Mainstream political institutions, academics and journalists are embracing police abolition, gender fluidity, psychedelic drugs and non-monogamous, non-heteronormative relationships. Counter-culture in the west right now is RETVRNING TO TRADITION – embracing traditional gender roles, homesteading, and generally cargo-culting their ancestors.
This is all very odd to me, and I believe it is a profound inversion of the natural order. I will explain why.
Tradition and Risk Aversion
Tradition is what has survived the filtering processes of time. If people do something (or don’t do something) for many generations, you can assume that there is a good reason.
Some cultures have elaborate food preparation procedures that add an important micro-nutrient or remove a toxin. Those who practice such procedures may be unaware of *why* they do them but are wise not to tamper with them.
Conservatives understand this intuitively and are aghast at the progressive drive to tamper with social norms. This is a risk adverse approach. But most traditions were innovations at some point. Where do those innovations come from?
Counter-culture is Trad and Lindy
Counter-culture is pretty much as old as civilization. As soon as a society of any complexity emerges, there are marginal figures who devote all their time to trying to live in accordance with higher values. They accept poverty and question social norms. They denounce the hypocrisies and iniquities of temporal powers.
Dominant culture exists in an uneasy relationship with counter-culture. Counter-culture is both a source of disruption and renewal. Counter-culturalists occasionally get themselves executed for this reason. It is this dynamic of disruption and renewal that causes a society to kill its prophets and then praise those it condemned.
Counter-culture is itself traditional. Counter-culture is a meta-tradition: a tradition of questioning tradition. It is the designated cultural space where different ways of being and acting in the world are experimented with.
It would be a mistake to think counter-culturalists are only persecuted saints and heroes. Charles Manson is as emblematic of the 1960s counter-culture as Daniel Berrigan. There is no shortage of abusive and dysfunctional cults in the world that prey on seekers of meaning. Claims to moral and spiritual authority above and beyond law or government can sew chaos and death as easily as they spur reform and renewal.
Counter-culture as the Sandbox of History
Counter-culturalists can and do have megalomaniacal aspirations to power. They think that a fallen society can be raised up to be like them: to care more for ultimate concerns. Counter-culturalists may earnestly believe that they are the vanguard of civilization, and that they should be in charge. They are often not self conscious enough to ask why society isn’t already organized that way. They do not see themselves as being a niche in an eco-system, but as having a privileged relation to Ultimate Truth, which, if universally recognized, would free everyone to live as they did. Most people don’t want this and trying to impose it on them is a mistake.
Counter-culture is better understood as a sandbox. It is an isolated test area where social norms can be experimented with and examined freely. It is full of self-selected test subjects who agree to suffer the risks of leaving behind a risk-adverse life script to pursue the possibility of a more interesting and meaningful one. For individuals, counter-culture represents a high risk, high reward approach to acquiring the currencies of meaning and interestingness.
The mistake of current progressives is to take counter-culturalists at their word rather than to see them as having a niche role. Given the keys to the kingdom, counter-culturalists will do what they are driven to do: overturn every social norm they can in the pursuit of a purer, nobler and more just order. Counter-culturalists’ fundamental drive is to experiment and question, and if allowed to do so, they will treat all of human civilization as their laboratory. We need a different attitude towards counter-culture. Counter-culture should be dangerous: it should be something nuclear, handled cautiously, but also tolerated. While it is ominous in the extreme for a society to execute its prophets, it is just as ominous to put them on the throne.