Conservatives and liberals alike often use Supreme Court decisions and legislation to argue whether their side is winning or losing. But often the cultural zeitgeist is expressed through cultural artifacts. Film, art, literature, and music act as a barometer, signaling a society’s prevailing attitudes before they ever trickle into the public square. As the 17th-century Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher put it, “If a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation.”
The shift in cultural artifacts from the late 20th century to now illuminates America’s changing moral framework. Popular music in 1990s, for example, was marked by a live-and-let-live mindset voiced by musicians such as Kurt Cobain. Today’s top-40 charts look much different.
As Helen Rittelmeyer argued in The American Spectator, “Breaking taboos for shock value is relativism; breaking taboos as a means rather than an end is not, which gives Lady Gaga and Seth MacFarlane an alibi...over-processed chart-slayers like Katy Perry and Ke$ha don’t act as if they want to be judged by the brutal honesty of their self-expression, and neither do mannered indie darlings like the Decemberists.”
Rittelmeyer points also to recent trends in cinema, which are now dominated by heroes who draw clear moral lines. Modern audiences do not wonder if Voldemort or the Joker is actually justified, right, or moral.
“Virtue, authority, and law and order are all in fashion, as the bank accounts of Chris Nolan, J.K. Rowling, and Marvel Comics will attest,” Rittelmeyer says, “There are still plenty of enemies for conservative culture warriors to fight, but relativism is no longer one of them.”
Thoughtful conservatives who are less concerned with waging culture wars have begun to admit that such a shift is occurring. In The New York Times last week, David Brooks argued that while American college campuses were “awash in moral relativism” as late as the 1980s, a “shame culture” has now taken its place. The subjective morality of yesterday has been replaced by an ethical code that, if violated, results in unmerciful moral crusades on social media.
A culture of shame cannot be a culture of total relativism. One must have some moral criteria for which to decide if someone is worth shaming.
“Some sort of moral system is coming into place,” Brooks says. “Some new criteria now exist, which people use to define correct and incorrect action.”
This system is not a reversion to the values that conservatives may wish for. America’s new moral code is much different than it was prior to the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Instead of being centered on gender roles, family values, respect for institutions and religious piety, it orbits around values like tolerance and inclusion. (This new code has created a paradoxical moment in which all is tolerated except the intolerant and all included except the exclusive.)