Spheres and Lanes

In her introduction to the April issue of Comment magazine, Anne Snyder begins with a troubling description of how citizens in the US are overwhelmed by current events and the brokenness of the world, and exhausted by incessant demands to take part in the culture wars. We no longer trust institutions such as “the church, the government, journalism” which historically have motivated us to carry out a coherent moral witness. As a result we turn to posturing on social media because: “It feels safer and more efficient to post a message that declares where I stand than to do the messy, hidden work of repair.”

The problem is that this leads to even more exhaustion and disconnection: “We find ourselves floating in oceans where everything overwhelms and yet we feel accountable to little. We live day to day at constant risk of being caricatured for this or for that, all while no one seems to actually care what we do or how we do it.”

As a possible antidote to this problem, Snyder argues for “sphere sovereignty”:

The principle of sphere sovereignty suggests that we live in a vast array of social structures, each one endowed with distinct responsibilities, privileges, and authority. It’s premised on an all-encompassing created order, one that includes a variety of societal communities that pursue different goods with distinction: education, worship, agriculture, civil justice, economy and labour, marriage and family, artistic expression, and more. These societal communities, or spheres, respect one another’s boundaries; a purpose owned by one won’t be trespassed by another. And they are to complement and support one another, cross-pollinate and interact.

I think this is a really nice vision, except … I’m not exactly sure what it means. When I first read it, the example that came to my mind was of a small business doing its best to provide excellent service without having to publicly declare its stance on every social or political issue. Beyond that I was mystified. So I told myself I would think it over and revisit the essay again later, which, of course, in the bustle of life I failed to do.

Then last week I read an essay by Jonah Goldberg called “The Limits of Do-Goodery“, in which he addresses the same topic in different words and with a host of detailed, concrete examples. After a lengthy introduction about the realities of the current business landscape and certain contemporary philosophical influences, he asks:

Is it possible for a democratic market economy to function if every business and institution is spending a lot of its time and energy making sure it’s on the “right” side of every political and cultural controversy? A church that tries to be all things to all people ceases to be a church. A family that treats every stranger like they’re part of the family ceases to be a real family. The ACLU was supposed to be a jealous guardian of the First Amendment. It’s now on the verge of becoming an interest group for Stuff We Believe in at the Moment. It may work for fundraising and feeling good about workplace values, but it’s come at the cost of their moral and intellectual authority on their core issue. You know why so many people are pissed off at schools at every level? Because they seem more into pushing one fad or another than doing their jobs. No doubt that’s not true in every instance. But it’s more than true enough to validate the appearance problem.

Goldberg of course is not saying that institutions should never take a stance on some moral or political issue. Rather he’s more concerned that the drivers of any given stance are fleeting and superficial in nature, not least because of their dependence on the tumultuous waves of who shouts the loudest on social media:

I think it’s right that major institutions go out of their way not to seem—or be—bigoted. I have no problem with catering to the demands of a public that wants clean air and water or to curb the worst drivers of climate change. But such expectations are different from the new fads because they have deep philosophical and historical foundations. We also know they work at scale. The liberal concept—derived from Judaism and Christianity and tested by centuries of trial and error—of treating people with dignity works as a framework for how to run a society. Our new way of thinking, which grades people and institutions on an ad hoc political or cultural litmus test driven by the latest social media outrage, has no (desirable) historical analogue and cannot work at scale.

That last line is particularly haunting. The mob-like outcries which characterize social media are a far cry from “treating people with dignity”. More from Goldberg:

Barring some violation of the law or some truly grotesque violation of basic decency, it seems obvious to me that a healthy society depends on letting institutions and individuals stay in their lanes. Indeed, it seems obvious to me that a healthy society depends on expecting or even requiring institutions and individuals to stay in their lanes. Epidemiologists should have shut their yaps when activists and the media demanded dispensation to convene superspreader events for social justice. Or they should have stopped telling people to stop congregating in large numbers. But having a point-of-view test for when it’s okay to violate public health dogma was a disaster for their credibility. Doctors who think there’s nothing wrong with gender reassignment treatments for minors are free to make their arguments. But doctors who indulge or support such things against their own best medical judgment are literally traitors to their professional oaths.

He concludes with a tirade about the idea that shoplifting at supermarkets should be permissible for the poor due to the systemic injustice they experience. I think his analysis of the complexities here is especially provocative:

Supermarkets have a lane, and part of staying in that lane is keeping people from stealing their wares. To keep supermarkets from employing violence, we outsource much of the responsibility of policing shoplifting to, well, police. Harassing the CEOs of supermarket chains to prove they’re not “greedy” is asking them to sacrifice their core responsibilities—their role in the institution—for a faddish conception of the “greater good.” But that greater good is neither greater nor good. Telling the police to stop helping supermarkets for the greater good is actually a fundamental betrayal of not just the store owners and of poor people who don’t want to steal, but of the state’s most fundamental role.

Again, I’m no purist. We don’t have to send every shoplifter to jail or cut off their hands. Supermarkets should be praised for donating to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. But such decisions have to be at the margins, not at the core of what they do. A supermarket whose primary, non-negotiable purpose is giving free stuff to poor people stops being a supermarket and cannot sustainably exist as one. An oil company whose sole (and soul) purpose is providing “environmental benefits” sounds great, but it’s a nonsense concept. And a free society where every institution must prioritize whatever the crowd wants at a given moment cannot last as a free society.

With that said, I’ll go ahead and promote my usual plug for moving far, far away from social media.

2 thoughts on “Spheres and Lanes

  1. Snyder’s observations on “sphere sovereignty” overlap Robert Nisbet’s ideas about intermediary institutions that are necessary to protect the individual from the centralized state. Interesting.


    1. Oh cool, I believe I’ve heard or seen Nisbet’s name come up in other articles and books I’ve read, but I’ve not read any of his books. Thanks for the connection and for dropping by, Mike.


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