Published January 6, 2022
Years ago, when teaching at seminary, I used to tell the students that moral relevance in the modern world was a cruel and fickle mistress. However much Christians accommodated themselves to her demands, sooner or later she would want more. Christian morality and the morality of the world simply could not be reconciled in the long term.
Apparently, this no longer applies simply to Christians and other moral traditionalists. It also applies to the artistic class. Last week, Constance Grady at Vox noted how so much pop culture of recent vintage has dated so rapidly. Hamilton, the hit musical of 2015, now appears, in 2021, to glorify “the slave-owning and genocidal Founding Fathers while erasing the lives and legacies of the people of color who were actually alive in the Revolutionary era.” The TV series Parks and Recreation is now considered “an overrated and tunnel-visioned portrait of the failures of Obama-era liberalism.” And the Harry Potter franchise is now “the neo-liberal fantasy of a transphobe.”
While Grady avoids the earnestness of those who regard It’s a Wonderful Life as dangerous or the clichés of those who see Dolly Parton as a tool of systemic racist evil, she misses the deeper significance of the phenomenon she describes. For her, the transformed tastes of pop culture connect to the fading fortunes of Hillary Clinton and the values she represented. That makes sense. But there is a deeper cause of the shifting morals of popular culture and that is that our society has no stable framework for moral reasoning. It is therefore doomed to constant volatility.
Of course, the moral tastes of culture have always changed somewhat over time. What is notable today is the speed at which they change and the dramatic way they repudiate the immediate past. It took forty years for John Cleese’s Hitler impersonation to be deemed offensive (and then, oddly, by a generation for whom Hitler was little more than a name in a history textbook). But now, jokes that were unexceptional five or ten years ago might well cost a comedian his career today. The moral shelf life of pop cultural artifacts seems much shorter now and the criteria by which they might be judged far less predictable.
The real problem underlying the phenomenon Grady observes is that the moral tastes of popular culture are just that: tastes, and thus subject to fashion and, in our social media age, to easy manipulation. Society has no solid foundation on which to build its moral codes. Decades ago, Alasdair MacIntyre noted that the loss of any shared metanarrative rendered constructive moral discourse impossible, as all moral claims were reduced to expressions of emotional preference. Philip Rieff made a similar point when he argued that the loss of any transcendent order upon which to build society meant that the moral framework of any given culture had to justify itself on the basis of itself. And that is an inherently unstable task.
Critical theory in its various forms represents the intellectualized form of this chaos. It is predicated on negation—i.e., the dismantling of whatever structures happen to provide the status quo at any given moment—and its advocates are committed to a constant dialectical destabilization of morality. After all, moral codes are instruments for oppressing the weak and the marginal. Yet this negation comes with a price tag for the very people committed to it. That is why so many of its major figures end up falling foul of their own philosophical tradition. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno may have been the founding fathers of critical theory, but their views on the intimate connection between homosexuality and fascism would make them unlikely candidates for guest lectures on today’s Ivy League campuses, let alone for tenure track appointments. And all of Adrienne Rich’s brilliant contributions to feminist thought and even to intersectionality have not prevented her reputation from being posthumously buried outside the camp in the plot reserved for transphobes and other assorted bigots. Today race theory, not feminism, might be the critical theorists’ soup du jour, but this will prove no more lasting than previous iterations of the voice of the oppressed. Intersectionality witnesses to that fact; and those who live by the sword of critical theory can expect at some point to die by the same.
The obvious riposte to this is that most people do not give critical theory a second thought. That is true, but my claim is that the world of which the critical theorist gives a sophisticated account is the world as many of us imagine it to be: one with no agreed upon moral compass and marked by a deep suspicion of any attempt by any one group to make its truth normative, out of fear that the result will be oppressive and unjust. The consequence is constant flux of the kind Grady observes in pop culture, where today’s virtuous icons are tomorrow’s vile scoundrels.
In the years since my warning to my seminary students, the term “mistress” has become too flattering a metaphor for moral relevance, implying as it does a degree of longevity in the relationship. Today, moral tastes have too short a shelf life for that. Indeed, embracing the moral spirit of the age is now more akin to having a one-night stand—and that with somebody who kicks you out of bed in the morning and calls the police.
Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.