Context isn’t dying; it just feels like it is. Mass society isn’t killing us, it just feels like it is. Using contextual terms like “male” or “female,” or visual clues to offer context, like “white communities”, or even “Muslims”, seems not to provide the context it had. Also, the promises of consumer society seem rather unfulfilled as the purchasing of a new suit offers much less happiness than it promised. That is, the social drives for communication and connection seem to lack the linguistic and common backgrounds that would give such social drives some traction. Understandably, the needed transparency that has been applied to the linguistic and systemic backgrounds we have relied on has revealed less than justifiable instances and programs of discrimination and oppression. Colonialism, genocide, and racial, religious and gendered subjugation serve as all too vivid examples. The effort to at least mitigate these factual realities has been informed by the attempt to include marginalized voices, voices which had been limited by these contextualizing realities. The context has needed to be expanded to include marginalized voices or eliminated because it unjustifiably oppressed certain people, which life would be better off to include. However, without a readily available context, connection with others becomes unmanageable, and perhaps even unimaginable. Moreover, we are confronted by the lack of trust in our neighbors, or colleagues, our classmates, i.e. in the members of our social worlds that are given. More significantly, this loss of trust extends to our churches, our spouses, our elected officials, and our heroes, i.e. in our voluntary associations. Walking in a grocery store during a pandemic provides particularly sharp relief; two people, one wearing a mask and one not, looking at each other with deep suspicion.
As anxious as the widespread lack of trust feels, like an earthquake causing the earth beneath our feet to fall away, such expanding horizons aren’t entirely new, nor are they far from our collective memory. Similar expansions of backgrounds happened during the civil rights movement beginning in the 1950’s, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, the rise of feminism, and the public appearance of alternative sexualities. The horizons of meaning have historically shifted and expanded so much that even adherence to any religion is now a minority position in North America. In fact, the seeming destruction of context is the modus operandi of a more inclusive background which could provide both meaning and beauty to our lives. We just didn’t realize that the way we have striven for an inclusive context was integrally connected to our loss of context, as I mentioned above. In other words, social contexts have both limiting and constitutive effects on the individual. People advocating to expand background understandings towards greater inclusiveness often forget the constitutive elements that less expansive backgrounds provide; people worrying about the loss of context tend to overlook the oppressive nature of many of those contexts. In either direction, trust erodes. What is different about this expanding of context compared to the previous one is that many of the options for a broader and more inclusive landscape in which to find our way have disappeared. You see, the lack of trust is not merely a distrust of our neighbor, it is also a distrust of things claiming to be true.
All kinds of communities have broken down. Tribes have been dismantled. Families have been chipped away to the point of dissolution. Church communities have fallen to either consumerist buildings attended once a week, or have become places which affirm the authority of the institution. Cities have been gutted for suburban sprawl, which is a manifestation of isolationism. Largely, universities have forgone their civic purposes, or their contribution to the experience of thriving for more of the so-called “epistemic” consideration of delivering information, i.e. delivering messages and not truth. Mass social existence has thrown the individual back on herself, without a background of either community or truth to fall back on. The appearance of the epidemics of mental ill-health, depression, and loneliness are the most obvious symptoms of the precarious position of the individual in mass society. And all this has come simultaneously as the greatest push for an inclusive society hitherto ever known. The widespread attack on the oppressive nature of limited social contexts has also not only made visible exactly what was oppressive; this transparency has also paradoxically hidden what is also constitutive. It is the other side of the coin. The deliberate attack on oppressive contextual limits is blind to the individual identity-forming, life-giving constitution of communal existence.
Instead, mass society, consumer culture, and isolating features of “social” media silos off the individual to the point where the only sources of resilience are within the individual herself, or what she can access at a state level. We have thought that this was inclusive. If by inclusive we mean “accessible” then yes, mass society is inclusive. However, if being inclusive also means offering a sense of belonging, then mass society has had precisely the opposite effect. We, as Marx rightly pointed out almost 200 years ago, are severely alienated from ourselves, from each other, and from the world.
As such, the sources of resiliency that an individual has had recourse to have slowly been eroded so that the lack of social trust is to be understood as the withering away of historically manifested communities that constituted the individual. And that is a sad state of affairs. For the individual is required to be stronger and stronger, while mass society has cut her off from anything which would provide her strength. Organically, this is similar to expecting a plant to be able to flourish amidst increasing threats from its natural surroundings without the nourishment that it has traditionally relied upon to be a thriving plant. Without a consistent effort in nurturing a plant’s surrounding ecology, the existence of strong plants becomes less and less likely. What is more commonly experienced is the destruction of the entire garden, plants and soil alike. And to take this metaphor one step further, while the plant has been grown in the garden, it has been believed that the plant will grow fully, even though the garden is destroyed.
That is the effect of mass society on the individual. It has broken down the garden and fed off the plants. It has admired the wild and beautiful flower that is the individual, but eroded her constitutive conditions, i.e. the communities that are required for the beautiful individuals to appear. The death of context seems like a universal experience.
Part 2 – The 3 C’s – Clarity, Craft, and Community
Nonetheless, context remains because the existence of a mass society which denigrates both communities and the individual is only half the story. The other side of the story is one of hope, and it is one which helps us break through the isolationism. Ironically, our very modern experiences of professionalism and excellence embody something of our moral ecology except, unfortunately, toward capitalistic ends. There is a moral ecology that is left after all. And I call it a moral ecology because of its constitutive contribution to the character of individuals.
The first part of that moral ecology has been called “truth” in the history of ideas; “Clarity” might serve us better for our purposes. Let’s take Donald Trump as an example. For the first 3.5 years, citizens’ relationships with Trump have required them going on so many untested assumptions (“Mexicans are sending rapists”; “Dictators are great leaders”; “Muslims are bad”; “The virus will go away”). Those statements may seem plausible to people who hadn’t experienced Mexicans, Dictators, Muslims or novel viruses – but as soon as one has experienced a sufficient sample size of any of these examples (meeting Mexican-Americans, knowing some of the realities of North Korea, the economic collapse in Venezuela, the devotion to charity in Islam, 170,000+ deaths) Trump’s claims are known to be intentionally deceptive. But now, Trump has been “lived with” enough for there to be clarity about who he is and what he cares about. People have enough clarity to shut him off and stop listening to him. Clarity about Trump is not merely being introduced to what he looks like; it is experiencing him for what he does. Clarity is the best kind of truth, because it hasn’t just, say, read books about soccer; it comes from playing the game by kicking the ball and running a lot. The clarity about soccer is achieved in the participation in it.
Clarity is achieved through a kind of “working knowledge” of whatever subject one happens to be talking about. To be clear, of course, offers a kind ecology that bolsters and buttresses the identities of individuals, and that approaches a type of uber-realism that can offer some assurance amidst many of the responsibilities a person has in her life. Not knowing one’s future spouse well-enough as they actually are, before committing to marry, sends the marriage off into insecurity rather than assurance. Having clarity is one part of the moral ecology of strong individuals. In the professional world, it is the excellence of long experience with some activity. In life it comes when, say, a man looks at his wife, in all knowledge of who she really is, and challenges himself to love her in a way that brings out her loveliness.
Additionally, concepts of professionalism are also embodied in the craft. I am both a teacher and a writer. In the act of teaching, I need to lay a groundwork and create a place of play in the teaching space that allows the student to explore and generate new knowledge. As an essayist, I have a sketch of what I am writing before I write it. The act of writing happens in the grouping of ideas prior to sitting down and composing sentences. For me, the moment of writing happens in the ordering of the explosion of ideas. The writing, at this moment, prevents my ideas from being unintelligible and it becomes something which can be digested by another; it is a little like prayer or meditation for me in its character of resonance. Writing disciplines me to stay in the world. It offers an ecology for my creative self to shine – like the plant that emerges from a well-tended garden. Let me say, though, as a writer, my garden needs a little more tending. James Baldwin writes, “If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.”
Everyone, no matter which of the incredible plurality of crafts that has been honed, knows of the discipline it takes to be excellent in that craft. This excellence and discipline contributes much to the lexicon of a fruitful moral ecology. To advocate endurance and resilience about activities of ultimate concern, as Baldwin does, is to adopt a language that is used to negotiate deep values, worthiness, and struggling against very real obstacles. These obstacles may be the writer’s critics, internal laziness, an admired parent or teacher saying “you should think about getting a job instead,” or a situation which takes up all one’s productive hours taking care of the needs of the body. But here we are now on moral ecological ground, and we are buffered and nourished by a craft which crafts us. In other words, we have a linguistic and acted moral ecology which is not directed at the oppressive nature of context, but rather on the constitutive nature of it. That I have to write partially constitutes who I am; the craft is not an unnecessary limit. It pushes me to continually improve. It pushes me beyond my own limitations. The craft itself is an embodiment of moral ecology, and it contributes to a context which can be imagined, expressed and experienced, and celebrated.
There is another, and perhaps more significant, source of moral ecology and context that is worth considering, and that is community. I do not have the space to elaborate a satisfactory concept of community here, but it is rooted in the human ability to promise. As Hannah Arendt has written in the Human Condition, “without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to keep our identities; we would be condemned to wander helplessly and without direction in the darkness of each man’s lonely heart”. In other words, promising sets up islands of security into the future, and the absence of this capacity would lead not only to the destruction of the individual, but also to the destruction of a particular historical, human reality.
Promises, after all, are commitments, and to a greater or lesser extent, covenants that keep and contextualize people. In making these covenants, we make them to particular people (as in marriage), or to organizations (as in citizenship ceremonies, or in wearing team jerseys and cutting the grass). These promises are most often to particular entities, and these form our community contexts. Making these commitments don’t merely change what we do, they change who we are.
Western culture is filled with plenty of anti-commitment entities. Consumer culture leads us to the purchase, and aside from subscription-based purchases, ends at that point. Consumer society is marked precisely by a lack of commitment. Mobile phones contribute to lowered attention spans. Mass society pushes us from this to that, with a breadth of experience, but little depth of experience. Like the difference between tourism and residency, mass society encourages visiting; however, it takes a counter-cultural instinct to take up residence. To have a successful marriage (or to be a wonderful parent), we can’t just visit; we must reside in it. Visiting is something we do. To reside is to affect who we are.
It takes a counter-cultural instinct to hold onto commitments, to community, to craft, and to clarity. But considering the expanding horizons of context we are experiencing collectively we might need to commit, to craft and to be clear about who we are. In tapping into these three sources of a richer moral ecology, we, like a bicycle wheel, add spokes to secure the integrity of the whole wheel. More spokes lead to an integrated life that is more resilient. And it may lead to increasingly authentic relationships with yourself, with the world you live in, and with others to whom you belong.