I’m currently reading the third edition of Roger Kimball‘s Tenured Radicals, and while a significant portion of it is familiar ground for me, Kimball presented one idea that struck me with some force yesterday afternoon.
The range of human action is circumscribed to a greater or lesser degree by rules, with the compulsory/forbidden at one end of the range to pure caprice at the other. The area in between is what Kimball cites John Fletcher Moulton as dubbing the Unenforceable. Moulton further describes it as “the Domain of Manners”, which encompasses “all cases of right doing where there is no one to make you do it but yourself,” but I also find Kimball’s description useful:
[It is] a place governed not by law but by virtues such as duty, fairness, judgment, and taste.
In short, it is the world of should, between the points of must and can. Kimball goes on to state that “A good index of the health of any social institution is its allegiance to the strictures that define this middle realm.” Unfortunately, he suggests (and I agree) that this middle realm is rapidly shrinking, swallowed by legalism on one end and licentiousness on the other, both in academia and in the culture in general.
On the one hand, we see this in speech codes, the phenomenon of “hate crimes” that punish offensive states of mind, and the endless array of sensitivity and harassment policing to which we are subject. On the other hand, we see it in the form of nincompoops like the would-be Koran-burners in Florida, who fail to understand the difference between what is allowed and what is wise.
What this leaves us with is an infantilizing drive toward totalitarianism on one side and infantile behavior on the other. But that puts those of us who want choice so that we may choose virtuously in an ever-dwindling middle.
If there is to be a solution, I think it has to come from culture — the mores, taboos, and yes, manners that underlie the way in which we live. But culture moves slowly, generationally, which is both a strength in the long run and an annoyance for those of us who are placed in an inopportune moment. What can the individual do in this circumstance?
I think that we have to begin by tending our own gardens, taking care of ourselves and not expecting others to do it for us, because there’s there’s a continuum between having things done for you and to you. We need to try to live virtuously and independently, in a way that makes it obvious that we don’t want or need external control to avoid lapsing into savagery. Will we always succeed? Almost certainly not — we’re human, after all. But we have to try. We have to reclaim that middle domain before it disappears altogether.