Despite its pretensions, Modernity presents at least as many taboos and behavioral limitations as the stuffiest Victorian ball. One must never discriminate, one must never judge, and one must never be a dreaded hypocrite. If America’s social and political trajectory should be summed up in a pithy phrase, perhaps it could be “a complete lack of judgment.” To judge is to ascribe value to things, an intrinsically hierarchical, discriminatory, and anti-egalitarian exercise.
Not content to reduce Western Civilization to rubble, our oligarchs are hellbent on grinding the ruins into a perfectly uniform paste.
Traditionalist conservative Roger Scruton recently penned an excellent article, “Bring Back Stigma,” which vividly chronicles the decline of social stigma and the absurd and insufferable consequences of living in a shameless society. It’s a fine read, but it’s also paleoconservative in the worst possible way. He dabbles in heresy with his lamentation that “the only binding law is the law of the market.” In doing so, he deserves credit for performing the revolutionary act of identifying capitalism as a cardinal cause of our misfortune rather than the solution contemporary “conservatives” and libertarians imagine it to be.
Imagine how infuriating it would be, though, to go to a hospital where the doctors eloquently opine on every symptom of the disease, describing each blister and boil with elegance and flair. Imagine sitting there on the table in the gown for hours and hours as they describe the similarities between your own condition and the condition of former patients, validating your suffering and even providing insightful perspectives and prognoses. Mr. Scruton fully agrees that the current social order is derelict and diseased, but he’ll never diagnose it. He’ll never prescribe a treatment. All he can do and all he will ever do is lament that things are not as they ought to be.
The time has long past for a Burkean retreat to the past. There’s no norm left to conform to. The wise old men and little old ladies of today formulated their politics during the height of the Sexual Revolution. To be conservative is to embrace vintage liberalism. Taboos against identitarianism, hierarchy, and antisemitism are baked into all but the most ancient and marginalized Western traditions. It would be nice if we could merely ape all the symptoms of a healthy and cohesive community, but you can’t cure a disease by willing away or suppressing its effects. Diseases are cured by isolating the root causes and the mechanisms, then resolving those problems.
People no longer respond to social shaming because there’s no longer any mutual investment of any sort. When all your neighbors are perfect strangers, it’s hard to care what they think. Scruton proposes that we fake it until we make it.
To reproach your neighbor is to risk his goodwill; to uphold convention is to expose yourself to mockery from the liberated. And yet the good of society may require that ordinary people take these risks—risks that require courage, justice, and even a touch of humility if they are to be successfully managed.
In essence, his argument is that we must take risks and make sacrifices on behalf of a community which is virulently opposed to everything we stand for. His prescription is worse than useless, it’s harmful. It’s enabling a decadent and alienated anti-community. We set ourselves up as their prudish foils, expose ourselves to their contempt, and make their lives easier with our unreciprocated altruism. It’s like helping a whore put her skirt back on after each performance and fancying ourselves champions of modesty and virtue. It’s like trying to teach a cannibal table manners while he’s boiling you in his pot.
Ours is a society where respect and honor are mutually exclusive, a society where the respectable thing to do is dishonorable and the honorable thing will get you expelled from “respectable” circles. It should be opposed and replaced, not reformed and embraced. We must cultivate our own insular subcultures in opposition to this culture within which honor and respect are aligned, shame and social stigma are the natural results of disappointing those you sincerely respect, and altruistic investment is both appreciated and reciprocated.