In Peter Berger’s fascinating book In Praise of Doubt, he references the German social philosopher Arnold Gehlen’s description of human society in terms of foreground and background as ways of describing those areas of a culture which are given and inherited or “preempted” by previous generations (background) and those areas which are live choices for every individual (foreground).
“Both areas are anthropologically necessary. A society consisting of foreground only, with every issue a matter of individual choice, couldn’t sustain itself for any length of time; it would lapse into chaos. In every human encounter people would have to reinvent the basic rules of interaction. In the relations between the sexes, for example, it would be as if Adam encountered Eve for the first time every single day and had to ask himself ever again, ‘What on earth shall I do with her?’ (and of course Eve would have to ask herself the corresponding question of what to do with him). This would clearly be an intolerable situation. Quite apart from anything else, nothing would ever get done; all available time would be occupied with inventing and reinventing the rules of engagement. Alternatively, a society consisting of background only would be a human society at all, but a collectivity of robots…” (14).
As simple as this concept is, it is also wonderfully and horrifically obvious. No generation is a blank slate. No individual has absolute power of choice. He cannot just invent his own language, reinvent rules of civility, or determine that he will go against every norm of his community. And this is not least because it’s a supreme waste. We speak of moral values as though they are personal preferences, as though they are choose-your-own-adventure routes through life. But in fact, they are values. They are riches, forms of wealth, an inheritance.
It’s a gift to have language already in existence. It’s a gift to already have agreed to drive on the right hand side of the road, to take turns, to raise your hand before speaking, and to assume that telling the truth is the way to go. To have these and many other assumptions in our background is to free us to make many choices about who we will marry, where we will live, what occupations we will pursue, etc. Primitive civilizations are primitive precisely because they spend all of their time trying to invent (or reinvent) the basic building blocks of culture (language, rules of discourse, manners, customs, moral values, etc.).
This is why the current attempt to destroy anything and everything that functions as background in our culture is an iconoclasm of the most virulent sort. The shamans and witchdoctors that are currently declaring that persons must be referred to by their preferred personal pronouns (or else you are a vile hater) are driving their bulldozers into the foundations of civilization. They are insisting that language be reinvented for every individual preference. And of course this is all driven by the insistence that everyone be eligible to reinvent anything they want about themselves, which means that everyone else must endorse and support this constant reinvention, never mind that anyone may reinvent themselves in a way that is at cross purposes with someone else. Don’t bother us with logic, people. At the moment it seems that the trump card deciding these kinds of conflicts is whoever flashes the more inordinate sexual perversion. All Hail Aphrodite!
The honor of father and mother, the honor of tradition, is fundamentally the insistence that we consider others more important than ourselves. We do not get to barge into the world and demand that it bend to our special felt needs. Other people were already here working, laboring, building things, inventing things, building up a massive store of cultural wealth that they will leave behind for us. You may have a unique contribution to make. You may see something that needs improvement. Please get in line, take a number, raise your hand. A culture that collectively screams and cries, demanding everyone bend to their immediate felt needs is an infantile civilization, a civilization in which nothing ever gets done. And a culture that puts up with and gives into the temper tantrums has already traded the real value of generational cultural wealth for the ephemeral folly of trying to make a toddler happy.
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