On agnostic hyperpluralism

From Scott Stephens, the Religion and Ethics editor for Australia Broadcasting Company Online:

Perhaps the best way of describing our cultural condition is – if I may be permitted an inexcusably clumsy phrase right at the outset – as one of agonistic hyperpluralism.

It is not simply that we live alongside and associate with people who hold radically different points of view (that would be garden-variety “pluralism”); nor is it that many of these points of view are so divergent as to spill over into the incommensurable, to the point of tearing away at the social fabric (that would be outright “agonism”). It is rather that we now lack even minimal consensus on the most fundamental questions of life, social obligation and political ends, as well as the means – the common moral and conceptual grammar, if you like – to resolve such widespread disagreement.

But what is most pronounced and historically novel about this form of “agonistic hyperpluralism” is that it is dispersed among individuals themselves, and not simply bound up in adjacent communities. This reflects, does it not, the great cultural revolution that has taken place over the last four decades, a revolution every bit as thoroughgoing and perfidious as those that ravaged the East in the first half of the twentieth century.

Unlike socialism – which invariably took the form of the radical assertion of the state over the economy, culture and indeed the bodies of the people themselves – the revolution that has defined our time and continues to hold sway within western liberal democracy is the assertion of the freedom, the rights and the pleasure of the body over every other person or institution that might stake some claim over it, whether it be nation, tradition, community, marriage, children or religion. Or, as Herve Juvin has nicely put it, the western body is “a body without origin, character, country or determination.”

In just this way, this conception of the body that represents liberalism’s political and cultural centre of gravity is both ahistorical – in that it is unmoored from its traditional determinants of kith and kin, its moral and civic duties, and even its biological inheritance and gender – and nihilistic – determined by nothing but what it chooses for itself, and oriented toward nothing but its own health, safety and pleasure.

In his incomparable account of the emergence of latter-day secularism in the wake of the collapse of the institutionalized worldview of medieval Christianity and the radical doctrinal disagreement unleashed by the Protestant Reformation, Brad Gregory has laid out the consequences of “hyperpluralism” for political and public discourse:

“There is no shared, substantive common good, nor are there any realistic prospects for devising one (at least in the immediately foreseeable future). Nor does secular discourse offer any realistic prospects for rationally resolving any of the many contested moral or political issues that emerge from the increasingly wide range of ways in which individuals self-determine the good for themselves within liberalism’s politically protected formal ethics of rights … As a result, public life today … is increasingly riven by angry, uncivil rivals with incompatible views about what is good, true, and right. Many of these views and values are increasingly distant from substantive beliefs that derived most influentially from Christianity and that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries remained much more widely shared … But the rejection of such answers to the Life Questions has led to the current Kingdom of Whatever partly because of the dissolution of the social relationships and communities that make more plausible those beliefs and their related practices. Most visibly in recent decades, this dissolution owed and continues to owe much to the liquefying effects of capitalism and consumerism on the politically protected individuals within liberal states, as men and women in larger numbers prioritize the fulfillment of their self-chosen, acquisitive, individual desires above any social (including familial) solidarities except those they also happen to choose, and only for as long as they happen to choose them.”

Are we not now everywhere witnessing the consequences of this dissolution of the social and abandonment of the politics of the common good – that we are, as Rowan Williams puts it, inhabiting “a world in where there aren’t and couldn’t be any real discussion of the goals and destiny of human beings as such”?

One could point, for instance, to the university’s abandonment of the western educational ideal – which must necessarily include inculcating the virtues inherent to healthy democratic society – in favour of producing, as Martha Nussbaum says, “generations of useful machines.”

Or, in the absence of some kind of shared moral grammar, to the emergence of what Charles Taylor has termed “code fetishism”: the hysterical and ultimately arbitrary attempt to erect forms of protection against the bad behaviour of others by means of endlessly proliferating codes of practice, which can only ever be paltry substitutes for real trust, solidarity and mutual obligation.

Or to the widespread abrogation of our morally symmetrical responsibilities to the unwanted elderly and the inconvenient unborn: one group shovelled away behind the walls of third party care and the other sentenced to death; both in the name of choice and out of fear that our lives might be dragged down into their servitude.

Or to the increasing desperation with which voluntary euthanasia is being legislatively pursued in the West, where the fear of the slow loss of autonomy in old age has usurped the fear of death itself, and where the choice of one’s own death is deemed the ultimate assertion of freedom.

Or to the incessant striptease of social media, whereby embarrassing personal details are widely publicized, only for our actual selves then to be concealed behind a faux-indignant veil of privacy. We are willing, it would seem, for our idiotic predilections to mingle with those of others within an indifferent or vaguely sympathetic online space, provided our lives are never constrained by the moral demands of actual community.

Or to our inability to provide an intelligible account of what social ends or public goods the media serves, much less any arbitration between the true, the trivial and the manufactured – such that the media comes simply to duplicate and reinforce the divisions and bigotries endemic within society as a whole, precisely due to its irresistible attraction to the simplistic, the salacious and the cynical. It is no wonder, as Jay Rosen and Lindsay Tanner have argued, that the media has effectively become an impediment to authentic conversation and moral persuasion.

— “Questions without answers in the Kingdom of Whatever


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