The Human Need for Culture

The Human Need for Culture

Some interesting battle lines have formed in the past few months.* We Americans had gotten used to thinking of ourselves as polarized between the Blue Tribe and the Red Tribe. But in recent years, decidedly illiberal factions have calved off from both these tribes, giving rise respectively to the identity-politics left and the populist right. In response, a growing chorus of old-school liberals have begun urgently defending the values and commitments of liberalism: free speech and debate, individual rights, procedural neutrality, the search for objective truth. For example, a group of liberal centrists recently founded a newsletter, Persuasion, to advance liberal (not leftist) arguments in defiance of rampant ideological purism. But as revolted by illiberal mobs of both extremes as I am, I can’t help wondering whether the defenders of classical liberalism are missing something, too. People need tribes and culture – things that liberalism tends to dissolve. Yet liberalism is vastly superior to its alternatives. Where can we go from here?

When I say that people need tribes and culture, I don’t just mean we need society. People obviously need companionship and society – we’re social beings, and loneliness is quite literally toxic to us. That’s not in question. What’s in question is whether people need the determinate, particular culture of a specific bounded group of people. Liberalism has historically tended to hem and haw at this question, arriving in its more generous moments at something like “Well, maybe they do, but it’s not the political community’s job to give it to them.” In its less charitable moods, though, liberalism considers particular cultures and bounded groups to be actively opposed to its project, and acts to undermine them. Attempts by European countries to outlaw infant or childhood circumcision, an age-old custom for Jews and Muslims, are an example of this more uncompromising stance.

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