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Critical Times for Critical Thinking

How can significant issues be tackled when a culture of cynicism and relativism has destroyed appreciation for the truth?

by
Elizabeth Scalia

Bio

June 20, 2008 - 8:35 am
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I showed them the Hiatt piece and comments, and asked their thoughts. “Well, you know,” one young man shrugged, “it doesn’t really matter. It’s gone beyond what’s true or not anymore. People are going to believe what they want to believe.”

Hiatt himself suggested as much, writing:

Why does it matter, at this late date? The Rockefeller report will not cause a spike in “Bush Lied” mug sales, and the Bond dissent will not lead anyone to scrape the “Bush Lied” bumper sticker off his or her car.

“It doesn’t matter,” the young man, repeated. “People don’t look at ‘the truth’ as ‘the truth’ anymore. There’s just what you believe, and how the other guy is wrong.”

“But that describes feelings, not truth,” I said.

“Right. Your feelings are your truth.”

“When did this happen?” I asked, “because I didn’t get the memo.”

My son gave a wry laugh and piped in, “around the time we couldn’t decide what the meaning of ‘is’ was!”

Laughter all around, but I could not join in. Collecting their news and information from Comedy Central and internet forums rich with satire and irony, everything has become a joke for our young — the “truthiness” that “feels” right, an acceptable alternative to solid facts or findings. But clever jokes and easy cynicism will not right the wrongs of the world or encourage serious governance over the cartoonish politics of the day.

“Do you know Pope Benedict?” I asked the group. “Gunter Grass told a story about the pope when he was a teenager named Joseph Ratzinger and they were in an American POW camp.”

“Right, he was a Nazi,” a girl piped up, knowledgeably, “but everyone was conscripted, then.”

With a low moan I decided to let that bare bones narrative suffice. “Grass related a conversation he had with Ratzinger in that camp. ‘There are many truths,’ he said. And Ratzinger replied, ‘there is only one.’”

“Well, that’s why he’s pope,” my son said, breezing it along. “Seems like ‘truthiness’ has been around for a while then,” he added.

Relativism has been, anyway,” I agreed, knowing they’d lost interest. When they left I took out Benedict XVI’s last homily as Cardinal Ratzinger, and reread this:

How many winds of doctrine we have known in these last decades, how many ideological currents, how many fashions of thought. …

While relativism, that is, allowing oneself to be carried about with every wind of “doctrine,” seems to be the only attitude that is fashionable. A dictatorship of relativism is being constituted that recognizes nothing as absolute and which only leaves the “I” and its whims as the ultimate measure.

Which explains, perhaps, how logic is served when a writer simply reports the facts of a finding and is met with: “STFU. Now.”

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Elizabeth Scalia is a contributing writer to First Things Magazine and the blogger known as The Anchoress.
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