Conformist Danger

April 11th, 2009

Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam, “The Tyranny of Petty Coercion”

The present dominance of aspersion and ridicule in American public life is a reflex of the fact that we are assumed to want, and in many cases perhaps do want, attitude much more than information. If an unhealthy percentage of the population gets its news from Jay Leno or Rush Limbaugh, it is because they are arbiters of attitude. They instruct viewers as to what, within their affinity groups, it is safe to say and cool to think. That is, they short-circuit the functions of individual judgment and obviate the exercise of individual conscience. So it is to a greater or lesser degree with the media in general. It is painful to watch decent and distinguished people struggle to function politically in this non-rational and valueless environment.
Finally, granting that consensus enforcement, and the endless small concessions made to endless small coercions, are no doubt universal in human civilization, they cannot be without cost, precisely because they disable courage. No one can truly submit to unreasonable coercionóby suppressing one’s thinking, one’s identity, one’s metaphysicsówithout falling a little in one’s own estimation. And no one can deal in coercion without cynicism. Both sides of the transaction compromise.
Cultures commonly employ the methods of cults, making their members subject and dependent. And nations at intervals march lockstep to enormity and disaster. A successful autocracy rests on the universal failure of individual courage. In a democracy, abdications of conscience are never trivial. They demoralize politics, debilitate candor, and disrupt thought.