Things That are Absolute, Things That are Relative

I remember years ago, in my youth, conservatives and reactionaries condemning “moral relativism.” These guardians of public morality knew that some values were absolute. You didn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. You didn’t wear blue jeans to the Lord’s house for church services. Finally, you certainly didn’t compare the evils of marijuana with the effects of alcohol, because the former was illegal while the latter was legal, and there’s even a Constitutional Amendment saying so.

Now the Right seems to embrace factual relativism. There are no intellectual authorities any longer. Definitions are flexible and evolving. The person I believe trumps the person you believe, because my belief is sincere, and if I can find an expert who disagrees with the person you say is an expert, well, it’s a tie!

“Only” 97% of climate scientists are sure global warm is real is at least partially (and probably largely) caused by human activity. Thirty years ago, a scientific theory accepted by 97% of a scientific community was printed as fact. Now we find someone with a Ph.D. in something and cite them to offset your stack of Ph.D. geologists or MD pediatricians so we can “debate” global warming or the effectiveness of vaccines.

There’s a certain historic irony here. Trust and faith in authority eroded during the US war in Viet Nam. Successive administrations couldn’t admit failures, so some unpleasant facts where hidden in euphemisms, while others were simply lied about. We weren’t bombing Cambodia — except we were. We weren’t militarily active in Laos — except we were. It didn’t stop with the withdrawal from Viet Nam in 1975, either. We would never negotiate with rogue countries — unless negotiating with Iran and selling them weapons served some other purpose. We wouldn’t violate Congress’s very new laws about intervening in Latin American civil wars — unless we had some profits from those Iranian arms deals we can’t otherwise explain, so why not arm some Nicaraguan freedom fighters anyway?

Now, thirty or fifty years later, the conservatives are doubting authorities — academic and intellectual — based on not being able to trust political authorities all those years ago. “We lied to you then about fighting Communism, so you might be lying to us about… something you think is important!”

When Donald Drumpf repeatedly uses the word “torture,” it’s not because he was reaching for the word “suture” and got momentarily confused by his huuge, great, wonderful vocabulary. When he yearns for the old days, when protesters were dealt with harshly for their lack of manners and decorum, well, he’s not advocating violence, not that part of the old days — except, he is. I almost expect him to protest next, “But I didn’t mean to say that aloud!”

It’s really screwy when we doubt things we can prove but adhere rigidly to things that can’t be proven.


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