The Secular Benedict Option
Our society is changing more rapidly than ever before. The direction in which it’s moving has been set by social progressives, who have steadily dismantled its codes, commitments, and other external obstacles that stand between individuals and their desires. In the face of this liquid modernity, increasing numbers of religious conservatives are considering Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, opting out of modernity and forming an inward-looking community of co-believers. The time will come when secular conservatives look to such an alternative, too, even if they don’t have a belief system that right now points them towards it.
To wrap our minds around what’s ahead, it’s first necessary to understand who wields the real power so we can better comprehend the direction in which we’re headed. For most of Western political history, conservatives have been in the driver’s seat, because conservatism has meant defending the established order. Conservatives were the guardians of powerful orthodox institutions, whether monarchical courts, noble families, established churches, or commercial empires. Liberals might have had a foot in this order, but they also wanted it to change. Meanwhile, outside the gates were radicals and progressives clamoring for it all to be torn down.
Our own era is so remarkable because it’s inverted this formula. In every meaningful way, conservatives are now the heterodox dissidents from a socio-cultural superstructure that enforces progressive norms.
The complex of institutions that shape elite American culture and knowledge are progressive to the core. Donald Trump is the exception that proves the rule—he represents a revolt of the left-behind against their elite tastemakers who for so long have been ascendant and whose project will continue unabated after he implodes. Everyone knows it. In the universities, in Silicon Valley, in the civil-society complex of NGOs and cultural institutions, they know the direction of progress is ever towards expressive individualism, in which the external forces that attempt to check our me-first appetites are deconstructed as either oppressive or unprofitable, and banished. The result is liquid modernity, a society of individuals with no attachments except the ones they have freely chosen and can just as freely drop on a whim.
Those who still doubt that progressives hold true institutional power in America need only to ask: which side is talking about free speech? The side that does is always the side out of power, because they understand that their views will be crushed unless they have special legal protections. For most of American history, free speech was a cause of the left, which needed help in its fight against the conservative powers-that-be. Today, it’s a cause of the right, because conservatives understand that inside powerful institutions like Harvard and Google, they exist as a despised minority.
The question of how to answer progressive cultural ascendancy has been answered by a flowering of conservative critiques. One idea amidst this intellectual foment seems to rise above all others: opt out. Quit holding on to power and accept the mantle of the counterculture. Focus on building your own communities so you can ride out the storm of expressive individualism.
For those of us who are religious, this call is powerful. It’s the Benedict Option. Small-o religious orthodoxy allows for the organization of families and communities in a dense, sustainable network and supplies an answer to every important existential question.
For those who aren’t religious, the Benedict Option raises as many questions as it answers. We know that the choose-your-own-adventurism at the heart of the progressive project is hollow and alienating, but is there anything comprehensive enough to replace it? Commentators cast about for answers, but they wind up creating political platforms, not existential alternatives. They issue hortatory calls for defending the family, preserving middle-layer civic institutions, practicing fiscal responsibility, and, perhaps for the adventurous, a serious commitment to environmental conservation. This is all well and good, but it’s just critique. It doesn’t answer the question: if we’re not doing expressive individualism, what will we do instead?
That question is going to get answered. The victory of social progressivism feels complete and overwhelming from a religious perspective, but for everyone else, the real tsunami has just begun. That tsunami is of technology, and it’s going to rip the roots of our society clear out of the ground.
Smartphones and social media have already trapped many of us in dopamine-fueled feedback loops that we know are destructive but can’t seem to break. As adult users watch their cognition degrade, the children and teenagers who have grown up with this stuff are more miserable than ever before—they’re anxious, depressed, and suicidal in direct proportion to how much time they spend in front of screens. It’s only going to get worse.
But that’s a familiar narrative. What’s scarier is the technology to come. Virtual and augmented reality is going to fundamentally erode the distinction between physical and digital experience, and it will be addictively immersive. Two-dimensional pornography is already short-circuiting male capacity for intimacy—what will happen when VR can deliver a sexual experience that is both immersive and fully customizable? Nothing good.
Concerned about fake news and a “post-truth” society that ignores facts and makes consensus impossible? You haven’t seen anything yet. Software that can produce convincingly fake video is rapidly improving, enabling bad actors and bored teenagers to make it appear that anyone has done or said anything. Perhaps you’ll see smartphone video of what looks like Ivanka Trump spitting on an orphan. Perhaps you’ll see Donald Trump ordering a nuclear first strike. Imagine a world in which seeing is not believing—in which the fundamental means we have for confirming reality have been permanently undermined. You should be terrified.
When they’re not watching extreme pornography, American boys and men are playing video games, an eyeball-poaching scourge whose grip on the male brain is so tight that economists are conducting studies to see just how many young men have dropped out of the labor force in order to play them. As technology improves and opportunities for real-life risk and achievement fade further from view, we can look forward to a new class of gaming hermits. They already have them in Asia.
This is the apotheosis of expressive individualism, in which every social force that moderates the lizard-brain appetite is ground into pixelated dust. Will children who grow up in these conditions continue to form lasting friendships, play outside, hold conversations, focus their attention, negotiate risks, push their limits, and discover intimacy? The technologists who are responsible for these trends don’t think so. They send their kids to expensive tech-free private schools. That’s when they’re not actively warning us about the monster they’ve created.
So we can be forgiven for looking into the future and feeling less than sanguine. People who caricature this pessimism as neo-Luddism are nuts. We are currently engaged in a massive species-wide experiment in the re-ordering of our social cognition. We lived in one way for 99.99 percent of human history, and now, for the first time, we live in a different way. Every new development is unprecedented, and the pace of change is quickening. Our ability to predict the future based on the success of past technology is literally nonexistent.
Solutions for this problem are difficult because the problem itself is networked. An individual who unplugs from this mess has to sacrifice part of his social life—a challenge for a creature whose brain is built to seek social rewards.
This is the secular Benedict Option. While American society continues to drug itself into a tech-enabled stupor, conservatives must save authentic human connection and experience. It can’t be done at the individual level alone: that’s too hard. Instead, we need communities full of people that have opted out together.
Imagine neighborhoods or even whole towns governed by covenantal commitments to refuse social media and virtual reality. Imagine schools in which parents feel no anxiety about refusing their children smartphones because every other parent has signed an identical pledge. Imagine restaurants and public spaces that prohibit device usage. Imagine a great re-norming in which the time we rescue from our screens is spent rediscovering lost arts: craft, conversation, connection.
This alternative won’t be created through top-down policymaking. Every legal prohibition can be outsmarted. The only thing that will work are communities that finally start addressing our deep gnawing needs.
Such communities would build on efforts and concepts that already exist but haven’t yet been knit together into a true social alternative. “Playborhoods” are self-organized neighborhoods in which parents build environments for their children to engage in unsupervised, cooperative, and risky outdoor activities. Tech-free schools are thriving as evidence accumulates that computers do nothing to improve education outcomes. Men have created communities to help each other break addictions to pornography and video games. And some technologists are even building alternative phone devices that are designed to be used as little as possible.
The premise of the Benedict Option is that humans can will a different world into existence. We don’t have to be watching a slow-motion car accident from the passenger seat. We can get out of the car. It only takes a reason that is good enough to motivate enough people to do it together. Religion is that reason for some. But as more of us come to the realization that the greatest impediment to a life we can be proud of is glowing ominously on the nightstand, conservatives will be called to build something different. That call must be answered.
Nicholas Phillips is president of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society. Follow him on Twitter at @czar_nicholas_.