The Consequence of Idealising Choice
I recently encountered an interesting twitter thread by the prolific ‘Zero HP Lovecraft‘, where he is arguing that the contemporary woke left is not, as centrists tend to believe, ‘anti-liberal’ in its essence, but rather a natural conclusion of the main tenets of liberalism; an unavoidable post-liberal state, if you will. I will paste his entire thread in the following paragraphs. Enjoy!
‘The left is correct when they tell you that western society was never free. That patriarchy and all variety of “normativities” were always present to control you. The rules of society are often unstated. You may not even notice them, but you notice when they change.
The illusion of freedom is present when social norms are fixed and relatively unambiguous. When you know what is normal and what is expected, you feel free, because your choices are clear and contextualized.
The illusion of freedom is shattered when norms break down, because you get caught between competing systems; acting under one system means disobedience to another; the necessity of disobedience makes you feel unfree.
The freedom of liberalism was always a farce, because in order to be liberal, you must adhere to certain normative vision of what a person is and should be. If you deviate, liberalism sees you as deficient, as any ideology would.
To illustrate this, consider David Foster Wallace’s famous talk “This is Water” Quote:
‘Greetings, parents, and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says: ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes: ‘What the hell is water?’
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted’, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing’.
The highlighted line (‘This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting’) is the beating heart of the speech. He says it’s not a matter of virtue, but he’s up his own ass. It absolutely is. The highest virtue is so virtuous it’s not even a virtue: “Overcoming your default setting”. That’s what liberalism demands. In David Foster Wallace’s soteriology, (which is so embarrassed by Christianity that he has to call Jesus ‘JC’) it’s not enough to have optionality. In order to be free, he says you have to EXERCISE optionality, consciously choosing something other than the default.
(To be fair to D. Foster Wallace, he claims that the default setting is selfishness and obsession with material things, but both of these cliches are clearly wrong, there is no easier way to grandstand than to rail against selfishness. Everyone feels the same way about it.)
Liberalism wants to preserve liberalism. The fancy name for this is “temporal goal integrity”. It means that your goals are consistent across time. Nietzsche called this the greatest accomplishment of the overman: the ability to keep a promise. Instrumental goal: goal-integrity across time. My future self needs to be coherent with my past self. If I identify a goal, I need to be able to care about it until it is accomplished. I need to be consistent with myself in order to have agency.
A man who can’t keep a promise is spiritually inferior to one who can. This is also true of egregores and ideologies. Liberalism only has vitality if it can stay liberal, and that means it has to place limits on freedom. You’ve heard this schtick many times: instead of “freedom from what” you should be asking “freedom FOR what”—But in truth the state of freedom itself is unbearable, and the idea that we could satisfy our need for purpose with a petty goal of our own devising is a tragic punchline. So immediately we observe a tension between the temporal goal integrity of liberalism vs. the mandate to overcome the default setting. If liberalism is the default setting, then it must overcome itself.
A huge part of what “culture” is supposed to do is provide you with a good prefab self; that’s what religion is for, that’s what “society” is for, and that’s why it can’t just be every man for himself. It’s neither good nor necessary that the average person should do this. And the left understands this, which is why their vanguard has a (perfectly consistent) understanding of freedom as obedience to their preferred norm. Freedom is having exactly one set of norms.
The thing is, you can’t do all this explicitly. Even very smart people need a bridge between the exoteric norm of liberalism and the esoteric world of their actual beliefs. The sleight of hand they use is what I call a categorical rebase. Besides trying to confuse existing categories, another trick that propagandists use is to invent farcical new ones that contain the whole world, and then present their agenda as an exciting new alternative to a previously invisible default.
Exoteric leftism is a square circle of liberty and equality. You’re not supposed to get stuck there. You’re supposed to transcend the contradiction and pass into esoteric leftism, invert your values, and overcome the “default setting”. What is the default setting? Heteronormativity, patriarchy, “cis-sexuality”, and racism; they have to make up names for these things because they are the natural, organic default. This is the trick: describing the norm is naming the demon. When you know the name of a spirit you can command it. The spirit world, the occult world, is in truth the world of words and ideas. What is a spirit? A virtual thing, in the body, yes, of the body, but also somehow ephemeral, made of invisible things, words and perceptions.
What is esoteric leftism? It’s when you “do the work of choosing to somehow alter your default setting.” Now you see why “anti-racism” is a perfect fit; now you see why being gay is a perfect fit. If you choose something repugnant then you know you overcame your default setting. It’s true of course that “heteronormative” is an unspoken default. The insane thing is to claim there is no reason for this. Fully realized liberalism chooses something other than the default, and it creates a new normativity which exists as a negative of the old default.
That inversion is HOMO-normativity. You know homonormativity when you see it. You’re saturated in it. Homonormativity is making yourself ugly. It’s antinatalism, it’s BDSM, it’s abortion, it’s ‘her body her choice’. All of these things are homonormative.
Why is anti-natalism homonormative? Because under heteronormativity, people reproduce the old fashioned way, but under homonormativity, people “reproduce” only by ideologically colonizing the children of hetero-normies. Why is BDSM homonormative? because it’s a sick pantomime of the natural authority of fathers as the heads of their families. It cheapens and mocks patriachy by fetishizing it, the same way drag queens cheapen and mock femininity by fetishizing it.
This clicked when I saw someone say love is acting to increase the beloved’s capacity for choice. Notice what this excludes: marriage and reproduction are acts of love that decrease the future optionality of your beloved. Love as choice-maximization is homonormativity. A much better definition of love is to protect people from their naive desires and lead them to the path of righteousness as you best understand it. Notice that my definition both contains and eclipses the emaciated view of love offered above.
Regardless of its character, personal growth is exclusively hormetic*: it comes about in response to trauma. Aside: the way you nurture someone is to hurt them in small ways while protecting them, keeping them in the hormetic zone. That’s partly how you know my proffered understanding of love is superior; the definition of love that fetishizes choice is a narrow, contracted spirituality. Love must be kind of binding, and freedom must be an unbinding.
The drive towards freedom is the drive towards the dissolution of all bonds of family, friendship, and state. In the emancipatory imagination, every constraint on freedom is a chain, an oppression, a grievance that prevents us from realizing our true potential. When you perceive implicit norms and learn to choose against them, it really does feel like you’ve torn some sacred veil, as if you’ve awakened to a higher level of consciousness. But often cases you’ve only kicked away something that was propping you up.
This resolves the paradox that, as much as leftists stress the importance of choice, they strongly object if you try to choose heteronormativity, cissexuality, et al, because to them, that isn’t actually a choice, that’s the wicked default option. Observe also how the mere existence of the freedom-as-overcoming-the-default limits your freedom, not only by stigmatizing the normal, but by demanding that even the ability to make a binding commitment is wicked.
“Overcoming the default” doesn’t understand the value of keeping a promise, because you can’t serve two masters. When choice is the highest morality, it cheapens all choices. The fetishization of choosing renders the content of any one choice meaningless. Choice-fetishizers claim “no one is stopping you from living how you want,” [although] if you want to live under a different norm, you can’t, because norms don’t exist at the level of an individual, they exist at the level of groups.
Your enemies want to tear down your idols and profane your gods. In both spiritual and physical war, this is always a goal. The reason I explain the ways that the left manufactures sanctity is to profane it. Sacred mysteries, like magic tricks, cease to impress when you understand how they work. Naming homonormativity – pointing out that it’s a norm – desacralizes it, and shows the hollowness of the act of choosing it.’
*Hormesis (wiki) is any process in a cell or organism that exhibits a biphasic response to exposure to increasing amounts of a substance or condition. Within the hormetic zone, there is generally a favorable biological response to low exposures to toxins and other stressors.