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Facts Don't Care About Your Healings
The mental health crisis is ideologically coded because it IS ideological.
I would like to pioneer a new genre of personal essay. I call it: “My Parents Did Their Best Raising Me and Of Course They Got Some Things Wrong But I Don’t Blame My Problems on Them Because I Don’t Want My Kids to Blame All Their Problems on the Mistakes I Will Inevitably Make.” Basically this kind of essay would follow all the familiar patterns of a typical piece wherein the author awakens from the cruel hypnosis inflicted upon them by their strict/overbearing/religious/nosy parents. But instead of ending with the author being enlightened and the family being exposed, it would end with a terrifying realization: that even my parents’ mistakes were valuable, that my grown-up problems were not reducible to them, and that the most mentally and spiritually healthy attitude I could have toward my childhood is gratitude for the many good things, and forgiveness for the bad.
Even writing a sentence like that one is enough to elicit a near unbearable wave of anger and critique. If a thousand people read that opening paragraph, I promise that at least 100 will believe I have somehow suggested that abusive, traumatic experiences are irrelevant and trivial. There is no suggestion of the sort within a country mile of what I wrote, but the context of contemporary #discourse is so loaded that even talking about forgiveness can and will appear to some listeners as a kind of experience-negation.
Negating someone’s experience is a social sin that has become so totemic of the times that you have to go out of your way—and often say the opposite of what you mean—in order to avoid even giving the appearance of having committed it. But I’ve noticed that in many situations this dynamic only works one way. Negating someone’s experience may not be a sin if their experience is deemed to be the wrong kind. The opening paragraph of this post hints at one category of personal experience that often goes negated with impunity: the experience of realizing you don’t know as much as you thought and that the people around you actually don’t have as much ultimate power over your well-being as you might have been tempted to believe. In digital culture especially, this kind of memoir just feels backward, like a screenplay in which the Bad Guy actually wins. You’re not supposed to feel more outward-facing gratitude and less inward-facing certainty as you age. You’re supposed to see your enemies all the more clearly. This strikes me as a recipe for pathological mental anguish.
The tragic irony for many people my age is that the kind of mental health that we desperately need is almost always predicated on decentering the self, which is precisely the very thing we have been educated not to do in the interest of mental health. Our windows to the world are mirrors. Many of the most popular “self-care” techniques are really just analog-era recreations, which suggests what we really need is just one hour where we’re not staring at our own psychological state. Decentering the self is not just implausible in the Age of the Mirror, it’s actually condemned as immoral through the way we articulate which personal narratives matter and which ones don’t. The narratives that don’t matter include:
I realized how much I’d been given and how evil only living for myself would be.
I was miserable trying to curate my own identity and this was cured when I gave myself completely to this spouse and these children.
I thought me and my desires were the same thing, but then I realized that denying those desires gave me more joy.
I was convinced people who disagreed with my core convictions were wicked, but I was wrong.
These are personal narratives that happen every day! They’re true stories of genuine transformation. Yet they are far less likely to be published, promoted, or celebrated than stories of learning how to “care for myself” or of “throwing off” the stuff I was taught. The narratives that carry the most cultural weight all go in the same direction, outward → inward: “I thought X because other people told me X, but when I looked inside myself I realized Y, and now I’m free, both from X and from the people who told me X.”
One of the more distressing yet important developments of the last few years concerns the justice/forgiveness matrix. For a very long time, “justice” was right-coded, meaning that emphasizing justice was something that more conservative, traditional people did. Conversely, “forgiveness” tended to be left-coded. There are traces of this sorting still around in our political culture; for example, a politician who wants to be seen as “tough on crime” is generally perceived to be appealing to the right, whereas a politician who talks more about “rehabilitation” or compassion for those driven to crime is signaling to the left.
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In very serious ways, however, the coding of justice/forgiveness has flipped. “Justice” is now left-coded, and “forgiveness” is now right-coded. I think this is part of the answer to Katelyn Beaty’s question about church abuse becoming a left-coded issue. Of course, you could argue that it’s because conservatives don’t care about abuse and progressives do. But that’s a really lazy take given how disproportionate the exposures of #MeToo were among Hollywood and elite liberal culture. I don’t think it’s true that conservatives are apathetic toward abuse. Rather, I think it’s because, for various reasons that probably stretch deeper than a single Substack post can delve, the coding of justice/forgiveness has poisoned the well. If liberals thought it was a rationally liberal thing to come out hard against Harvey Weinstein, they would have come out hard against him decades ago. If conservatives thought it was a rationally conservative thing to engage in activism on behalf of those abused in church, they would do so. The reason these things don’t happen is that we know such activities are coded, and most people, even people with real integrity, don’t want to say or do things that make them feel like they are someone else.
Cancel culture, meanwhile, is an expression of how forgiveness has become right-coded. Of course, context matters. The things that most people are actually canceled for are not things that conservatives typically make a big deal about. But even then, the right-coding of “free speech” and the idea that we ought to be willing to put up with offensive ideas and even forgive those who genuinely mess up has astonishingly become a very conservative thing to believe.
And what’s really interesting about all this is that the reverse coding of justice/forgiveness has been accompanied by another switch. Historically, “justice” is about law. There’s an objective givenness to it that transcends personal narrative or experience, which helps to explain why justice historically has been right-coded. But this is no longer true. “Justice” is left-coded because it has become narratival. Justice is what people talk about when they talk about their personal experiences. Justice is the subtext of people speaking their truth. Meanwhile, forgiveness no longer has a narratival quality. It now has an objective, given quality. People who argue for forgiveness and forbearance argue that these things are inherently good and desirable. Withholding forgiveness or suppressing someone else’s speech are talked about as if they are intrinsically bad. Conservatives who try to argue against censorship or cancel culture will often tell their own personal histories of being attacked, and in so doing they are trying to appeal to people’s sense of justice by telling their story.
The reverse coding of justice/forgiveness is a big part of why mental health is, I believe, in the process of being a right-coded topic. There are two big picture developments happening right now. First, mental health is measurably, demonstrably deteriorating among young people. Second, the most politically salient responses to this epidemic are often irreconcilable. So you have someone like Freddie deBoer pointing out time and time again that the Internet and progressive politics are both weaponizing mental illness into an identity marker, “treatment” of which is considered an immoral assault on a person’s sense of self. Then you have people like Jonathan Haidt who seem to have found a philosophical connection between the mental health epidemic and the suppression of free speech. Whether the thread that ties all these things together is technology, helicopter parenting, or something else, the point seems clear enough that soon the people who talk the most about young adults and the mental health crisis will be center-right.
Ben Shapiro’s famous tweet “Facts don’t care about your feelings” has come to symbolize the reactionary conservative movement. Feelings are thought now to be left-coded, and facts right-coded. This isn’t all that new. But the recoding of justice/forgiveness suggests that it is now conservatives who find themselves the party of emotional health, over and against the progressives as the party of capital-L Law. Of course, this is a huge generalization and you can find a dozen exceptions immediately. But it’s absolutely the case that secular progressivism’s embrace of activist phenomenology has created an exceedingly strange situation.
The Great Awokening is wearing people out. Its uncritical embrace of digital self-broadcasting has been a disaster. Its principles are destroying the possibility of instittuional cohesion. It is creating dissenters at an ever-increasing clip. It is, in other words, exemplifying many of the same traits of a church or ministry that has become all works, no grace.
I don’t think conservatives understand just how significant this turn is. And it presents us with a challenge. “Facts don’t care about your feelings” will get lots of play online, but it’s a big misread of the moment. When it comes to feelings, it’s a bull market. Feelings are what are leading a lot of people away from the presuppositions and certainties of progressivism. The notion that secular philosophies will always appeal better to people’s emotions than historic Christianity is just dead wrong. I am convinced that the coming years are going to be marked by people finding a meaningful peace and catharsis through Christianity and through traditional value systems: the ideas of human purpose, divine image-bearing, the importance of place, and the givennesss of truth. The mental health crisis in the West is ideologically coded precisely because it is ideological. And in the coming years, the most effective form of Christian or conservative argumentation will simply be the display of stability and compassion.
Beyond the Christian gospel lies just endless performance. In the absence of a just God, justice must be performed. In the absence of a Creator, identity must be performed. In the absence of a Savior, atonement must be performed. In the absence of a Father, intimacy must be performed. Call our Age of Mirrors the burn-out age, because it’s true. What comes next?