This is a series on the erosion of moral, cultural, and ethical boundaries in modern society:
♦ Part 1 — Moving the Ancient Boundaries
Do not move the ancient boundary stone set up
by your forefathers.
— Proverbs 22:28 —
The societal trend evident today — the gradual and progressive shift from spirituality and faith-based life principles, to scientific secular rationalism, and ultimately to postmodernism, which is the triumph of tribalism, radical individualism, and emotionalism over faith and reason — has many manifestations. The frantic pace of a society filled with countless pressures and endless distractions permits us at best to focus only on the immediate details of our lives — jobs, children, hobbies and activities. Rarely do we take the time to stand back from our culture and society at large to contemplate the profound changes taking place around us. We wake up one day wondering how things have changed so profoundly, with a sense of discomfort over where we are and confusion about where we they are headed.
As our society drifts away from core principles and absolutes established by faith, culture, and tradition, it has done so in a manner which is subtle, yet highly effective. Many of the ways in which this cultural shift has taken place are ancient; many more are a function of a technologically advanced and media-saturated environment. The underlying forces which erode the safeguards which have protected and stabilized society for centuries are not new; they are, however, more rapid and effective in a culture distracted by material wealth, information saturation, and instant gratification.
This erosion of ancient mores and societal restraints is not some grand conspiracy, some conscious secular crusade to destroy moral values, absolutes, and the pillars of tradition. The forces which batter and belittle absolutes, right and wrong, and the moral law are the inevitable outcome of man detached from divine transcendence. Man of necessity and nature must worship something — which is to say, he must serve, honor, or follow some principles or philosophy of life. While many entities vie for the allegiance and service of man, in its most fundamental sense man must submit either the transcendent Other outside of, and higher than, himself — or submit only to his own inner compass, which spins ever aimlessly, seeking a non-existent true north.
The secular mentality has made its choice — albeit in increments almost imperceptibly tiny — to place as its highest value human intellect and human self-interest. The god of modern man is man himself, in all his intellectual glory, hubris, and narcissism. The vast advances in science and knowledge have made a transcendent God disposable and dispensable — scientifically unprovable, but a figment and quaint creation of a more ignorant, superstitious age. Man now possesses, in his own mind, the intellectual capability and tools to shape the world as he wishes. As such, all restraints become restrictions, all laws become limitations to human potential. We reason that the ancient boundaries must fall, for they are barriers to human progress. Ignorance has replaced evil at the heart of human failure and shortcomings — and hence pursuit of knowledge has replaced the precepts of absolutes and the guidance and wisdom of generations preceding us, as the sole standard for human behavior and progress.
There are no clearcut guidelines or instruction manuals for corroding the culture from within. So, being of a civic frame of mind, it occurred to me that I might write one — or something akin to one, a Screwtape Letters for a screwed-up culture, if you will (with apologies to C.S. Lewis, of course). So here are some of the many ways which you might follow if you wish to move the ancient boundaries, to chip away at absolutes, principles, and tradition in order to create a new utopia grounded in narcissism and libertinism:
♦ Find a Rebel
If you want to push the boundaries, to challenge the status quo, to make tradition and principles seem outdated and restrictive, then you should find yourselves a rebel. Not any rebel, mind you — but a very talented one. It is important that the rebel have broad appeal, be it in the area of physical beauty, wealth, musical talent, artistic skill, or comedy. Find a movie star, a talented actor or actress — and you have a perfect platform, the silver screen, from which to promote a hedonistic lifestyle, the glories of unlimited wealth, or the fanciful and exotic religious or cultic interest.
Your star need not be particularly intelligent, as long as they are beautiful, talented, and wealthy. This way, they gain vast exposure in film and media, and you will be allowed only to focus on the benefits of their life choices, while ignoring the consequences. New wife every few months? No problem, they are simply seeking happiness and personal satisfaction. Having children outside of a stable marriage — or outside of marriage altogether? Be sure to emphasize how enchanted they are by their new baby, how the child will have every advantage in life (except, of course, a stable home, discipline, and time with the parents who are too busy jet-setting around the world). Sexual promiscuity? Well, what the world needs now, is love, sweet love.
One need not be one of the beautiful people to be a successful rebel. The comedic genius of Lenny Bruce was immense — but entirely focused on the goal of normalizing profanity, pushing the boundaries of sexual language and profanity, and hatred of religion, especially Christianity. Of course, by pushing the limits society is prodded to respond — and by doing so creates a martyr. Repeatedly arrested for profanity and coarse language in public, Bruce was glorified by those who wanted no restriction on such speech and therefore bemoaned his “persecution” by authorities and a Puritanical culture. When he killed himself with alcohol and drugs, the fruition of a pointless life, he was enthroned as an idol by “free speech” proponents everywhere — and remains so even today.
Like the arts and media, music is another excellent medium in which to find a rebel: rock music in particular draws them like bugs to a light bulb. Combine musical talent with a message of sexual license, drugs, violence, or rebellion, and you have an excellent vehicle for pounding your message home through iPod ear buds. And the rebel–musical or otherwise–need not suffer any real persecution or hardship to ennoble their righteous rebellion: Michael Stipe of R.E.M. can sing of America as under occupation or call for revolution while making millions, living in grand mansions, and flying on private jets. Some revolutionary, some “occupation,” this. Yet his musical talent, and that of others like him, drives the message home methodically through clever musical hooks, complex rhythms, power chords and witty lyrics.
The key attraction of the rebel is their embodiment of the idea that all authority is a restriction of human freedom. By tying a visually appealing lifestyle, physical beauty, or artistic talent with the “freedom” which comes from rejecting the restraints requisite for a civil and peaceful society, narcissism and individualism are thereby elevated above the self-sacrifice, responsibility, and the restraint which a healthy relational community requires.
♦ Make Ample Use of Victims
Our natural empathy as human beings can be used as a powerful tool for breaking down societal restraints, traditions and moral principles. The key is to play on people’s fears while you manipulate their compassion, always offering a simplistic solution to a difficult problem.
First, you must find a case which best exemplifies the need to move the boundary. Norma McCorvey, a poor, single Texas woman who claimed to have been gang-raped (a claim she later repudiated), and who could not afford an illegal abortion, served as the catalyst for Roe v. Wade decision. Euthanasia proponents will always put forth the terminal cancer patient in intractable pain, or the end-stage ALS patient, presenting assisted suicide or euthanasia as the compassionate solution, driven home by showing heart-breaking pictures of their slow, agonizing demise. Parenteral notification laws for minors seeking abortions must be opposed because “not all teens come from perfect families,” and because they “put teens’ health and rights at risk” — thereby making the underage teen a victim if she is not allowed to abort her pregnancy without her parents’ knowledge. If you wish to blur the distinction between good and evil be sure to point out how the perpetrator of some horrible crime was abused as a child. How many times have we heard that the root cause of crime is poverty? Poor people should take great offense at such shallow and baseless accusations.
The anecdotal victim you have chosen must then be generalized to the whole, always couched in terms of “freedom” and “rights”: the woman must be free to choose; the suffering have a right to end their lives as they wish; children must be free to have abortions lest their parents abuse and beat them. All who oppose such changes must be portrayed as intolerant, hateful, uncaring, or religious fanatics, caricatured in simplistic slogans: “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries;” “Hate is not a family value;” “Equal rights are not special rights.”
The answers proposed to resolve the victim’s “oppression” invariably invoke a false dichotomy: we must provide condoms in schools or face teenage pregnancy; abortion must be legal and easily available or coat hangers will be back in fashion, killing untold thousands; euthanasia must be legal or everyone will die in agony, without dignity, hooked up to machines. Legitimate alternatives to these solutions must be dismissed, ridiculed, or ignored, or treated as heartless and hateful: discouraging teenage sexual promiscuity is impossible; unwed mothers must never be criticized for lifestyle choices which condemn them and their children to a life of poverty and privation; preventing the suicide of the suffering is cruel and heartless; compassion and support for the dying is an unreasonable “burden.”
If you cannot find a suitable victim, then you must create one — or better yet, invent a whole class of victims. This is most easily done through the use of statistics or “facts” — which can be pure fabrication, becoming true only by virtue of their repetition. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a founder of the pro-choice N.A.R.A.L. organization, in his eye-opening book Aborting America (p.193), tells of the origin of the oft-cited figure of 5,000-10,000 annual abortion-related deaths prior to its legalization:
How many deaths were we talking about when abortion was illegal? In N.A.R.A.L., we generally emphasized the drama of the individual case, not the mass statistics, but when we spoke of the latter it was always “5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year.” I confess that I knew the figures were totally false … But in the “morality” of our revolution, it was a useful figure, widely accepted, so why go out of our way to correct it with honest statistics? … In the last year before the Blackmun era [Roe v. Wade] began, in 1972, the total [abortion-related fatalities] was only 39 deaths.
Ahh, the beauty of postmodernism: when there are no absolutes, “truth” can be molded like putty into any desirable shape or form, in order to serve the higher good of removing restrictions to desired behavior. Therefore, abortion must be legalized, not for its real utility in mitigating the consequences of licentious sexual activity, but rather to prevent the “cruel, unnecessary deaths of 10,000 women a year.” The tables have been turned: those who oppose abortion now become guilty of the slaughter of the innocents, while those who support it are protecting the true victims: 10,00 mythical murdered mothers, coat hangers clutched in their cold, dead hands.
These are but two of the many means which push back the boundaries of societal mores and ethics, substituting relativism and individualism for the integrity of solid boundaries based on absolutes, ethical consensus, and moral values which are transcendent rather than transient.
There are many more, to be explored in days forthcoming, as the series continues.
6 thoughts on “Moving the Ancient Boundaries – II”
I have a couple of disagreements.
First, at the bottom of your system, there is in fact a conspiracy. Of course, that conspiracy is long dead. But its ideas live on. Ideas seem to live on longer than the authors and promoters.
Here is a list of ideas which were actively created and promoted by the KGB through the life of the Soviet Union (in order to weaken the west):
* There is no truth, only competing agendas.
* All Western (and especially American) claims to moral superiority over Communism/Fascism/Islam are vitiated by the Westâ€™s history of racism and colonialism.
* There are no objective standards by which we may judge one culture to be better than another. Anyone who claims that there are such standards is an evil oppressor.
* The prosperity of the West is built on ruthless exploitation of the Third World; therefore Westerners actually deserve to be impoverished and miserable.
* Crime is the fault of society, not the individual criminal. Poor criminals are entitled to what they take. Submitting to criminal predation is more virtuous than resisting it.
* The poor are victims. Criminals are victims. And only victims are virtuous. Therefore only the poor and criminals are virtuous. (Rich people can borrow some virtue by identifying with poor people and criminals.)
* For a virtuous person, violence and war are never justified. It is always better to be a victim than to fight, or even to defend oneself. But â€˜oppressedâ€™ people are allowed to use violence anyway; they are merely reflecting the evil of their oppressors.
* When confronted with terror, the only moral course for a Westerner is to apologize for past sins, understand the terroristâ€™s point of view, and make concessions.
I would claim that at least some of these principles were precursors to the principles/problems you state. Or in other words, the real source of the malaise you site is Nilihism, not Hedonism.
Secondly, it seems to me that your concerns are receeding, not expanding. Cultural trends tend to flow from the bottom of the society to the top. Therefor, what you currently see from the elites of America, represents the bottom of society 30 years ago. What will you find 30 years from now. I kind of think the trend is positive. But we won’t know for a long time.
This may be a good time to link the Postmodernism Essay Generator, one of my favorite sites. With a single keystroke one can produce an erudite-sounding essay, replete with footnotes and references, that is entirely without meaning. I was initially impressed with postmodernism because it seemed so….smart. So subtle. So nuanced. It was a great relief to discover that I was not the only one who saw the trend for what it is, a transparently false excuse to get away with anything. It is the
philosophicalrhetorical equivalent to a perpetual motion machine.
Thanks, Hoots — great site!
I decided, about a year ago, to be fair to our postmodernist friends, and picked up some of the most highly recommended books on postmodernism. Reading them was one of the most painful exercises I have had in many an age. They have created their own language which serves only to obscure the simple fact that their core philosophy was utterly empty, nihilistic, and illogical. One had to work very hard to learn that they had absolutely nothing to say.
And Jim, I appreciate those points, but still see no conspiracy. The KGB’s insightful plan of attack on the West was a logical outgrowth of their secular materialistic humanism, and the desire to achieve dominance politically. Little did they know the West was well on its way to undermining itself — and the irony is that the West is now rapidly espousing the same values which proved fatal to Communism. And I see little difference between hedonism and nihilism — two facets of the same stone, IMO.
The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.
The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.
Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.
Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.
Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.
If there are no gaps there is no emotion.
Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.
When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.
There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.
People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.
Man becomes machine.
A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.
A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.
A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.
FAST VISUALS /WORDS MAKE SLOW EMOTIONS EXTINCT.
SCIENTIFIC /INDUSTRIAL /FINANCIAL THINKING DESTROYS EMOTIONAL CIRCUITS.
A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY CANNOT FEEL PAIN / REMORSE / EMPATHY.
A FAST (LARGE) SOCIETY WILL ALWAYS BE CRUEL TO ANIMALS/ TREES/ AIR/ WATER/ LAND AND TO ITSELF.
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My introduction to post-modernism came in a graduate class utilizing post-modern British literature. Many of us struggled to find value in some of the pieces assigned to us. We finally read one play in which I absolutely could find not a shred of socially-redeeming value; quite to the contrary, it reflected Man’s inhumanity to anything more vulnerable than oneself, to the extent that two “men” amused themselves by throwing lit cigarettes onto an infant in a carriage, finally setting the thing on fire and killing the baby outright. I had enough of post-modernism in that semester to last me more than one lifetime . . . and, yet, we’re living in it. Come, Lord Jesus!
An important piece. I especially liked the “find a rebel” concept.
Two points: a big part of this process is the commodification of everything, abetted by merchandising. The ChÃ© Guevara T-shirt is an emblem of this. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Can we say that if everything is defined by price, nothing has intrinsic value?
Second, although I’m old enough to believe everything is going to Hell in a handbasket, really I’m not certain things are worse today, just bad in a different way. Go back in history in 50-year jumps and you’ll see what I mean: 1950–segregation and conformism; 1900–child labor and the ostentation of moguls; 1850–slavery and mass drunkenness. . . etc. etc. and so forth. Ours is not the first generation to live in a fallen world.
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