Tocqueville was struck by the observation that as hyper-Protestants who reject anything that looks like clerical authority, Americans are expected to be self-sufficient in forming their own judgments about everything. This isn’t understood as a rare accomplishment, or a capacity that one grows into in the course of a life. It is a moral imperative from the get-go, taught in elementary school.
But of course we run into a problem: we are not competent to judge everything for ourselves. We know this; we feel it. We cannot look to custom or established authority, so we look around to see what everyone else thinks. The demand to be an individual makes us feel anxious, and the remedy for this, ironically enough, is conformity. We become more deferential to public opinion.
Here is an example that seems to fit Tocqueville’s insight. The Kinsey Reports on Americans’ sexual practices became objects of intense popular interest, maybe because they arrived (in 1948 and 1953) just as the received norms and mores were loosing their grip. Everyone was left to his or her own devices. People wanted to know if they were “normal”, where the only norms available, the only ones not discredited as “repression” by the pop-Freudianism that swept America after the war, were now quantitative. How often do other couples have sex? What’s the average? Is oral sex something that is done by most people? I like to be tied up — am I sick? The normative center of gravity now resides in the middle of a distribution, rather than coming from a religious interdiction or parental guidance, on the one hand, or from a cultivated, proudly antinomian sense of oneself as a pervert and sinner, on the other.
The web, for obvious reasons, is home to a lot of underemployed literary types with a lot of time on their hands. It’s also a playground for people who like to pretend that cultural consumption is a political act. Hence, without any special effort on your part, you can easily find an abundance of articles arguing about the supposed moral and political significance of reading certain books by certain authors. Typically, this involves a lot of empty signaling about race and gender. “This year, I’m aiming to have novels by African-American women account for 50% of the books I read.” Okay. And…?
What does it even mean anymore to call someone racist, say? Does it mean this person honestly believes in distinct races with deeply unequal divisions rooted in biology, which should therefore be reflected in politics and law? More cynically, does it merely describe a person who dissents, however mildly, from progressive piety about race? Or is it more of an existential accusation, reflecting a fanatical, almost-Protestant obsession with the purity of one’s soul, as reflected in the strange significance accorded to pseudo-scientific horseshit like the Implicit Association Test, with its supposed power to shine an objective light into the deepest crevices of one’s character and reveal the reactionary biases and stereotypes lurking there?
Lacking the ability to talk meaningfully (or calmly) about such questions of value, we retreat instead to the supposed pure, neutral objectivity of numbers. We let percentages stand in for values; we let ratios do our thinking for us. Our keys are blocks away, somewhere out there in the darkness, but like the drunk guy, we’re looking for them here, because the light is better. Will reading books by African-American women somehow render you immune to racist thoughts? Will it empower them in a politically meaningful way? How do we define who or what represents the quintessential African-American female experience anyway? (Through statistics!) Isn’t it rather, uh, problematic to assume that each identity grouping has an essentialist wisdom peculiar to itself, which can’t be attained by an outsider through imaginative empathy? Are white male authors a monolith, and does avoiding their books say anything deeply significant about you? Unsure of where we stand on such troubling questions, we settle for the poor substitute of knowing where we stand in relation to everyone else.