[The tenth in a series on inclusiveness.]
I’ve said that inclusiveness has a religious quality. To say it is a kind of religion is not to say it works well as one. Religion defines the place of man in the world, but inclusiveness reflects the modern outlook, which has difficulty dealing with such issues. It likes unitary theories that lead to clear conclusions, so it tries to dissolve the world into man or man into the world. Neither makes sense, so moderns—including liberals—oscillate between the two and settle on neither.
At bottom, liberalism views the individual person as the Cartesian ego—a disembodied subject with no qualities other than the ability to have experiences and make choices. If we accept that understanding, and view the external world from the radically subjective standpoint that results, it becomes something we construct from our sensations for the sake of our goals.
Such an understanding affects our attitude toward the world. It makes every particular tie to things outside ourselves seem an intrusion that has somehow gotten hold of us and is dragging us down. The result is a compulsion to destroy attachments that make claims on us. Hence the need for sexual liberation, abolition of social roles, mass third-world immigration, multiculturalism, and so on. Society must be destroyed as a network of particular persons and relationships in a particular setting and turned into an abstract neutral schema for the satisfaction of desire.
The role of the other
The matter cannot rest there, because the Cartesian ego is so odd philosophically. It is not part of the world of experience, and it is unclear how something with no positive qualities could be embodied. The result is difficulty understanding our place in the world. Am I the only reality, because the subjective outlook is so privileged, or am I not real at all, because I have no enduring tangible qualities or connections? With respect to ourselves, such difficulties lead to insecurity, narcissism, and identity crises. With respect to other people, they lead to an obsession with the non-Western other.
Non-Westerners are defined as such by the fact they do not have the free-floating Cartesian ego as their self-understanding. Since they do not view themselves in that way, they can be seen as embodied and part of the world of experience. That gives them a very special though ambiguous significance. From one perspective the Cartesian outlook turns whites into abstractions who hardly exist at all, while nonwhites remain vibrant concrete realities. From another, it makes nonwhites a colorful background—part of the Stuff White People Like—that accessorizes the narcissism of white liberal Cartesians. There is no way within the liberal outlook to choose between the two, so particular liberals flop back and forth depending on mood and circumstances.
The problem often takes a religious form. The absorption of traditional religion by inclusiveness reflects in part an effort to maintain religious values in a scientistic world. In such a world God is unthinkable, so people fall back on themselves. Their concerns and desires are what they know—indeed, they are That Than Which No Greater Can Be Conceived—so why not treat them as divine?
The problem is that radical self-centeredness is not a satisfactory religion. We need a moral and spiritual order beyond ourselves that enables us to place ourselves and make sense of our situation. One possible solution is horizontal transcendence: standing in awe before other people as ineffably and unclassifiably other, disclosing to us a reality that cannot be reduced to our own purposes and categories, and imposing peremptory moral obligations on us through their needs and desires.
On such a view, those most radically other than ourselves become natural exemplars of the holy. However, the solution is unstable because in fact the non-Western other is evidently no more holy than we are. One can respect someone’s good qualities and human dignity, but it is silly to overlook whatever flaws and limitations he has, or take him more seriously than ourselves or those to whom we have a more immediate connection.
Once again, the outcome is a messy compromise, this one between self-involvement and sentimentality about third-world peasants. Something of the sort is a very common solution among spiritually-inclined liberals, especially those among them who find it natural to express their souls in peasant-themed home decor, fashion accessories, and cooking styles.
[NOTE: this is an expanded and updated version of a post from a year ago. The comments on the earlier version should still be applicable so I’m leaving them.]