There’s a topic I’ve touched on briefly a number of times here, but today we’re going all in on it- the Culture War. I’ve called this the War for the Soul of Man and the War for the Human Spirit, but those are a bit more specific in my usage. The Culture War (yeah, that’s getting capitalized) is almost certainly the greatest conflict facing the modern world at present. I’ll qualify that statement as we get into it, because it sounds like really pretentious first-world-problems thinking, but it goes so much deeper than that. This is a battle for the hearts, minds, and even the bodies of every man, woman, and child on this planet. There is no escape from the conflict, because it reaches down into all areas of life.
Let us begin.
To understand the conflict, we have to look at the entire narrative of recorded history. This is going to be very in-depth, and it may not appear to be related to the Culture War at first, but bear with me, it will all come together- though perhaps not in the way you’d expect.
The best place to start is with the story of the Garden of Eden. I’ve covered this before in Myth and Meaning I, but we’re going to take a slightly different angle here.
(I will add the disclaimer that this is not a theological argument, I’m treating the material as a myth rather than a religious argument, and am not debating the nature of God or anything of the sort. As I covered in several other articles, God represents the highest value of a system, and for the sake of this, treat my usage like that.)
In this context, the story of Eden represents the delineation between animal and Man- the emergence of choice. Free will is born and immediately we learn of its consequences. Knowledge is power, but also pain- the burden of responsibility is harsh and unforgiving. When Adam and Eve eat of the fruit, they lost their innocence, and in the knowing of the fact that they did wrong, they chose to hide from God. In this framework, this represents a denial of the nature of reality.
It wasn’t eating the fruit that was the “original sin,” it was this denial- the first lie. As a result, God “curses” Adam to toil in farming the harsh land, and Eve to serve Adam and bear children in pain.
Now, what if it wasn’t exactly a curse?
Let’s consider that this story is Man’s account of the narrative- a child would likely say his father “cursed” him when he got grounded, when in reality it was a necessary punishment for the good of the child. The story hinges on the idea of Eden as an actual idyllic state before the world we live in now, but I argue that nearly every childhood has a state of “Eden,” the time before responsibilities and the vicissitudes of life come crashing in. This doesn’t mean that the world actually was this magical, great place, and then all of a sudden it wasn’t- it just means that our perception of it was as such.
It always hurts to rip off the band-aid, but it’s necessary for the sake of healing. In the same sense, all change causes pain to the degree that we’re attached to our ideas about a situation. If you are a child and have no responsibilities, when they arrive, you’re going to cling to the notion that the responsibilities are an unnatural thing and that the ideal state is a return to the false “Eden” of a prolonged childhood.
However, we do not, and cannot, stay as children forever.
I would argue that the narrative imposed by the framing of the Eden story is the first instance of an implicit denial of reality, and a demonization of the nature of the world. Whether or not the writers intended it, the implication of calling the introduction of the harsh nature of the world as a “curse” introduces a number of problems that we’re still dealing with today, and that I think form the basis of the culture war.
First, we have the notion of a God that “creates” a cruel world, rather than the world simply being inhospitable.
It’s simply the nature of childhood that we are ignorant of the many terrible things in life- war, sickness, pain, hatred, violence, and so on. However, unless you keep children in a bubble (and even then, we have plenty of myths about that- look at the story of the young Buddha), they are going to lose their innocence in a painful way. This is simply the way of things, though this fact is fairly horrific. I remember the many repeated disillusionments of my childhood (and frankly, they continue into adulthood as well), and how absolutely miserable having my preconceptions about the world shattered was. It’s only natural that we wish to spare our children from this, but we truly cannot.
We run into issues when we do not fully make the break from childhood. In the past, this was the reason we had initiatory rituals for young men and women- to clearly define the separation between the two, as well as providing some mythic context to clarify. In our age however, there is essentially nothing of the sort. College has become childhood 2.0, with safe spaces, the prohibition of free speech, and a laundry list of other naive things I don’t care to address here.
When we create a mythocultural framework that says that “there really was a better world, before we messed things up,” rather than the move from a state of blissful ignorance into a “sadder but wiser” knowing, then a few things happen.
First, we “blame God.”
Peterson covers this in more length than I will, but to “blame God” is, in a philosophical sense, to resent the nature of reality. From this notion, we begin to construct all sorts of delusional systems- most religions fall into this trap in one way or another. For example, Gnosticism says that the reason things are bad is because the world was created by someone bad- the Demiurge. Some variants of Christianity say this world is the realm of the Devil. Buddhism says the nature of the world is suffering (which isn’t wrong, but is an incomplete picture) and that we should attempt to give up our attachments and thus escape the cycle of rebirth and death (re: completely deny all parts of life). The notion of an afterlife (not in the sense that we think there’s something after death, but specifically the idea that it’s a better place than here) also draws from this resentment for the way things are, because it’s a desire to escape. I can go on and on about this with many more religious and philosophical examples, but you can probably get the gist from here.
This is going to sound more theological than I’d like it to, but I can’t really think of a way around that at present- when God says “I am that I am,” it’s essentially a statement of “reality is what it is.” There’s an implied “deal with it” in there, but obviously we chose to ignore that bit.
Because “God made Man in his image,” this essentially means that our nature is representative of the broader nature of reality and being itself. We’re the product of the world, and that is an inescapable fact. Human nature evolved because it was beneficial for survival, so to lament the way that people are naturally is, again, a form of resentment against the way the world simply is. This is, in part, why much of academia recoils against evolutionary biology and psychology, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
Life is unbelievably cruel, and people are killers (or at least very capable of being killers)- and that’s natural, and that’s not an inherently bad thing. These are things we invest an enormous amount of time in denying and trying to find ways to work around. This, of course, isn’t an argument against “thou shalt not kill,” because that’s the bedrock rule of all cooperation with others. What I’m saying is that because of the way the world is (full of predators) and the way we are (thin skinned, hairless, and extremely vulnerable), we had to become the most efficient killing machines that nature ever produced, and we should not be ashamed of our nature.
To be ashamed of your nature is to hate your life.
The lion does not feel shame for eating the lamb, the falcon does not apologize for scooping up the field mouse, and the bear doesn’t pity the fish. This is simply the nature of the world. This comes back to the loss of innocence- Man “hid from God” and recoiled from reality because it is a terrible thing to behold.
In Hinduism, we have, as an example of this existential horror, the goddess Kali. Kali is often depicted as ferocious, carrying a severed head and wearing a belt of bleeding human arms. Despite this incredibly foreboding appearance, she is the mother of the entire universe, and is considered to be beyond our narrow concepts of good and evil. She is the divine feminine in its purest form- honest and beyond the childish notions of manchildren regarding what they want women to be, and represents the absolue facts of reality- birth, love, strife, death, all together in one symbol. Kali represents the reality we have to accept head-on.
There’s a pretty interesting Irish myth that relates to this. I’m going to summarize hard, but you can read a fuller version here.
The High King of Ireland has a few sons, and they’re all sent out hunting as some sort of contest. While looking for water, they come upon a well guarded by a hideous hag who asks for a kiss. Two of the sons come back empty handed, and one only gives her a peck, but the final son, Niall, kisses her properly. This causes her to be revealed as a lovely maiden, who represents the Kingship of Ireland, and she makes him and his sons kings for twenty six generations. (Side note- my last name, Dailey, comes from Ó Dálaigh, an Irish bardic family, which allegedly comes from this same Niall.)
What does this represent?
This myth is called the “loathly lady,” and I’d argue it represents a combination of the terrible nature of the feminine to the young man, but in being undeterred and embracing it completely, it is revealed to be secretly beautiful. The feminine as a symbol represents in some sense “the womb of the world,” the place where things take place, and the masculine is the force that operates in the world. In this light, kissing the loathly lady represents not just accepting the nature of reality (which the other son did with his weak kiss), but embracing and welcoming the harshness as divine. This is exactly the approach I touched on in Aion Agon, coincidentally.
This is a particularly masculine experience, due to the particular relationship between sons and mothers. Mothers are protective by nature (as are parents in general, of course), but it’s the fate of the boy to “die” to birth the man. The maternal instinct is to spare the son from this, but it is not possible. This is, in part, one of the core metaphors of Christianity. “The Son and the Father are one,” but the Father has to give the Son to the world to be killed, that he may then become the Father. The innocence of boyhood is fated to die, and the tragedy is that it is undeserving- but it simply is. Thus we return to “I am that I am.”
There’s a parallel to this experience in Norse mythology, when Odin “sacrifices himself to himself,” as he hangs himself on the world tree, Yggdrasil, for nine days, and is pierced by his spear, Gungnir. It’s by this sacrifice that he discovers the runes, which are the Norse letter system, except they’re considered to have an innate magical property. There’s a possible parallel here to the notion of Logos or “the Word, but this is something I’ll explore more in a future article. For now, it will suffice to note that both the stories of Odin and Christ are effectively the mythological equivalent of the initiatory experience that separates the boy from the man.
To accept this process of death and rebirth (instead of attempting to flee from it, as Buddhism does) is another requirement for the acceptance of life. Again, this is immensely difficult to do, because we cling to our feeling that if we just believe hard enough, or if we protect our kids enough, that this reality can actually be avoided.
As we have addressed, this is not the case. The nature of man is the nature of the world, and the nature of the world is harsh. Reality is not concerned with the petty human whims that we try to structure systems around. It kills those that disagree with it swiftly and indiscriminately. Sympathy is exclusively a human quality. This is where we arrive at the second major delusion- that because we can imagine a different sort of world, that it’s good to try and move things towards that.
The second delusion is that suffering is avoidable, and that it is inherently bad.
No one is born enjoying suffering, if they were, it’d be called something else. All the world’s religions are a testament to the encompassing nature of suffering as the central human problem. Despite my objections to the end goals of (perhaps only modern) Buddhism, they did get a lot of things right when it came to suffering. It comes from attachments, and attachments are a form of delusion, as the nature of things is impermanence.
Change is the only constant, and all that.
The issue that we run into in modernity is that we’ve created a very convincing argument that suffering can be eliminated. If you look at most statistics, the world is almost completely better off than it was in every way- literacy rises, poverty drops, and so on. Somehow, though, we’re left with the troubling issue of suicide rates, mental illness, and a host of other psychological (and perhaps also spiritual) issues rising as emergent symptoms of today’s world. If getting rid of all the hardship of life is a good thing, we certainly aren’t acting like it is.
The obvious bit here is that because suffering is an unavoidable fact, to try and get rid of it is to try and avoid a fact- willful ignorance. However, I’d argue that because of centuries of a variety of religions and philosophies purporting various solutions to the problem of suffering, most people do genuinely believe that there’s a way out of it. Sadly, much as childhood must end, so too must ignorance, regardless of how genuine it may be. A gun in the hands of a child is as dangerous (if not more so) than one in the hands of an adult, whether or not the child is aware of what it does.
The unique problem of modernity is not that we’re going to suffer, it’s that for the first time it has to be our choice to suffer, because never before have we been so able to avoid it.
To recap, before we get into the Culture War proper, we have the two core issues- resentment for the nature of reality (and human nature), and the belief that suffering can be escaped. They’re both very distinctly connected, of course, but they have separate expressions.
One of the core expressions of these two issues is the mind-body dichotomy (which I’ve written about here). This is the experience of our mind being distinct from our body, and from that we get all sorts of notions like the concept of a soul as something distinct from us, as well as things like simulation theory and other solipsistic concepts. What this ends up doing is bifurcating people into two camps- those of the mind and those of the body.
The people of the mind move towards asceticism and the intellectualization of the world. The people of the body move towards hedonism, materialism, and the rejection of the internal experience of mind. From the former, we get academia, and from the latter, we get consumers. Interestingly enough, the stereotype of nerds and jocks is effectively the same thing.
Academia (not entirely, but by and large) has become increasingly theoretical to the point of impracticality. This is due to a long tradition of philosophers that did nothing except philosophy, in part, but even that is due to the primacy of intellectualism that the people of the mind have. Great examples of this- Immanuel Kant never got more than 100 km from his hometown and likely died a virgin, and Karl Marx never had a real job (though he was strangely concerned for a working class that he literally wasn’t a part of) and instead was supported by his bourgeoise friend Engels.
The fact that these things aren’t considered to be relevant in most schools of thought is emblematic of the fundamental disregard for physical reality.
The inverse of this is (in a sense that’s relevant here) the blind consumer of things. This isn’t strictly a consumer of bought-and-sold-goods, but a person that does not process things internally. These are the kids that don’t question things, do what they’re told, get the jobs that are expected of them, and blindly shamble through the world. The submission to authority eventually cements an idea of “the way things should be” in the mind, which then gets idealized as “the way things used to be.” Because we can never perfectly live up to the standards and expectations of the generations before us, we’re always decaying from some imagined golden age, “kids these days” are ruining everything, and so on. We resist this sort of blind followership as kids, but as we stop fighting it, we internalize the notions and then double down on them to get past the cognitive dissonance.
This is more or less where fundamentalists become radicalized over time. As a result of never questioning the “old ways,” a la “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” eventually no one knows why anyone does anything. This, along with the impossibility of perfect information transmission (the game of telephone), is responsible for religions decaying from esoteric and symbolic practices into dogma. The best example of this is Matthew 6:5-6 (KJV),
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites [are]: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.”
Somehow, essentially every branch of Christianity has ignored this very direct exhortation against organized religion and praying in churches, directly from Christ himself and his Sermon on the Mount. I don’t know about you, but I find that astounding. Of course, no one questions anything because of the nature of the people of the body- simple consumption.
These two branches of the mind-body dichotomy form the basis for the two larger cultural forces in the world- progressivism and conservatism, respectively. Progressivism’s core notion is that we can change the nature of man and the world because it denies the reality of this nature. Conservatism’s core notion is that the world used to work better and if we only did things the old way, we would be fine.
In essence, conservatism wishes to return to Eden, and progressivism wishes to leave this world for Heaven. More simply, conservatism is “mom and dad aren’t home, so don’t do anything they wouldn’t do” and progressivism is “mom and dad are gone, so we can do whatever we want,” except both are extended far beyond the age of childhood. Both of these are, of course, delusional positions based on the desire to avoid the actual facts of the way the world is and has always been, something we continue returning to.
Eventually, kids have to become adults, and adults become parents, and parents have to be responsible and make decisions regarding someone other than themselves. Now, unless you had perfect parents that explained their rationale for everything and gave you a complete set of rules for how to operate at all times, you’re going to have to make some decisions without guidance.
This is the basis of the horror of responsibility- the possibility of choosing the wrong thing and causing unnecessary harm. Conservatism avoids this by saying “do what has always been done,” with the quiet implication of “so I don’t have to choose.” Progressivism says “no one is responsible for anything,” with a whisper of “it’s not my fault.”
The most critical realization in this is twofold.
First, conservatism is effectively the position of the dutiful child, and progressivism is the position of the rebellious adolescent. Both are stages, both are necessary for you to move through them. A child identifies itself with its parent, and a teenager identifies itself as a reflection of the parent through differentiation. An adult, however, develops an independent identity.
Remember how I said we don’t have initiation rituals?
One of the great tragedies of life, one that I would argue that women are far more acquainted with than men, is that the body ages consistently while the mind does not. People mature sexually far sooner than they mature intellectually. There’s a common notion that child stars stop maturing as people the moment they get famous, and I’d tend to agree.
The problem is that it’s not just famous child stars, it’s a great majority of the population.
We do not have a mythocultural structure that is relevant enough to the modern world to support this development, and now we have scores of “adults” that are effectively at the developmental level of children and teenagers. In the same sense that “we can only understand others to the extent and in the manner that we understand ourselves,” we can only teach or guide others to get to where we are, no further.
Critical realization I: Most people are not mentally mature enough to understand the complexities of the world.
Society has failed and is failing several generations of people. We have no mechanism by which to delineate the change from childhood into adulthood, and as a result, most end up in some form of incomplete development forever.
This is one of the greatest tragedies of all time, and unlike the normal, necessary tragedies and sufferings of life, it’s one that is caused by trying to avoid it. The universal experience loss of innocence and the subsequent “learning to deal with it” is what makes adults, and since we don’t have the structure to make sense of it, we cannot function in the world.
In our attempts to spare our children, we’ve damned them to stay as children.
This is the true meaning of Luke 23:34 (KJV):
“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”
A gun is still dangerous in the hands of a child.
Even ignorant people can torture and murder an innocent man.
This is systemic, nigh universal, entrenched cultural ignorance. Historically, yes, people weren’t educated like we are now, but there were generations of knowledge passed down, both directly from parent to child, and indirectly, through myth and ritual. Nowadays, we have never had more information available to us, but we have lost the wisdom of how to do the fundamental tasks of living well.
We see this ignorance on display in the actions of the two sides of the Culture War. The progressive side wishes to level all things in pursuit of some imagined equality, but inequality is the nature of life- it’s entropy, the slow force of death, that equalizes. The conservative force wants to pretend we don’t have to step up and devise new rules for this strange new world, but if the old ways worked, we wouldn’t have ended up where we are.
We cannot turn back- just as Eden is guarded with a flaming sword, so does retreat spell death to the living. However, neither can we race blindly forward without regard for reality- many a fool has met his end over the edge of a cliff.
What is essential is to meet these two issues, rather than running from them.
First, we can no longer “blame God” for the way things are. At some point, you have to accept that however badly your parents may have done at parenting, they were acting on what they thought was right, as ignorant (and catastrophic) as that may be. No one thinks they’re the villain, even if they end up being one inadvertently. You can spend your whole life cursing the sky, or blaming your parents, or hating society, or even resenting the very nature of reality- many do. However, at some point, you have to make the choice:
If you don’t, then your options are fairly straightforward. If, on the other hand, despite the potentially unbearable amount of pain, fear, sadness, isolation, loneliness, terror, horror, and all the other things you may have borne, you still want to live, then you must come to terms with the fact that this is all a part of the ride. If you’re going to be here, you’ve got to be all in.
The second challenge becomes this:
To face, accept, embrace, and welcome the suffering of life, free of resentment- that even at the lowest point of the deepest pits of hell, that life is still worth living, that you can endure, and that this, too, shall pass. To neither regret the choices you made to arrive here, nor to be ashamed for the mistakes you’ve made and the person you’ve been.
To forgive the world, and to forgive yourself.
This comes with a catch, though- just as you have had your failings, so have others. You cannot hold this against those who have yet to come to this realization, for they know not what they do. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t hold others accountable, because we’re all responsible for our actions, but it does mean that you should not consider ignorance a great moral failing. Instead, see it as a tragedy that you can work to remedy by being a better example and teaching when you can, and when it’s appropriate to do so.
Now, instead of running from the world, we walk towards it with open arms, and we can meet the terrible beauty of it with a complete embrace.
We must kiss the blood-stained lips of the goddess without reservation, because to do so is to kiss the Truth itself.