Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why We Should Not Get With The Times, or Why Platitudinous Discussions Suck, Part 1

A platitude is defined as:

"a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful"

As the definition indicates, platitudes are statements that, though the vice of sheer thoughtless, inconsiderate repetition, are devoid of any real meaning; their power comes not through the bold proclamation of the truth, but through the soft oppressiveness of their reiteration.

I believe most of our society's moral dialogue takes place through the meaningless and incessant exchange of platitudes.  Rather than crafting intelligent and respectable arguments to examine and explain a moral stance, and thus bring the conversation before the seat of logic for adjudication, the social norm is to craft witty one-liners full of poetic charm and simplistic brevity, which brings the conversation out of any discernible logic and into the intellectual equivalent of a bar fight, to where there is no adjudication and the winner is the one who resists the urge to break down in a tantrum of spouting off slippery-slope scenarios and analogous comparisons to Hitler.

As such, I have come to hate the moral platitude. Statements like "A person is a person, no matter how small" and "Its my body, I can do what I want to" have hijacked a massively crucial moral debate and turned it into the battle of the bumper sticker slogans, while chants like "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and "Marriage equality for all" rob us of having a deeper conversation about what marriage really is.  I truly believe our society deserves a better way to have a moral conversation.  As such, I want to take the chance to examine and dismantle moral platitudes; I want to knock them off their pedestals and dissect them for examination.  I hope that, by shattering these slogans of stupidity and battering these bastions of banality, we can all come to appreciate a better way to engage in moral discussion.

The platitude I want to undo in this post is a classic: "Get with the times". I hate this saying primarily because it is a cop-out, an outlet, a negligent dismissal that suffocates moral conversation before it can ever get off the ground.  Like most platitudes, this one is often a poorly disguised excuse for an unwillingness to think.

More often than not, the line "Get with the times" is invoked when a position is proposed that is unpopular or "old-fashioned".  For example, should a person suggest that women ought to aspire to lead domestic lives rather than professional lives, that person ought to be prepared to hear someone else telling them to "get with the times".  Or when someone proposes the use of incense and organ in Catholic Liturgy rather than liturgical dance and a jazz ensemble, they shouldn't be surprised to be told to "Get with the times."  The foundational premise behind this statement is that the opponent's position is not with the times, and it should work to become more with the times.  But here is the big problem:  What, on God's green earth, does it mean to be "with the times"?

The simple answer to this question is this: to be "with the times" is to reflect within your beliefs, practices, prerogatives, etc. that which is the contemporary norm for those beliefs, practices, prerogatives, etc.  But this complicates things, because it assumes that the contemporary norm is what is supposed to shape people's thoughts and practices, instead of the other way around.  It becomes a "chicken or the egg" paradox, in which we ask whether the contemporary norm shapes individuals, or whether individuals shape contemporary norms?  If the former option is true, then there should never be any change in the norm, meaning "the times" are static, and "getting with the times" is merely conforming to a static norm.  However, if the latter of the two options is true, then we really can't say we ought to "get with the times," as any proposal could facilitate a necessary shift in the norm.  In either scenario, we see its hard to really support a claim that the norms of "the times" are a truthful measure of a position.

"But Joe!" cries a prophet of the modern mentality, "what about progress?!"  Ah yes, I suppose I would not be speaking fairly if I did not address progress, because the virtually unanimous approach to bypassing the weird "chicken vs. egg" scenario described above is by clinging to the notion that society progresses.  Now, what is typically meant when we mean progress?  If we examine how we've learned history and anthropology, we quickly see divide the history of our species by the complexity of our technology and we divide our civilization base on the complexity of our socio-economic structures.  Hence, we have time periods like the "Stone Age", the "Bronze Age" and the "Iron Age", as well as categorizations for society such as "Hunter-Gatherer", "Agrarian", "Industrial", and "Post-Industrial".  We like to describe ourselves and our history by marking achievements of technological and social achievement.  And, for the most part, there's really nothing wrong with this.  Humans have achieved a substantial amount in our relatively brief history. However, there is a dangerous temptation in reveling in our prestige: Perfectionism.

Now, this is not psychological perfectionism ("I'm going to clean this house until it sparkles!"), but philosophical.  Don't confuse the two.  When I say perfectionism, I mean this: the belief that human effort alone has, can, and will advance the essence of humanity towards a state of greater perfection.  Its the idea that our achievements mark a substantial change in humanity.  This idea is a sort of philosophical analogue to Darwinian evolution, in which the mechanisms of the evolutionary process yield superior creatures.  Like evolution, perfectionism believes that the mechanisms of time and society yield superior humans.  This idea paints human history as the story of getting better as a species, meaning things that are in the past are not as good as what is in the present, and certainly not as good as what is future.  Its the idea that, by and large, we're better now, as a generation of a species, than our ancestors.  Most discussions of "progress" operate with an implicit dimension of perfectionism.  Because of this, we can now see the deeper meaning  behind most uses of the phrase "Get with the times".  When someone says "Get with the times", they are (probably) saying something more along the lines of this:  "Your position is out of line with the master trend of human progress, and as such, it works to hinder/undo our progress towards greater human perfection.  Reject your backwards, regressive ideas, and adopt contemporary ideas and cooperate with human progress!"  Sure, its a bit more wordy, but its direct and explicit.  Most of all, it makes the phrase's fundamental problem clear: It is based upon a lie.

Human beings do not progress; there is no such thing as perfectionism.  This is, perhaps, one of the greatest lies of our generation, and it hoodwinks far too many people, especially the elite and educated.  Allow me to explain.  Though the myth of perfectionism makes sense upon first glance, the real question behind perfectionism is: "Are human imperfections beyond our capacity to fix?"  Or, more simply, "Is Original Sin a reality?"  The answer, resoundingly, is yes.  These questions shape the two basic positions in this debate.  In the one corner, orthodox Christians see original sin as the fundamental problem; human nature is distorted in a way that only God can repair.  If original sin is real, there can be no such thing as human progress, for the only progress is through repentance and grace.  In another corner, progressive-minded people see ignorance as the fundamental problem; human nature suffers only from a lack of knowledge, and the more we learn and educate each other, the better we will become as people.

The reason why Original Sin is real and perfectionism is a very optimistically-foolish heresy is simple: no matter how smart or advanced people are, they have to choose, and as often as ever, we choose poorly.  Look to the 20th century as an example: we made such brilliant advancements like basic accounting computers, durable air frames, precision machinery, and, among the greatest discoveries, nuclear fission and fusion.  However, presented with all of these advances, we had to choose what to do with them, and two world wars, multiple genocides, and 50 years of being a button's push away from nuclear annihilation seem to show that we did choose any better than we ever have.  We haven't become better human beings, we've become more efficient human beings; we've streamlined the processes of both production and destruction rather than making ourselves more productive and less destructive.

All the advancements and progress human beings have made throughout history have given people more choices, and even better choices, but what never changes is the act of choice itself, and it is importance to make clear the distinction between the two.  In every choice, there is the object of choice (That which is chosen), the chooser (That which is making the choice), and the act of choice (The actualization of a possibility into an actuality). That which can be called “human progress” is an advancement of the range and sophistication of the objects of choice; it typically indicates that we now have more choices to choose from and better options in those choices.  What hasn’t improved is our ability to choose and choose correctly.  It doesn’t matter how much we learn, make, or accomplish: people, at all levels of knowledge and sophistication, make bad choices.  Human beings, in and of themselves, do not progress.  Original Sin prevents us from doing so.Original Sin damaged our relationship with God, and in doing so, prevents humanity from repairing the relationship through our own efforts.  We are a people in need of (and, to be more hopeful, surrounded by) grace, and grace is what shall save us.

We do not need to “get with the times.”  Any progress, any movement in humanity towards something better comes first and foremost through the grace of God, given freely and received gratefully.  When told to “get with the times”, we ought to (besides thoroughly explaining the erroneousness of such an idea, preferably using the arguments elaborated in the previous paragraphs) respond “No, get with grace.”  Modern trends and contemporary patterns to not determine what we ought to do and not do, God does.   We shouldn’t be seeking to conform ourselves to that which is current and progressive, but to God: He, who is timeless and true.  We ought to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence and anything worthy of praise” (Philippians, 4:8) and know that these things come, not from human achievements, but from the grace of God, working through man and in cooperation with man.