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December 12, 2018

Has enlightenment liberalism failed?


December 12, 2018

Is modernity the answer to all human woes? Ask a modern liberal and the answer is a resounding yes. Enlightenment values, the liberals argue, are the panacea to the human predicament. Give people rights, individual space, and personal autonomy, and everything falls into place.

Except, it doesn’t.

A single glance at the world today presents an unravelling of social structures, unleashing troubling social effects. Consider: Japan, an advanced country by any standard, is experiencing increasing rates of infertility. The US, another advanced country by any standard, is experiencing an increase in suicide rates and depression. In fact, for the first time in decades, the life expectancy of the average white man has dipped because of the increase in suicides and the use of opioids.

Indeed, there is a growing endemic of loneliness in individualistic societies like Japan and the US, which can singularly impoverish an individual on an emotional level. One could reasonably speculate why this might be the case.

Let’s start with the steady erosion of religion from society. Two distinct events that brought this about were 9/11 and the emergence of the internet.

The events of 9/11 saw the rise of the new atheists, an angry band of largely American writers who found intellectual ammunition against organised religion in the singed rubble of the twin towers. The internet was a force multiplier, giving often unqualified people the platform to pose as experts on complex topics like religion and expand their echo chambers.

Impressionable young kids, struggling to find answers in their own faith traditions, fell into the orbit of the new atheist message: religion is parochial, dogmatic, and bad for humanity. Primacy was attached to science/reason (scientism) as a means to understand everything about the world.

The problem is that science is silent on the larger picture and is constantly evolving. Most people around the world don’t have the luxury to wait for science to illuminate deep questions of meaning/purpose – some may not even be ready for the answers it might offer. People are born into this unpredictable, capricious world and try to make sense of it through shared narratives – some rooted in myth, others passed down through acquired tradition.

Amid existential angst and chaos, religion offers people hope and a sense of morality, especially if one believes that the effects of bad actions can boomerang back. It also fosters a binding attachment to a larger community and gives people a way/language to deal with loss. The erosion of religion, especially in the West, has left a vacuum, leaving people with no option but to lean on prescription medications and exorbitant insurance plans.

The second development is the rise of capitalism as the driver of the global economic order. Modern capitalism is a ruthless machine that can divide societies into ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ – if not by intention, almost certainly by effect. It often creates a cycle of wealth consolidation within powerful individuals/families and gives them inordinate influence over politicians and legislative actors, which further cements their power.

Getting ahead in the race – wealth acquisition and social status – is prized above and beyond anything else, and some instincts – selfishness, glibness and competition (often unhealthy) – that are best left suppressed are sparked to full ignition. It is a system that keeps the individual wanting, every jump on the success ladder drives a fiercer drive for more, just enough to keep you in the game, so you can run another lap, and then another one, as though there is some treasure waiting on the other side of the finish line . But the finish line keeps getting extended outwards, till one day the lights go out – game over, six-feet deep, the end.

Some discover that there was no finish line. All they had to do was breathe, take it all in. But they were just busy running the whole time. One can see how a system which incentivises narcissism, self-regard, jealousy, and carries a casualty list of millions of have-nots, could quite easily produce negative human emotions.

The third development is the emergence of social media – a dopamine factory for the attention-seeking narcissist. Platforms like Facebook and Instagram have allowed people to project curated versions of their lives in a way that makes them seem successful. This has triggered yet another race for validation, especially among young people desperate to spruce up their public profiles to stay in the game.

New research shows increased levels of depression/anxiety among young people because constant exposure to other people’s experiences (exaggerated or otherwise) is a reminder of what they might lack in their own lives.

Back in the day, however tough your life, you could scrape by, because your reality was defined by proximity of what surrounded you. Soldiers in wartime would find camaraderie in the most hostile conditions and farm workers ungrudgingly toiled the fields because that’s what they saw around them. Imagine a soldier surfing Instagram a night before a major raid across the enemy lines, only to find pictures of people partying on some distant beach resort in the Bahamas; not the best motivation to put your life on the line.

What do all these threads have in common? It is the singular focus on the individual, which is very much a product of enlightened liberalism. Ironically, the vacuum left by the absence of religion and community (in the West) has birthed an industry on mindfulness, meditation

and spirituality.

The Muslim world is currently fighting a different battle altogether: the war of liberal ideas against religious extremism. One hopes the baby is not lost with the bathwater in this fight.

The solution, ultimately, is not a wholesale rejection of any of the drivers of modern liberalism, but a humble reckoning with the human condition and the maintenance of certain values and structures rather than renouncing them in the dangerous belief that we already know too much.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

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