Four years before he was hoisted to Speaker of the House, a smooth-faced Representative Paul Ryan declared, “If you ask me what the biggest problem in America is, I’m not going to tell you debt, deficits, statistics, economics—I’ll tell you it’s moral relativism.” It was a bold claim given the depth of the economic recession, which began years earlier. But Ryan was echoing the sentiments of his conservative ancestors who’d made similar claims.
Moral relativism has been a conservative boogeyman since at least the Cold War. Conservative stalwarts like William F. Buckley claimed that liberals had accepted a view that morality was culturally or historically defined—“what’s right for you may not be right for me”—instead of universal and timeless. It’s true that the ethical framework was en vogue, particularly in places of higher education. Liberal college professors stocked conservatives’ arsenals with copious quotes to back up the claim that a squishy, flimsy understanding of morality had taken root in America.
Many conservatives—and not just Paul Ryan—still drag out the old bogeyman when they want to scare the masses and rally the troops. But the prevailing thought of the second decade of the 21st century is not like the mid-to late-20th century. Law, virtue, and a shame culture have risen to prominence in recent years, signaling that moral relativism may be going the way of the buggy whip.
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.)
Although this new code is moral, it is not always designated as such. As Brooks (echoing Andy Crouch of Christianity Today) said, “Talk of good and bad has to defer to talk about respect and recognition.” No wonder many God-and-family conservatives dislike this new moral code as much as the relativism it replaced.
Donald Trump’s candidacy offers a compelling case study. The conservatives who support Trump—perhaps half of all Republicans or more—say they like that he “speaks his mind” even if his views are “politically incorrect.” In other words, Trump makes no effort to be inclusive or tolerate those with whom he disagrees. For his supporters, policies of mass deportation and discrimination are acceptable because they push back against the new moral code.
Staring at Trump’s carefully coifed hairdo across the fence are liberals and younger, more moderate conservatives. Having come of age during the shift from moral relativism, they place a higher value on tolerating others’ opinions and avoiding discrimination. Because they are offended by Trump’s violation of social virtue, this group can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and on meme-laden Instagram shaming Trump and all who support him.
From the Cold War to the War on Terror, conservators have protested the “evils” of moral relativism for decades, and now it may be a relic of the past. But although conservatives got what they wanted, they didn’t get what they expected. It’s hard to say for sure whether they’re better off now than they were before. It depends on how you look at it. Or, as some might say, it’s all relative.