About six weeks ago, I had a conversation with a friend over dinner about our politics. A few minutes in, my friend said, “Wait, so you’re pretty socially conservative.”
“Ha! Not at all! I believe in marriage equality… I’m pro-choice,” I responded.
“Right, but you believe in social institutions like parenthood and marriage. You think they’re valuable. That’s a rare thing to find here,” she replied.
Throughout my life, I’ve taken for granted the importance of the social institutions and relationships that bind us — relationships like those we have with our friends, our spouses, our country and our gods. I had never formally questioned the value of these kinds of fundamentals. They always just were important.
Now, blind acceptance is the harbor of the ignorant. Yet, having been forced to confront the values of these institutions head-on over the last two months, I’ve only realized their legitimacy all the more.
There is a growing trend in which people brand themselves as “responsible” liberals because of their eagerness to forsake their allegiance to social institutions as being oppressive to individuals’ choices. Unfortunately, this trend entirely misses the mark of staying true to liberalism.
Ironically, while institutional rejection seems to be the chic, new fast track to “wokeness,” it is irresponsible at best and nihilistic at worst.
Consider a separate conversation I had with a friend and peer about a month ago in which he asked me where I saw myself in 20 years. I said I hoped I would be married by that time, among other things, and he laughed and told me that because one doesn’t need marriage to have a healthy relationship; marriage serves no purpose except to be oppressive.
About a week later, at dinner, another of my classmates asked if I wanted to have kids at some point in my life. “Definitely,” I replied. My friend was horrified and told me that having children is morally irresponsible due to the adverse effects on the climate that children produce.
And only a week ago, I had an argument with someone in my entryway who told me that any and all women who change their last names, even volitionally, perpetuate sexism.
What’s lost in all of this, of course, is the fact that institutional respect and individual choice are not mutually exclusive. Marriage, organized religion, parenthood, even patriotism; all of these institutions can be assessed individually and will be either accepted or denied for their own merits. But we, as individuals within a collective society, should be cautious in expunging any institution simply because we would rather not buy into it ourselves.
To be clear, this is not a naive plug for bygone days when shows like “Leave It to Beaver” typified American interaction with social institutions. On the contrary, marriage, parenthood and religion all have very legitimate flaws. But, as individuals within a collective society, we must be able to draw a distinction between choosing to enter into these institutions and calling for the dissolution of these institutions entirely.
“I think marriage is sexist, so no one ought to get married anymore.”
“I think organized religion is oppressive, so get rid it.”
“I think the concept of lineage is arbitrary, so family doesn’t matter.”
This lack of distinction between our individual choice to reject institutions and the radical move to erase institutions is definitionally illiberal. If we fail to separate our own opinions from the imposition of our opinions on others, then this crusade for “wokeness” is really just misplaced authoritarianism.
Regardless of our level of participation within social institutions, I am arguing for a baseline respect for them. I always thought that being liberal meant celebrating and exercising our free choice within a society composed of institutions that bind us, ground us and connect us.
Whether or not we choose to get married, have kids or believe in a god is totally up to us. In such a sense, both institutions and our agency coexist — neither encroaching on the other.
The alt-right would rather we sacrifice all of our agency for the sake of social institutions, while the leftists would rather sacrifice these social institutions for the sake of our agency. Both of these solutions are dangerous, totally devoid of nuance and not at all liberal.
The upshot of it all is that this nihilistic trend to dissolve all social institutions is masquerading as liberalism when, in fact, the two have hardly anything in common. And if we pride ourselves on being liberal — with a lowercase “l” — then we must be wary of generalizing our own institutional discontents.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .