What is the most critical issue of our age? The war against religious freedom? ISIS? The definition of marriage? Or what to wear for Halloween?
A recent edition of the Washington Post’s “Civilities” column featured questions from two readers asking if it was okay to dress as Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner for Halloween. After all, you wouldn’t want to denigrate transgendered people.
Now, let’s set aside the Jenner story for just a moment. In fact, let’s even set aside the entire “trans” cultural moment we’re living in. This article was the headline story of the Post’s daily email news summary!
In other words, the Post thought that the news that would most interest its readers is whether it’s okay to dress up like Caitlyn Jenner for Halloween.
It seems like a small thing, but it tells us a ton about our culture. At any given moment, what’s most likely to cause social media outlets like Twitter to explode isn’t a humanitarian crisis, a natural disaster, or a critical political issue—it’s a celebrity feud or some other pop culture story.
Surveying our cultural landscape, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the defining characteristic of modern Western culture, at least in the United States, is that it is unserious. Now, by “un-serious” I don’t mean that we should walk around with a furrowed brow and only talk about Kierkegaard or nineteenth-century German Romanticism. What I’m referring to is the nihilism of what German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called “last men,” apathetic creatures without any great passions or commitments.
As philosopher Thomas Hibbs wrote in his terrific book, “Shows About Nothing,” last men live lives characterized by a “state of spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations.”
Last men live to be amused and gratified. As R.R. Reno wrote in the latest issue of First Things, they may retain the “human desire for truths worthy of our devotion,” but since, as Hibbs noted, they don’t believe that any “religious or moral code is credible,” they settle for, in Reno’s words, “holding small truths with great vigor.”
An obvious example of a “small truth” is the taboo over smoking. If you’ve ever witnessed how smokers, or for instance, the overweight, are treated by people who pride themselves on their “tolerance,” you know that holding small truths vigorously “tends towards a smug, censorious, postmodern Puritanism.”
But our spiritual impoverishment and shrunken aspirations also shape the way we think about justice. Even when last men think that they’re taking a stand for justice, it’s often a very impoverished notion of justice, one that, not coincidentally, makes them feel good about themselves.
Think, for example, of the arc of the American narrative of justice: the abolitionists sought to free the slaves, and the Civil Rights Movement sought to free the slaves’ descendants from another, every bit as oppressive, kind of bondage. These were high and noble goals! Then came feminism, which while addressing some real questions of justice, was largely driven by feelings of angst and unhappiness, what Betty Friedan famously called the “problem without a name.”
But now, in the wake of the Sexual Revolution, “social justice” has been reduced to sexual freedom—little more that the right to hook up with whomever you want, whenever you want, and feel validated in any of your lifestyle choices.
Then there’s that war against microagressions, things that might make someone else feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable. The student senate at the University of Kansas, for example, felt it was striking a blow for justice when it banned the words “his and her” from its rules and regulations document so as not to offend students who don’t use gender-based pronouns. We can only shake our heads.
These are the so-called “high causes” of the unserious age we live in. As Reno said, it’s better for a society to hold strong truths weakly rather than weak truths strongly. But people with shrunken aspirations find strong truths too taxing to consider. Better instead to focus on what to wear on Halloween.
John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.