Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Absolutely Relative


“In his homily to his fellow-cardinals, on the first morning of their conclave, Cardinal Ratzinger had warned that modern society was threatened by a 'dictatorship of relativism.' But it might have been more accurate to say that it is threatened by a dictatorship of absolutisms, including his own. This is a world in the tightening grip of orthodoxy, of literal ‘truths’ and crusading certainties…”
-Jane Kramer, “Holy Orders” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2005
Though Kramer turns a nice phrase in her Talk of the Town piece, her conclusions are too neat. While it's true that the Bush administration is comprised of a veritable Who’s Who of moral absolutists and that the conservative evangelical crusade embraces relative absolutism (i.e., the execution of criminals is morally sanctioned, whereas the abortion of unwanted babies is not), the western world at large is dominated by relativism, not absolutism.

Post-modern thought, the dominant intellectual force in our time, is grounded in relativism. Relativism, of course, can be a very positive thing, allowing for empathy and more complex analysis. As Jean-Paul Sartre argued, relativism grants an individual the moral perspective needed to pass judgment fairly.

Unfortunately, relativism has a dark side, too. Although it's good that a majority of today's youth is more willing than their parents to acknowledge complexity, their doing so often results in feelings of insignificance, even irrelevancy. These feelings engender apathy. How much easier is it to play video games than to design them? Moreover, how much easier is it to design video games than to face the challenging questions of the day? Celebrity and wealth are considered prerequisites for relevance; both are hard to come by, so why should we give a shit? Why shouldn’t we put all our stock into American Idol tryouts and the spread of corporate capital? Such questions are ultimately unanswerable if examined through a post-modern lens.

Apathy outfits the populace with blinders. A woeful lack of popular engagement in politics means that politicians have an easier time passing suspect legislation, legislation that drains the disenfranchised of their funds, opportunities and real estate. Compounding matters, the marketing machine has an easier time selling snake oil, stripping bare the already shallow pockets of the majority. It's a familiar scenario; our political and financial systems continue to bleed those who don’t care to involve themselves. Of late, the bleeding has become a hemorrhage.

I’m simplifying the equation; there are a great many variables that should be considered. Yet I can not disagree with Pope Benedict XVI. Modern society is in danger of becoming feudal and “the dictatorship of relativism” has much blood on its hands. So what is to be done? Can we marry some degree of absolutism with relativism?

Photo credit: uncredited

4 comments:

Mikhail Capone said...

However we see it at present time, the world was always and will always be complex.

The best way to deal with that complexity for us humans is to be formed to deal with it. Education (and I'm not only talking about schools) is the best tool.

We have so many ways to reach people and to teach them things - books, television, radio, parents, video games, cultural events, etc - but we don't use them anywhere near to their full potential. Who profits from this? The elites. The haves and the haves more. The same people who control the mass media and the governments.

Devo said...

Another thing, Mikhail, is that I believe that the "have mores" as you put it, have more access to fully utilizing these media outlets. Therefore, they're able to more efficiently and effectively manipulate public understanding, and guide public opinion. The more money they make, the more money they're ABLE to make. It's a self-perpeutating thing, unfortunately.

As for education, I absolutely agree. But I'd add a stipulation. There's a necessity for DIVERSE education. Lotsa people need to leearn about lotsa things from lotsa people. That way, the intellectual landscape remains huge and open, rather than narrow and stale. Unfortunately (again with that damn word) I feel that in our day and age, not only is the intellectual landscape contracting, but public desire to keep it wide and diverse is evaporating at a salt-flats pace. That spells danger for free thought and probably freedom itself...

Mikhail Capone said...

Exactly. Education as we understand it is far from what education *could* be.

Right now, our schools are basically that thing that we thought up when we needed to rapidly convert a rural population to the needs of the industrialized urban world. Our schools are almost factories themselves...

Hungry Hyaena said...

Ditto, ditto, ditto...

It's distressing ideas like these that make me turn to MVP Baseball 2005. Great game....I've got a Franchise going with the Cubs. I worked a few trades to get Johnny Damon and Scott Podsednik. An outfield this fast means few balls fall safely and lotsa wins.

Now, I'll go check my Yahoo Fantasy Baseball standings and see how my other imaginary baseball team is doing.

I'm a little hypocrite, not so short or stout,
tip me over and pour the rants out.

Little loopy this evening... I agree with what you both write. Unfortunately, I overdosed on negative news and thought today; now I've turned to the same culture of distraction that I usually condemn. But, hey, I can't be a good citizen all the time.