“Radical changes of identity, happening suddenly and in very brief intervals of time, have proved more deadly and destructive of human values than wars fought with hardware weapons.”
—Marshall McLuhan, Laws of Media: The New Science
Probably most people reading this—especially if they spend a lot of time on the Internet—are aware of the growing phenomenon of “social justice warriors” with hair-trigger mouths and clicking mice, fiercely practicing intolerance in the name of tolerance.
Earlier this year, in the small (pop: 6000) Canadian town where I live, a group called Culture Guard were scheduled to speak at the local Royal Canadian Legion. The subject was a nationwide, multi-leveled educational program called SOGI (Sexual Orientation Gender Identification), ostensibly directed towards encouraging “tolerance.” Culture Guard is a conservative organization whose mission is to uphold citizen-driven democracy and community values and expose what they call the “tyranny of politically correct idiotology.”
The event was cancelled after the Legion received 900+ email complaints, including threats. Much to my surprise, the reaction on Facebook to this was mostly gushing gratitude that this diabolical hate group had been righteously silenced. Two fairly typical comments: “Hope we’ve run these poisonous haters out of town” and “No bible thumping flatlander would dare show their face because hate has a weak foundation.”
Apparently, nothing is more immoral to the new moralists than old-style moralism, and if you aren’t in a state of fear or loathing these days—possibly both—you probably aren’t participating in “the debate.” We have entered a liminal zone in which up can become down, right turn left, and virtue trades places with vice in the time it takes to say “What’s your pronoun?”
Legions of Unreason (The Outer Limits of Liminality)
“The attributes of liminality are necessarily ambiguous. . . Liminal entities are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial.”
—Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (95)
When the town hall is overrun by legions of unreason, the desire to map the exits can be overwhelming. The problem is that, nine times out of ten, the proposed solutions only compound the problem. This has become ever more apparent to anyone paying attention to the evolution of progressivism and identity politics, with its endlessly replicating contortions and contradictions.
One concept I have found invaluable for navigating the increasingly incoherent—and explosive—social landscape is that of liminality. This is an anthropological term (coined in the early twentieth century by folklorist Arnold van Gennep) that refers to the quality of ambiguity or disorientation in the middle stage of religious rites. Later on, anthropologist Victor Turner used it to describe how ceremony masters usher ritual participants from one state to another, as in a coming of age ritual. The liminal stage is the intermediary one in which the initiate is on the threshold (līmen) between his or her old status and a new, as-yet unknown one. More recently, the philosopher Rene Girard (among others), applied the term to sociopolitical and cultural conditions. And not a moment too soon, since we have now entered a time in history when ambiguity and disorientation have assumed epic proportions.
A few examples from the anthropological database: People trapped in a liminal situation are increasingly unable to act rationally, because the structures upon which their rationality is based have disappeared. (Check.) Being in a liminal state spells crisis for most people. Emotions run wild, making clear thinking all but impossible. (Check.) This leads to “mimetic” (imitative) behavior by those trapped in the liminal space. (Check. 3 out of 3.)
In the politics of liminality, the future is unknown; since no one has gone through the process before, there is no one to lead people out of it. This allows for false ceremony masters—politicians, pundits, sophists, and general snake oil salesmen—to fill the void and offer bogus solutions or ways out of the liminal state, to alleviate the disorientation and helplessness of others, thereby perpetuating liminality indefinitely. (Check. Check. Check. Check.)
Conditions of permanent liminality can be maintained by schismogenesis—literally, the creation of a split, a polarity that, if unchecked, pushes the poles further and further apart. (Check!!)
The problem that isn’t being addressed by the snake oil salesmen is that the problems underlying liminality are not primarily social problems but psychological ones. This means they can’t be addressed with social reforms or new ideologies. In fact, those social reforms, policies, and “new” ideologies are, as Freud said of religion, symptoms of the problem itself. And multiplication of symptoms does not indicate that a cure is underway.
Rene Girard, Mimetic Violence & Scapegoating
“Everybody tends to merge his identity with other people at the speed of light. It’s called being mass man.”
— Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Me: Lectures and Interviews (p. 268)
In periods of sustained liminality, as now, the structures we rely on become by their nature unreliable. This makes most people extremely anxious, hence highly susceptible to influence and manipulation. A single Tweet can set us off; even a Tweet that fails to get retweeted becomes proof that the world is going to Hell—or that we are. In a liminal zone of “fluid” identities permeated by multiculturalism and pansexuality, the ideological snake oil business booms.
These kinds of interpersonal flame-wars seem like a distorted case of what Turner called “rites of status reversal,” when “the underling comes uppermost.” Turner writes: “at certain culturally defined points in the seasonal cycle, groups or categories of persons who habitually occupy low status positions in the social structure are positively enjoined to exercise ritual authority over their superiors; and they, in their turn, must accept with good will their ritual degradation” (Turner, 102, 167). This exact scenario played out recently at Evergreen College. Even the fact this article is written by a “privileged” white man and depends on the works of other white men as primary sources makes it ipso facto offensive to some people.
Which way is up and which way is down? What is acceptable behavior? What constitutes maleness or femaleness? What’s a paraphilia and what’s a sexual orientation? When does pride become narcissism? Everything is suddenly “up for grabs” (sometimes literally, cf. #MeToo movement). In “Violence in the media,” media prophet Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Violence, whether spiritual or physical, is a quest for identity and the meaningful. The less identity, the more violence.” The primary consequence of liminality is increased mimesis or imitation (c.f. Girard) because, when old values no longer hold good, no one knows how to act without referring to others. This creates a free-for-all—a climate of social contagion—in which mimetic violence potentially escalates; this in turn creates the corresponding need for a scapegoat—an other—to unify the attention of the group and stabilize the community. Within larger communities such as a nation, an individual scapegoat is not enough, so entire groups are targeted.
This potential for mimetic violence in every community is why the idea of universal values (morality) is fundamental to social stabilization—to the extent that, in Adam Smith’s days, “social” and “moral” were often interchangeable (see Steven Hitlin 2013). In order to provide the guidance, support, and reassurance of stability, a societal system—the institutions it creates and the values it upholds—must give the impression of being unchanging, solid, and fundamental. They can’t be merely the products of human minds trying to work out the best way to organize a community; they must assume the status of holy writ, natural law, or scientific fact.
As above, so below: ideologically-oriented individuals depend on developing convictions and feeling-opinions that assume the solidity, inflexibility, and force of metaphysical beliefs. This is especially so when the beliefs run counter to previously accepted or established beliefs. Witness the secular metaphysics of gender identification, which proposes an empirical—and invisible—“reality” that transcends not just social conventions but biological truths—rendering them obsolete artifacts of an oppressive former regime.
“Let us be willing to remold society by redefining what it means to be a human being in the 20th century, moving into a new millennium.” (Hillary Clinton)
The Mass Man: Collective Negative Identity & the Abolition of Individuality
“When the whole world is globalized, you’re going to be able to set fire to the whole thing with a single match.”
In times of artificially perpetuated liminality, as now, a particular kind of collective identity arises as a compensatory mechanism, a negative identity that affirms itself by negating what it is “not.” When the other is identified as not merely a single individual but a large, somewhat amorphous group of individuals, it becomes unclear where exactly the line between the community-identity being affirmed and the “other” being negated lies. The surest way to avoid becoming the other—to avoid being negated by one’s community—is to participate in the negation of the designated other. To refuse to do so is to implicitly affirm the other, which is to negate one’s own identity—i.e., affiliation with one’s group. Witness the piece of ritual theater that played out at Evergreen State College, when participants at a 2016 Equity Council meeting were enjoined to get in an imaginary canoe—representing the Sate Equity Plan—as a way to signal their solidarity with the campus activists. While an Indian drumbeat and a recording of crashing surf played in the background, the audience was warned there was a “binary choice” between being allies of the State Equity Plan or “becoming enemies.”
So how exactly do we end up with a total intolerance of difference in the name of tolerating diversity? It is not easy to map a burning building while trapped inside it, but what seems to be occurring now is the growing substitution of (rightist) conservative morality with (leftist) ideological correctness. In a kind of funhouse mirror opposition to “the Right,” “the Left” has gradually assumed a position of anti-authoritarian authoritarianism. Girard described this as “mimetic rivalry” and it’s starkly observable in the form of “SJW” progressives looking more and more like “Alt-Right trolls.” The message—and the admonishment—of “The Left,” lest we forget, is all about inclusivity.
Inclusivity demands that all the marginals (what Turner called “the edgemen”) be ushered into the mainstream by creating a mono/multiculture with equality for all—not counting the deplorables, of course, who are ideologically unfit for inclusion. Ironically, and inescapably, this Borgian Prime Directive subtly or not so subtly endorses, and eventually enforces, homogeneity. Like the Starship Enterprise boldly going where no sane society ever went before, individualism is magnanimously imposed upon the collective.
We see this in how socially marginalized people—usually following a period of perceived or actual persecution—are encouraged to identify and take pride in their marginalized status (gay pride, black pride, transgender pride, etc.), and to assert their right to exist separately from the larger social community, as individuals. This leads to their being incorporated into the larger collective, integrated, or assimilated into the multi/monoculture. The right to be different is asserted, then, not as an end in itself, but as the means of becoming the same.
As this homogenization-in-the-name-of-individuality agenda advances, the potential for mimetic violence increases. In Turner’s “status reversal” rituals, taboo-breaking and totem-smashing was consciously enacted in a kind of Community Theater (which is what ritual is). Today, the performance appears to have gone beyond method, into unconscious voluntary possession—hence the legions of mutually-combusting contradictions that sizzle like matchheads beneath the kindling of every ideological identification.
All this is symptomatic of unconscious, divided, behavior, or schismogenesis. The progressives in my town guarding the culture from its former guardians didn’t realize that the SOGI agenda is self-devouring because sexual orientation is cancelled out, negated, by gender identification. They might be appalled to know, for example, that gender reassignment surgery is booming in the notoriously “homophobic” Iran—because changing “sex” is a practical, no-nonsense (and irreversible) way to eradicate homosexuality. Or by the fact that the supposedly radical trans-agenda is both ideologically and financially supported by most, if not all, the major corporations (PDF) and government institutions in the world. The progressives have joined the patriarchy party and don’t even know it.
Right-wing libertarianism advocates the primacy of the individual; Left-wing socialism speaks for the primacy of the collective. Liminality is the collapse of categories, however, and as the category of “individualized sameness” expands to include more and more orientations and identifications, things like biological facts—and eventually any kind of fact, since facts, like numbers, tend to assert the reality of difference—become scapegoats sacrificed on the altar of oneness for all. The old values become the expendable “deplorables,” because the ideology of equality can only extend its assimilation agenda by erasing all differences between people. The final ritual sacrifice is the idea of individuality itself—or possibly the individual him- or herself, if Girard is right about human sacrifice being “the revelatory yet menacing dynamic that animates the whole of this civilization” (Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, p. 138).
All this goes a way to explaining why every disagreement has started to feel like a battle—not just for our sanity, but for our very existence, and why the feeling of being in an unsafe space is contagious. As a white male “edgeman” mostly content to be condemned to the margins, I am starting to feel like an endangered minority, myself, caught inside an electronic effigy of McLuhan’s mass-man, waiting for that fatal spark.