I have written in the past about how most of politics is metaphor. We don’t actually know what we want, but we have gut feelings, so we attach to a political outlook.
What we’re seeing the West now, if we drill down into the metaphor, is not a political conflict — it’s a philosophical conflict between those who want “moral relativism” and those who want a moral standard.
While our tendency is to see politics as a prescription we write for others, its origin is in what we want for ourselves. These two philosophies are both simple, and both radically different:
|Moral Relativism||Moral Standard|
|Synopsis: The genesis of this philosophy is the idea that we’re all OK just as we are. Think of Mr. Rogers here, but applied to adults. We do not need to adapt to reality, and we don’t need a standard in common. We do need to tolerate each other no matter how whacked out we want to be. In fact, we should find underdogs, outcasts and outsiders and use them as examples, because if we tolerate the extremes, the rest of us are doing just fine in the middle.||Synopsis: Most people associate moral standards with ideas of inherency like the divine right of kings, a religious mandate, or tribal cultural traditions. However, at its core all it means is that a society is organized around a consensus. Some will call this values, others traditions, still others “culture”; post-modernists will call it a social narrative. People of this bent want a single standard and the ability to be judged by how well they succeed or fail in achieving it. While failure would be bad, success is easily recognizable in ways other than the material (wealth, popularity).|
|Related ideas: Decentralization, anarchy, socialism, tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism, “nurture” rather than “nature,” acceptance, viewing perpetrators as victims, lack of unifying religion or ideology to society.||Related ideas: Central authority, Social Darwinism/capitalism, decentralized strong central authority of values (religion, culture), hierarchy, “nature” rather than “nurture,” self-discipline, willpower, moral Darwinism in which perpetrators are viewed as morally defective.|
|Upsides: You are always tolerated and cannot get thrown out.||Upsides: If you follow the plan, you will be rewarded, and there will be stability.|
|Downsides: lack of a common standard means no reward for good acts that do not materially or socially benefit you, and there’s a tendency toward social chaos.||Downsides: if you’re not with the plan, you don’t get rewarded. If you’re against the plan, you will be encouraged to leave. Not very dramatic or exciting; in fact, these societies while low-neurosis also make terrible drama and often placidly beautiful art.||Historical context: This tends to be an end-stage of civilizations because at some point, lack of a common standard endangers the life-process of the society, including business. The result is to call in a strong leader (Putin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini) who knows his life is forfeit if he doesn’t establish a paranoid authoritarian state.||Historical context: Civilizations of this type tend to be younger, less jaded and more prone to radical advances in thought, although less in technology and art. As a result, few people notice their golden ages while they are occurring.|
Our entire world is at a decision point right now.
On one side is the “Mr. Rogers” option: everyone is OK just how they are. Thanks to our technology, or rather — to be honest — our sudden influx of energy wealth from fossil fuels, we can achieve this or at least fake it for a few centuries. Almost all modern societies go down this path, and all of those tell us they are “progressive” and “enlightened” for doing so.
On the other are traditionalists ranging from American conservatives, tribal peoples like the Maori defending their traditional ways, religious people, scientific futurists, eugenicists, and jihadis. They view the “enlightened” modern time as a chaotic burning-off of excess energy, and see that despite how it panders to the individual, it enslaves the individual to the lowest common denominator of commerce and popularity because a higher central standard has not been set.
A writer with a familiar yet unrelated name expands on this in his recent column “Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace”: what if we take the jihadists at their word, and realize that their opposition is not to political states like Israel and the USA, but the modern culture that such states bring? We claim they want a theocracy. What they really want is much simpler: a social standard.
If we look at the Tea Party, what we see is a lot of blather about socialism, and resistance to a wealth transfer from the suburban middle class to the urban poor and urban artisans. What’s really eating at them is the idea that their way of life would be destroyed: these people have succeeded by setting standards, getting people to work according to them, and rewarding those who exceed the norm. That’s how they run their businesses and train their kids. They’ve been tolerant of diversity, leftists among them, and even a fairly leftist government as long as it has left them alone to raise families as they see fit. Now they’re seeing a culture that’s the opposite of their own swallowing them up, and in the process, taking the extra money they’ve labored for to do a better job of taking care of their families.
It all goes back to Mr. Rogers. His message to us was “You’re OK just as you are.” If he’d been thinking a little farther ahead, his message might have been the more complex but more applicable “Figure out how your world works, do the right thing, and it will treat you well.” But that message does not appeal to everyone, especially not those who are unsure of their ability to figure out the world or do well. It’s not inclusive like the moral relativism which is defined by the exceptions and outsiders, underdogs and other cases to be pitied.
What’s troubling about social standards is that they are not lowest common denominator, where the outsider and exception defines the rule, but they tend to be conservative, where the norm defines the rule. Even more, by the nature of picking positive values that people strive toward, they tend to be idealistic: honor, fidelity, love, chastity, self-discipline, even asceticism and loyalty.
This is why when dissolute celebrities have made their money from showing us the worst of their behavior, they start trying to climb to a higher level in society, and as a result are more conservative toward their children.
Interestingly, we have a new twist on moral standards in this day and age. We have deposed the kings, and for the most part dropped religion from social discourse. This means that any ideal we derive must come from science or popularity. But people are starting to repeat a simple mantra about conservative values: they aren’t inherent, but they do work the best. If you want to raise your kids to be good people, and also competent people, you raise them in a traditional two-parent home with the idea of moral standards in everything you do. And that’s the divide that America and the world will face together as we try to decide our future.