An Essay Featured In Belonging Again by O.G. Rose
The Legitimation Crisis of Our Lives
Looking Over the “Present” Terrain
The title of this paper alludes to The Legitimation Crisis by Jürgen Habermas, a prophetic book nearly forty-years ahead of its time. It warned that we were losing confidence in political institutions, rendering those institutions ineffective and profoundly damaging democratic processes. Today, the term “legitimation crisis” is often used in reference to socioeconomic and cultural institutions, bureaucracies, and governmental processes in general, and in this paper, I will suggest the term “legitimation crisis” could be used to refer to nearly everything in modern life. Please don’t mistake me as saying that “legitimation crises” can’t be found throughout history; rather, my point is only that today the crises have radically spread. Perhaps it is “a brave new world;” perhaps it is a return to some previous age — I don’t know.
Today, our identities, religions, nationalities, occupations, life choices, philosophies, political ideologies, political leaders — all have ceased to feel legitimate to us. A reason for this is because none of them are “given” anymore: whatever we face, we find ourselves full of questions. “Is this true? Is this best? Is this valid?” We live during what James Joyce in “The Dead” called ‘a thought-tormented age,’ and much of why is because we live during Pluralism.
Our “secular world” is a ‘contested, cross-pressured, haunted world.’¹ Here, ‘traditional definitions of reality which previously provided stable [guides] for living everyday life (in courtship, marriage, child-rearing, religious faith and practice, interpersonal exchange and the like) are increasingly fluid, fragmented, and deprived of plausibility.’² Generally speaking, as James Hunter discusses with David Brooks at the 2016 Faith Angle Forum:
In other words, individuals today have more freedom than ever before, but at the expense of “givens” which would help them determine what they should do with that freedom. Choice has increased while direction has decreased. As warned by thinkers like Eric Fromm, author of Escape from Freedom, Peter Berger, and Philip Rieff, under these conditions of incredible freedom, humans are likely to become existentially and psychologically anxious, and in this state, in order to restore “order” — in order stop everything solid from becoming liquid, to allude to Marx — totalitarianism can become appealing. With increased freedom can come the increased appeal of escaping freedom.
The freedom of choice is increasing, which makes life both easier and harder to handle: generally, it is easier on the physical side and harder on the mental (but for those lacking privilege, it can be harder in both ways). Thanks to technology, increasingly more people can go and travel anywhere; thanks to the internet, we can know about whatever we like. Thanks to the loss of shame and stigma, we can increasingly live however we choose; and so on. This paper does not mean to argue that these are bad developments at all, but rather claims we live in a world of tradeoffs. We participate in a being that is essentially tragic (as described by Martha Nussbaum), an exchange between goods; we seem ontologically Kafkaesque.
Nothing feels “given” anymore: when we attend religious services, we feel anxious; when we accept atheism, we wonder what else is out there (for ‘can we be so sure that the truths of modern physics necessarily imply the untruth of angels?’).⁴ When we live in one town versus another, we feel uncertain if we made the right choice about where to live; when we become a banker instead of an entrepreneur, we wonder if we’re wasting our potential. Able to do anything and be anyone, all choices feel equally valid and equally arbitrary (even those that might not be arbitrary at all).⁵ Where a “given” truth isn’t “given,” then truth becomes more relative and less restrictive. ‘Relativism liberates, but the resulting liberty can be quite painful; people [can] then seek liberation from relativism.’⁶ Similarly, we live in a Pluralistic society, which if it doesn’t relativize truth, profoundly opens up its possible facets. ‘Cultural plurality is experienced by the individual, not just as something external — all those people he bumps into — but as an internal reality, a set of options present in his [or her] mind.’⁷ Pluralism doesn’t just happen outside of us, but in us as well. We are internally freer, but if we want to escape from that freedom, we cannot.
Generally, if we were forced to live in Roanoke, Virginia (especially twenty years ago), we may wrestle with feelings of being trapped, but we are unlikely to wrestle with feelings of “if we’ve made the right choice,” because we don’t feel responsible for where we’re forced live (as we don’t feel responsible for our own birth).⁸ The existential wondering comes with the responsibility, and it is often unfortunately the case that the wondering can never be entirely silenced (because, not being omniscient, we can never know for sure if we made the absolute best choices). ‘Put simply, on the level of human consciousness modernization is a movement from fate to choice, from a world of iron necessity to one of dizzying possibilities. This can be truthfully described as a great liberation. But one must also understand the discontents and even terrors that can come with this new freedom.’⁹
We must learn to live with ourselves, but as the social “background” shrinks, it becomes increasingly harder to say who we are in the first place and “how” we can live with ourselves: identity now fails to be “given” (as Charles Taylor discusses). We must make ourselves, and then we become the sum of a collection of choices that don’t feel “given” (“no exit”). Today, blessed with options, we certainly have ‘a great measure of freedom [but] by the same token, however, [we have] lost [our] old capacity for certitude.’¹⁰ This makes totalitarianism less likely in one sense, due to the breakdown of centralization, but in another, it makes totalitarianism more likely by those hoping to restore a sense of certitude (because where certainty is lacking, existential stability will also wane). Today, ‘we are all condemned to be existentialists.’¹¹
We are all “people without qualities,” to allude to Musil’s famous novel, and ‘the man without qualities is ipso facto the man of possibilities. In other words, the modern self is characterized by its open-endedness, its being-in-process […]’¹² ‘[This] situation of modernity, experienced by some as a great liberation, is experienced by others (often the very same individuals) as a great burden.’¹³ Often, we seem to think that we can achieve existential stability again and a sense of certainty if we just believed the right things — but being right will not save us. Gödel-esq, even if we happen to choose for ourselves “the best of all possible lives” — the most rational, the most pleasurable, etc. — we can never know for sure that we have chosen “the best of all possible lives.” If we happen to live according to “the true(st) religion,” we can never totally know we do so; if we ascribe to the “the right politics,” there will still be room for doubt. This being the case, the nature of being is to always be married to the possibility of feeling existentially anxious (a feeling which makes totalitarianism appealing), let alone when social supports, “plausibility structures” (as Berger calls them), and “givens” have eroded.
The less anything in the world feels “given,” the more existential anxiety we will feel, and the more anxious we become, the less likely even living “the best of all possible lives” (if we happen to be living such) will bring us “rest,” satisfaction, a sense of self, or joy. Missing these, we may turn to totalitarianism, utopian thinking, and desperate action in hopes of finally achieving existential stability. To avoid this, we must learn to live forsaking ‘the dream of a restored unity of self, action, and reality,’ because for those ‘who have drunk of the fountain of modern relativism[,] there does not appear to be a way back.’¹⁴ And all of us have.
Alluding to “Self-Delusion, the Toward-ness of Evidence, and the Paradox of Judgment” by O.G. Rose, Dr. Rosenhan famously showed that psychiatric diagnoses are unfalsifiable and difficult to overturn: if a person is deemed insane, even if sane, there is no way for that person to prove his or her sanity. “The Rosenhan Experiment” has been profoundly influential, but the problems it highlights are much more widespread than often realized. If I decide you hate America, what can you do to prove to me that you don’t? If I decide that you don’t love your children, that you don’t care, that you hate America, etc. — what can you do? What Rosenhan found about those whose sanity is questioned can be applied to social thought in general.
If I believe your sanity and mental capacities are illegitimate, you cannot force me to think otherwise; rather, you have to prove to me that I should change my thinking, and yet I “set the bar” for what you must do to convince me, and so empowered, I can always “move the bar,” making it impossible for you to convince me while making you responsible for that failure. Considering the problem of justification outlined in “The Conflict of Mind” and “On Trust,” both by O.G. Rose, I choose when my mind is changed: your freedom is at the mercy of mine. Legitimacy plays an extraordinary role in convincing me to believe you, but if you’ve lost that legitimacy for some reason, no evidence that you present me with is evidence that I am likely to take seriously (if I don’t think you love the family for example, and you cook everyone a meal, I can think you’re just going through the motions, and so on). Insanity is a legitimation crisis, as is racism, hatred, stupidity, accusations that we are destroying America — arguably every critique.
If I believe the government is corrupt, regardless of what it does to prove it is again legitimate, I decide when it has regained my trust; if I believe the school system is broke, even if it hires a new cast of teachers and increases investment in every student, I decide when it has regained my confidence — “The Rosenhan Experiment” can be applied to institutions just as much as it can be applied to individuals. And once I believe the government, school system, church, and the like are broken — once the idea that they even can break enters my mind (that “givens” aren’t given) — my trust violated, emotionally hurt, existentially destabilized, and disenchanted, it is unlikely these institutions will ever win me back without extraordinary effort, effort that ultimately I have all the power in deciding if it pays off. Once I’m wounded, I can be forever lost and unreachable, and may even feel I must be so lost.
Like institutions, once I cease to believe and trust in “givens” — once I question their legitimacy or justification — there is nothing they can do to make me trust them again: I have all the power. Additionally, once I realize a “given” can be optional, it by definition cannot be a “given,” and so there’s no way for me to keep “the bar low enough” to ever trust the given again. No matter how hard I try, my emotional and phenomenological experience must keep pushing “the bar” out of reach.
“Givens” are made plausible by institutions, and behind institutions are “givens” empowering them: it is not by chance that both are losing influence and power simultaneously. Both “unburden” people, to allude to Arnold Gehlen — ‘they relieve us of having to reinvent the social order and indeed the world itself every time we interact with other human beings.’¹⁵ To lose one would increase our existential anxiety significantly on its own, but to lose one seems to lead us into losing both. Additionally, ‘[we] require social support for what [we] believe about my fellow man, despite the fact that [we] deal with them every day; without such support, trust would have to be reestablished time and again, in every human interaction.’¹⁶ Consequently, as “givens” collapse, we lose faith in the nature of our world, our institutions, and our neighbors — our existential anxiety compounds. Our legitimacy crisis is not a singular crisis but multifaceted. ‘Pluralism undermines all certainties.’¹⁷
Nearly every facet of our lives is suffering today a “legitimation crisis:” nothing feels authoritative, valid, or legitimate, even what is (perhaps) indeed authoritative, valid, and/or legitimate. Likewise, our default has become to delegitimize versus debate: when I read a story out of the New York Times I disagree with, rather than just think the story is bad, I think the whole paper can’t be trusted; when I hear a person say something I think is wrong, rather than disagree on that point, I think the person shouldn’t be given a platform; and so on. The “legitimization crisis” has come to change our default thinking and how we are “toward” the world: we have all become agents spreading the crisis while simultaneously suffering and lamenting it.
Due to mass delegitimization, there has been an explosion of existential anxiety. Partially due to the information revolution, we don’t trust our experts, even when our experts are telling the truth.¹⁸ We don’t trust our politicians, believing they are in politics for themselves. We don’t trust our professors, believing they are ideologically driven. We don’t trust our bankers, believing they are driven by profit. And we don’t trust our decisions, never certain they are the right choices.¹⁹ We don’t trust ourselves. And all this is because we don’t “feel’” certain about anything: nothing is “given”; we have reason to be anxious.
The validity of our information is no longer “given,” as isn’t the value of attending church, the goodness of democratic process, the value of attending college, the wisdom of our decisions, the importance of national hegemony, the legitimacy of our identities, and countless other examples. Problematically, even what is “good for us” has ceased to feel “good for us,” making it nearly impossible to tell what is true from what is false, what is best from what is problematic, and so on.²⁰ ²¹ Anxious, it is hard to tell if the world is spinning out of control or only spinning in our heads, and with authority in general having lost legitimacy in an age when arguably we need authorities more than ever to help us sort through our information overload (an overload which has precisely contributed to the “legitimatization crisis”), there is no authority that can restore “givens” that we don’t “feel” is (perhaps) illegitimate and/or a force reducing freedom (not that “givens” can necessarily be restored anyway).²²
The increase of information has correlated with the decrease in the certainty about that information; the increase in spiritual options, the decrease in the certainty that any spiritual path is real (especially the one we participate in); the increase of material wellbeing, the certainty that any material wellbeing can make us well off; and so on.²³ Everything feels like it is exploding outward, knocking down every “wall of givenness” in the path; consequently, nearly everything in our lives suffers a “legitimation crisis.” Nothing feels real, even what is real, and what doesn’t “feel actual” is that which we always have reason to question, precisely because of the resulting existential uncertainty. Hardly any information feels more legitimate than any other information, even from authoritative sources (especially if we lack any philosophical training or epistemological tools). But perhaps the information we learn next will feel different, maybe the next book, the next idea — there is always the possibility that what comes next will be different. And so we keep looking — “no exit.”
‘The dilemma of modern societies is that they need such strongly foundational values to legitimate their authority,’ Terry Eagleton notes, ‘but find themselves constantly discrediting them by their own rationalist behavior.’²⁴ Indeed, if “Pluralism and the Essential Limits of the Mind” and “The Problem of Internally Consistent Systems” are correct (both by O.G.), then rationality must eventually discredit foundational values and itself (especially if rationality doesn’t prove to itself its essential limits), contributing to — if not causing — the legitimization crisis infecting everything. Today, it is not just the religious who are suffering existentially, unable to know if they ascribe to the truth even if they do — we are all suffering the legitimation crisis of our lives.
Existentially anxious, especially if we fail to learn ways to mitigate the feeling, we are likely to appeal to authoritarianism and radicalism in ways that could ruin our socioeconomic order. Paradoxically though, at the same time we appeal to power, we are not likely to feel stable about its authority, and ‘[p]ower without authority is tyranny.’²⁵ Faced with a loss of legitimization, we are likely to search for a sense of “solidness” and authority, and yet while we appeal to and erect authority over ourselves, we will paradoxically not feel it’s authoritativeness, precisely because it was chosen and hence “arbitrary.” If this authority is lifted over many (perhaps for the sake of helping them), it might be seen as a tyranny against which many will rebel and many will join. Like the people demanding miracles according to Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” in the name of freedom and security, we might reign terror over ourselves. Unless, perhaps, we can learn to feel like we belong where belonging is not “given.”
What do you think?
¹Smith, James K.A. How (Not) to Be Secular. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014: 12.
²Making Sense of Modern Times. Edited by James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay. The Modern Malaise by James Davison Hunter. New York, NY: Routledge & Kegan Paul Inc., 1986: 92.
³Allusion to “Dr. James Davison Hunter and David Brooks at the March 2016 Faith Angle Forum” by Michael Cromartie, as can be found here:
⁴Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 13.
⁵It seems that a strong defense against existential anxiety is social capital and “prestige,” kinds of “social contracts” that help us feel like we have made the right choices, (seemingly) supported by the acknowledgment and “awe” of others.
⁶Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 45.
⁷Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 67.
⁸Do note that totalitarianism is also appealing when people have too little freedom, precisely to break down what is trapping them: there is a ditch on either side of the road.
⁹Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 68.
¹⁰Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 68.
¹¹Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 90.
¹²Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 114.
¹³Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 91–92.
¹⁴Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 121.
¹⁵Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 170.
¹⁶Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 172.
¹⁷Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 191. (My emphasis)
¹⁸Consequently, we feel like we must be experts about everything ourselves — an utter impossibility (as described in “Ludwig” by O.G. Rose).
¹⁹Especially when facing (“personalized”) all the other ways we could have lived thanks to the internet (discussed in “The Grand Technology” by O.G. Rose).
²⁰Though it would seem we almost must think otherwise — that the truth will feel differently than other beliefs when we ascribe to it — in order to press on. (This is elaborated on in “Giving Them What,” a play by O.G. Rose.)
²¹Do note that I don’t mean to suggest people in the past never questioned what they believed; following the thought of Charles Taylor, rather, I just think “the scale and reach of uncertainty” today is uniquely immense.
²²And, of course, it is reducing freedom, right or wrongly.
²³The existential anxiety perhaps results from glimpsing “the problem of internally consistent systems” in all areas of life, but that topic must be expanded on elsewhere.
²⁴Eagleton, Terry. Figures of Dissent. New York, NY: Verso, 2005: 96.
²⁵Maritain, Jacques. Man and the State. The University of Chicago Press, 1951: 126.