My, we live in interesting times.
After a previous century of constant change at blistering speed, we are showing no signs of slowing down in the twenty-first. And foundational, disruptive change is fast becoming the status quo.
Ending a hiatus of more than 50 years, the American flag again flies over the US embassy in Cuba. Racial tensions have erupted into a kind of violence we all hoped we wouldn’t see again. The EPA polluted a river, the very existence of gender identity is up for debate, and people are taking Donald Trump seriously. Bill Cosby looks nothing like Dr. Cliff Huxtable these days, China is crawling with Evangelicals, and people who have zero tolerance for bullying are bullying people in the name of tolerance.
In an environment of growing opposition to the death penalty for convicted murderers, to some it makes perfect sense to threaten hunters (especially women) with death, even calling for Cecil the Lion’s killer to be hanged. Some of the same people who support legal access to abortion to allow for women’s choices excoriate people for choosing not to provide services at a gay marriage ceremony because their own moral conscience tells them they can’t participate.
What’s going on?
Welcome to the inevitable fruition of moral relativism.
Recent events like the killing of Cecil and the strong and mixed reactions to the Planned Parenthood videos reveal the impracticality of building a society on moral relativism. In a society that has preached “always tolerance” to a degree where we have actually changed the popular definition of tolerance, it has become comically obvious (for those courageous enough to notice) that this philosophy does not work. Those who regularly cry, “Don’t force your morality on me” are forcing their morality on others with astonishing regularity and sometimes shocking callousness. And perhaps the worst part is that many people–particularly younger adults–can’t even see what they’re doing. It’s ironic when moral relativists appeal to a collective sense of morality they thought they had rejected.
It turns out human beings are great believers in absolutism. While we might like to define it for ourselves, we all believe in absolute truth. We are willing to fight for what we believe. And we are very quick to believe others would benefit from seeing things the same way we do. There’s a reason we ask, “What were you thinking?” when we don’t understand another person’s behavior. Our thoughts give birth to actions and our hearts are the source of our choices. And in this day of unprecedented social freedom, it’s easy to see the fruit of what people believe and think. In this day when all points of view and belief systems are supposed to be equally valid, it’s easy to see the limits of tolerance.
At some point we all decide what we will not tolerate, and many of the social conflicts we see are indicators of what happens when those boundaries are crossed. Without a common and widely held set of moral and philosophical truths on which to base our arguments with one another, appeals to collective morality are replaced by bursts of outrage and enraged dismissal of the people with whom we disagree (usually without full acknowledgment of the moral absolutes we are defending). We don’t share a language we can use for reasonable discourse.
Our culture war is not about culture, but about clashes in fundamental worldview. Like it or not, opposing worldviews cannot simply coexist unless they are neutered into nothing, and we are now witnessing a fight for dominance. We can preach tolerance and understanding, but unless we admit that we all embrace moral absolutes, and some of these absolutes are incompatible, we will continue at cross-purposes, with growing polarization, appealing to others out of a sense of morality and truth that they do not share. And when it comes to a foundation for human society, this simply is not sustainable. People do not and will not agree–and a relativism that demands everyone agree…well, that’s absolutely ridiculous.
Throughout history, in all societies, various views have co-existed. Disagreements and dissent are not new, nor is pluralism (nor tolerance, for that matter). But in every society one basic worldview has always been dominant (and in the best societies, dissenting views have been generously tolerated but not widely embraced). That’s really the only way society can function on a large scale; most of the people have to agree on some basic absolutes.
What we are seeing now is a battle for dominance in philosophy, not merely a healthy kind of disagreement over things that do not matter at the end of the day. We are not building a tolerant utopia where all views are equally valid and we can simply coexist. That just isn’t possible.
Where will this conflict lead us? I don’t know, but at this point it’s easy to see who is gaining dominance–and unfortunately moral relativists are looking like some of the least tolerant among us. For those of us who embrace a worldview that openly claims a basis in absolute truth, it’s critical that we recognize that our conflicts with others are not happening on the surface. They’re not really about politics or issues. They’re about core beliefs; they’re about clashing absolutes. Our conversations need to start with unearthing the philosophies that inform our disagreements. We have to spend more time listening, and we have to be willing to explain where we’re coming from. Our common ground is false if we don’t acknowledge what people’s hearts and minds are holding most dear. We can spend all week making ourselves look as attractive as possible, and it won’t matter at all if the people around us don’t even speak the same philosophical language. Perhaps more than ever, we must understand our own beliefs and communicate them with love and liberal listening.
Here’s another thing: For those of us whose views are increasingly unpopular, it’s important that we grow more comfortable with being hated. When truth is on the line, the choice is clear, but it’s never easy. Fortunately we have a model to follow. As Jesus told his closest friends, “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first” (John 15:18).
© 2015 Amy Simpson.