The Cowardice of Our Half-Trained Relativistic Elites

Last week, “Hardball” host Chris Matthews resigned on air after a decades-long run on the program. He assured us that his departure would not mean the end of his political commentary—that he would continue to inform the public on the sensations in his lower extremities, finely-tuned political seismographs that they are.

Of course, sensations in the lower extremities were part of the reason that he had to leave “Hardball.” In his brief farewell address, he obliquely referred to the sexual accusations women have leveled against him, but didn’t provide any context.

Instead, he suggested that he is leaving to make room for a younger generation, one with better ideals—better ideals which have improved workplace environments, for example. He explained that “compliments on a woman’s appearance that some men, including me, might have once incorrectly thought were OK, were never OK.”

For those who assume that part of the #MeToo phenomenon was about forcing men to come to terms with the effects of their unsolicited sexual advances and violations, Matthews’s statement probably felt formulaic and inadequate. What does it mean that his misbehavior was not “OK”? Does that mean it was wrong? Almost wrong? A moral gray area?

The etymological origins of the term OK are as vague as the meaning of the word.

There are a number of competing explanations as to where, exactly, the word came from, and little consensus on which is most probable. But traditionally, the term has been used in a few different ways. First, it can signify assent:

Biden Campaign and DNC: “Will you please drop out of the race so that Bernie doesn’t get the nomination?”

Mayor Pete: “OK.”

The word can also be used as a descriptor which indicates mediocrity:

CNN host: “Can you comment on the effectiveness of the Sanders campaign in getting out the vote?”

“Journalist”: “It’s been OK . . .”

Finally, OK can be a descriptor of general well-being:

Aide: “Secretary Clinton, are you feeling dizzy again?”

Hillary: “I was, but now I’m OK.”

What these three usages have in common is a tepidity, an indifference, a lack of conviction. In the first example, the mayor isn’t exactly eager to suspend the campaign, but he will in order to avoid a worse fate. The “journalist” on CNN doesn’t think the effort of the Sanders campaign has been great, but it hasn’t been terrible either—just OK. Finally, Hillary isn’t feeling particularly vivacious, but she isn’t going to pass out. She is okay, and she’ll make it through this fundraiser. Of note is that none of these uses has any moral dimension.

Yet, the past few years have shown an increase in the use of OK as a moral concept or ethical category when it comes to behavior.

Last week, after Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) threatened Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh should they rule to uphold limitations on abortion providers in Louisiana, Adriana Cohen wrote in the Boston Herald that “vitriolic rhetoric and personal attacks against government officials are never OK.”

Last month, Netflix released a program about the difficult lives of teenagers called “I Am Not Okay With This.”

When New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got in trouble for celebrating the superior IQs of certain Jewish people, a George Washington University professor explained that this kind of thing is “not OK anymore.”

In commenting on her reaction to how Donald Trump loomed behind her during a presidential debate, Hillary Clinton said “This is not OK.”

Talking to Oprah about what she referred to as a “grey-area rape,” comedian Amy Schumer said, “I didn’t consent, and for me, I lost my virginity while I was asleep and that’s not OK.”

In moral terms, saying something is OK is especially morally vague—if it’s “OK” to do it, does that mean it is a good thing? Or just an allowable thing? But in these uses where something is “not OK,” the connotation seems less ambiguous—it seems to be wrong.

Why do we need “OK” as a moral category? Why can’t Chris Matthews just say his unsolicited commentary was wrong? Why can’t Schumer just say her assault was wrong? Of course, the idea of “wrong” is related to a number of other moral concepts—sin, crime, and evil. And I suspect these connections are the reason for the rise of “OK” as a moral category.

The War on Truth

Since the 1960s, the ascendant philosophies in academia and elite culture have been anti-foundationalist ones.

Anti-foundationalism is an attack on a variety of ideas that are deemed to be regressive, oppressive, or demeaning—ideas like essence, goodness, tradition, and authority. These ideas are viewed as a hindrance on the individual that limits his or her autonomy—the ability to live the life that he or she desires. Thus, ideas like essence and goodness are viewed as anathema to liberalism, as it is understood today. So, the idea of sexual essentialism is attacked—it is a personal feeling that determines whether one is male or female, not any objective criteria imposed upon the self by others. Similarly, in the past, abortion was conceived as a morally neutral act by its advocates: good and right are personal, subjective judgments, so whether an abortion is right or wrong will depend on the perspective of the person in question.

Interestingly though, many of the people who assert an anti-foundational view of the word (which is to say an amoral one) seem to have deeply moral views about all sorts of issues—and on those they see no grounds for compromise. This is how “safe, legal, and rare” became “Shout your abortion” and how the grounds for Schumer’s threats are precisely that the Supreme Court’s decision might “rarify” abortion.

But the amoral dimension of the former slogan accommodated the moralism of the latter, which refigures abortion as a moral good, insofar as it is an exercise of personal autonomy—the central end of contemporary secular humanism. Further, given that this particular exercise of personal autonomy is one that many Americans would prefer to be restricted in some capacity, there is an added dimension of virtue to the act: it becomes a gesture of “resistance” and self-affirmation.

Another example where elite liberal Americans can be seen vacillating between moralism and relativism lies in their relationship to truth itself.

During the Clinton Administration, we debated what the meaning of “is” was. But during the Bush presidency, the truth was reconfigured as an objective, black-and-white phenomenon. After all: “Bush lied. People died.” But then, as neophyte Barack Obama’s political star rose, critics swooned at Dreams from My Father, his spiritual “autobiography,” which announces in its early pages that the narrative shouldn’t be regarded as “truth”—that its characters were “composites” and that the sequence of events is inaccurate.

Throughout the Obama Administration, elites advertised a subjective view of truth as a mark of sophistication: Oprah Winfrey posited truth as an emotional experience, imploring the viewer to find “your truth.” English departments valorized the idea that “truth” is a function of narrative construction—or good storytelling.

Just the Facts?

But as Obama’s approval numbers dropped and the 2012 elections approached, a new cottage industry was born: “fact-checking.” “Fact-checking” reasserted the idea that truth is unequivocally objective. There is little gray area; something is evidently true or evidently false. Journalists appointed themselves as the fact-checkers, and the media used this new power selectively to undermine Mitt Romney and neutralize his attacks on Obama’s record. Remember Candy Crowley?

By the time Trump was elected, most major newspapers had again embraced a black-and-white version of truth, with fact-checkers giving daily updates to their running tallies of President Trump’s “lies.” And yet, curiously, the media can still carve out a place for subjective truth—when it suits them. Despite the total lack of any objective evidence, the New York Times and other outlets reported the accusations of sexual assault against Brett Kavanaugh as matters of fact.

American elites, as good products of the “Best American Universities,” have embraced a subjective view of reality. But as we see, their educations were incomplete: a true commitment to relativism requires that you abandon the prerogative to make universal claims to truth. Being a relativist means you don’t get to talk about what is “good” for people, you don’t get to arbitrate “facts,” you don’t get to advance general theories about “right” and “wrong”—in short, you don’t get to make claims about “social injustice.”

Nevertheless, our elites are totally unprepared to abandon these prerogatives. Thus, we are left to endure the unending howls of moral indignation from a bunch of half-trained relativists who are skeptical of morality.

And this explains the emergence of “OK” as a moral concept. Saying something is “not OK” is the last, pitiful, rhetorical refuge of the postmodern secular humanist—it is a way to advance a universal moral claim while eschewing the traditional language of morality and concealing the metaphysical underpinnings of the assertion with a non-committal, insipid, ambiguity.

The ends of this pseudo-moralism are horrific, which any close reading of Amy Schumer’s comments to Oprah will show: confessing that she lost her virginity by being raped as she slept, the fiercest judgment she can muster is that this was “not OK” for her. These people are moral cripples. They are so committed to a sophisticated permissiveness (the mark of 21st-century liberal enlightenment) that they can’t even bring themselves to call evil merely “wrong.”

Anyone committed to the idea of goodness—anyone committed to a collective vision of a moral society—should challenge this moral cowardice wherever they encounter it. Go ahead—it’s OK.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

Photo: Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

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