Moral Vision: A Liberal-Minded View

This post is a continuation of my last post. There I wrote about combining my liberal-mindedness with a Taoist approach to politics. That could be seen as a bit too passive considering the urgent problems that are like an earthquake shaking the edifice of modern society. What is the comfort of being a political Taoist in a society that fantasizes about Christian apocalypse along with secularized versions of social decay and doom?

In light of this, I was thinking of what may be the active role of liberal-mindedness. What can the liberal predisposition offer besides patience and persistence? How can the liberal-minded advocate for something entirely new, something that profoundly challenges the status quo?

What came to my mind was the necessity of moral vision. In my last post, I spoke of the relationship conservative-mindedness has to fear. The moral vision conservative-mindedness creates can be compelling, often portrayed in form of battle, whether waged by a Christian army fighting for God’s Glory in a fallen world or the lone vigilante like the noirish Batman as the Dark Knight fighting evil in a crime-ridden Gotham. The liberal-minded have their work cut out for them in seeking to offer something more compelling than these visions of a fearful world to be overcome.

This is where liberalism as a movement has failed to live up to the potentials of the liberal worldview. I would include left-wingers in this failure. Maybe left-wingers deserve even more responsibility than liberals for it has always been the necessary role for left-wingers to push society toward the liberal-minded moral vision and thus keep liberals accountable. Without left-wingers playing this role, liberalism remains unchallenged in its safe dreams of status quo timidity. If liberal-mindedness is left to ‘liberals’ like Obama, then an alternative compelling moral vision will continue to elude us. What we need right now is someone with the vision and voice of a Martin Luther King jr.

Thinking along these lines, I found myself coming back to the insight about how disconnected we are and how splintered society has become. We are lacking the moral vision not just to inspire but to bring it all together as a coherent narrative. This isn’t about superficial debates about how to metaphorically frame arguments in order to win at the political game. This goes deeper into the meaning of culture itself. The problems we face are a soul sickness. Read Derrick Jensen’s early work to know what I mean by this (specifically: A Language Older Than Words and The Culture of Make Believe).

I’ve often contemplated this disconnect and splintering. I know it in my own experience. The disconnect I feel is between my desire to understand and my ability to act and between my ability to act and the possibility of genuine change. I would be the first one to admit that I’m no moral exemplar. My greatest moral achievement is my sense of humility in the face of my own weaknesses and failures, but that isn’t much of a consolation prize.

So, the reason I often pick on conservatives isn’t based on righteously standing on the moral mountaintop looking down upon others. It’s just that the disconnect in conservatives can seem so blatant at times. More frustrating is that this kind of disconnect often doesn’t seem to bother conservatives as much for, at least when they are in reactionary mode, seeing things this way isn’t part of their worldview.

It is beyond my comprehension to make sense of how, for example, conservatives can claim moral highground of their own through Christianity while simultaneously singing the gospel of patriotic jingoism and military imperialism. I know of a conservative who in many ways is morally good Christian in doing good works (volunteering at soup kitchens, etc), but he sees nothing wrong with the US government having dropped atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan. That is such a massive disconnect. There could be no greater symbol of the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings than this morally depraved collective action. It’s not just un-Christian. It is completely and utterly anti-Christian… or else just anti-Jesus.

I don’t know what to make of this. The  power of this kind of disconnect is that it breeds numbness and blindness. The person disconnected to such an extreme extent isn’t even aware of it, can’t be aware of it.

It isn’t about blaming individuals. The soul sickness is greater than any single individual for all of us in this society are implicated, in one way or another, to some degree or another. A few of us have slightly more awareness about particular things, but I haven’t yet discovered a person who has fully come to terms with the society-wide disconnect that plagues us. I couldn’t say what good it does to be aware of a problem to which one has no good solution. Derrick Jensen’s solution is for the collapse of civilization which is an unsatisfying answer from my perspective, especially considering that there is nothing Jensen can do to force civilization’s collapse. We’re all just groping in the dark, even if some of us have become more familiar with the darkness.

As I see it, the more blatant examples such as hypocritical Christians make obvious a truth that is otherwise difficult to see in our everyday lives. I too am a hypocrite… or to the degree I’m not a hypocrite, it is because I’ve lowered my own moral standards. This is why, even if I were a believer, I’d be reluctant to call myself a Christian. I’m not a hypocritical Christian because I realize Jesus’ teachings are more radical than I could ever live up to. Many Christians simply ignore the radical nature at the heart of Christianity, but it makes little difference.

This isn’t about liberals being better than conservatives. A worthy moral vision has to transcend differences by inspiring people to transcend the divisions within themselves. It may take someone with a strong sense of liberal-mindedness to usher in a new vision, but such a person can’t be stuck in a single state of mind. A worthy moral vision would equally touch upon what is true in all aspects of human nature. Conservative-mindedness in and of itself is not capable, almost by definition, of positively envisioning the new. Even so, conservative-mindedness has many other strengths that liberal-mindedness lacks. Without focus (low ‘openness’) and conscientiousness, implementation of any new vision would be impossible.

Liberalism and conservatism as movements may be separate phenomena, but as predispositions they exist as potential within every person. A unifying vision must express what is universal in human nature. This isn’t compromise. It is simply a psychological fact, even if the disconnect within us has made us forget this fundamental truth. Maybe one of the most central disconnects is between liberalism and conservatism, thus causing the former to be impotent and the latter to be reactionary. But the disconnect comes in many forms for all divisions are expressions of the same fundamental divide… or so it seems to me.

Everyone has some specific divide or another that they are attached to and are unwilling to give up no matter the cost: atheism vs faith, civilization’s progress vs civilization’s collapse, capitalism vs communism, reform vs revolution, and on and on and on. Our personally favorite division appears as reality to us. It simply makes sense. Meanwhile, we go on criticizing the blind allegiance others have to their preferred divides.

This relates to how Derrick Jensen, who experienced victimization as a child, would advocate violent activism that would inevitably victimize others. To Jensen, all the world has become a projection of his own victimization and so it plays out everywhere he looks. That is true for all of us, according to our respective projections. We become what we fear and hate. The ultimate disconnect is between self and other. The ‘other’ becomes the enemy, whether that other is some particular group or all of civilization.

I don’t have any solution to offer. I only wish a public discussion could begin. A collective problem requires a collective response. My fear is that only a collective catastrophe will be able to bring forth collective concern, but I’d rather believe there are other ways to achieve change.

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