Why We’re All Hitlers Now: A Strange, Unintended Consequence of Relativism


ImageHitlers to the left of us. Hitlers to the right of us. You really can’t go a week without hearing someone called Hitler; or some group branded as Hitler-like fascists. True there are some other names or groups we use to char reputations (socialism, anyone); but the Hitler thing has officially gotten overplayed. What’s to blame for this obsession with Hitler? I blame the move to relativism. Here’s why.

When relativism became all the rage in the 70s and 80s, you heard pastor after pastor bemoan the fact that due to this ‘postmodern’ ethic nothing would ever be wrong again. In fact it appeared at times to be the point for those who gave it airplay. Yet a strange thing happened on the way to the bacchanalian orgy promised by relativism. When one knocked out the power of what the church called absolute truth or philosophers like Kant referred to as moral or categorical imperatives, an unintended consequence materialized.

Rather than make everything right, relativism has made everything wrong. When there are no moral anchors by which to fix ones’ self, then there is no way to judge wrong. All one has  to judge wrong is the moment and ones’ feeling at that moment. In the throes of such passion there is no ability or room for perspective. To put the manner another (in an age-old cliche), when one is in the midst of the forest you can’t find the forest for the trees. Every tree becomes the biggest worst thing ever.

One example: Manti Te’o and his university’s imaginary reputation (I mean girlfriend). There has been red-hot hate, loathing, and dismay over this admittedly loopy story. Everyone has lost their youknowhwat over what was known when. For a great discussion of this obsession with truth and reality, see the cover story from this weekend’s USA Today, Celebs, Liars, Fakers: Does It Matter? The outrage has gone viral. The Manti story is all over ESPN. He is appearing in interview with Katie Couric. It’s all over the place.

Te’o, as you may already have learned, played for Notre Dame. This is not ND’s first problematic football player / off field indiscretion story. In fact about this time last year the school faced another problem: rape allegations (here is the story from the National Catholic Reporter). This story played out on the margins. In fact if you were not either 1) a follower of ND or 2) concerned with women’s rights, you probably did not even hear the story. ESPN among others were silent on the issue even as they hyped the player girlfriend, who turned out to be imaginary.

There has been wide-spread outrage at a lie about something that in the end did not affect anyone in any significant way. Sure Te’o may have been embarrassed, chastened, and seen his stock drop in the coming NFL draft (but someone will draft him). Yet in the other story the life of woman has been torched. The investigation concluded when the victim took her life (demoralized by the treatment she received after she made her allegation). A little white lie or a harmless prank gone wrong, outrage. A rape ending in a death, crickets.

One might say that relativism has harmed our ability to discuss the wrongness of the rape allegation, and you would be correct. But an equally absurd outcome has been the inability to correctly weight the offenses. One is unfortunate; there other a moral wrong. Yet one would not know from the responses.

This lack of perspective blared through in the USA Today story. Here is James Ratley, a certified fraud examiner, discussing the current climate:

“What’s happening here is people feel betrayed. They feel foolish… there are no small frauds. Only frauds that have not had time to reach the massive stage.”

Hear the language: there are no small frauds, especially when people’s emotions and feelings of hurt are involved.Feelings make every fraud larger than life, and have the potential to send any fraud into the stratosphere. Yet I submit to you: there are small frauds. A fraud that neither hurts nor helps anyone is different from a fraud in which damage to one’s money or reputation occur. And that kind of fraud is different from one in which a life is lost. There are small frauds, medium frauds, and large frauds. Yet in the light of relativism, all fraud is equated. In this sense instead of everything becoming right; everything becomes wrong (or potentially to be viewed as wrong when the wrong person takes the event the wrong way).

One also sees this in the not infrequent “person ‘a’ is a racist / sexist / homophone (check all that apply)” stories that have proliferated. One comment is lifted out of context and blown up to show how this person is the absolute worst person on the face of the earth. To show we mean it, we reach for the worst possible slam: person ‘a’ is Hitler. Nevermind that Hitler killed millions; while person ‘a’ simply said she like chick-fil-a sandwiches. Nevermind that Hitler authorized demeaning life-threatening studies performed on jailed persons; while person ‘a’ admitted that he is struggling with gender identity issues. In the heat of the moment, Hitler has spoken.

I am interested in what if anything my Atheist / Materialist friends would recommend to alleviate this unfortunate consequence. I, as a Christian however, would argue that the answer is found in being able to step back and gain perspective. For me that perspective comes from a living embrace of the life and death of Christ as found in participation in the living liturgy of His Church. This is not an easy process, and many of us in the church have been as guilty as others for our lack of perspective. Yet I cannot help but thinks this: to have perspective, means to have a scale; to have a scale means having something to measure; to have something to measure by means to have some unchanging ruler. Perhaps talk and discussion of absolutes are not as bad as some would have us to believe.

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