Hypocrisy and the Cultural Critic

At no point in human history have we devoured more and been less satiated. This may resound as little more than a pithy claim, or perhaps the brassy cry of an overzealous critic who, disenchanted by the present state of human affairs, possesses enough shameless hypocrisy to condemn the same culture in which she exists and partakes. For my part, I deny neither assertion, though I would challenge the assumption that there is anything wrong with cultural hypocrisy. It is not wholly unlike the man who gazes in a mirror and, taking measure of his ill-fitting trousers and corpulent waistline, determines himself in need of a diet. The body which he presently inhabits does not undermine the validity of his conclusion. If anything, it bolsters it. And while it is true that gazing from the inside-out may assume a certain level of blindness—and yet aren’t we all our own worst critics?—all the external critiques in the world are not sufficient to act upon a man against his own volition. The will to action, as we may call it, is rarely inspired by external coercion, and only finds impetus within the man himself. It is when he, and no other, gazes upon his image and deems it “not good,” when his self-criticism at long last aligns with his will to action, that he shall in fact act. 

So too is the case with a cultural critique. It takes little effort and no remarkable strength of will to censure a culture which is not one’s own, for doing so demands no change of course, no sharp about-face, no painful metamorphosis whereby, upon acknowledging a flaw of trajectory, a people sets it upon itself to incrementally adjust its course. I dare say Alexis De Tocqueville, when he crafted his momentous exposition on the American people, lost no sleep over the dangers he perceived in American democracy, and though he may have pondered the far-reaching implications of his claim, “Americans are so enamoured of equality that they would rather be equal in slavery than unequal in freedom,” the problems which he highlighted were ultimately not his own. One can almost imagine with what disinterested amusement he completed his exposé: “Now to leave the Americans to mind their own affairs. My part has been played.” But the critic who is herself a part of the culture she seeks to dissect can little afford such smug carelessness. She is not only a spectator of the problems she witnesses, but also a participant; she is not innocent of her culture’s defects—its vices are her own, and thus she is not only responsible for bringing to light the shortcomings she sees, but to also work towards their correction. Cultural hypocrisy is, then, not so much the pinnacle of smug self-congratulation as humble external analysis and careful introspection. Such an endeavour gives as much as it takes, suffering correction no less than providing admonition. 

Herein lies the errand I have set before myself—not to be a prophet of our century, for surely I can boast no powers of augury (though if I were a prophet I need only look back to see ahead), nor to anatomize and scrutinize the many woes which afflict us, for I lack the keen attention to detail necessary for such a scientific exploration, but rather to paint with wide brushstrokes and vibrant colours a rudimentary portrait of the 21st century Westerner. In this, I will make no vain attempt to uncover particulars of character, which are better exposed by novelists and poets. Rather, my aim is far less inspiring—that is, to explore the tremors of the soul by which our society pulses and fractures. As such, I defy the notion that culture is too diverse to critique all at once. Outliers within a given culture do not alter the basic profile of that culture as a whole, which is, by its very definition, formed not by deviations but by means.

As it is, the present mean of Western civilization is worthy of inspection and, I believe, disconcertion. By this I do not mean to suggest that the present state of Western culture is wholly disheartening. Should I be so bold! Rather, there is much that is good and just being propagated within the halls of the West. Arguably, at no other time have we lived in a world that has striven so hard and succeeded as greatly in the directions of equality, diversity, and social justice. And yet, to acknowledge the strengths of a given culture does not grant one the license to overlook its weaknesses. Instead, it enables one to turn a far more critical eye upon it, for we can best criticize that which we know and love the most. It is from this posture that I would turn my own gaze upon my own culture, not because I have a fierce hatred for the failings and weaknesses that it portrays, though certainly I find much of what I see to be troubling, but rather because I see the admirable lengths it has progressed and, in my affection for it, would see it progress further in such a direction. It takes but a tincture of audacity to release a storm of change. 

But let me not labour any longer over this lengthy introduction which, if it has not yet persuaded you, Reader, of the legitimacy of my aim, shall likely not do so any further if I added another thousand words to its length. Instead, let us wade without further ado into the tumult of my subject matter, and, with any luck, we shall learn how to swim before the waves crash over our heads. 

[This post is part of a larger treatise which, though it is is currently in the progress of being written, is subject to the somewhat erratic whims of its author.]

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