolution aren’t exactly the same, they share relevant aspects. Both work through selection. Social rules persist through reproduction and fitness and get tested (and retested) by circumstances.
Traditionalists aren’t likely to appreciate a Darwinian explanation of tradition’s value–or, not at first blush—but at least the rationale shows how the whig and the tory might come to the same conclusion: Don’t mess with our roots.
If this evolutionary view of cultural traditions is generally correct, what does this mean for radical social justice?
While radical social justice gained relatively rapid mindshare, it must quickly evolve. By analogy, certain viruses transmit quickly but also quickly destroy their hosts. Such viruses tend to die out, much in the same way that Marx’s alpha variant did. Due to the destructive nature of radical social justice, people are developing a kind of immunity to Mean Green’s memes. And hosts who find their lives worsened or destroyed won’t long be effective propagation machines.
Fight, Flight, and Facilitate: A War on Three Fronts
Finally, we arrive at our call to action. This call cannot be either/or. It must be yes/and.
First, traditionalists should join with liberals to fight radical social justice. But if by fight, we mean to us illiberal means, that risks creating a different-but-equally-dangerous enemy. Humbly, therefore, I submit we lock arms in solidarity around original liberalism, which transcends and includes traditionalism.
Then, when we cannot fight, we must exit—that is, flee. It might sound cowardly, but it’s not. Flight can mean leaving a state like California to settle in Texas or Arizona. Jurisdictional arbitrage is a way to let rotten cultures and institutions collapse while shoring up healthier institutions by voting with your feet.
Finally, we must help facilitate radical social justice activists’ cognitive and moral transition to a healthier place on the spiral. Some won’t ever make it. But others will. And maybe, like Michael Strong referenced above, they will become leaders capable of seeing and synthesizing the healthier values of the whole spiral.
Integral thinking can lead us not only to a place of unity in pluralism favored by liberals but it can also work to the end of protecting our roots.