Do you remember under the pontificate of Benedict XVI the two great challenges facing Western Civilisation were the external threat of radical Islam, and the internal threat of relativism?
Things seemed a lot simpler back then. Even relativism was simpler: those who knew what it was were either for it or against it.
But it was relativism as a highly abstract worldview. As such we weren’t really “against” it so much as critical of it as a self-defeating intellectual folly.
People don’t seem to talk about the dictatorship of relativism so much anymore. Yet we are more deeply relativist than ever before. Truth is increasingly subjective, in the sense that subjectively meaningful beliefs, attitudes, and opinions have come to the fore like never before.
The internet has facilitated, driven, and proliferated the expansion of opinion or points-of-view. “Alternative facts” are just the most blatant example of what we increasingly realise as the overwhelming variety, depth and complexity of other people’s worlds.
In the recent past everyone watched more or less the same TV shows. Now we can enjoy such a diversity of content that kids in the same class at school can effectively inhabit different planets of entertainment, just as their parents inhabit different worlds of news and online opinion.
There are still many points of convergence, but the option to not watch Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey or the latest from the Marvel Cinematic Universe is more viable than ever.
Linear TV focused our attention on a limited range of options, just like the two-party political system effectively concentrates genuinely diverse political views on a near-binary set of options.
The rise of the internet means that people can now air their diverse political views, whether it be weird and wonderful theories or simply the degree of personal support or opposition for a candidate.
And it’s not just a process of “airing” what is already there. Exposure to diverse opinions engenders greater diversification. We change, reflect upon, amend and consolidate our opinions as we realise how and why other people agree or disagree.
In practice this means that we can find online whole worlds of debate and argument and diverse opinion that would have previously been hidden from view.
From Star Wars to Pope Francis
It’s not that the intellectual debates over relativism were definitively won or lost, but that the sheer weight of individual opinion and diversity of perspective has changed the culture.
This diversity has always been there, but most of us have not encountered it as overtly, persistently, and with such degrees of nuance as the internet now affords.
Two seemingly unrelated subjects provide recent examples of this phenomenon: Disney’s controversial Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie, and the allegations against Pope Francis and the Catholic hierarchy over the McCarrick affair.
When it comes to the Star Wars movie, I quite enjoyed it as a movie, having entered with low expectations. I have a brother who abhorred it, and a sister who loved it. And years ago we might have discussed it a couple of times and then forgotten.
But since it’s 2018 I also went onto Youtube and watched a video or two from critics of the film. Then I watched some replies to those videos from fans of the film.
By that stage there were dozens of videos ranging from angry, embittered rants to careful analysis, passionate and dispassionate defences, with a wide and nuanced variety of conclusions.
Many of them were internally coherent, well-reasoned, authentic, supported by evidence, and thoroughly convincing…until a new video came out with quite an equally convincing albeit opposite point of view.
The same kind of convincing diversity of opinion emerged over the McCarrick scandal. Is the Vatican mired in corruption, or is this a conservative plot to undermine the Pope? Is Vigano a heroic whistleblower or a political operator with an axe to grind?
Anyone can find entrenched views not merely on “either side” but from other angles. You can find people who generally support the Pope, but find his handling of the scandal deeply problematic. These people have friends who sympathise, but prefer to give the Pope the benefit of the doubt.
Again, such nuances and divergences are not new. What’s new is that such people now have blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, with hundreds if not thousands of friends and readers weighing in – influencing and being influenced by the debate.
These differences of opinion are not idle.
The backlash over the Star Wars movie is arguably responsible for Disney axing three or four planned sequels and spin-offs, following the dismal performance of their most recent film.
And in the Catholic Church US Bishops are scrambling (some of them), while lay groups threaten to take matters into their own hands.
The lay business group Legatus has withheld a $1 million dollar donation, a petition of 46,000 women has requested a response from the Pope to the McCarrick allegations, and most recently a new organisation has reportedly set out to conduct private investigations of all Catholic Cardinals, acting as a kind of self-appointed watchdog against corruption and abuse in the highest offices of the Church.
These initiatives themselves spur new opinions, disagreements, praise and criticism. There are compelling arguments no doubt from people who see them as long overdue, the next logical step, an egregious overreach, or a political stunt.
Everyone has an opinion, if not before, than at least after being exposed to the full gamut of everyone else’s views.
And to not have an opinion becomes an active choice to disengage.
A new era
It’s hard to imagine how this process of fractionalisation, the breakup of society and institutions into fractions, could possibly be reversed.
We might hope that everyone will converge on the truth, given sufficient time and resources. Truth will out, but the diversity of subjective points-of-view is not simply a matter of greater or lesser degrees of truth.
Rather, people have different priorities, they weigh the facts differently, and they have different motivations in their very approach to life.
That doesn’t render invalid the search for truth; it doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as objective truth. What it means is that people engage with aspects of the truth according to their own subjective worldview.
People allege with increasing confidence what really matters on any given subject. In so doing they tell us more about themselves than about the objective reality of the situation. They are increasingly showing us what really matters to them, how they think the world could be a better place, or where they think the problems lie.
A providential view
Assuming a providential worldview in which everything works out for the good, this fractionalisation makes me mindful of other great changes in society, such as the Industrial Revolution, which brought new problems as well as new benefits.
The Industrial Revolution led to a variety of social upheavals, as well as responses to the perceived pitfalls of the new economy. And while we cannot return to the pre-industrial age, that doesn’t mean we can’t criticise, or look for alternatives.
The Arts and Crafts movement, romanticisation of rural life, and even the contemporary “hipster” embrace of pipe-smoking, straight-razors, and everything your grandfather (or maybe great-grandfather) wore, are all legitimate counterpoints to the collectivism of the modern era.
Even the most trenchant anti-modernists are, whether they realise it or not, taking part in this individualist, post-modern fractionalisation of society. What could be more post-modern than 21st Century Westerners choosing to champion 19th Century traditions?
The fractionalisation of society and institutions is certainly a challenge, but it’s an unavoidable one, and even in grappling with the challenge (as we are here) we contribute further to this fractionalisation through our own search for a subjectively authentic and satisfying response.
The positive within this conflagration of conflicting points-of-view is that as never before we can and must decide for ourselves where we want to stand. For people of faith this might well remind us that the ultimate reality – subjective and objective – is not the state or society or institutions but the individual’s relationship with his Creator.
Zac Alstin is associate editor of MercatorNet.