The Unapologetic Impulse In American Culture
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
Judging by the abundance of “guilty pleasure” TV shows, many people in America seem to feel overly constrained by the norms of public civility. The expectations of reasonableness and respect in everyday life must feel like quite a burden given that we are so regularly compelled to scorn such niceties and revel in an hour or two of petty backstabbing housewives, New Jersey shore grotesques, and bullying chefs, financiers, contest judges, and talk show hosts.
In what follows, I will explore the idea that there is an “unapologetic impulse” in American culture. This impulse, I will suggest, accounts for some popular entertainments (like those listed above), but also for the plausibility – the “ring of truth” – that seems to attend certain kinds of political arguments.
One manifestation of the unapologetic impulse is a certain irritability about “political correctness.” The gripe looks something like this:
In our daily lives we are compelled to refer to every different kind of person that we meet using his or her preferred group label. A man must never call attention to the sexual characteristics of a woman in public. We have to listen politely to people with beliefs and lifestyles that we disagree with and detest. Even when we absolutely know something to be true, if it puts certain groups in a bad light we are nevertheless forbidden to say it publicly. We are always under the watchful eyes of others who are judging whether or not our groceries, cars, homes, travel habits, and other decisions conform to a sound personal environmental policy. We must be ever careful not to tip anybody else’s sacred cow.
Maybe all of this irritates you. The unapologetic impulse seizes your gut. Your eyes roll while your head tilts back and to the side. You take in a deep exasperated breath. You tighten up and start to flush red with aggravation. “It’s enough!” you want to scream. “I don’t care!” “FUCK THIS BULLSHIT!”
What’s going on here? It is easy to lampoon the constraints of “political correctness.” This ease is interesting in and of itself, actually. But let’s consider for a moment what we’re really talking about. Most of the constraints that are listed in the “gripe” above are really just shortcuts for communicating respect under relatively impersonal circumstances.
Consider a situation where all you know about a person is whatever is indicated by his external appearance and his appearance seems to situate him in a known social group. You have no desire or reason to hurt this person. In fact, the situation naturally calls for congeniality. You know that it would be hurtful, or at least uncongenial on your part, to apply a group label to him in a way that he finds offensive.
Why wouldn’t you want to try to avoid being hurtful? If you know that Jewish people prefer to be asked “are you Jewish?” rather than “are you a Jew?” then why wouldn’t you want to choose the former?
Now, maybe you have some Jewish friends and you’ve developed the kind of trust and intimacy that allows you to laugh together about Jewish jokes – jokes that include lines like, “a Jew walks into a bar….” But until this trust and intimacy is established with others, why wouldn’t you want to hedge close to your best estimation of what would count as respectful?
I think that most people in America genuinely want to be and are respectful in this way, in situations like these, most of the time. And yet, the unapologetic impulse nevertheless starts to simmer, and bubble, and sometimes bursts: “I don’t care what you want to be called!” I don’t care if this makes you uncomfortable!” “Just let me be myself!” “Let me talk how I want to talk and do what I want to do!” “I shouldn’t have to apologize for myself!”
There seems to be a contradiction here, which I want to highlight: I am suggesting that a person can both genuinely want to treat others respectfully and have the thought that treating others respectfully is somehow inauthentic (it is not “just being myself,” “doing what I want to do,” etc.).
Perhaps too optimistically, I want to suggest that it is usually the latter thought that is a distorted self-representation. The person who has this latter thought is trying to express his deep anxiety about the artificiality of modern progressive values. In order to do this, he leans on an exaggerated reconstruction of what he imagines to be the “tried and true” traditional values that the artificial values have displaced. Rather than address the problem of apparent artificiality directly, he dodges it and takes up the artifice of a more stable, “old-fashioned” posture.
If he has an “authentic” view at all, then it is the generally progressive view according to which everybody deserves to be treated with respect – like I said, he genuinely wants to treat others respectfully. So it is his old-fashioned posture, his playing the old-fashioned racist or playing the old-fashioned sexist that is inauthentic. This is the dodge, the put-on. It is a rather lazy way of avoiding the challenges and consequences of his own values.
What am I trying to describe when I use the phrases “anxiety about the artificiality of modern values” and “the challenges and consequences of his own values”?
In the middle of the 20th century a sense of disorientation and relativism about authority and values, which had been festering among elites for almost a century, spread throughout American society. Think of “The Sixties.” At the same time, surreptitiously, progressive principles of respect for different kinds of people began to take root – even among people who would ostensibly represent themselves as “anti-progressive.”
People who identified as progressives ultimately could not avoid the disquiet produced by “new” values that lack a traditional authoritative foundation. People who identified as anti-progressives ultimately could not avoid imbibing progressive values and were thus subjected to the same disquiet – both groups, then, suffered from “anxiety about the artificiality of modern values.”
In this way, neither progressives nor anti-progressives fully came to terms with the challenge of maintaining values that are not founded on traditional authority. And neither set was yet prepared to live in the social world that would develop as a consequence of the “new” values. Both groups would thus have to cope with “the challenges and consequences of their own values.”
This is the story that I’m toying with as an explanation for the ubiquitous unapologetic impulse in contemporary American culture. It is not just an impulse that “Red State” people have; it is not just for political conservatives. Not at all.
I speculate that it is the same impulse that quickly transforms intellectual conversations among “lefty academics” into caddy gossip-fests. Or it drives the same initially earnest conversations into the always self-aggrandizing differentiation of people into “smart” and “stupid.” American academic culture, which is laudably defined by anti-hierarchical sentiment and resistance against all forms of domination, slips into these very vices when the unapologetic impulse bubbles up and in a moment of indulgence bursts: “Fuck it! Let’s be bad! Give me the dish!”
And I would venture to say that “Red State” people and “Blue State” people alike enjoy the thrill of vicarious incivility produced while watching “guilty pleasure” TV shows. I’m not just talking about crass “reality TV” here. Highly sophisticated shows, like Curb Your Enthusiasm, also play to the unapologetic impulse. Revenge movies like Inglourious Basterds and Man On Fire may also fit in (not to mention obvious cases like Falling Down).
There are other things going on here, of course. The unapologetic impulse draws on the libertarian strand in American culture and the idealization of youthful defiance. Sometimes the unapologetic impulse is exacerbated by the “delayed gratification” involved in observing certain norms. For instance, the payoff of recycling and other efforts at sustainability do not produce immediately gratifying changes and an impatient person will easily get fed up: “I don’t have time for this!”
In the case of irritability about “political correctness,” the unapologetic impulse is also connected to the implicitly comparative character of progressive values. Presumptively, “these values are better than the old values and I can explain to you precisely why.” Advocates for “old-fashioned values” might, on the other hand, claim: “this is what we have always believed, this is the way that it’s always been done.” The “old ways” don’t need to be justified by an argument for their superiority; they are self-evidently good and right. So say the traditionalists, anyway. Progressive values always have something to prove and the opponents of progressive values are always on the lookout for hypocrisy among self-identifying progressives.
There is much more to say about all this. I've only just begun to play with the idea. But, unfortunately, I’ve already run long.
Ask yourself: is there an unapologetic impulse in American culture? What in American culture and politics can we better understand if we posit this impulse as a prominent motivation?
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