Celebrity Gossip and Moral Reasoning (part 2)

Subjective Objectivity is the nonsense name I give to the nonsensical, widespread phenomenon in contemporary society of viewing the world through the narrow lens of one’s own experience, and assuming that such personal experience defines the norm for reality. This view is cut straight from the cloth of what Pope Benedict XVI has famously called a dictatorship of relativism.

Typically, when pressed to defend the personalized opinions that emerge from such self-centered thinking, most believers of the doctrine will retreat into relativism, claiming that such personal experience only represents “my reality,” not reality on the whole. But the end result can only be essentially the same: It is, for all intents and purposes, the belief that I am the center of the universe (or at least “my universe,” whatever that means), and that my experience is the measure by which reality should be measured. The careful thinker will note that this reducing of reality to experience is actually nothing but the repudiation of the very notion of reality, per se.

The most typical form I see this logic take can be captured in the image of a parent rationalizing his acceptance of boorish behavior in his children by telling himself: “I did the same thing, and I turned out OK – therefore it must not be that bad.” Here we see the self declared the measure of morality. There’s no room to admit that there may actually be some objective reality of morality, against which behavior – mine or my children’s – should be measured. And even more importantly, there’s certainly no room for self-criticism. No right, no wrong; only: I’m OK with it, or I’m not OK with it – judgments which are considered in the light of the potential for cognitive dissonance between an aspiring moralism and the platitudes of an ethic of self-esteem run amuck.

On March 30th, Ty Burr published a piece in the Boston Globe arguing that immorally behaving pop stars can be positive “anti-role models” for children. I thought the piece was so misguided that I decided to write a three-part refutation of it, of which this is the second part.

The first and third parts both deal with what I see as errors in Mr. Burr’s presentation of the nature and character of morality (part one argues that Mr. Burr is mistaking cynical judgmentalism for morality, which it decidedly is not; in part three I will attempt to show that genuine morality must be rooted in virtue – something utterly lacking from the landscape of Mr. Burr’s presentation). This second part presents what I believe is the ethic at the root of his misunderstanding of morality; the facilitating principle that led him down the path to his conclusion: Subjective Objectivism. Below is quoted what I believe to be the key paragraph in understanding the source of Mr. Burr’s moral confusion:

In part, that pit you feel in your stomach is generational business as usual. Mothers and fathers wonder where have all the good examples gone, forgetting that our own parents tore their hair out over the music and movies we loved. I recently gave my 11-year-old daughter grief over the bawdy lyrics to Flo Rida’s “Low” just as Led Zeppelin came on the oldies station promising to “give ya every inch of my love.” Game, set, match.

I barely know where to begin unpacking the naivety in this short paragraph. Game, set, match? The implication there is that, since the father is as guilty as the daughter, which leaves the father without the leverage of a moral high ground, the situation of the daughter must not be so bad after all – because God forbid the father admit the obvious. I guess conspiracy is better than hypocrisy.

Mr. Burr’s moral (and aesthetic) sensibility, it would seem, was forged in the pop culture of recent decades, and he has apparently not moved beyond that woeful inception. So his conscience is, predictably, as dull as that of the culture that shaped it. Vulgar trash is just normal fare, and so when his nascent moral sensibility is startled by a new kind of vulgarity, it can be easily assuaged by associating it with the good ‘old familiar vulgarity that enjoys the privileged status of “normal.”

What is conspicuous by its absence is any sense that Mr. Burr’s parents, in tearing out their hair, may have been right. That possibility just doesn’t seem to be on the table. Generational business a usual, he calls it. But that’s a sham. First of all, this particular generational dynamic has only been around for as long as pop culture has been around, and that’s only a handful of generations. Human civilization goes back a bit further than that.

Secondly, what we are actually seeing as this generational dynamic plays itself out in contemporary history is not simply a repeating pattern, as “generational business as usual” attempts to imply, but a cyclic shift toward ever more debased forms of popular art, combined with quickly retreating resolve to oppose it. More and more so, the parents (even grandparents) are simmering in the same stew as the children, and as is apparently the case in Mr. Burr’s household, they are increasingly unequipped to even attempt to provide a moral alternative to pop vulgarity.

The end result of this is that we leave our culture’s children in the pernicious stew of degrading entertainment that is pornographic, violent, and dehumanizing in many, many ways. No, it has not “always” been this way, and the fact that today’s parents have been soaked in an earlier version of the same slumgullion not only doesn’t excuse the negligence, it should provide us with a knowing sympathy of just how devastating this trash can be to the growth of a young human person. But we can only understand that if we can get past this idiotic notion that our personal experience is the standard the rest of the world should live up to, and embrace the truth that we need to get over ourselves; to submit ourselves to being open to being transformed by beauty, truth, and goodness.