A little too much coffee and Roberts' Rules.


21 December 2022

Baptists at the end of choice, II

by Jon

when does free choice stop gaining happiness?

We left off asking why is liberalism being criticized on all sides, a mere thirty years after it was supposed to be the end state of human affairs?

The internet seems to be the most significant change. The internet gave us unprecedented freedom of choice. You could choose your own identity. You could speak freely without consequence. “[A] group of social outcasts could come together to form a chosen family.” You could watch whatever sex you wanted. You could Google all the facts of a liberal arts education. The masses suddenly had more liberty of choice than at any time in history.

But a massive expansion of choice and free speech did not give us Utopia. It gave us 4Chan and Twitter.

Worse, the internet showed the American dream – a dream of curated consumption – wasn’t universal. A good degree, a fulfilling career, a happy marriage, the house with a picket fence, a few kids: these were once seen as the just desserts of all moral, educated Americans. But the internet showed us many moral and educated Americans did not receive their expected birthright. You can, in fact, overspend on education. You can wreck generations of your family by going to Baylor.

And the education available to you has been colonized by a theory of sociological constraints. Whatever freedoms you appear to have, you’ll be taught, they’re steeped in evil. You can’t escape the ugly history that led to today. Freedom and autonomy aren’t liberal arts, to be practiced, but the spoils of complicity and guilt. Your racist job funds a commute to a racist suburb, where you live in your racist home, within your racist marriage – and your only atonement is to do the work.

College degree or not, all of us have had an apocalypse about sex. The old taboos are subject to instant replay. And contrary to what authorities said, the video shows convincing evidence that people enjoy them.

But if the internet shows you infinite identities, and each of them might make you happy, how do you find out besides trying all of them? Psychologists have long noted that people who lack choices will often fight for them, but “many choices can be psychologically aversive.” Social media has had a particularly negative effect on adolescent girls. And for those girls, there has been a sudden jump in nonbinary self-identification, apparently responding to these new choices. Some have reported that body dysmorphia spreads socially.

Even if you could process the sheer number of intersectional choices, there is another problem: identity isn’t self-constructed. It depends, in some way, on the thoughts and actions of others. If “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” what happens when others won’t cooperate in your definitions? You could be legally free to have a same-sex marriage, but religious critics remain. What if you’re freed from your assigned gender, but others don’t agree you’re different from natal women in important ways?

So if the world’s array of choices seemed like a glorious cornucopia to Anthony Kennedy, most of us will not – cannot – be made happy by more choosing. Aaron Renn posted a snippet from the Anarchist Library about the meaning of 2011’s Occupy Wall Street protests:

“The true content of Occupy Wall Street was not the demand[s]… but disgust with the life we’re forced to live. Disgust with a life in which we’re all alone, alone facing the necessity for each one to make a living, house oneself, feed oneself, realize one’s potential, and attend to one’s health, by oneself. … At last it was possible to grasp … our equal reduction to the status of entrepreneurs of the self.

The Preacher of Ecclesiastes said as much: “Vanity! What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” The core of Baptist political theory is the Bible, including the wisdom of Ecclesiastes.

So as much as Baptists have benefited and agree with the Declaration’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for common government, liberty and the pursuit of happiness aren’t happiness. Freedom to choose does not prevent alienation. Amazon Prime subscriptions don’t produce a body politic.

The apocalypse of choice is that after all of your choice is exhausted, you may remain alienated. Miserable. And then what?

And then some people turn to force – some kind of illiberalsim.

Pseudonymous blogger NS Lyons captured the seemingly inconsistent demands of today’s liberalism: individualism is so sacred, it requires force to overcome natural and political obstacles.

From this perspective it is more obvious why the amorphous ideology referred to as “Wokeness” so often seems mixed up and chaotically self-contradictory: it is the confused response to two opposite instincts. On the one hand it is actually a kind of anti-liberal reactionary movement … But, on the other hand, it simultaneously attempts to continue embracing the boundless autonomy of individual choice as its most sacred principle … And this hyper-individualism has now collided head first with the technological revolution, which increasingly positions itself as offering hope for the boundless potential necessary to escape from any natural limits whatsoever, including by fracturing any solid definition of what we once thought it meant to be human.

How should we react to the apparent ‘end of liberty?’

That’s the next post.