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.
These contemporary wanderers suffer from what Victor Frankl called an “existential vacuum,” which results from institutions and instincts losing their influence. As Americans embrace expressive individualistic ideas and are allowed to choose how they find meaning, social institutions are less able to mold ideas about what constitutes purpose. This can cause immense stress, resulting in anomie, Emile Durkheim’s perfect term for a life unmoored from guiding structures and community. So how do anomic post-moderns find what they are looking for? Can those struggling to find a lofty purpose settle for a baser substitute?
To answer this question, we reflect back to McNamee’s findings about adherence to idea systems. And to do this we need to talk about red coffee cups. In the lead-up to Christmas of 2015, Starbucks announced that their coffee cups would jettison any Christmas themed images in favor of a simple red color. Shortly after the announcement the Internet exploded with outrage. People claimed Starbucks was fighting a “war on Christmas” and that Christianity was once again under attack. What motivates such an outcry? We argue it is the need for meaning. Here an artificial conflict has been created to engage in, not because they dislike Starbucks per se, but because doing so stoked the purpose fire by engaging with imagined foes. Fighting those who “threatened their beliefs” gave them a short term boost to their sense of purpose.
American culture is saturated with these “culture wars” and other wars on abstractions. The “war on Christmas,” the “war against masculinity,” “spiritual warfare,” and the wars on drugs, crime and terror -- among similar others too countless to list -- illustrate how ready Americans are to adopt a combative stance against foes sometimes real but often manufactured. These conflicts allow Americans opportunities to fly their tribal colors, skirmish with those who espouse threatening views, and find allies with which they can cultivate new ties. In every battle, victory or defeat, we fulfill our existential needs -- for a time.
As we march into the 2016 election, the appeal of conflict as a source of meaning will only become more apparent. Candidates will continue to engage in personal attacks, while strutting their own ideological purity. And Americans love it. If we did not, news outlets would give it the coverage they give new poverty statistics. Debate results would be relegated to a ticker stream, a footnote, or somewhere in the broadcast after sports. Despite their pleading to the contrary, Americans secretly love politics. The debates are designed to attract our conflict-oriented minds. Candidates tailor their discourse to scripts popular with the drama-addicted masses, and the networks present the whole affair in a manner identical to a football game. But here our objective is not to point out the destructive nature of politics reduced to entertainment, a case already better made by Neil Postman and James Fallows among others. Rather, we mean to highlight that there is another more fundamental reason we love the elections. They are merely a microcosm of America’s truly favorite pastime: fighting. And in fighting, we find a purpose for our lives, a structure for our time, and a cause to organize our lives behind. The campaign is a Purposepalooza.
This search for meaning leaves individuals in a terrifying position, ripe for exploitation. And when real wars occur, the individuals looking for fulfillment are easily manipulated. Wars are what sociologist Georg Simmel called “realistic conflicts,” meaning they are fought over resources, both tangible and intangible. So how does this relate to any of the above? Simply put, selling a war based on the acquisition of commodities is a tough sell in the modern age. Geopolitical motives are often detached from the desires of the public; while the populace actually may want oil, security or luxuries, most are not willing to spill blood for such a bald material grab. Therefore, politicians must pitch the war using things that appeal to Americans’ sense of purpose. Consider the advertisements currently used by the military. Images are employed that evoke a sense of honor, patriotism, and freedom. Such ads are likewise targeted at the portion of the population most struggling with a meaning deficit: young males, especially those with uncertain economic futures.
It is not hard to see how damaging deriving meaning in this way can be. On January 2 of this year, armed militiamen occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and has largely abated with the arrest of most of the leaders. On its surface, the occupation served a practical purpose: to protest what members believe is the unlawful imprisonment of fellow Oregonians. But the political and ideological motivations are too close to the surface to stay hidden long. This occupation, we argue, fills the existential hole of meaning through conflict with their greatest existential enemy, the federal government. It is a small version of the cosmic battle between good and evil that they have been anticipating for most of their lives. In fact, one subtly senses that the lack of violence and dramatic clash with the Feds --Waco or Ruby Ridge-style -- is a spectacular disappointment for the militia members. For those addicted to conflict and the excitement it brings, tactics such as diplomacy, patience, and being ignored are akin to going through withdrawal. The FBI and other government officials are, of course, are aware of this. They have long understood the difference between symbolic and legitimate conflict. Like a fire, conflicts such as these cannot survive without the oxygen of attention. But from the perspective of social order and progress, these conflicts are disruptive, distracting, and a needless expense of time and social resources.
The sociologist Georg Simmel took great interest in conflict’s place in our lives. He vocalized sociologically much of what philosophers have pondered for millennia. Simmel found a great many benefits that could be found in conflict. For Simmel, conflicts afford the opportunity for groups to coexist, because without the opportunity to express tension, the only result would be the termination of the relationship. Conflict gives us the feeling, the belief, that we have the power to affect intergroup relationships. This duality between conflict’s positives and negatives make conflict one of life’s great paradoxes. It acts as a crucible, provides opportunities for social and personal growth, as often old forms must be swept away to make room for the new. Without healthy conflict, society stagnates and may ignore serious problems. Social injustices are often brought to awareness and corrected by conflict.
What then, differentiates good conflict from bad? Here the motive makes all the difference. When pursued with the sincere intent to right wrongs, conflict has an indispensable place in the world. When pursued, however, because for its own sake due to a lack of more satisfying forms of purpose, conflict is wholly destructive.
To illustrate this point further, consider Internet discourse. When reading the Comments section of a news article, what do you expect to find? While it is possible to find individuals cordially expressing opposite views, it is more likely you will find derision and hate. Are these comments being made because of the potential to sway opposers over to one’s side? Does one expect any kind of constructive outcome? These posts are typically made because of the short meaning-fix that can be derived from “triumphing” over “foes,” or the bond that is felt when a stranger supports one’s position. To a large degree, Internet “trolling” such as this is a large digital version of boxing, where the outcomes ultimately matter little, but it just feels good -- sadly -- to hit someone.
What is the main takeaway from this analysis? It allows us to understand that these various conflicts are not fundamentally about what they seem to be about. They are engaged in to meet an existential need, not to defeat the enemy or resolve the conflict. Indeed, most of these battles are chosen precisely because the enemy can never be defeated. Battle itself is the objective. Therefore, to a large degree, any enemy will suffice. It becomes clear after considering a number of cases over decades of history that the content of the conflict is near irrelevant. What is essential is the form. The form of conflict provides a structure and direction, a profound type of clarity to life. People lacking these will crave conflict like an addict, even manufacturing it if necessary. On an emotional level, conflict offers excitement, drama, and a sense of danger that is likewise often sought to shake up the mundanity of post-scarcity life.
Despite the many problems that conflict might apparently solve for post-moderns, we maintain that it also creates or worsens serious problems as well. Most prominently, regardless of the fact that these conflicts are ultimately content-free and unresolvable by design, they still have real effects in the world while they are being pursued. The young man who goes to war to fill the meaning hole in his spirit may still return maimed physically and mentally whether or not he finds the purpose he was seeking. The hate-mongering talk radio host may spew bile everyday to defeat a manufactured enemy with a fantasy diabolical agenda in order to feel she is fighting an urgent cosmic battle, none of which may have any bearing on reality. But the millions who hear, believe, and act on his words may still poison their communities and families in palpable ways. The Thomas theorem is a useful reminder here: what people define as real is real in terms of its effects.
Conflict as an existential solution will no doubt continue for a long time. Mostly this is because of its impressive ability to address so many of our social and cultural needs so efficiently. We propose, however, that conflict of this type is not the only or even the best schema for meeting these deep needs. What is needed is a cultural schema that provides the same benefits and solutions that conflict offers with fewer externalities, as the economists say. Ideally, it would even generate positive externalities to the collective, above and beyond what it generates for participants. We argue that this alternative is creation.
Without going into exhaustive detail here, we simply contend the act of creativity has been and can be in the future a meaning schema of immeasurable richness and satisfaction for those struggling with anomic dilemmas. What do we mean by creation exactly? A few categories are primary and obvious: aesthetics, discovery, cultivation, and innovation.
Aesthetics includes music, dance, literature, film, painting, animation, architecture, and design of any kind. The joy and purpose found in such pursuits have few peers in all of human endeavor. And not only is the artist caught up in the flow and bliss of creating something new and beautiful, but they catch us as audiences up in it as well. Creating art is a unique gift to the world, and often a deliverance for the artist.
Discovery includes science, research, data collection, analysis, experimentation, observation, invention, and asking new and tough questions of any kind. The excitement of discovery is so intense and pure that it has a name all its own: Eureka! Scientists of every stripe readily report that the motive behind their work has little to do with potential fortune or prestige (which is often unrequited) but the intrinsic and inimitable rapture of the moment of true discovery itself. The act of finding and describing something new and bringing to the world is likewise a win-win for both creator and collective. We live in a time when scientific creations have made the lives of millions richer, longer, healthier, and more fun, and left their creators with an abiding feeling of purpose and contribution.
Thinking back to McNamee, the cultivation of relationships is another vital aspect of building a sense of life meaning. Social connection is a major component of the human experience, one that is often overridden by our emphasis on expressive individualism and immersion in the digital world of “social” media. Many studies have now established that positive interaction with those around us increases our level of happiness and the detriment of isolation is well understood. Here the quality of relationships trumps the quantity. In an age where friends are accrued on Facebook, not unlike an the Pokemon deck of an eleven year-old, we can often suffer from a void of real and fulfilling bonding and intimacy with friends and family. Taking time to cultivate our relationships provides a uniquely satisfying form of purpose that also keeps us engaged with the world around us.
Innovation is a hybrid of discovery and art. Innovation is based in solving problems, seeing an old thing in a new way, adapting a piece from part A into part B, courageously trying an approach that seems crazy but just might work. American history is replete with accounts of tinkerers, men and women who just couldn’t leave something alone, especially if they knew it could be improved. This impulse toward tweaking gave us the World Wide Web as an innovation on the Internet, the smartphone as an innovation of the cell phone, hip-hop as an innovation on rhythm and blues, and the micro-loan as an upgrade to charity. The world always has a place for the improver, and a life dedicated to improvement can never be found to be without purpose.
All four faces of creation -- discovery, aesthetics, cultivation, and innovation -- have an additional, transcendent advantage: they are what make us distinctly human. Creativity at the level demonstrated by human beings is degrees of magnitude greater than anything achievable by our animal cousins. To be human, as Karl Marx said, is to create. Ironically, Marx is seen in sociology as the theorist most linked with conflict. And though much of his analysis is aimed at various types of tensions that emerge in human society, he never argued that conflict was essential to human nature. Indeed, conflict sprung, he claimed, from a frustration of this primeval birthright to create, a notion he shared with Aristotle. Perhaps if we take heed of this old but good idea, we can begin to break our addiction to conflict and embrace a more humane solution to our need for meaning.