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That may be true for you . . .
Hey, whatever floats your boat . . .
My reality isn’t necessarily yours . . .
I’m not sure when it started—maybe the 1960s (when so much started), or the '70s, when chickens began wandering home to roost. But somewhere in there the notion of Truth went spongy. Post-modernism was in. The debate was no longer over what was right, but whether there was such a thing. It was neither charitable nor reasonable to claim the mantle of truth for one’s ideas or choices. What fits me won’t fit you, so why pretend we should all live by the same rules? I recall my brother-in-law claiming that, since times had changed, he didn’t feel compelled to marry the mother of his two boys, especially since he didn’t like her that much. Some people are the marrying kind, and some aren’t.
(Fine, I thought. But did someone explain this to the boys?)
Times do change. And the days of allowing everyone to do their own thing and adopt their own truth have passed into memory. Christians railing about relativism sound almost quaint. Where have you been, Grandpa? My truth/your truth enjoyed a brief sunlit stay in popular culture for, perhaps, 30 years, from the mid-1970s to the mid-aughts. During that period it was OK to be gay but also sort of OK to be skeptical about the naturalness and normality of the lifestyle. Most couples still aimed toward traditional marriage, even if more and more of them didn’t achieve it. “Tolerance” was a virtue: You could believe what you wanted as long as you didn’t crush anyone else’s beliefs. There were serious flare-ups, some plaintive cries of Can’t we all get along?, and some disturbing equivalences (like the definition of “is”), but looking back, it seems we mostly got along.
When did it change?
Possibly on 9/11, when a hard fist broke through our little realities with one Big Reality that would shatter illusions forever—which turned out to be not very long. A strange thing happened. Reality broke through; but as the ruins were repaired a vocal minority found themselves on the other side of a glass wall where everything appears backward and arguable opinions look absolutely true. Such as:
• Christian extremism is as lethal as Muslim extremism.
• The United States is the greatest terror threat in the world today (both from the far left and the far right).
• Same-sex marriage is as legitimate as opposite-sex marriage, and to deny that is rank bigotry.
• Caitlyn Jenner is a woman.
All these opinions had their roots in earlier decades; none of them came out of the blue. What shifted is the conviction among former relativists that whoever disagrees with the latest doctrine is not mistaken or misled, but evil, hateful, and wrong. This state of affairs became clear to me during the 2004 presidential campaign. Howard Dean was on the debate platform with several Democratic rivals hoping to unseat George W. Bush. Things were getting contentious, as they always do during this stage of a campaign, when Dean called his rowdy fellow Dems to order, reminding them that “George Bush is the enemy,” not each other. The biggest applause line of the night, and probably not unprecedented, but no one corrected him. When did the opponent become the enemy?
Dean crossed a line that politicians have stampeded over ever since: My opponent is the foe of all that’s good; the reactionary, the dinosaur, the obstacle to a better world, and the main reason we can’t have nice things. To them it’s mostly rhetoric, but to some public sectors (such as college students and aggrieved minorities), it’s for real.
Relativism is dead. It always dies, because Truth Will Out, or Power Will Out. Refusing God’s standard takes us back to a Manichean divide between good and evil, with the armor of intolerance hardening on those who cried the loudest for tolerance.
Their truth is no longer their truth, but the truth. Absolute value reappears, but on the other side of the looking glass.