By Christopher Pieper and Nathaniel Dietrick, Baylor University.
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 argument that the title implies. He teased at what we believe is the sociological answer, but it should be made clearer: Americans are deriving a sense of purpose and meaning from conflict, ranging in size from full-scale war to Twitter spats. Conflict has become a quick fix for the meaning many Americans are having difficulty finding in postmodern society.
The “culture wars” are now a familiar backdrop to our lives. Coined in the 1990s by sociologist James Davison Hunter, the term refers to battles between notions of moral orthodoxy and progressivism. As with Hedges, Hunter’s otherwise thorough treatment of the issue leaves one question inadequately addressed: Why is conflict so popular? 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?
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 2014 study from the Pew Research Center reveals these exact divisions: over the past two decades, the number of Americans reporting consistently liberal or conservative views has doubled, climbing from 10 percent to 21 percent respectively. And while more Americans 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 Pew, 36 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats fit this description. Not only have political views shifted, but views on the affairs of daily life have as well, such as where a family should live, the makeup of the neighborhood, and who is appropriate to marry. These data illustrate, in sharp relief, how ripe the American culture is for generating conflicts.
Traditionally a sense of meaning has been cultivated through institutions like religion, family, and even the state. In a 2007 address, sociologist Stephen McNamee outlined the key pathways to generating meaning: 1) emotionally engaging relationships, 2) work, 3) leisure, and 4) adherence to ideological systems. 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 finding purpose in life. The Internet, mass media, and ease of travel expose us 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,” resulting 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?
American culture is saturated with “culture wars” and other wars on abstractions. The “war on Christmas” (remember the red Starbucks coffee cups kerfuffle?), 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 often manufactured or exaggerated. 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 and find belonging—for a time.As we march into the 2016 election, the appeal of conflict as a source of meaning has only become more apparent. Candidates will continue to engage in personal attacks, while strutting their own ideological purity. Despite their pleading to the contrary, Americans secretly love politics. Televised “debates” are designed to attract our conflict-addled minds. Candidates tailor their discourse to scripts popular with the drama-seeking masses, and the networks present the whole affair in a manner identical to a football game. Sports and politics are popular sociologically because they are structurally identical to 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 2016 campaign, in this light, is a Purposepalooza.
More than a century ago, Georg Simmel explored conflict analytically for the first time, finding a great many benefits. For Simmel, conflicts actually allow social groups to coexist; without the opportunity to express tension, the only result would be the termination of the relationship. Conflict gives us the the belief that we have the power to affect intergroup relationships. 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 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, for its own sake due to a lack of more satisfying forms of purpose, conflict is wholly destructive.
This way of looking at the many conflicts in our culture allows us to understand that they 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 tension. 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, and ultimately a sense of belonging.
Note: There are alternatives to conflict, and a subsequent article will address these.
Christopher Pieper, Ph.D is lecturer in sociology at Baylor University. His book Sociology as a Spiritual Practice: How Studying People Can Make You a Better Person, demonstrates that spirituality and social science are complementary paths toward personal and collective flourishing. He is now working on several projects related to morality, economics, and media culture.
Nathaniel Dietrick is a sociology alumnus of Baylor University and longtime Wacoan. After finishing his military service he became interested in stratification, masculinity, and the reasons for conflict. He is currently serving as an AmeriCorps Vista working to build curriculum for a scholars program.