Polarization and Moral Emptiness: Two Sides of the Same Coin

Last night I watched the TV news on two different stations. The first ended the newscast by showing, one by one, photos of each of the 49 people killed in Orlando early Sunday morning. Most were in their twenties, each of them bright, strong individuals with a lot of future in their faces. My own tears blurred the picture. Then I watched the second TV news bulletin. It ended in exactly the same way as the first, and I cried all over again.

Before Orlando, I had prepared my next blog, whose opening paragraph read as follows, “I reject the rote use of the word ‘extremism’ that we are seeing these days. Adoption of this word as a summary description of all that confounds us suggests that a single enemy stalks us, conflating several different concerns, melding them into a less-than-meaningful label and helping to raise the fear factor. It suggests that if we once put extremism in check, we’ll get back to that better world we seem to have left behind.”

Now I ask myself if the thoughts that I recorded in my notebook last Friday stand up to our post-Orlando world. They don’t address the tragedy itself.  But they do address the rhythm and intensity of our times, in which Orlando is the latest in a series of shocking events.

Terrorists will applaud any discourse or behavior that raises the fear level. As people’s obsession with that mysterious conglomerate of problems we are calling “extremism” mounts, their fear mounts in parallel. This creates black and white, dualist thinking and plays into the hands of those who want us to be reduced by our fears.

Two features of life right now invite the use of the word “extremism.”

First, the security sector has chosen to use the phrase “countering violent extremism” (CVE) to replace “counter-terrorism.” The phrase captures the fact that some current terrorist projects have the capacity to mobilize larger numbers than in the past, because they go beyond declaring any particular political goal, and base their appeal on a set of ideas that they attribute to the Koran. Their expression of an extremist Islam makes it easy to draw alienated young Muslims to their cause.

In its second use “extremism” gets applied to polarized and populist politics. In times of relative stasis and satisfaction, the political center is larger than its extreme wings. But the times we live in are different, and they will continue to be different. We are engulfed in an acceleration of change, where assumptions about the past that used to make life fairly predictable are falling away. The most basic of these, at least in the West, has been that if you work hard you can count on having a job and a life of increasing material satisfaction. That assumption carried with it not only job security, but meaning

Polarized politics look extreme, but casting political issues in a strongly-tuned-up fashion is an understandable response to a real problem. The “enemy” is the failure of imagination on the part of all in leadership to search for and find solutions to difficult problems; the “enemy” is the inclination to ratchet up business as usual in hopes that intensification of old methods will bring new answers; the “enemy” is a soul-lessness, a “moral emptiness,” to use the phrase of one of our pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, that leaves many good people paralyzed on the sidelines.

We’ve seen this problem before. The Irish poet Yeats described the mood of Europe in the wake of the First World War,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

…The best lack all conviction

While the worst are filled with passionate intensity.

If Yeats is correct, that in times such as ours, the reliable center lacks passion and conviction, how do we go about changing that? What can we of the center do to ensure that the best will have convictions and passions in testing times?

Here is David Brooks’ answer to that question (New York Times, June 7, 2016):

“The larger culture itself needs to be revived in four distinct ways: We need to be more communal in an age that’s overly individualistic; we need to be more morally minded in an age that’s overly utilitarian; we need to be more spiritually literate in an age that’s overly materialistic; and we need to be more emotionally intelligent in an age that is overly cognitive.”

“Moral emptiness” may be related to rapid change, but it is also a product of our twentieth century struggle for values, where, in the West, freedom of choice, as long as it does not hurt another, became king. Freedom is an important moral requirement, but as a core principle it fails on its own to capture the deeper, values-based behaviors that promote human wholeness and maturity. The “extremism” discussion highlights the vacuum of moral content we are presenting to the next generation.


2 thoughts on “Polarization and Moral Emptiness: Two Sides of the Same Coin

  1. Some fascinating thinking here! I would like to see this blog expanded into a fuller essay so that some of the important themes could be explored further.


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