This is the big idea that Charisse L’pree, Assistant Professor of Communications at Syracuse University, brings to the table in discussing the culture war- and it’s worth taking seriously. Her blog entry “WTF is Real Fake News?: The Mashup of Reality and Satire” treats the reader to a tour of significant pop culture figures and their contributions to our political landscape in order to build her case. Her conclusion is a telling accusation:
“For me, this is the most disturbing aspect of our current environment, as it demonstrates that there is no accountability for the things that we say and their implications. We can no longer be bothered to use words appropriately (e.g., feminist, community organizer, microaggression, safe space) and when we cannot have a shared reality, we cannot engage.”
Now consider if the same paragraph were written again, but like so:
“For me, this is the most disturbing aspect of our current environment, as it demonstrates that there is no accountability for the things that we say and their implications. We can no longer be bothered to use words appropriately (e.g., capitalist, terrorist, civil liberties, private property) and when we cannot have a shared reality, we cannot engage.”
While a conservative would argue that reality is not shared, but discovered, these mutually accusative worldviews are otherwise two sides of the same coin. Each party to the culture war is firmly convinced that the ‘other side’ is completely delusional- meaning not in contact with objective reality, or not sharing the reality of the media authorities, respectively. Both sides can’t be wrong. That’s increasingly clear from the satire and fake news we’ve all been seeing. But it’s only now becoming apparent that both sides could be right. What does that mean?
To begin with, reality is by all accounts a really big place. I mean yuuge. At billions of years old, and billions of light-years across, it’s literally bigger than anything you can imagine. That’s why we’ve had to invent things like our number system to express the magnitude(s) of the quantities we encounter in our exploration of reality. So each and every one of us will only ever have access to the very smallest part of reality, in our first-person experience. But we have through the language of science, and the language of history, access to a larger world both intellectually and morally- and it is the future of this shared world which is at stake.
Western civilization was united and driven by the idea that there is an objective reality beyond our first-person experiences, and that our shared intellectual and moral world is oriented in history by its progress towards reflecting this reality. In the early 20th century these foundations of our culture cracked under the weight of the contradictions embodied by European colonialism. We believed that our political order was just because it was rooted in the progressive revelation of objective reality. But, what we Americans had found in the Civil War, Europe found in the trenches of WWI: repudiation. Objective reality had rejected us and our aspirations.
In response, we rejected objective reality. Not all of it, at least not at once or in the same way. But the new progressivism rejected the link between the intellectual world and the moral world. We accepted that the language of science, based on numbers, gave us access to objective reality in a way that the language of history and moral agency did not. The moral world became a shared reality, subject to social criticism, and changeable according to the circumstances. The progress of western civilization could now be measured in the increase of the power of the state to control our shared reality, because the justice of our political order was found solely in the exercise of that power. In time this progress would consume our humanity. It is against this totalitarian development that conservatism has re-emerged as a revolutionary force in history.
Recent electoral victories in Europe and the United States have given hope to the global resistance. But, potentially at a terrible cost. We almost no longer recognize our common polity. Conservatives must lead the way here in helping re-establish robust public institutions and cultural norms that affirm the connection between our intellectual and our moral selves. And we must do it without resorting to government. We cannot allow ourselves to fall back into the trap of exercising the power of the political order to control some contrived shared reality. We must orient ourselves firmly in history towards the idea that objective reality affirms human agency, and rededicate ourselves in practice to protecting that agency in its flourishing. It is through that example that we invite our countrymen and women to re-acknowledge our shared humanity. That’s probably more important than a shared reality.