The Sanctification of the Self
First published on Quillette
The rule of law is the political philosophy that all citizens (including leaders and lawmakers) and institutions are accountable to the same laws. It is fragile today because society is reaching peak fragility. The emotional coddling of a generation, a growing hatred of America and its founding principles, and the advent and infiltration of technology are converging to destabilize the rule of law and its ability to govern public life.
This is no accident. The ideologies that overprotect have been at work in multiple domains of life for decades. Starting in the 1970s, teachers were trained that affirming every child’s unique specialness was paramount in the classroom. Instead of focusing on scholastic rigor, Master of Education programs began to prioritize students’ emotional wellbeing, as if the knowledge that one is special sufficiently prepares a child for the real world. The prevailing philosophy holds that the world can and should be rebuilt to serve the needs of those most oppressed and marginalized. This is at odds with the concept of the rule of law, which doesn’t favor anyone.
Emotional affirmation is the job of the family. But the women’s rights movements of the 1960s and ’70s attacked the family unit, in part by encouraging women to pursue their own interests and forestall or even forgo creating and caring for families. Public education seems to believe itself responsible for picking up the emotional slack. It’s not evident, however, that saturating children in the knowledge of their unique specialness produces healthy and responsible adults capable of abiding by the rule of law.
Yet society continued to pursue fragilization. Rather than teaching children how to lose and process their emotions healthily while remaining respectful of—and even happy for—those who win, participation trophies became the norm for an entire generation. Children didn’t have to confront disappointment or learn how to examine their performance for ways to improve. And parents didn’t have to deal with children’s distress after falling short of their goals. The upshot? Arrested development all around.
Bubble-wrapping children out of a sincere but shortsighted desire to protect them from every ill doesn’t produce functional adults, it breeds entitlement and vulnerability and delays the process of cognitive and emotional maturation. Today, as a society, we seem to be experiencing an indefinite extension of adolescence. This is a problem, not least because one of the traits for which teenagers are most famous is rule-breaking. Teenage rebellion won’t topple a society when it’s limited to a phase of life, but our society is training people to engage in rebellion as a way of life and calling it social-justice activism.
The fragilization process continued with the arrival of content notes and trigger warnings. Children who never had to work through difficult feelings of failure become adults who believe that other people are supposed to protect them from ever encountering anything uncomfortable. This corrodes the idea of personal responsibility. When taken to its logical conclusion, the widespread demand for content and trigger warnings makes accountability, even from the legal system, seem incongruent with the lesson society has been teaching children for decades: someone else is responsible for your feelings.
We can trace a direct line from content warnings to “harmful words” lists and microaggression trainings in which people are trained to be afraid to say anything, including what they would intend to be compliments. In this world, impact matters and intention does not. Someone could take offense at anything and demand an apology for the impact they alone defined. Society is training us—socially and in the workplace now—to be emotionally codependent on others rather than considering why we might be so easily offended that we hear kind words as insults.
Language policing leads to the safe spaces of today’s cancel culture. Rules apply based on what you look like and whether your ideas affirm the prevailing narrative, which understands victimhood to be empowering, relativism to be liberating, and the self as the ultimate god. In order to further the idea that narrative is reality, that feelings are facts, and that the merits of an idea are based on identity, the pillars of law itself must now be questioned and found to be deficient.
Abolishing the police is not a new idea, but it resurged mightily in the wake of George Floyd’s death in May 2020. Protestors demanded the defunding of police in order to stop what they perceived to be the wanton murder of black men. The Defund The Police movement has yet to provide data in support of their claim that reducing the number of officers reduces the number of lethal-force incidents. There is evidence to suggest that the opposite is true—as progressive cities slash their police budgets, the absence of law enforcement has seen crime rise and open-air drug scenes proliferate. Sweeping statements denouncing the police as structurally racist have become so common that they are now articles of faith. And because law enforcement is frequently equated with the law itself, millions have now concluded that the law is racist.
That includes the Constitution, the document the majority of Americans once respected as the enumerator of their rights and the ultimate authority and guidance on the rule of law. A dubious revisionist-history initiative like the 1619 Project is being taught in schools, even though its central claims are hotly contested by properly qualified historians. But because feelings have become facts, equal accountability before the law is now seen as oppressive because it doesn’t permit the remaking of reality in the image of emotion. But a culture of victimhood can only conceive of personal responsibility as oppressive—it is the institutions that are racist, the social structures that are responsible for individuals’ pain. This has engendered hatred for America and a rejection of the ideals it strives to uphold. It even encourages a denial that the founding fathers ever wanted to create a country in which everyone was equal in the eyes of the law.
Both the focus on identity and the rejection of personal responsibility in favor of structural accountability undermine the rule of law. On one hand, the self must be allowed to act on whatever feeling it has in the moment and do whatever it wants to do lest it be “oppressed.” Since there are so few scenarios in which someone can do whatever they like at all times, the feeling of being oppressed becomes constant. This leads to constant rage—which is why those who believe that natural limitation or restraint are the same as persecution exhort others to “stay angry.” When this rage is turned upon the legal system as an agent of injustice rather than a structure capable of protecting the rights of every individual, it diminishes respect for the rule of law: if the law itself is oppressive, why should we want to be ruled by it?
On the other hand, the very claim that institutions and structures are the problem encourages the belief that individuals are not accountable before the law. Individuals are therefore helpless against vague but powerful systems, from which they must be liberated to “live their truth.” But an individual is powerless to create the life they desire because there are so many oppressive systems keeping them down. The more we repeat the story about structural oppression to ourselves, the more we start to see oppression everywhere, even in places it’s not. The self demands ever more power to feed its insatiable appetites, rule of law be damned, even as it points to societal structures, especially the legal system, as the reason it cannot obtain all it desires.
In a culture this fragile, this sensitized to personal failure, and this averse to difficult emotions, it is inevitable that the main object of worship will be the self. Those partaking in the worship of the self will not see it as such—they will see it as self-protection, and anything that does not accord with their narratives will be perceived as a threat. The greater the focus on the self, the more threatening everything outside of it becomes. In this paradigm, the self must be kept front and center as a matter of survival. When the self is the ultimate authority, the most egregious sin is suffering. The worst offenders, therefore, are those who either inflict suffering or impede pleasure. In the current swamp of moral relativism, what impedes pleasure can be anything from a lack of affirmation to being told “no” by reality itself. The opponents of pleasure are those who disagree, and they are not just wrong but immoral. They therefore deserve harsher social (and even legal) punishments than those they are allegedly oppressing.
It might not take more than cradle-to-grave emotional coddling to produce a generation of self-worshippers, but our culture has more to contribute to that end. Because human beings will worship something, whether it is a deity, science, or even a lack of belief in anything, the worship of self displaced something. The decline and retreat of religion has stripped Western societies of their ultimate authority. Dethroning that common understanding has left society vulnerable to moral relativism. In a society where “my truth” and “your truth” can apparently coexist even if these truths are mutually exclusive, can there be much hope for a strong rule of law?
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche declared that God is dead and that we had killed Him. Now that the self reigns supreme, abusing others is encouraged, even celebrated in the name of “self-care.” Cultural chauvinism blinds us to the flaws of our time and enables the belief that postmodern individuals know better than ancient peoples who didn’t have the understanding produced by the advanced technology we now enjoy. But technology is also part of the problem.
Since the late 1990s, when the Internet became available to the everyday consumer, technology has billed itself as the amoral savior of humanity. Marketers told us that we needed greater convenience in our breakneck modern lives, and that technology was the answer to that problem. But there have been costs to this shift, and it is not obvious that technology even delivered on its promise of convenience in the first place.
In the 20-plus years since technology injected itself into every aspect of the average person’s daily life, we have ceded authority from human to machine. We now believe that technology will provide the solution to every problem plaguing humanity, including the problem of our humanity. Only now, after the entrenchment of the Internet and the proliferation of personal electronic devices, are we starting to ask questions about machine-learning bias and consider the implications of the fact that the origin of all machine output is still human input.
The idea—possibly wishful—that computers are never wrong has further weakened our trust in human-made institutions and philosophies like the rule of law. As a result, our culture is hurtling into a future in which machines will rule as if a digital dictatorship will be more beneficial than the “messy” human-made systems that rely on centuries of philosophy, experimentation of different ways to run a society, and scholarly reflections on those systems through the ages. Somehow, computers are more trustworthy than all that.
The rule of self is supplanting the rule of law. Individualistic structures, we are told, must be dismantled in favor of socialistic ones, even though being “free” to live one’s individual truth is now conceptualized as the entire point of life. Any restrictions or limitations are oppressive. The rage produced by the inability to act on our feelings at every moment betrays a belief that it is our right to live without limits. A society that rejects limits even as it celebrates victimhood will see the rule of law as both too restrictive as well as oppressive.
Until the self becomes smaller in importance, it will make our world smaller and more fragile, treating everything—including that which would otherwise equalize—as a threat to its own survival. Ultimately, the rule of law flies in the face of the current cultural narrative that some people are more subject to the law than others. And so, the law, along with anything that challenges the current narrative, must be burned to the ground in favor of god only knows what.