Dealing in Absolutes

“How is it they live for eons in such harmony – the billions of stars – when most men can barely go a minute without declaring war in their hearts on someone they know?”

                                                                                                                             – St. Thomas Aquinas

There are today but two opinions – the right and the wrong, correct and incorrect. Neither the topic, nor the truth, nor the actual popularity or support for the issue matter in determining which is the right opinion and which the wrong. It is determined instead by the hive mind to which one belongs. Aye, but there’s the rub: opinions are not universal, which is what makes them opinions divorced from truth or fact. What results is a sort of Schrödinger’s Cat scenario, as either opinion can be thought of as both right and wrong. Only when both truth and reason are applied will the victor emerge. But again, the truth plays no part, so what is left is a polarized community – in the present time, an entire society – unable or unwilling to hear the words or intent of the side not their own.

The U.S., and perhaps the whole of the West, has become an absolute society, a society that sees all things in the following ways. First, all matters are black and white, possessing nary a shade of grey. This we may attribute to our popular overdependence upon rationalization, to the point that our views and understanding of the world around us, in the name of diversity and inclusivity, has grown exceptionally narrow. This rationalization precludes the possibility of living with any of the myriad tensions that have and forever will make up life. All of life is a compass that only ever points either North or South. Everything is absolute, so in order to be counted as right one must be completely in line with this ideology or that. In such a society there can be no compromise, because so doing would depart from the knife-edge that is being correct, thus making compromise, however slight, the work of incorrectness. If one is not completely in agreement with this opinion or that, then one is ipso facto the enemy, and how can there be peace when one lives amongst their enemy.

There are some principles in life that are absolute, what wiser generations knew as Natural Law: it has always been wrong to murder another human; to lie or to steal for no other reason than base personal gain; to cheat, whether in one’s personal or professional life, and so on. Yet, always have there been exceptions to this, or rather pseudo-exceptions, namely, when such violations of the Natural Law serve the ends of the individual or group who would otherwise admit that such actions were indeed wrong, or else when undertaken in the midst of otherwise religious-like adherence to the prevailing worldview or agenda. A president may be unfaithful to his spouse so long as he keeps abortion legal and expands its availability, just as a presidential candidate may have his own dastardly sexual transgressions overlooked so long as he holds his promises on restricting immigration. What, then, is the difference between one’s sexual misdeed and the other? Just this: that either action was done by the other, and that it would violate one’s sense of self-preservation to stand for what they know to be truly right at the expense of personal opinion. They are indistinguishable in nature and moral repugnance, but because one cannot reconcile supporting something that they know they should not, he instead attempts to justify it as a lesser of two evils. Things are absolute, except for when they are not.

Vaclav Havel, the late, great Czech statesman, in his 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless, referred to this false justification of a lie or other evil act for the sake of self-preservation as “living within a lie.” At the foundation of all of this is the moral cancer that is ideology. Havel, in Powerless, exposed the dangers of ideology, which is to say all ideology. Herein, Havel deals extensively with the matter of ideology, thoroughly dispatching it as a great evil. He writes,

“… ideology has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish.”

He goes on to point out that the cost of ideological adherence is the abdication of one’s own soul – his “reason, conscience, and responsibility.” Ideology gives those who feel awash among the waves of this-and-that identity movement a ready-made identity, however illusory. It offers the façade of a moral structure, which as Havel points out, often comes only when one parts with actual morality traditionally understood. It is, one might say, a form of intellectual and moral prostitution, as it tells one exactly what he wants to hear, so long as he submits without question.

Once inside a given ideology, one need only to perpetuate the lies into which they have bought. Going again to Havel, who requires quoting at length:

“… it draws everyone into it’s sphere of power… so they surrender their human identity in favor of the identity of the system, that is, so they may become agents of the system’s general automatism and servants of its self-determined goals, so they may participate in the common responsibility for it, so they may be pulled into and ensnared by it, like Faust by Mephistopheles. More than this: so they may create through their involvement a general norm and, thus, bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens. And further: so they may learn to be comfortable with their involvement, to identity with it as though it were something natural and inevitable and, ultimately, so they may – with no external urging – come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality, as arrogance, as an attack on themselves, as a form of dropping out of society. By pulling everyone into its power structure, the post-totalitarian system makes everyone an instrument of a mutual totality, the auto-totality of society.”

What Havel describes of late-1970s Eastern Bloc is curiously alike to the Western condition. All areas of human life having been successfully politicized, we have arrived at a sort of ideological tribalism. What passes for politics is political, yes, insofar as it involves politicians and political issues, but it has bored down much deeper into the human soul than mere politics. Americans both conservative and progressive have come to identify themselves according to their politics. With few exceptions, any personal identification to which one holds is de facto associated with either conservative or progressive ideology. Yes, there is now the conservative ideology. Burke and Kirk are surely rolling over in their respective graves, but when one looks at what conservatism has become, one sees the very same behavior exhibited as has been on display by their progressive counterparts for some time, the very same behavior Havel identified in post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia in 1978. Have not conservatives created a “general norm” by which to bring pressure to bear on their fellow citizens? Have not conservatives come to view their policies and beliefs as “natural and inevitable” and thus “come to treat any non-involvement as an abnormality, as arrogance, as an attack on themselves”? One need not even be overtly political as our politics now make house calls. Such is the case when politics invades every facet of life.

Our time is one of dueling ideologies, and given the dualistic nature of the human mind, a dualism perhaps perfected in our time, it is no surprise that so many feel as if they must pick one side or the other. Yet just as armies keep a demilitarized zone between their opposing camps, so too is there a space between these two quarreling worldviews; and it is in this space that the Truth resides. The dearly departed Nat Hentoff demonstrated this by being an avowed atheist, a libertarian, and a staunch pro-life advocate. Seemingly two of those should easily override the latter third, and yet these were some of his defining qualities. In Havel speak, Hentoff exposed the lie that one must either adhere fully or not at all, thereby forcing upon all other adherents a choice of connecting with their conscious, which may prove difficult, uncomfortable, and involve some measure of personal sacrifice; or continuing to prop up a system with which many adherents may, in the innermost regions of their soul, vehemently disagree.

Our society suffers from the absolutism that comes part-and-parcel with ideology, all while believing that their preferred ideology is soaked in truth. There is but one source of Truth, and it aligns only with itself. Eve believed the Serpent not because it was honest or dishonest, but because it was both. It spoke in half-truths, as the great liars do, and the undiscerning Eve lacked either the wisdom to distinguish or the will to resist. Our hope is found in God’s Truth, which is captivated by no ideology.

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