Dao Du Jour II, Day 70: Moderate Modernity

Chapter 70: Being Obscure

“Words come from an ancestry,
Deeds from a mastery:
When these are unknown, so am I.
In my obscurity
Is my value.
That’s why the wise
Wear their jade under common clothes.”

~ Tao Te Ching: A Book about the Way and the Power of the Way, trans. Ursula K. Leguin (Shambhala, Boulder: 2019)

Francis Fukuyama’s new book, Liberalism and Its Discontents, ends on a rather uninspiring note: a plea for moderation, a virtue whose personal and political value was not lost on the Greeks:

“This emphasis on moderation has been largely discarded in modern times: university graduates are routinely told to “follow their passions,” and people who live to excess are criticized only when it harms their physical health. Moderation implies and requires self-restraint, the deliberate effort not to seek the greatest emotion or the fullest accomplishment. Moderation is seen as an artificial constraint on the inner self, whose full expression is said to be the source of human happiness and achievement.”

The “inner self,” an idea that derives from the Christian tradition and attains its modern expression in Martin Luther, finds its political correlate in classical liberalism. The state protects my external self—life, liberty, and property—and leaves me free to pursue happiness and salvation however I please, so long as I do not obstruct others’ attempts to do the same. Central to this project is a healthy sense of boundary and differentiation between the private and the public spheres, between civil society and the state, between the personal and the political. Though connected, and in some ways overlapping, each sphere has a logic and integrity that commands respect. It is understood, for instance, that there are some things you simply do not do or say in public.

But this ethos of what we might call “impressive individualism” gave way, in the post World War II period, to what Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism.” What begins as the liberty to make your own choices within a shared value system becomes the license to choose your own value system. What starts as the freedom to “speak your truth” curdles into the confusion what what you say is true because you feel it, and congeals into the compulsion to share whatever you feel. The “hot take” is regarded as more “true” because it is spontaneous, unfiltered, raw. When Trump voters told us that he “tells it like it is,” they didn’t mean that his words were factually true; they meant that he speaks from the gut—he tells it like he is, and like we are. The migration of expressive individualism from the counter cultural left in the 1960s to the Trumpist right today is a testament to the dominance of this ethos. If you turn the personal into the political—if you fuse the spheres—then there will be politics wherever there are people; that is, everything, everywhere, will be political all at once.

Social media is what enables expressive individualism to scale. It is to this ethos what the interstate highway system was to the automobile: enabling infrastructure for a new form of culture. Virtually anyone, virtually anywhere, can virtually express their immediate thoughts and feelings to virtually anyone, virtually anywhere. When expressive individualism is married to a technology based on “connectivism”—if it can be connected, it should be connected—it falls into contradiction. Freely sharing yourself becomes a new kind of conformity. Sharing is only worthwhile—and only sharing—when there is something valuable to share. How much of a self can there be to share when it is always sharing? It’s true that we are constituted by our relationships, but it is also true that we are shaped in the crucible of solitude. Solitude—not doing whatever you feel like, but the habit of regularly, intentionally submitting yourself to the world beyond your head—a craft, an art, a spiritual practice, a form of service—is a pressure cooker that tempers and refines and strengthens the self. It both impresses the self with a distinctive marking, a ritual scarification of the psyche, and gives it both something unique to share and a sense for what is worth sharing. Solitude is an investment whose dividends are what Jung called the “reinvestment in the collective.” Without impressed, and impressive, individuals, expressive individualism is a contradiction in terms. If your jade is never concealed, wearing it is like littering. Indeed, to extend the highway metaphor: just as the culture built around the internal combustion engine has polluted our air with chemicals that harm our physical health and our natural environment, the culture built around the internet has polluted our minds with information that harms ou mental health and political environment.

Fukuyama’s closing words may not sound inspiring, but perhaps the problem is not the words but our ears:

“Sometimes fulfillment comes from the acceptance of limits. Recovering a sense of moderation, both individual and communal, is therefore the key to the revival—indeed, to the survival—of liberalism itself.”

There is a paradox here: if we expect less from our politics, and more from ourselves, our politics will improve. And another: to progress, liberalism must take a cue from traditional values.

New to the Dao Du Jour? Check out “Day 0.”