“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…”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.
-Jane Kramer, “Holy Orders” (The New Yorker, May 2, 2005
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?
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