The Relative Comment

soothing waves of relativity

sidestepping the problem with cultural diagnoses

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There is a tendency in opinion reporting to direct the causes of specific problems to amorphous conversations that do little to shine any light on the subject at hand. It usually goes something like this: “The major problem X is a result of lost moral code. Our values are deteriorating, and as a result X has increased.” This is something that causes heart-ache at TRC. And it is not because such moral diagnoses are incorrect. More often than not, I agree with the proclamations that individuals are too selfish, are losing a moral center, lack strong values, etc. The problem is: that is usually not the problem. The problem is much, much more specific than that. You can take almost any issue you like and find myriad examples of losing sight of the real issue.

This comes up tonight because of an article that looks to understand why people do not talk more about climate change. The author gives several reasons: We don’t like to feel like we have no control. Social etiquette calls for politeness, making conversations about catastrophic futures difficult to engage. We use humor to deflect, rather than engage (Global Warming! With all this snow!). You get the idea. The author also includes deflection:

Another common way to practice social denial is to change the subject to moral deterioration in general (“We live in an age of rampant selfishness and greed”) or to criticize others in particular. “We’re not as bad as the Americans,” Norwegians like to say, despite being one of the largest oil producers and exporters in the world.
Criticism of scientists as “doomsayers” and “junk scientists” serves the same diversionary purpose, even in the face of the scientific consensus that humans are heating up the planet.
Ranting about researchers inventing global warming to garner grants is a distraction from thinking about a future of increasing droughts, floods, and disease.

An astute observation, I thought, and one I had not attached to climate change. I will admit, my first impulse when I read this was to think of David Brooks, the humble NYTimes op-ed writer who has one cure for everything that has ever gone wrong: people have lost their values. It is the most exhausting and useless diagnosis there is. Again, not because it is wrong, but because it offers no one any insight into a specific problem (i.e climate change) or any possible solutions to improve the situation (i.e. stop using fossil fuels). I kind of flew off the handle at David Brooks for what I termed his lazy use of this argumentative tool earlier this year regarding the sex abuse scandal at Penn State (and it turns out I’m not alone in finding this tendency of Brooks to be simply unbearable).

When it comes to problems that are existent, and pose real danger to the world as it stands now, we should not neglect the actual, present reality. This does not mean we should not discuss the potential societal causes, or discuss the moral implications that lead us to where we are. But that can only function as a part of the conversation, an equally important, but often less urgent part. Climate change is real and here. To limit serious consequences, our actions have to change, now, regardless of whether our addiction to fossil fuels is a result of a lack of a core value system that once represented a glorious unity but has now fractured into the celebration of the I, or if we just weren’t paying close attention. Otherwise we can sit in our comfy chairs, squawking about how we have lost our moral compass, while outside the window, the world burns.


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