American Culture

The Mature Society, pt 3: what would a better America look like?

Part 3 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

The problems of education, religion, critical thinking, a commitment to the truth, and holding ourselves to a higher standard: creating the mature society won’t be simple.

There is, then, a different question, driven by another thought which is that there is a certain sense of responsibility for the critic – if one is not to be nihilistic or utterly despondent – to suggest if not a way out then at least a sense of what something “better” might actually look like. In particular, here, to ask the question of just what a mature society might look like: what would be the texture of its culture, its mood, its ambition, its practices, its relationships, its preferences, its allegiances? What would it look like as a moral and ethical entity? What would there be about it that the dispassionate mind could admire?

A useful definition of mature would include:

showing mental, emotional, or physical characteristics that are typical of a fully developed adult person; showing qualities gained by development and experience; adult or fully grown…(Encarta® World English Dictionary).”

The OED has a number of offerings:

Mature: complete in natural development or growth/ Of a person: Fully developed in body and mind; Of thought or deliberation/ to perfect the development of (a person) mentally and physically. Maturity: Deliberateness of action; mature consideration/fullness or perfection of development or growth/ Of immaterial things; The state of being, complete, perfect or ready.

To be mature, in our singular being, as well as collectively, will demand much of us.

One might at the very least begin by suggesting that any mature society would both be created, and defined, by high levels of literacy and educational achievement; one that would nurture taste in cultural preferences; reassert the idea of the importance of judgment, standards and the critically agile mind; resurrect Reason and bury the crudely emotive, which is not the same as banishing emotion, tenderness, love; see in diversity and difference a blessing not a threat, and to understand that while there will always be the paranoid and the delusional, the morally disabled, who can never be made utterly irrelevant and marginal and invisible, any decent, mature society can and should, as Lincoln understood about race and racism, corral them, not in a literal sense – except when they engage in overt anti-social acts – but by force of argument and an insistent optimism in those famed better angels and the anticipation that they will neutralize noisy crabbiness and shabby preference.

The point about seeking to encourage and celebrate proper qualities within the individual is that such is ultimately connected to the question of creating a larger social order that is aesthetically informed, intelligent, aware, creative and imaginative, a mature order in which the individual can flourish. It is, however, impossible to imagine such a condition without at the same time recognizing the unavoidable need to make judgments about worth and merit, good and bad, excellence and trash.

There is an essay by T. S. Eliot in which he asks a question – one little heard today outside of sport, but vital to any engagement with, or judgment on, the condition and content of contemporary culture (in the largest sense of that term.): “What is a Classic?”:

“if there is one word on which we can fix, which will suggest the maximum of what I mean by the term ‘a classic’, it is the word maturity (emphasis in original)…A classic can only occur when a civilization is mature; when a language and literature are mature; and it must be the work of a mature mind. It is the importance of that civilization and of that language, as well as the comprehensiveness of the mind of the individual poet, which gives the universality. To define maturity without assuming that the hearer already knows what it means, is almost impossible; let us say then, that if we are properly mature, as well as educated persons, we can recognize maturity in a civilization and in a literature, as we do in the other human beings whom we encounter. To make the meaning of maturity really apprehensible – indeed, even to make it acceptable – to the immature, is perhaps impossible. But if we are mature we either recognize maturity immediately, or come to know it on more intimate acquaintance.” (1)

This still begs the question of what it is to “be” mature individually and collectively. For Eliot, the mature individual is one who can recognize that which is mature – a somewhat tautological formulation. Perhaps what he is really saying is that the mature mind is the educated mind, even if one has to add the coda after an adulthood spent in the academy, that the educated mind is not necessarily the mature mind. If one takes this further, however, what Eliot is saying is that the mature mind is one with refined taste, able to separate out the good and just from the junk, from the intellectually and creatively crippled, one that metaphorically appreciates the difference between mahogany and plywood.

Perhaps the most famous articulation of the mature, enlightened society was penned in Konigsberg in 1784 by Immanuel Kant in his essay, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” In his famous opening lines he declares:

“Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. The immaturity is self-incurred if its cause is not lack of understanding, but lack of resolution and courage to use it without the guidance of another. The motto of enlightenment is therefore: Sapere aude! (Dare to be wise!) Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them…nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reason, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature!”

Kant suggests that even those who contemplate casting off their immaturity find it a frightening prospect and “that only a few, by cultivating their own minds, have succeeded in freeing themselves from immaturity and in continuing boldly on their way.” Kant fervently believed that thinking for one’s self is a “duty,” and that dogmatic certainty, for example in religious belief, is “quite impossible” (by which he meant wrong) because such dogma, the hallmark of much religious belief, is a drag on achieving enlightenment, since it inhibits progress which is “a crime against human nature, whose original destiny lies precisely in such progress.”

For Kant “matters of religion” were “the very focal point of enlightenment, i.e. of Man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” his ability to use reason to think freely about religion without interference from any authority. Religion was the focal point because, he argues, rulers are less concerned on ruling in the realm of the arts and science and because “religious immaturity is the most pernicious and dishonourable variety of all.” Kant’s commentary is not a denial of religion, it is rather a call to self-aware, critically engaged, self-driven spiritual commitment. It is a belief in the idea that unexamined faith is utterly misplaced, leading people who appear perfectly normal and rational to believe, for example, that Mary was indeed a virgin after giving birth and that she ascended whole body into the sky on her way to Heaven; invoking a literalist interpretation of the Bible to suggest that the earth was created on a Wednesday, 6000 years ago; and arguing that the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe, and evolution are heresies “straight from the Gates of Hell.” There is in Kant an echo of Socrates who at his trial argued that the unexamined life is not worth living. (2)

So in achieving the mature society, if one is in a Kantian mode, it seems likely that something would have to be done about religion. This is not to suggest that religion should or could be abolished. Rather that it step out from its crude literalism and recognize that religious commitment is proper, but to be something other than mere simplemindedness it has to actually engage some quite profound philosophical and moral questions. Fundamentalists will need to come to grips with the reality – as in fact the Vatican has in recent years – that the realm of the material, Man as social being, and the realm of Religion, Man as spiritual being are two separate, but coexistent Magisteria. That is, in the mature society we should be able to think, and shirk absurdity, and that there be employed in the deliberations in the public square and the private place, the rational, inquiring mind, unbound by dogma, open minded, reflective, confident and, yes, spiritual.

Presumably then, if we continue to engage the question of what would the mature society look like, and how it might be created, one cannot avoid engaging the question of how do we create – enable is perhaps a better word – the un-dogmatic, rational, inquiring mind. This then, surely, as alluded to earlier, leads to the unavoidable conclusion that an absolutely necessary condition of the mature society is a literate, learned even, public. By that one doesn’t mean just or primarily a level of functional literacy, rather a presence within the society, within the public, of what has been called by Richard Hoggart “critical” and “cultivated literacy.” Critical literacy he defines as “a literacy which is critically aware, not easily taken in, able to ‘read’ tricks of tone, selectivities, false ad hominem cries and all the rest…Critical literacy means combining, with training in literacy, teaching about the difficulties, challenges and benefits of living in an open society which aims to be a democracy. It means blowing the gaff on all the rampant small and large corruptions, on the humbugging, smart-aleck persuaders; it means knowing how to read the small print on insurance policies and guarantees on major purchases…It means using a fine, logical truth-toothcomb on all political manifestos.” Cultivated literacy he defines as

the ability to read other than functionally, which is after all only a simple matter. It means being more than critical in our reactions to what we see, hear and read, but being open, intellectually and imaginatively responsive. … Critical literacy is valuable – indeed, as I have said, essential, especially in democracy – but is still not enough. It is in its nature reactive, responsive to a certain state of affairs, and hence defensive, even narky.

A society, he suggests

“must give all its members the opportunity to open their minds to the best kinds of creativity, to the best works of the intellect and imagination. Through this a society may begin to mature. A society which does not recognize this imperative will be populated by well-fed morons, not by cultivated humans. Of course, if anyone settles for being a plump moron, one cannot forbid them; but they should have the opportunity to realize what they are missing.” (3)

The significance of this notion of the importance of developed literacy is that without it one is left with a populace that is unable to deal with narrative complexity – in various texts, in the intellectual and philosophical systems to which the society properly aspires, in the heft of complex thought – and thus one is thrown back onto narrative simplicity, which can be crushingly inhibiting for any attempt at personal and collective growth. Could, for example, one imagine a complex social order which was definably mature but that was also illiterate, or barely literate? Probably not. A reasonably evolved level of literacy opens up other possibilities for establishment of a the mature society whose occupants might be said to be independent spirits, possessed of the thinking mind, one with a certain confidence, a sense of self-reliance and self-awareness that is not neurotic but simply knowing, assertive without being dogmatic and a level of confidence to admit, when appropriate, that one is wrong – there is surely no greater psychic nightmare for hordes of people than to have to look in the mirror and see error. This leads almost inevitably to the conclusion that what one might take to be another hallmark of the mature society: an unflinching commitment to truth, or at the very least the pursuit of truth. This is not to deny that there are realms of life – moral values, for example – where this is neither necessary nor feasible. In a broad sense, however, no society can rest on a commitment to the lie, especially in public discourse, where all too often, to quote Kipling, politicians and their camp followers, offer “The truthful, well weighted answer/That tells the blacker lie…” – bromides for the troubled souls of those over whom they rule who too often avert their gaze from troubling truth, deny it, cannot accept it, often because it clashes with the need not to know or fearfully threatens to undermine a “truth” one has been led to “see” and which holds the poor wretches in a powerful, emotional grip.

Another quality of the mature individual in the mature society is the ability to use language rather than be used by it. Here one, of course, recognizes is the hoary old question of structure versus agency, of how self and identity are fashioned, of whether we are the authors of our own lives or merely beings scripted by externalities. Old the question may be, but it has to be addressed if it is the case that one measure of a mature social order is that it consists of homo sapiens as a reflexive, informed, thinking being. One has to accept, however, that in the first instance being brought “into language” is nothing if not the inevitable and necessary process by which we take the primal biological condition of being human, the baby, and produce a social being through cognitive development, language development and evolved reading, the greatest gift of which is, as Maryanne Wolf notes in “Proust and the Squid: the story and science of the reading brain,” to provide the time and the wherewithal to think. It is a vital process since without it disorder would reign, but it comes at a price if we are to hold to the idea, or at least hope for the possibility, that perhaps the most precious quality that we as a species have is the capacity to reflect, to ponder who we are, what we are, why we are? To use language, rather than being used by it, which implies somewhat paradoxically that we have to escape the language of the “other” before we can reclaim it for ourselves.

There is, however, a certain human propensity not to want truth, rather to hold to views that are emotionally comforting and in no need of questioning. Doubt is not the hallmark of the unthinking, uncritical mind, and knowledge can be ever so unnerving, discomforting. One might even argue that doubt, the ability to be not sure of something, the capacity to question without being fearful, of not immediately believing, should in fact be celebrated since doubt is after all the silent sound of us actually thinking. Perhaps also a hallmark of the mature mind, deeply ironic, is that it would be one that understands and is comfortable with the possibility that in pursuing and seeking “a more perfect union” we recognize that we can’t, that maturity lies in coming to grips with our imperfectability, our limitations, our incompleteness.

The Romantics and the Romantic tradition, that loosely defined period, and mood, in the half century between about 1780 to 1830 (though some historians draw it out another two decades to 1850) were in effect arguing, then, that the mature life, and therefore the mature society, is one which is both sentient and cerebral, where to “feel” with authenticity, to love well, is every bit as important and defining as to “think” with profundity, to know well.

Such capabilities would also provide for another vital requirement of the mature society, the capacity to ask elemental questions about our culture, and demand answers: what actually do we mean by standards, “great” culture infused with other, even larger, social, democratic purposes; and if we can assume that whatever the definitional problems we all do recognize that, as John Donne wrote, “no man can draw a line twixt day and night, tho’ light and dark are tolerably distinguishable,” then what exactly are the arrangements – institutional as well as philosophical – in which such moments of excellence happen? And can those arrangements live on in a market-led world? Indeed, can a society which is dominated by values of the market, consumption, commodification ever be mature, because almost inevitably, indeed by conscious intent, the denizens of the corporate world must transform sovereign thinking individual-as-citizens, insofar as they exist, with the capacity, patience and desire to flourish, into consumers, ambling, credit card in hand, through the vastness of an Asda in North London or a Walmart in Wilmington, Indiana, then wandering home to watch Keeping Up With the Kardashians or Idol or Britain’s Got Talent, where a jury of the talentless sit in judgement on the occasionally talented?

This latter point touches on what must be another question about the nature and quality of a mature society’s culture. There is a rather curious sense that we are living in a new golden age of television. This is absurd. Of course, from a cultural standpoint, there are moments and examples of the mature classic – in recent times in television The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire, House of Cards, and The Leftbehinds might be such examples. That, however is not the point, since the real question – given the fact that even deserts have the occasional tree – is what will the overall landscape of the culture look like: in television, for example, will there be original, edgy long-form documentaries that explore issues of magnitude; will there be dramas that are literate, that challenge and needle and provoke, that linger in the memory because they made you think; will there be news worthy of the democratic project, providing for the political life of the society in ways that serve it well, that feeds the needs of the citizen, that pushes and jostles its way onto the stage of the public discourse because to ignore it would be foolish and perverse; will there be children’s programs that are worthy of the colossal importance of raising our children well, of seeing in them the future, rather than a market to be sold to; will there be comedy that works because of the brilliance of the performer and the fineness of the writing, in no need of a laugh track to simulate humour; will there be the quirkily original, the eccentric, the lateral thinking and creativity that springs, un-beckoned, but welcomed and applauded, from the folds of imagination; will there be those moments when we watch not alone, but as part of an integrated culture, drawn together through the mysterious alchemies of communication, which slakes a communal need to belong – in a memorable phrase, Norman Mailer wrote that the television coverage of JFK’s funeral brought us all together in “one stricken place”; will there be refinement, range, diversity, integrity, professionalism, courage, the ability to make mistakes? Will we have a culture of which we can be proud, and about which we will feel no shame? And can we do this within the same universe of social practice as the market, all the while regulated with the lightness of a snowflake? One hopes so, and if we can then fears about what is unfolding will have gladly and delightfully proven to be unwarranted. But then one thinks of the beast of corporate capitalism, looming and lurking, threatening, ravenous, uncaring – at least of others – dangerous, America, Britain, the planet as a cultural Jurassic Park, governed by the canny intelligence of velociraptors. They will have to go if the mature society is to be one whose culture is creative, varied, rich, deep, democratic, human and humane.

How though is all of this to be achieved, how do we get there, can we get there? With some difficulty. A prevalent tendency that defines much of the culture of the planet, particularly in its wealthier parts, is the disappearance of tranquility, and the kinds of ethics, principles and moral systems that flow from the thinking which tranquil periods enable. It is reasonably obvious, or at least this is the claim here, that our essential humanness, whatever it is that makes us ‘human,’ is, or should be, tied up in our capacity to think, reflect, ponder. To the extent that such space is diminished then so presumably is that essential humanity qualified and, finally, traduced. The profound qualities of what it is to be decently human – love, emotion, caring, philosophy, justice, charity, thoughtfulness – all emerged out of our thinking about not just who we are, but who we should be. As the opportunity for reflection diminishes, because of the sheer hyperactivity of daily life – I once had a student make the rather profound and amusing observation in an exam essay that Americans are so busy they schedule their headaches – the likelihood increases of a surrender to mere instrumentalism, of living on the surface of life, pursuing obsessively the mundane rather than pursuing higher goals, all the while allowing for the fact that knowing what these are is precisely a question of having the wherewithal to go inward and engage the larger questions, Yeats’ “eternal questions.”

There is, however, one question which the mature society will need to engage: can we go inside or are we destined to live only on the surface of the life – the point which T.S. Eliot was alluding to when he wrote in “After Strange Gods,” that “most people are only very little alive”? It is a comment that echoes the theme of Arnold’s “The Buried Life.” There Arnold writes: “Alas! Is even love too weak/ To unlock the heart and let it speak?/ Are even lovers powerless to reveal/ To one another what indeed they feel?” Commenting on this the critic Craige Raine notes: “This is both a romantic position: we are failing to live, because we are not in touch with our deepest selves. And it is a classicist position: our emotions are so complex that they are beyond us and below us.” (4)

Aristotle believed that we, humans, are endowed with an essentiality, the self, and that we fundamentally need to understand who we “are.” Above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi was inscribed “know thyself,” which speaks to the idea that there is a self that can be known and is always present. If one stays with Eliot and Arnold, they might concede that while in some sense there is a “self,” but would equally argue that it is buried and nigh on impossible to engage. If one, in perhaps Durkheimian mode, points to a society that keeps up the hither and thither of its business, its agitated mood, its constant acquisitiveness, its intellectual instrumentality, the apparent obsession for the material over the non-material, it is difficult to see where those spaces for calm reflection exist, places that might allow one, in Delphic terms to “know” oneself. As Immanuel Kant put it: “I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.” So the mature society is one that provides for the possibility of thinking and going inwards.

And presumably – perhaps hopefully is the better term – the mature society is one with a commitment to, and the practice of, a set of core values. In 1992, the Josephson Institute of Ethics asked a group of experts to see if they could agree upon a core of ethical values that should be present in, and guiding, a society. They settled on eight: respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue, citizenship. These are important because they embody not only the values a society might usefully and properly live by, they also constitute the measures by which that society might best be judged – metrical metaphysics, if you will. If we add the offering of hope, freedom, tolerance, a reassertion of altruism (the disinterested regard for the well being of others) and its replacement of what Jefferson himself described as our propensity to self-love which he declared “is no part of a morality. Indeed, it is exactly its counterpart” (5), a harmonious relationship with Nature and each other, a reigning in of our tendency to violence, the avoidance of such nasty little neurotic tics as rumour and gossip, the celebration of neighbourliness, the recognition that material well being is a means not an end, then perhaps we might be getting somewhere. In such a place and time what the mature society will have triumphed over is Man’s tendency to banality, crudeness of intellect and too frequent explosions of irrationality.

This last phrase, “explosions of irrationality,” brings us to what will be the single greatest barrier to achieving maturity – which I have obviously been using as a simile for a society that is caring and compassionate, cultivated, fair and just, decent, peaceful. That barrier, the fundamental problem, in achieving this, individually and collectively, is that it will require that we become “not us” in confronting a very basic flaw within the human condition. Norman Mailer, in his essay “The White Negro,” references Marxist thought with a level of respect but points to its failure in application because, as he put it, “ it was an expression of the scientific narcissism we inherited from the 19th century,” motivated by the “rational mania that consciousness could stifle instinct.” I have this awful feeling that he is right, that we are driven not by the profound harmonies and profundities of evolved consciousness, but by base instinct that is primitive, reptilian, not modern.

What Mailer is alluding to is the idea that if we only shed the skin of pre-modernity, cast aside superstition, embrace the powers of reason, our idealism and innate goodness, employ the graces of science and progress, cultivate profundity in ethical disposition and cultural preference, celebrate right from wrong, excellence rather than mediocrity, then and only then can we become fully human. The problem in this, as Mailer and others have recognized, is that unfortunately it often seems that we are neither rational, idealistic nor innately good.

One can surely only hold to a contrary view by averting one’s gaze from history – from the plundering of the Americas and the destruction of native populations, from the 100 million or so who died in the 20th century’s great wars, from the fire-bombing of Dresden not for strategic purpose but to impose terror, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, from the myriad mini-wars and pogroms of the last century, from Darfur, the civil war in the Congo and its boy soldiers fueled by their snorting a cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder, from Rwanda, from Fascism, Stalinism, Maoism, Bushism, from the “negro barbecues” of the southern states, the lynchings, from the slow motion massacre of homicide, from the fiery “necklaces,” of South Africa, from 9/11 to the War-in-Response, to Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, “enhanced” interrogation techniques, water-boarding, rendition, the war of the drones, from casual domestic violence, routine child abuse, from the online rape of a four year old for the pleasure of those watching the streaming video, from the moral and aesthetic deadness that rests like a shroud on the human corpus, from the resentments and deep anxieties that afflict so many lives, from the banal evil of a society that in considerable part does not wish to provide health care for its people, including 10 million children, because that would be “too expensive,” and, horror of horrors, “socialized medicine,” at the very same moment it spent $12 billion a month supporting a lie and that lines the pockets of hucksters, charlatans, punks and crooks in their smart, glass-walled offices on K St.

Avert your gaze from these things, and more, and the world can look “likeable enough.” It was said of Raymond Williams, by Stafan Collini, that what he identified in “the long revolution” was “a record of ‘actual growth’, of a liberation of human potential rather than a dilution of ‘standards’.” There was an optimism within Williams, suggests Collini, who adds: “Claims that everything is going to the dogs all too often rest on the hidden supports of parochialism, snobbery, class insouciance and a willful refusal of the intellectual effort required to draw up a more realistic balance sheet of gain and loss.” (6) Beckett said that his favourite word was “perhaps,” and so I will grant Mr. Collini his right to his “optimism,” and perhaps we are making “progress.” But then again one could argue that industrialized slaughter in its efficiencies is a kind of progress, it’s just not very nice. Or if one is foolish enough to wander into the town centre of most English towns around 11 on a Saturday evening to see the vomit, the blood, the fights, or the killing fields or Chicago one might reasonably conclude that “progress” has a ways to go. There is then, and if we are being honest, another way of looking at this, that sees that while the beast may shed its skin, it’s still a beast, and that it isn’t that one is saying that we are “going to the dogs,” it is that we are the dogs.

Once more, creating the mature society will be a very heavy lift.

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Dr. Michael Tracey is a Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Colorado, although of late his research has increasingly engaged with literature and neuroscience. He believes society – and American society in particular – needs a paradigm shift that recognizes that children are neurological as well as social beings, and that neuroscience is coming to have as important a role to play in explaining children and childhood as any other body of thought. Dr. Tracey previously contributed an extended series on as-yet-unsolved the Ramsey case to S&R.

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  1. Selected prose of T. S. Eliot (ed.) Frank Kermode, Faber and Faber, 1975. “What is a classic” The Presidential Address to the Virgil Society in 1944, published by Faber and Faber, 1944. (pp: 115 – 131).p116-117)
  2. Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the question: What is Enlightenment?” 2009, Penguin Books.
  3. Richard Hoggart, “Between Two Worlds: Politics, Anti-Politics, and the Unpolitical.” 2002, Transaction Publishers, p195-197.
  4. Craig Raine, “T.S. Eliot.” 2007, OUP, p73.
  5. Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in: Andrew Lipscomb and Albert E. Bergh, ed. “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson” Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903
  6. Stefan Collini in: London Review of Books, 31 July 2006.

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