Flipping the Line: Liberalism Isn't Sucking the Meaning Out of Life
It gives us permission to make our own meaning
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, Bridget Brown on why Andrew Potter is wrong to be so down on liberalism.
I love Andrew Potter's work. His 2004 counter-counterculture treatise The Rebel Sell enormously influenced me as a budding journalist. That's why it was disappointing, nearly 20 years later, to read his thoughts on our society's cultural decline.
Potter writes that modern society lacks meaning, liberal individualism is the real disease, and community is the cure. His conclusion that our current societal funk results from the liberal rejection of social institutions is a frothy interpretation that confuses correlation with causation.
Yes, social communities are important. Neuroscientists have demonstrated social interaction is as vital as food and water. It's considerably less clear whether our societal search for meaning is quenched by what has historically passed for community, like religion, nationalism, and pageants both literal and figurative.
While the human tendency to clump together in groups is largely responsible for our rise to the top of the food chain, the formation of these groups can be quite vicious and exclusionary. In one of my neuroscience graduate courses, we examined a study that replicated the experience of being ostracized. The experiment found that ostracism causes significant changes to our psychological well-being over time. Humans try so hard to avoid being kicked out of the group because when it happens, we experience isolation the same way our brains process physical pain.
The institutions and communities Potter credits with delivering all-important social capital can promote this ostracism as much as prevent it. Groups from the Mormon Church to the Hell's Angels to the Girl Guides provide community for their members, but that sense of community hinges on rules and norms that have as much potential to exclude as they include.
Institutions and communities can stoke the pain of ostracism instead of the security of community because cultivating a sense of meaning isn't what social groups are primarily designed to do; they're designed to preserve our culture and, ultimately, our survival.
In other words, belonging to a community may provide meaning but by no means guarantees it. When it comes to our mental well-being, the critical part of the equation isn't the community; it's the belonging. And as any monk on a mountaintop will tell you, you don't need a social institution to find belonging. You just need to feel like you're part of something larger than yourself.
This feeling is accessible regardless of our community participation or individual spiritual beliefs. The Standard Model of particle physics tells us we are all made of identical fundamental particles. These quarks, leptons and bosons also make up every known entity in the universe, making us part of a bigger and more connected community than we have the capacity to fully understand, but one we are free to tap into and derive meaning from at any time. Potter may believe the root of liberalism is a sense that life is meaningless, but in fact, recognizing that life has no inherent meaning or purpose means individuals are free to tap into their own meaning and purpose.
Acknowledging the commonality of our fundamental makeup as a way to find meaning in life would necessarily require us to admit that when we hurt a living being, destroy our planet, prioritize money over someone else's well-being, or troll someone on the internet, we are also hurting ourselves. Mainstream adoption of that perspective would be a substantial cultural shift.
Those tied to our previous institutions, members of what Noam Chomsky termed "the ruling class," are fighting this shift and actively trying to make it look like detachment from community is the cause of Western society's current funk, either because they fear what will supplant our institutions or because they personally benefit from them.
They lament that young people have been inculcated with the idea that our cultural institutions are outdated and they should not strive to fit into them. Then, when these young people quite logically try to find meaning and community in, say, veganism, environmentalism, or ending poverty, the grownups sneer that these beliefs are, at best, unrealistic or, at worst, exacerbating the problem of social decay.
In reality, cultural institutions and social structures are not a panacea for societal breakdown. Our communities can be upended at any time, as we learned during the pandemic lockdowns. Our churches, our schools, and our social connections can suddenly atrophy in unpredictable ways. The answer to this isn't clinging to them more tightly. It's ensuring that our sense of meaning can prevail during the collapse of familiar communities.
Or, as Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."
Bridget Brown is a business owner and a neuroscience graduate student at King's College London. She writes at createthatcopy.com.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Pitch us something: email@example.com