I posted the essay below, verbatim, on 7 August 2008. I’m using the same title for today’s essay, and adding a brief introduction and an embedded song. Also, I’ve linked to a new essay for Shift at the bottom of the page.
Consistent with my perspective from August 2008, I still live to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. I still pursue opportunities to provide service to humans and other organisms. I still muddle along, seeking meaning in an uncaring, purposeless universe. And compared to August 2008, there are many additional people I’ve offended.
The challenge of social criticism is to point out the absurdity of contemporary society in a manner that elicits change from the masses. Such change generally cannot occur when the person receiving the message is offended. Thus, the messenger must target the masses while making the typical listener believe the message is intended for everybody else. But not him or her. The desired change need not be reflected in behavior, and seldom is. Rather, change begins with absorption of the message and subsequent thought. At this point, individual behavioral changes are likely to be ineffective or worse with respect to improving the outcome for humans or other organisms.
With essentially no chance to change events at the level of society, the job of the social critic is unnecessary. It’s equivalent to holding the position of a teacher while being unable to impact the lives of students (i.e., the typical professor in today’s version of
higher hire education).
As a consequence, the question arises: Why criticize society? Why continue to bang one’s head against the proverbial wall, to no apparently positive end? Why holler at the deaf and wildly wave one’s arms at the blind?
After dedicating much thought and action to these questions, I’ve come up with the only answer that makes sense to me. I welcome your thoughts, however, wishing I’m incorrect in concluding that I’m doing what I’m doing out of sheer ego.
After all, if my actions impact nobody beyond myself, what’s the point? Why bother? Apparently I’m merely keeping myself distracted from staring into the existential abyss. Thus, I’m acting like those I criticize, glued to my own version of gladiators on television. All my sentiments about pursuing and promoting evidence mean nothing if the light of evidence cannot overcome the darkness of willful ignorance.
And apparently that’s where I am, along with a few of you. I’m merely distracting myself from the long littleness of life. Seeking consolation within an inconsolable state. Pursuing and perhaps even achieving — albeit temporarily — happiness. And doing so in the usual manner: distraction.
British poet Frances Cornford said it best:
“A young Apollo, golden-haired,
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
For the long littleness of life.”
On the topic of distraction, I don’t think of myself as an adrenaline junkie. But I love downhill skiing, fighting fires, lighting fires, sex, skydiving, and sleeping. These activities have in common complete distraction from other activities. All except sleeping require exceptional focus, which negates attention on other activities. Sleeping thus resembles meditation, or vice versa.
Apparently I really love distracting myself from contemporary events of the day. Just like everybody else, I suppose. Well, the few paying attention to begin with. The others are already distracted. They have beer and television. I’m interested in neither.
The life of a social critic has a significant cost: I have many acquaintances, but I’ve managed to offend most of my former friends. As an equal-opportunity offender, ever willing to speak truth to power, I’m largely an ascetic. To an increasing extent, I live as we all must die: alone.
One result of my abstemious existence, as we venture into the dark days ahead, is that I spend considerable time reflecting on my life goals and evaluating — constantly re-evaluating — what I live for. I have abandoned vigorous attempts to right the sinking ship of civilization, as well as half-hearted efforts to convince university administrators that my cause is just and therefore worthy. But my inability to adopt a completely hermetic life leaves me pathetically seeking solace from an indifferent universe, uninterested colleagues, and you, my online comrades.
Obviously, it didn’t start out this way.
As a carefree child in a tiny redneck logging town, smack in the heart of the Aryan nation of northern Idaho, I didn’t have a clue. According to the many email messages I’ve been receiving about my lack of belief in a single god, I still don’t. But that’s another issue. I spent the 1960s and 1970s in youthful ignorance, chasing athletic fame and the girls who came with it. In college, hormonal lust had me blowing off a decent education while I majored in basketball and women’s studies, even though Women’s Studies departments didn’t yet exist. I wasn’t particularly good at either subject, and immature adolescence eventually gave way to a responsible life in avid pursuit of the “American Dream” of financial security.
To paraphrase author and social critic Daniel Quinn, the problem was not that I thought too highly of myself, or that I thought too little of myself, but that I thought constantly of myself.
As I was working hundred-hour weeks in graduate school and beyond, I was socking away the money and serving the cultural machine of western Civil-Lie-Zation. I was simultaneously reading and failing to heed the words of Edward Abbey: All gold is fool’s gold.
Somehow, though, despite my best attempts to hide from reality, I discovered that relationships are far more important than accomplishments. Stunningly, that occurred even before I earned tenure. Not surprisingly, I learned it from my students.
I left the ivory tower to work for The Nature Conservancy, only to find more of the same. I came back and immediately taught Bill Calder’s Conservation Biology course in the wake of this friend’s death. It changed my life. It was the best course I’d ever taught because it was populated with students from more than 20 different majors, from creative writing to biology, none of whom was required to be there. During the autumn of 2001, we applied art and literature to the newly emerging enterprise of conservation biology in an attempt to bridge the two cultures of C.P. Snow (and Socrates before him, and E.O. Wilson after).
Needless to say, we failed.
Actually, we succeeded, in our own small way. Forty of us came together as a group, but society didn’t come along. We had our bubble, but reality kept sneaking in and thwarting our efforts. But I learned something important, albeit small and personal: I had to serve, in my own small way, as a teacher and social critic and companion and friend and mentor. I had to bridge the two cultures, as if that’s possible, and I had to show others how to do the same.
Along with this realization, I lost my anchor. Until I discovered myself, at the age of forty, I had believed science would save us. I had believed that rational thought was our savior. I had believed that, by abandoning fairy tales and magical thinking, we could find a secular way to enlightenment.
I failed to account for how badly scientists have lost their way. Science, as a process and a way of knowing, has unrivaled power. And you know what they say about power and corruption.
Science has not lost its way, but scientists have. They have been co-opted by objectivity, failing to recognize the impossibility of the task. They are unwilling to sacrifice their objectivity, which they do not and can not have, in exchange for doing the right thing. Like everybody else, they are unwilling to make sacrifices to serve the common good. Indeed, many of them believe they are serving the common good, although they most often are confusing the common good with common culture.
Science is no longer my anchor. But teaching is, at least for now. And trying to live, for now, as if my life matters, as if it has meaning beyond the meanings I assign it. But I’m a lot more cynical and a lot less enthusiastic than I used to be about my tiny role in this grand play.
I still struggle every day to find meaning in a universe without meaning. Who shall I serve? For now, I can serve students and society by teaching and acting as if a single life can make a difference in a world gone awry. For now, I can demonstrate the value and importance of relationships, relative to accomplishments. For now, I can be kind to individuals while forcing institutions to do right, even if it means being unkind to individuals who represent institutions. For now, I can serve people by criticizing society.
And I can find meaning everywhere, in small observations and small acts. I can find meaning, and mystery, in cliff swallows and butterflies, the kindness of strangers, and a child’s love.
But there’s no role for a social critic when civilization collapses. What then?
And there’s no role for a university professor when the university ceases to exist. What then?
It’s too late to meet the three goals I had for myself as a teenager: Live fast, die young, and leave a pretty corpse. I’m too slow, too old, and too late, respectively.
Dated 18 October 2015, my latest contribution for Shift appeared yesterday: “The Politics of Addressing Climate Change” can be read here.
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