Years ago, unperceived by most, we entered the age of rant. We have learned to condemn dissenters in language steeped in nihilism and violence. Morality has become the equivalent of an assault rifle. We use it to silence forever those persons and opinions we find hateful – and there are so many, so many of the hateful. They should be shamed. They should be fired from their jobs. They should be prosecuted as criminals. They should be crucified.
On occasion, some lost soul takes this process to its logical conclusion, picks up a real rifle, and starts mowing down his version of the hateful.
I find this remarkable. Anyone who considers the rant and fury of our moment must find it remarkable – not because it is extreme, but because it seems to float on nothing. Each condemnation implies that a right or principle of good behavior has been violated. But our rights have been torn off their foundations, our principles lack first principles. God and Christianity are out of the question. Convention and tradition are precisely what is under attack. Reason, nature, science – each is a bone of contention, a battleground rather than a starting-point.
So we stand morally naked, ranting at others whom we find hateful because of their moral nakedness.
Consider a basic but nonpolitical question. Should I pursue pleasure as the highest good, to the ultimate extreme? To do so would subject every loyalty and relationship of mine to the test of that one principle: my pleasure. I’d be free to, say, have as much sex with as many women as I could, provided it’s pleasurable, and I’d be absolved from the duties of child-raising, because (as every parent knows) parenting is kind of a pain.
Many would object to this behavior – but on what principle? Puritanical? Conventional? Sociological? Humanitarian? Valid objections to a purely hedonistic life can be raised from each of these foundations. None is generally shared, however. None will persuade across the patchwork of moralistic war-bands that define contemporary life.
The moral reality is that many men today behave just as I have described, yet they are not the target of anyone’s rant. Nobody cares enough to want to shame them or to get them fired or arrested. When Hollywood makes sexual hedonism into a virtue, as it sometimes does, nobody calls for a boycott. Though we may disapprove, our opinions lack purchase and conviction. We have grown comfortable in a posture of outrage about many things, but sexual predilections are a big part of identity, and we are reluctant to draw boundaries.
In the age of rant, transgression appears in the guise of liberation, and liberation engenders feelings of moral outrage and unease.
At this point, the Fist-Nose-Peace argument usually makes an appearance. It goes something like this: “Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. Your right to pursue pleasure ends when you inflict pain. In sexual matters, you have no right to treat women as objects of your pleasure, because that’s hurtful. You have no right to rape. And please note: many are outraged, and make a loud noise against, those who objectify and rape.”
To which is added (often tacitly) the Peace corollary: “The spread of science and reason means that ever larger numbers now abstain from hurtful behavior. The human race has evolved inexorably toward humanitarianism. If you are selfish, abusive, or exploitive, you will be left behind by history.”
But this is Christianity without Jesus. Fraternal love and compassion are the prime virtues. It used to be that God so commanded – who commands it now? The law? But our law evolved from Christian doctrines. Cut off from these, we are, philosophically speaking, adrift. Our natural empathy? But we can train empathy to be highly selective in its objects, much like soldiers can be trained out of the horror of killing strangers.
Why should I care about your nose, or your hurt feelings? Here is our own riddle of the Sphinx, the question that lays bare our moral nakedness. It isn’t rhetorical. Ranters, so delicate about the feelings of those in their own camp, are vicious to those they consider hateful, with jail, rape, and murder part of their typical repertory of threats.
An appeal to rights only begs the question. Who or what has the authority to grant us rights? Some claim the right to change sexes, on the grounds of personal identity. The same persons are likely to deny the right to own guns, even if that is part of someone’s identity. So the claiming of rights has become little more than a weapon in the clash and push of enraged opinions.
As for the inevitable triumph of humanitarianism – that’s a pretext for limiting one’s engagement to the rant. Why risk a fight for the good, when everything is bound to turn out for the best? Yet this proposition, though it gestures vaguely toward science and reason, is grounded on nothing. Science is amoral. It gave us penicillin and the ovens at Buchenwald. Reason is an empty bucket – it needs reasons to act on. Empirical evidence is at best ambivalent on the inevitability of human kindness.
Hundreds of thousands of human beings, most of them helpless innocents, have been slaughtered during the last five years in the Syrian conflict. To wash our hands of them because they stand on the wrong side of history is an act of monstrous moral condescension and indifference unto death.
Given our nakedness, and the endless conflict, and the intensity of our mutual loathing, one would expect a frantic search on all sides for higher-level arguments to justify our opinions. One would expect a new golden age of moral inquiry and creative philosophy. Instead, every trace of curiosity and humility has been bludgeoned out of our public conversations. A police shooting might inspire a debate about the proper use of force by the authorities: instead, it becomes a shouting match between those enraged by attacks on law enforcement and those enraged by racist cops.
We seem to think we know – absolutely, universally. And so we rant at those hateful people who don’t get it.
Even Fist-Nose-Peace is less an argument than a background assumption, rarely articulated. We seem uninterested in arguments. That’s the remarkable bit: in all our shouting, we never look down to see that our dogmas have come unmoored, that we and they are floating in mid-air. We take for granted that our war-band’s slogans are absolutely valid principles, universally accepted. The very act of doubting, questioning, criticizing, will translate into betrayal and place us among the “deniers.”
We are terrified of doubt. We don’t care to persuade, because that requires a space that is open to hurtful possibilities. So rather than convert the infidel, we prefer to scream threats at him, in the hope that someone will implement them. For me, this gives the game away.
If the why or what or how of the ideology we embrace holds no interest, then we must be fixated on the who. The age of rant isn’t about moral conflict or disputation. It’s about the will to power. We don’t argue, any more than Nietzsche’s Artist-Tyrant would. We decide. But even then our tyranny is flabby – cowardly. Our pitch is high-decibel, our tone is absolute, our condemnations are fevered and violent, but except for the occasional crazed shooter our actions are always virtual.
We are not a population of Madame Defarges, knitting by the guillotine. That would be too real. In the perfect world of each moralistic war-band, some impersonal agent, preferably the government, would criminalize the views and activities of hostile groups, as purveyors of hatred. Those who belonged to such groups would be publicly shamed and re-educated. If they resisted, they would be harassed at every step of their lives.
And maybe, in a far corner of the city square, out of everyone’s sight, a single guillotine might be erected, for symbolic purposes, to encourage the others.
I don’t have the power to change the spirit of the times. Nobody does. Sanity, if it ever returns, will arrive one newly-blossomed mind at a time.
Nor do I wish to rant about ranters – that would deliver me body and soul to the zeitgeist. Perdition lies that way.
But I can make choices. All of us can. At every turn I choose what binds over what splinters. I offer my feeble endorsement to Major League Baseball and Pokemon Go, because in our games we seem to be at our best and least contorted. I treat politicians with respect whose policies horrify me, because they represent the electorate. I despise Black Lives Matter and alt-conservatives with equal measures of contempt, because both tear at the open wound of separation and human distance.
No community can survive with members self-exiled to distant islands of identity. I choose to consider people under the largest common denominator: not whiteness or blackness, not richness or poorness, not maleness or femaleness, not straightness or gayness, not any of the now-mandatory shards of human spirit, but as part of a single gathering, of the same moral community. And so I choose the only morality all of us can possibly share: that given by our history and our traditions.
Call it conventional morality. Or call it vulgar, as I do on this blog. Anyone can appeal to it, because we share in common the sources and the ideals and the phrases: “do unto others,” “created equal,” “pursuit of happiness.” Yes, it exalts kindness and compassion – but also courage and strength of character. It demands equality of moral standing but applauds superiority earned by excellence and honest work.
The appeal to conventional morality commits me to making arguments. That’s how the tradition works. I must respect advocates of hostile opinions enough to offer persuasive reasons to change them. To my surprise, I have chosen to do this too. I have posted 683 times on this blog – each post is a kind of argument, an attempt to stitch a threadbare cover to our nakedness. Have I changed even a single mind? I have no idea – possibly not. But I can only choose to try.
Ultimately, I choose to valuate individuals according to moral worth: kind or unkind, good or bad, strong or weak. Beyond this framework, I have very little interest in their identities.
And in the Hobbesian war of all against all in which we are presently engaged, I choose to be a conscientious objector.