A Major Problem I See with American Culture Today
We (America) claim to be a pluralistic society; we celebrate “otherness.” Of course there are individuals and subcultures that strongly oppose pluralism and want to impose their worldview, form of life, on everyone. In fact, that is exactly the problem I see and here decry.
We pretend to be pluralistic when, in fact, we are not. Sure, in the grassroots, pluralism abounds. In public spaces, however, the two values that are expected of everyone are consumerism and tolerance of every point of view and lifestyle—even to the point that people who wish no harm to anyone but who have strongly held personal opinions about right and wrong are looked at as intolerant, as enemies of “freedom.”
We have by-and-large confused tolerance with relativism. If a person or group holds and expresses strong beliefs about right and wrong, especially about behaviors that are assumed not to hurt anyone, he or they are widely criticized as intolerant.
The key here is “assumed not to hurt anyone.” What hurts people is a matter of profound disagreement—based on worldviews. Our contemporary American worldview is that the only things that hurt people are physical abuse and limitations on their absolute personal freedom of choice. And we have come to believe (with exceptions, of course) that even expressions of absolute morality, right and wrong, somehow limit others’ personal freedom of choice.
The word “wrong” is largely disappearing from our public discourse—except when it is used to criticize people who think others’ lifestyles and behaviors that are legal (or should be legal) are wrong. Even then…
I have observed a growing tendency for especially younger Americans to ignore traffic laws—especially when they think that behavior will not harm anyone. I see people running red lights all the time. Just yesterday, as I was driving on a divided highway near my city, I came to a stoplight. As I sat waiting for the red light to turn green three drivers in a row ran the red light from the lane beside me. They slowed just enough to determine that nobody was coming along the cross street. All three were young women in their twenties—no doubt in a hurry to get to work (it was about 7:45 AM). A few months ago when I saw a person run a red light and knew it was willful I followed her a few blocks into a parking lot. When she stepped out of her car I rolled down my window and said “You shouldn’t run red lights.” She gave me an obscene gesture and walked away. (I am not picking on young women; I see young men and some older people doing this all the time all over town in virtually every city I visit.)
A growing attitude in American society is that even breaking the law is not wrong so long as you don’t get caught and nobody is harmed. Along with that is a growing attitude that those people who believe in absolutes of right and wrong outside of behaviors that directly harm people are intolerant—especially if they dare to express that belief.We are increasingly becoming a lawless society and one that puts on a pedestal people who violate traditional norms and mores, excuse those who break laws when nobody is hurt by that, and criticize and even condemn people who hold beliefs about moral absolutes of right and wrong and dare to express them.
We are not truly pluralistic. As a society we are crawling closer and closer to what philosophers call “anomie”—a social condition lacking any sense of right and wrong. Except with regard to tolerance of virtually anything and everything—except perceived intolerance.
The question this raises, of course, is whether a social order, a culture and community, can exist solely on such false pluralism. Is it possible for a culture to thrive when its only values are personal freedom and consumerism? Some years ago a character on the television sitcom “Family Ties” declared that her philosophy of life was “I shop; therefore I am.” It was meant to be comical, of course, but it well expressed the value-orientation of many, perhaps the majority, of Americans. Look at commercial advertising? What are the main appeals—even of even products that have nothing whatever to do with these values? Freedom (“no limits”) and personal success and happiness based on buying the product. Americans have come to believe, seduced by commercial advertising, that fulfillment comes from buying and possessing merchandise. And they have come to believe that fulfillment lies in having the absolute, unfettered freedom to live and behave in any manner they wish without fear of shame.
This is, of course, false pluralism because anyone who stands out and apart from this emphasis on personal freedom and who dares to express shame on people who flagrantly flaunt behaviors that are illegal or sinful are looked upon as either “old school fuddy-duddies” and/or intolerant bigots.
That is not true pluralism. Pluralism includes, requires, learning to live with multiple worldviews and belief systems—including ones you don’t like. Pluralism includes permitting a hearing for those who have traditional beliefs about morality.
So, appealing to pluralism, I will step out on a limb and declare here and now, very publically, that I consider the adage “An ye harm none, do as ye will” (the so-called Wiccan rede) an extremely pernicious moral code and one that is becoming normative not only for neo-Pagans for but for many Americans. In my opinion, which you must tolerate even if you disagree, “An ye harm none, do as ye will” is a baby step from Aleister Crowley’s “Do as ye will shall be the whole of the law.” (Yes, I have read attempted explanations of both that claim to explain them as meaning other than what they clearly say; I am not convinced.) Both are expressions of anomie. A well functioning culture needs a moral vision stronger than individual self-fulfillment (“Above all, be true to yourself”) to sustain itself.