What do the 2016 campaign, an Oregon militia stand-off, a bathroom at Target, and Internet trolling have in common? Though very different on the surface, each is a manifestation of our search for meaning fulfilled by conflict.
Conflict is normally conceived as a negative for individuals and collectives, generating tension, violence, and even destruction. We argue instead that conflict has both received a bad rep -- and yet not one bad enough. On the one hand, it has been at the root of many American social dynamics due to its ability to solve the problem of meaning. And on the other hand, it is a poor source of meaning due to its generally harmful effects on those who participate and the broader culture.
In 2002, a year after America became embroiled in the War on Terror, journalist Chris Hedges published his insightful book, War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. There he relives his experiences as a reporter in many battle zones and beseeches American readers to consider the reasons for which they are consenting to war. But somewhere along the way, Hedges abandons the greater philosophical and sociological argument that the title implies. In deference to providing riveting accounts from the battlefield and testimony to the horrors of war, Hedges leaves us wanting as to the meanings and drives that lie behind the conflict. What might have he said? We were intrigued.
Similarly, but long before 2002, the U.S. had become embattled in a completely different type of war. The “culture wars” are now a familiar backdrop to our lives, it seems difficult to remember a time before the battle between ideological extremes. Coined in the 1990s by sociologist James Davison Hunter, the term refers to a cluster of conflicts between notions of moral orthodoxy and progressivism. While “culture wars” is a newish term, the root of the tensions has been a major part of American cultural and political life throughout most of the 20th century.
Hunter’s otherwise thorough treatment of the issue leaves one question inadequately addressed: Why has conflict been such a central part of American culture and why are we slow to leave it behind? On its surface, the resources and energy devoted to wars both military and cultural is taxing. What is the payoff of such an expensive investment? Furthermore --and less clinically-- how can a society survive such an intense preoccupation with combat?
While part of the culture wars can be attributed to a media system impelled to highlight drama in order to sustain high ratings, the reality of underlying cleavages persist. A lengthy study published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 reveals these exact divisions. Their research shows that over the past two decades, the number of individuals who report consistently liberal or conservative views has doubled, climbing from 10 percent to 21 percent of Americans. And while more individuals have moved to the extremes, more have also begun to perceive opposing ideologies as “so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” According to their findings, 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats fit this description. Not only have political views shifted but also views on the affairs of daily life, such as where a family should live, the makeup of the neighborhood, and who is appropriate to marry. Much of the study reflects the exact rifts identified by Bill Bishop in his 2004 book The Big Sort. These works serve to illustrate, in sharp relief, how ripe the American culture is for generating conflicts.
Hedges touched on what we believe is the sociological answer but it should be made clearer: Americans are deriving a sense of purpose and meaning from conflict with each other and the world around them. Conflict has become a substitute or a quick fix for the meaning many Americans are having difficulty finding in postmodern society.
For modern Americans, the search for meaning has become one of life’s central fixations. Though especially pronounced during adolescence and early adulthood, the formation of identity and the development of a sense of purpose is a lifelong pursuit. The “mid life crisis” as an accepted and culturally relevant period in a person’s life demonstrates how acute and urgent this search for meaning can be. A walk through the continually expanding self-help aisle at the bookstore will quickly reveal how aggressively Americans seek this sometimes elusive need. But meaning is not a trivial abstract that individuals can choose to pursue if they like. A deep sense of purpose has been linked to faster surgery recovery times, lower depression rates, and longer life expectancy in older persons. Meaning, purpose, is an integral part of the modern animal and its absence causes us great emotional distress.
Traditionally a sense of meaning has been cultivated through institutions like religion, family and even the state. While life meaning is an understudied part of sociology, in a 2007 presidential address to the North Carolina Sociological Association, sociologist Stephen McNamee outlines what he, and we, believe are important avenues for generating meaning. He lists emotionally engaging relationships, work and leisure activities and adherence to ideological systems as the major realms in which Americans can generate meaning for themselves. And most Americans still appear relatively content with building families, working at a fulfilling job, creating art, or serving others. While these conventional purposes satisfy many, others remain restless. It is easy to see why. At no other point in history has there been such easy access to alternative ways of perceiving purpose in life. The Internet, mass media, and ease of travel expose humans today to an unprecedented menu of purposes and lifestyles to choose from. But as any postmodern will attest, too many options can be overwhelming.