Institutional Self-Renunciation Is Making Us Lonely

I recently went on vacation with a college friend, and every time a local asked us where we were from, my companion would go on about how embarrassed she was to be American. “We’re a disaster—don’t judge us too much!” she’d say. Once back in the United States, one of my college classmates told me how surprised she was that I’d wished my friends a happy Fourth of July on social media, sounding as scandalized as if I’d posted a full-frontal profile pic.

It’s not just the reflexively negative attitude about patriotism that bothers me. It’s the reflexively negative attitude about everything. Among classmates at my New England liberal-arts school, it’s become increasingly fashionable to project a spirit of shame when it comes to the education we’re getting and the companies we’ll be working for. This “anti-institutionalism” is doing a real number on us. In fact, I suspect that a lack of meaningful institutional affiliations is playing an unexplored role in my generation’s collective mental health crisis. In 2017 (which was before COVID complicated the analysis), young American adults were 63 percent more likely to report major depressive symptoms than young adults in 2005.

As various Quillette writers have noted, many of our public institutions have fallen into a social-justice purity spiral—a self-reinforcing series of call-outs, accusations, apologies, and promises to do better. The process is universal, because no venerable institution can claim to be untainted by past associations with bigotry, elitism, and retrograde attitudes. As a result, our associations with these institutions have all become suspect and conditional.

The problem is that human identity is inextricably tied to group affiliation. It’s why sports fans wear their team colors, and why fans at concerts often sport variations on the same outfits and hair styles. These cultural uniforms give us a sense of belonging. So if we’re told that our groups are rotten, we’ll tend to imagine that we’re rotten, too. Or we’ll just retreat into a kind of barren social nihilism as a means to avoid guilt by association. In an excellent Palladium article, artist Ginevra Davis recently described a case study at Stanford University, whose administration has been progressively disbanding “problematic” student clubs, theme and fraternities:

In less than a decade, Stanford’s administration eviscerated a hundred years of undergraduate culture and social groups. They ended decades-old traditions. They drove student groups out of their houses. They scraped names off buildings. They went after long-established hubs of student life … In place of it all, Stanford erected a homogeneous housing system that sorts new students into perfectly equitable groups named with letters and numbers. All social distinction is gone … In the aftermath, all that is left is the generic: empty walls, names scrubbed off buildings, and kids safely, or not so safely, alone in their rooms.

But of course, it isn’t all group affiliations that have become radioactive—only those that can be linked (however vaguely) to any kind of oppressor-coded identity. That still leaves the oppressed variety. Within many of my campus’s social subcultures, orienting the story of one’s life around family, faith, or upwardly mobile career interests is seen as a no-no—a symptom of privilege. But it’s still fashionable to talk about your struggles with ADHD, or your gifted-kid childhood traumas. These aren’t real tribes, though. They’re just shared victimhood labels. And so they don’t do anything to reduce the risk of us becoming perilously lonely. Just the opposite: They give members encouragement (and a common vocabulary) to broadcast ennui and disaffection.

As this process has unfolded, many of us have been transformed into hypocrites, because while we pretend to feel ashamed of our privileged upbringings, selective colleges, and A-list jobs, we’re actually quite thrilled about all of it—proud even— which is why these accomplishments end up being catalogued on our LinkedIn pages. If we weren’t seeking such badges of status, why would rich California families be paying $70K per year so their children can go to Berkeley, instead of a third of that sum for UC Santa Barbara?

Within the most privileged stratum of American young adults, this hypocrisy expresses itself in angry, self-righteous, often childish gestures of pseudo-rebellion. You accept an offer from this or that school, and then spend the next three years lecturing everyone (including your parents, who pay the freight) about how “unsafe” the place feels. Then when Silicon Valley recruiters come to campus, you dress up and go to interviews. And when a job offer comes, you take it, following which you spend much of your cubicled existence composing angry Slack posts about your boss’s refusal to wear a pronoun pin.

We also have to make sure that total strangers know just how pissed off, delicate, put upon, and guilty we feel. So we wear masks outdoors, recite endless land acknowledgements, write out “Y*le” instead of “Yale,” compulsively edit our Twitter profiles according to whatever cause is being protested and whatever war is being fought. These are penitence rituals and puritan poster boards for young people who don’t have any actual religion, let alone belong to any church—because Christianity is just the worst, right?

I’m not one of those Gen Z-ers who thinks history started when Barack Obama ran for office. I realize that modern anti-institutionalism has been around for generations, particularly on university campuses. But what’s new in our own era is that the institutions themselves are participating in their own self-eradication. This isn’t the 1960s, when students were shaming their schools while administrators stood up for the status quo. In 2022, as the Stanford example shows, it’s often the administrators themselves leading the historical purges.

COVID accelerated the phenomenon, because it leveraged the tribal divide over abstract culture-war arguments into the domain of face-to-face life. And college administrators were more than happy to impose top-down public-health rules, endowed with the moral weight of life and death, complete with mandatory facial coverings to distinguish the devout from the unbelievers. Students who already felt shame for any number of reasons were suddenly outed as inhumane for going to parties, or spending a long weekend with family and old high-school friends—the only real tribes they had left. The tension between social cohesion and social virtue became untenable.

Of course, COVID also gave people the opportunity to simply check out altogether—to work remotely, free from the diktats of deans and DEI directors. Many of us, in college or otherwise, have friends who fled increasingly cost-prohibitive white-collar urban enclaves for lower-lockdown, lower-cost inland destinations. Many won’t be coming back.

It may sound like I’m trying to dunk on my bleeding-heart college pals. But I’m not. I wouldn’t even call myself right-leaning, and I still look for ways to support progressive causes without tearing down the whole country or its civic institutions. I’m simply calling attention to the corrosive psychological and emotional effects of the relentlessly self-lacerating progressive discourse that suffuses the life of many American university students.  

At its core, evolved human morality has always required that we ask ourselves, “What rules must I follow to remain accepted by my tribe?” But many of my friends are now faced with a strange tribal rule that effectively demands the rejection of the tribe itself. Once that demand is met, what path is left for them to create meaningful and connected lives?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/08/16/institutional-self-renunciation-is-making-us-lonely/
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" It’s not just the reflexively negative attitude about patriotism that bothers me. It’s the reflexively negative attitude about everything . Among classmates at my New England liberal-arts school, it’s become increasingly fashionable to project a spirit of shame when it comes to the education we’re getting and the companies we’ll be working for."

I’m not sure anti-institutionalism is the right description for what’s going on her…the negative attitude about patriotism, for example, is not just about the government and/or the Constitution; from what I’ve seen, it is also a contemptuous and sneering attitude toward the majority of the American people.

What it is, I think, is Cynicism, something closely related to Flippancy and Sarcasm. See my post Humor and Seriousness.

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I would say, Cynicism with no inkling of hope, because there is no self-confidence, no belief that the experiences and education we have received can serve us in any way in curing whatever it is that ails us.

This was a well-written piece; pithy with few wasted words. This writer has a future!

In a previous age, radicals occasionally banded together and formed their own new tribes. But no, now the very notion of ‘allegiance’ to anybody or anything, is transitory. Thw only thing we are permitted to cling to is our shame.

Christian doctrines of sin, repentance and forgiveness offer a paradoxical pathway out of our shame. Other spiritual doctrines offer other paths, but usually depend on acknowledging some paradox and moving on. At this moment in time, this latest version of the existential problem, offers no path.

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You get the rebellion you deserve. And make no mistake this accountability rebellion against institutions like others before them didn’t come out of a vacuum but is a inevitable reaction to ’aristocracy’ bias.

Of course for those who are oblivious to or never had to live the consequences of societal structures that fail to deliver its purported principles of justice, constructive criticism can seem like ingratitude, disloyalty & even threatening. And threatening it is. Being forced to face one’s shortcomings & to commit to social responsibility at the expense of one’s self interest isn’t for hypersensitive faint hearted cowards. It takes courage, grace & strength to truly treat others as you would like to be treated.

That’s not to say there aren’t excesses in accountability new order culture but let’s not exploit those as a justification to avoid our duty & obligations to the social contract.

The author is talking about students at a New England liberal arts college. Likelihood is quite high that most such students would come from families regarding at various levels of ‘aristocracy’, as measured by income, wealth, and influence.

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And does this disqualify them from an awareness & responsibility to the plight of the less fortunate? If anything they have an obligation to be more engaged.

The author’s description does not sound to me like ‘engagement’, quite the opposite.

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Would this be the “constructive” criticism of BLM, Occupy Wallstreet, Extinction Rebellion, Defund the Police, and CRT perchance?

I don’t feel any particular need to be instructed in my “social responsibilities” by people whose understanding of such is based on sophomoric oversimplification and historical ignorance, especially when any attempted criticism is cast as “hate speech” that makes them feel “unsafe”.

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No. Of ocurse nobody is ever disqualified from the called to be a Voice Crying out in the Wilderness, in defense of the less fortunate. But it does not exempt them from the suggestion that a criticism shud usually offer an appropriate counter-strategy,

And this is the core of the origina; writer’s paper, that the people all around him, who seem to despise everything around them, have nothing, Nothing at All, to offer for improvement, At best their criticisms waste our time, but more likely their criticisms are intended as distractions. And they should be deflected in the most efficient ways, without head-to-head competitions. Because if we don’t find ways to negotiate the disagreements, it will devolve into deadly jousting.

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In terms of the destination? Absolutely. However misguided, flawed & clumsy the means the ends of increased awareness & impetus for change regarding police/prison reform & community investment appear to have justified them.

Say what you like about BLM & the fact that these issues are also class based but if the racism card wasn’t played they would never have seen the light of day. It’s not always the most ideal of circumstances that brings about justice. He/she/they moves in mysterious ways:grin:

’Negotiations’? Are you trying to sell a bridge?
Negotiations aren’t a possible where denial exists.

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

Frederick Douglass

The author starts out wanting to talk about depression in American youth in general, but she seems to come from an extremely privileged stratum. Even if some of this elite antinomianism is reproduced at lower-tier universities, wouldn’t non-elite youth have a lot of other things to worry about too?

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Perhaps this is an example of Marcuse’s “long march through the institutions”. Now the administrators are the keepers of the faith and being very well paid to make everyone take the knee.
One imagines that more new universities like UATX will spring up. Low admin costs, much cheaper and less rigid and Stanford and its ilk will eventually be cast into the dustbin of history. unless of course they aren’t because they come to their senses.

(BTW I checked and it was not Marcuse who first used the phrase long march etc. That fabulous online source of Wikpedia tells me it was Rud Dutschke who coined the phrase.

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“Human identity is inextricably tied to group affiliation.”

If you accept your first sentence as fact, the rest is just a logical result of that thinking. Hardly worth even saying. I hope you are now working where you feel accepted by your tribe. Though if that were true you probably wouldn’t use a pseudonym.

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This is simply not true. In his paper on Police Reform and viral incidents, Roland Fryer looked at roughly 50 instances of attempted Police Reform across the country. He found that generally in the 46 instances which weren’t driven by viral incidents (and with BLM far less likely to play a prominent role in the reform) the effect were either neutral or mildly beneficial in terms of crime patterns. But in the four instances which included viral incidents (and guaranteed a strong BLM level of activism) the reform efforts cost around 250 additional African American homicides and tens of thousands of additional felony crimes.

My point is this- police reform efforts existed and were successful long before BLM appeared on stage, and were notably less harmful in their negative consequences. America still had a long way to go towards providing a system of criminal justice system which was comparably just to other Western advanced economies, but it was heading in the right direction long before BLM. Besides Coleman Hughes essay on The Case for Black Optimism shows that every indicator was positive between 2001 and 2017- the Black incarceration rate had fallen by 34% and there had been a precipitous fall in the incarceration rate for black men aged 25–29, 20–24, and 18–19 declined, respectively, by 56 percent, 60 percent, and 72 percent.

Simply put, a combination of factors had changed the environment- to the extent that if we use Gary Slutkin’s repeatedly proven epidemiological model of Violence as a Social Contagion we can infer that a combination of proactive policing, community support mechanisms like violence interrupters and the economic opportunities created by lower crime neighbourhoods had largely remedied violence levels, even if police and criminal justice reform often lagged behind.

Now, let’s look at the impact of BLM. We’ve seen the effects of the increased crime caused by a withdrawal of proactive discretionary data-driven policing, which targets resources to where crime is highest. It’s by no means monocausal- progressive prosecutors play a role, as does the way in which bail reform (a good thing) has led to cultural changes within the judiciary to the extent that dangerous offenders are now routinely released, with no thought for public safety. But overall, the whatever positive effects have been wrought by BLM, it’s come at the staggering cost of thousands of additional African American deaths per year.

Ironically, progressives are correct- in some respects. Community support mechanisms, a public health approach, access to economic opportunities and mental health approaches all work, but only in tandem with proactive policing and a criminal justice system which places youth reform at the heart of the endeavour. It’s been tried in dozens of countries and hundreds of jurisdictions and the upshot of the evidence shows that it is not a proactive policing OR community resourcing issue- both are needed for positive change.

There really is only one exception, which liberal criminologists are fond of quoting- Germany, the only country which has had success without employing some version of the COMPSTAT system. However, a large factor is their incredibly important vocational track in secondary education- it provides the equivalent of male mentoring through vocational training for every teenage boy who doesn’t do well academically. They are effectively providing the equivalent of a reform approach before disruptive teenage boys begin to commit crime or are drawn in by bad influences.

There are ways to soften American proactive policing, Hotspot policing looks at problem areas, not problem populations. Left-leaning criminologists are keen to advocate it, because it doesn’t make young men feel victimised by police and it also doesn’t damage community relations. It’s also highly successful at reducing violence, so it could be a compromise which both sides of the political divide could live with. On balance, it’s probably the best way forward given that America is in danger of regressing to a 90s approach to policing and criminal justice, as violent crime levels and the fear Americans feel at entering urban public spaces at certain times is already beginning to provoke a return to tough on crime policies and approaches.

I am not saying that the overwhelming majority of people who supported BLM weren’t well-intentioned, and I’m not saying that the movement hasn’t produced positive effects, especially in terms of creating an appetite for a system which is both just and reduces crime- but the evidence was overwhelming even before this most recent round of social justice activism- ask the Norwegians, the Dutch, the Danes, the Scots, the Portuguese and the Swedes whether the community and public health approach works without the police playing a strong role in proactive targeted policing and the answer will be an emphatic ‘No’. The difference is that in the more positive systems the police officer becomes an agent of early intervention shepherding young men towards help, rather than a cog in a machine pushing them towards the courts and incarceration.

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If that was actually what was happening, it might be less nauseating. But to me, it seems like just a lot of virtue signalling.

Like the author said, some of these people are still going to Yale…so their “courage” boils down to not naming their institution explicitly and in full. Compared to what their forebears may have done, like protest the vietnam war, that’s a pretty weak facsimile.

As the author also notes, in generations past, some of these hallowed institutions would’ve had the backbone to say “suck it up and deal”. Consider “backbone” to be one of those things that have been lost.

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My point about BLM particularly the defund the police initiative was the long term benefits of raising community awareness & by extension standards via community investment. It’s very superficial & dishonest to interpret defund the police literally or judge it by short term consequences.

One could say the same about many social injustices including poverty. Just because there’s been improvements over time doesn’t excuse not applying increased attention & action.

The widespread application doesn’t necessarily follow the know how. If it did we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

In terms of defund the police that’s been challenged:

Effect on crime[edit]

The extent to which defunding police leads to a rise in crime has been challenged by scholars and policy experts.[57][58] Criminologist Richard Rosenfeld argues that the increased rate of crime which followed the George Floyd protests was more linked to the COVID-19 pandemic than calls for police defunding, noting that while violent crime rates had increased, property crime rates had decreased, which he said showed evidence that crime was more connected to COVID-19 lockdowns.[57] Patrick Sharkey, another criminologist, attributed the increase in crime to the Ferguson effect, arguing that “when you depend on the police to dominate public spaces and they suddenly step back from that role, violence can increase.”[58] In Austin, Texas, after U.S. Representative Michael McCaul said defunding the police had led to an increased rate of homicides, fact checkers said it was “hard to draw the conclusion the homicide rate is up strictly because of reallocating police funding.”[59]

Effects during police strikes[edit]

Some studies have specifically looked at the effect on crime when the police are not present, namely, during a full police strike. During such strikes, one study found that generally crime does not surge beyond any normal level, even with little to no police force actively working and responding to calls.[60]
Defund the police - Wikipedia

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I hear you but it always pays to consider whether an issue has different layers. Is all virtue signalling un virtuous? Or could it also possess some moral utility? I often think of manners this way. Of course some people just use them for show or even manipulation but in essence they do point towards acceptable moral standards. When we first ‘teach’/coerce our kids into using manners they usually do it out of ‘pressure’ but over time they develop an autonomous sense of moral utility & necessity to them that’s reflected on through practice. Social justice virtue signalling is most probably just another form of evolutionary based cooperation.

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Yes. I have previously observed that America Has an Autoimmune Disease. And this appears to be true of most of the West.

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