Published April, 28, 2023
Our present cultural moment is marked by many unfortunate developments, not least the escalation of the rhetoric of moral outrage. Recently, actress and singer Patti Lupone compared the American Christian Right to the Taliban, commenting on The View that she could not tell the difference between them.
On one level, the comment is fairly typical of the level of intellectual insight with which viewers of The View are familiar. For example, who could forget the dramatic revelation from Whoopi Goldberg that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race, a comment so profoundly ignorant and racist that it earned her a full two weeks suspension from the program? It is also consonant with the rhetoric of a progressive left that seems to think any law or action by a democratically elected politician that might oppose, say, explicit sex education for first-graders, is somehow a deep violation of human rights. Whether Ms. Lupone has actually read any of the laws passed in Florida by Gov. DeSantis is unclear. Certainly, if she really cannot tell the difference between such laws and those pushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, then one can only conclude that she has not.
Take the notorious Florida laws, which popular media outlets have summed up in the phrase “Don’t say gay.” They don’t say any such thing, of course. What they do—even in the most recent and most expansive iteration—is merely restrict the teaching of sexual content in schools to that which is age appropriate and which occurs in classes focused on health. This is exactly where common sense would dictate that such instruction should occur (as opposed, say, to a course on mathematics or ceramics). The policy also makes it very clear that no child is to be subject to harassment based on race, sex, color, religion, etc. Admittedly, I am no expert on Afghan culture, but I’ll wager that the Florida legislation is not exactly Taliban territory.
But there is another level at which Ms. Lupone’s comment represents a far more problematic phenomenon than simply the ignorance and silliness that characterizes shows such as The View. When moral rhetoric is subject to such grade inflation that the only difference acknowledged between Gov. DeSantis and Mullah Omar is that the former wears sharply tailored suits, then the ability to deal with moral issues in a manner that befits their complexity disappears.
If our language becomes degraded to the point where we cannot make a distinction between, say, limiting what can be said in a school classroom full of five-year-olds about sex and banning women of any age from access to education, then we effectively preclude the possibility of speaking in terms of moral hierarchies and priorities. And then, the capacity for appropriate discussion of important topics vanishes.
Now this is surely not a monopoly of the progressive left. Catastrophic rhetoric today characterizes the political discourse of both left and right. The sense of social fragmentation and political polarization that has been growing in the USA for some decades has reached new heights since 2020. And it is certain that many of the issues that are the fault lines of our culture are those where a clear and strong stand needs to be taken.
But for moral debates to bear fruit, we must maintain a moral discourse capable of recognizing a hierarchy of goods. And a society’s ability to organize itself morally depends upon having access to a carefully calibrated vocabulary that allows it to express—and therefore discuss and debate—such a moral hierarchy. If that no longer exists, then civilized discussion is at an end.
Carl R. Trueman is a fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping civic leaders and policy makers better understand the deep roots of our current cultural malaise. In addition to his scholarship on the intellectual foundations of expressive individualism and the sexual revolution, Trueman is also interested in the origins, rise, and current use of critical theory by progressives. He serves as a professor at Grove City College.