I have frequently made the irritating claim that progressivism is more of a social than an intellectual phenomenon. This fits with much of my Tribes Commentary, specifically in relation to the Arts & Humanities folks using political and religious beliefs for social signaling. Today’s example: Katie Couric claiming that it is pretty much accepted that the war in Iraq was a mistake. As an intellectual statement, it is ludicrous. Couric knows the polls, and knows that right or wrong, not everyone agrees with her. But as a social statement, it’s quite powerful. “All my circle is from the right tribe. I am not merely part of the tribe, I am centrally placed.”
Well, it’s fun to watch other people do that social signaling, and smack them around for being such uninsightful fools, but that train runs both ways. If your beliefs are social signaling (or even worse, nothing but social signaling), that implies some chance that my beliefs may be social signaling too. It’s not just your people, but also my people. Not to mention me.
Let’s pretend for purpose of discussion that all our religious, political, and social beliefs are entirely hollow. They have no intellectual content to speak of, and are mere social signals. We use them as birds use song, marking territory, calling attention to ourselves, attracting mates. We use a particular vocabulary of values to keep some people away and draw others in, to attempt to assign ourselves a certain status in the world.
Bumper stickers, what is displayed in your office, and choice of avatars are essentially just social signaling.
As an aside, I take ironic amusement in identifying Christians who have not explicitly announced their beliefs. “It must be the Holy Spirit that told you that,” they say. No, you just use a vocabulary and phrasing common to evangelicals. Without knowing it, you were social signaling, looking for like-minded people.
Let’s put the self under the microscope then. What does “postliberal” signal? It is only a tepid endorsement of conservatism, so there must be something about conservatism that I want to make sure you know I don’t fully embrace. Perhaps it signals “witty conservative – not a yahoo.” Postliberal carries a certain challenging or condescending air to it. “I have seen through all that. I’m an adult.” That has something of the irritating and self-deluding quality of the dwarves in Lewis’s The Last Battle. “We won’t be taken in.”
The more common term these days is classical liberal, as at Eric Scheie’s site “Classical Values.” He has exceptionally good commenters there, BTW. He runs a much better salon than Salon.com. There is a one-upmanship to it that says “I have preserved the real tradition. Not like those poseurs who haven’t studied and learned their own roots.” My Christian style would say much the same: part evangelical, recovering the important truths that have been neglected in the Church in the past century, but also liturgical, grounded in the long conversation of believers age to age. I am not here making the theological case for that tension of beliefs, but only noting the social communication underlying standing in a certain place. To claim to be part of the long conversation very much carries the condescension of “I’ve read about these things and thought deeply about them. You haven’t.” But to keep the evangelical part prominent communicates that I am socially alert, noticing the current trends going on around me and fearlessly embracing the present – not like both the fundamentalists on the right and the mainstream clergy on the left, clinging to tribes in decline and not perceiving the Wave of the Future.
This sort of social communication, you will note, has both positive and negative signaling in it, inviting in those who read those tea leaves the same way I do, while hinting that those who receive a different signal – that because I am not liberal I must not be thoughtful or properly educated, or because I am a Christian that I must be reflexively judgmental – should just go away and stop irritating me. Hardly a very Christian or openminded attitude. It’s rather like Jim Croce’s “If you’re goin’ my way, I’ll go with you.” Well big deal.
Prolife means, “I am willing to face uncomfortable truths and you’re not.” Patriotic communicates “We’ve got things basically right here, so we put up with the failures on that basis, you whining, ungrateful bastard.”
This grows tiresome.