Dismantling idols: the current cultural inflection point

As recent events—culminating yesterday with the US election—dramatically show, we are at a major cultural inflection point in Western civilization; one that bears relevance to how we see the world and reality itself. The US election is by no means an isolated event: the European Union has been in upheaval since the Greek debt crisis; last summer's Brexit would have been unthinkable only ten years ago or so; Brazil has impeached and removed from office a just-re-elected president; and Germany continues to wrestle with its national values and identity as it deals with the refugee crisis. These are but a few examples. The important point is that these and other events reflect a deeper dynamics: a profound shift in the ethos of the Western mindset, with significant implications for the future of our mainstream worldview. It is this shift—and the opportunities and risks it carries with it—that I want to explore in this brief essay, for it potentially bears relevance to the deepest philosophical questions of our time.

What follows is neither an expression of political opinion nor an attempt to judge the character or qualifications of any individual. A deeper phenomenon is unraveling here and focusing on individual personalities would detract from it. Moreover, although I still use discernment to exercise my right to vote, over the years I have grown increasingly unable to identify with any particular political position. So any attempt to read a political message into what follows is illegitimate. My invitation to you, instead, is to take a step back and contemplate a deeper pattern that transcends politics.

People have become severely critical of the mainstream. They no longer swallow the consensus narrative—still generously doled out by the media and leading personalities—unthinkingly. Mind you, this is a significant change. Not long ago, media-orchestrated cultural consensus was the norm and anybody breaking ranks with it was liable to be seen as either a crank or a zealot. Nowadays, divergence from the mainstream seems to have become the new mainstream. It has been culturally legitimized. Perhaps the Internet and the rise of social media have enabled this shift in attitude but, explanations aside, what matters is that the shift is here.

If this sounds cliché or trite to you, then I am not managing to express myself clearly enough. Indeed, I remember that during my own youth (not so long ago, after all!), it took a lot of strength of personality and self-confidence for someone to genuinely hold—in their heart of hearts—a view or belief that outright contradicted the mainstream narrative. By and large, people felt insecure about diverging, doubting their own intuitions as unreliable and insignificant in view of the overwhelming weight of the cultural narrative under which they lived. The contrast with today's cultural ethos is remarkable. Take millennials, for instance: their felt reality is the individual's own worldview. They are insensitive to packaged narratives and feel no need to conform. Although the old guard may see this as a dangerous shift towards individualism, authentic community can only arise from the cooperation of individuals who are, first and foremost, aware of and honest to their own individual views. Otherwise, what would pass for cooperation and community would simply reflect the synchronized behavior of programmed drones. What kind of contribution can one make to the community if one is not honest with oneself first?

In my book Brief Peeks Beyond, I made the case that physicalism—a.k.a. materialism in the ontological sense—is kept in place by the strength of the mainstream cultural narrative, as embodied in the media personalities that pooh-pooh any diverging view. Moreover, it is the ubiquitousness of the mainstream that hides sound alternatives to physicalism. As such, by breaking the mainstream idols and questioning their authority, the cultural shift taking place right now may provide the best opportunity we've had in generations for a genuine overhaul of our collective understanding of the nature of reality. The people's ability to question the mainstream is a necessary prerequisite for a transition to a truer worldview. And whether we agree or disagree, like or dislike, rejoice or despair at Donald Trump, the Brexit, the upheaval in the European Union, etc., these events show—beyond any shadow of a doubt—that the mainstream narrative is no longer an overwhelming power in the culture. The system has become vulnerable and can be kicked out of local minima, which creates the conditions for both catastrophe and progress. While the potential for catastrophe needs no elaboration, missing the opportunity for progress would be a pity.

On a more somber note, recent developments also seem to show an increasing disregard for facts in Western culture. If the critical impetus that leads us to doubt the mainstream narrative goes unchecked, we may overshoot and start seeing everything—even facts—as questionable narratives. Naturally, there simply are such things as facts. It is imperative that we, as a culture, preserve our ability to distinguish between story and observable fact, lest we replace reality with our own paranoid fantasies. Whilst it's entirely possible to make choices based on fantasies, the consequences of these choices tend to manifest themselves in the real world, where they actually hurt. For instance, it's one thing to denounce physicalism, a philosophical interpretation of scientific observations; but it is another thing entirely to disregard the scientific observations themselves. It's one thing to question the authority of mouth-pieces who co-opt the clout of science; but it's another thing entirely to disregard science itself as a method for unveiling the factual behavior of nature. The legitimate drive to destroy idols must be limited to dismantling stories, not disregarding facts. Doing the latter is stupid by definition and also a sure path to short-term annihilation.

We have a narrow and dangerous road ahead. It must be traversed if our understanding of reality and ourselves is to come closer to truth. But the same critical impetus required to break away from mainstream delusions can lead to destructive paranoia. Finding the correct balance is the challenge now incumbent upon us.