One of the most destabilizing aspects of the chaos of the past few years is that the pillars of society—our democratic and academic institutions, along with our courts, media, police, doctors, corporate giants, and thought leaders—have not only been unable to resist the postmodern deconstruction of society but have become active perpetrators in a war on reality that is turning classical liberal democracy into a parody of itself.
How did the institutions that were meant to prevent civilized society from devolving into a barbarian free-for-all become the drivers of the current descent into madness? How do we wake society from a nightmare in which nothing is sacred, freedom is blasphemy, and roosters are laying eggs… when society merely shrugs its shoulders in resignation?
It’s time to take a deep dive into the myths, stories, and grand narratives that bind society together in order to understand why society is unravelling and how we can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
The Unravelled Tapestry
To understand why a society unravels (which seems to happen every few generations — more on that shortly), we first need to understand how it is woven together. If we take a bird’s-eye view of the fabric that binds any healthy society together, at its core we find a complex system of interconnected layers starting with society’s awareness of its history and the stories of its ancestors. Principles are the mental shortcuts we use to condense the lessons from these stories into convenient packages to make them easier to apply to our own lives and to pass on to future generations.
Constitutions codify those timeless principles into law. And then we build legal, academic, and political institutions on top of that constitutional foundation in order to impose those principles onto day-to-day life to ensure that everyone plays by the same set of rules. And that takes us full circle back to the myths, stories, and fables that we tell ourselves about our history, our place in the universe, and about our hopes and dreams, which together form a kind of “grand narrative” to anchor society at the center of its institutional system.
This complex tapestry of interlocking layers is meant to create a deep philosophical counterweight to the fickle trends, self-serving impulses, and dark urges that eat away at the fabric of society. It allows society to grow beyond the cooperation of the family unit by enabling people who don’t know, trust, or like one another to live together without tearing each other to pieces.
From the limited perspective of our short human lifespans, this institutional bedrock (and the principles underpinning it) seems unshakable, permanent, everlasting. We therefore assume (wrongly) that because we have been able to rely on our institutions to safeguard the democratic, legal, and scientific processes that lead to fairness, justice, and truth, we will also continue to be able to rely on them in the future. In other words, once we build a “system”, we delude ourselves into thinking that the system will be self-sustaining. We deceive ourselves into thinking that the government will do the housekeeping required to keep the system running smoothly. It’s an illusion that disguises the fragility of what we’ve built.
It all works reasonably well… until it doesn’t. The institutional checks and balances of liberal democracy are tolerably able to resist society’s short-term impulses and follies. But the system is incapable of holding back the tide if large swathes of society buy into a new way of thinking about fairness, justice, and truth.
Every few generations, seemingly out of the blue, everything comes unglued as the system abruptly dismantles what we thought was everlasting in order to realign itself with society’s “new and improved” view of the world. The clear words of our constitutions tell us this isn’t supposed to happen, yet here we are in the midst of precisely that kind of systematic deconstruction of everything Western civilization supposedly once stood for. Society seems hell-bent on pulling apart all the philosophical threads that were meant to bind us together.