In 2005, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in a homily at the Concave that would afterwards elect him pope, spoke of “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”
The man who became Pope Benedict XVI was right, of course. The 12 years since he coined the expression “dictatorship of relativism” have proven just how repressive the drive to fulfill “one’s own ego and desires” can be. Back in 2005, “a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church [was] often labeled as fundamentalism.” Today, such a clear afaith is often labeled as a kind of “bigotry” and proof that there is something morally deficient about you.
The road to this dictatorship wasn’t only or even primarily paved by laws or coercion—it was also made possible by a kind of emotional blackmail that could be labeled the “dictatorship of subjectivity.”
When you read about the demands for “safe spaces” or the social media jihads against people who, like Chris Hemsworth and Hilary Duff, inadvertently do something that makes some people upset, you are seeing the dictatorship of subjectivity at work. When people ask “Should white chefs sell burritos?” and aren’t being facetious, you are seeing the dictatorship of subjectivity at work.
In the dictatorship of subjectivity, the measure by which we judge people and their actions is how they make us feel, especially about ourselves. Do we feel affirmed? Do we feel “safe?” Is our environment as frictionless as possible? Do we feel free to be “authentic” or “ourselves?”
If the answer to any of these and/or other similar questions is “no,” then we are being oppressed. If we see, read, or hear something that somehow makes us feel diminished, we are being oppressed. If we see, read, or hear something that somehow suggests that we are not unique and beautiful snowflakes and that the world does not revolve around our “needs” and expectations, we are being oppressed.
Like all dictators, the dictatorship of subjectivity substitutes fiat for discourse. The offended and uneasy are not expected to explain, much less justify, what they feel. All that matters is that they feel “it,” whatever “it” is. Woe betide the person who has the temerity to ask “What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
The dictatorship of subjectivity requires us, at least in public, to treat narcissistic noodlings like this as something more than, well, narcissistic noodlings. The headline “I’m a lesbian who started dating a man. He never seemed comfortable in my world” prompted a Norm MacDonald “Wait . . . what?” moment. For a moment, I wondered if it was a parody.
Sadly, it wasn’t. It didn’t matter that the man was “handsome and warm.” It didn’t matter than he was “enthusiastic about getting to know [her] two sons.” It didn’t even matter that he “reassured, commiserated and conspired with [her 13-year-old] son as [he and her father] gently guided [her son’s] transition to manhood.”
What mattered was that he “[used] heterosexual relationships as a default,” when talking about— wait for it—heterosexual relationships. His “deeply ingrained reactions to our gay-positive world were too powerful for him to overcome and for [her] to ignore.” These “reactions” were more important than his being “devoted to my boys and me.”
This unintentionally comical level of self-absorption and demand for complete affirmation is bad enough in personal relationships. At least the person on the receiving end of the unreasonable demands can walk away. Quickly.
Unfortunately, the personal is quickly becoming the political. You can be warm, devoted, caring, and open-minded, but if other folks feel somehow “unaffirmed,” then it doesn’t matter.
This is, of course, crazy. While we are responsible for our actions, including what we say and/or write, no one can reasonably be held responsible for how other people, especially people we have never met, respond to our words and actions.
The key word there is “reasonably.” Reasonability was last seen fleeing the dictatorship of subjectivity and requesting political asylum in Bhutan.
In the dictatorship of subjectivity, ambivalence, as in “the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone,” is a kind of thought crime. It’s not enough “to live and let live” because, increasingly, the thought that someone, somewhere, is less than totally affirming of everything about you is an unbearable physic burden.
Thus, it’s not enough for a Catholic Christian like me, who believes and affirms the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, to acknowledge that my beliefs are not held by most Americans, including people I care about a great deal. It’s not enough to concede that these beliefs are not likely to be reflected in our laws and customs for the foreseeable future. It’s not even enough to stipulate that trying to reverse the political and legal changes that brought us to the current moment may not be advisable.
Instead, as a prominent evangelical ethicist has written, neither “neutrality” nor “polite half-acceptance” is “an option.” Nowadays “you are either for full and unequivocal social and legal equality for LGBT people, or you are against it.”
The technical word for that ultimatum, which is what it is, is “stupid.” As someone who has been on the receiving end of discrimination in both housing and education, I’m basically okay with full legal equality. But what do you mean by “social equality?”
Early in HBO’s adaptation of “And the Band Played On,” a gay political operative, played by Ian McKellen, addresses a meeting of the Democratic Platform Committee, urging them to adopt a mild gay rights plank. In his remarks, he tells them that the proposed language “doesn’t mean you have to like us.”
That line, which doesn’t appear in the book, has stuck with me for nearly two decades. It’s a reminder that what ultimately matters is equal rights under the law, not what your neighbor does or doesn’t think of you.
At this point, LGBT folks are much farther down the road to “full and unequivocal social and legal equality” than African-Americans and other minorities were in the years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In many ways, they are much farther down that road than many African-Americans are today. Fifty years after Loving v. Virginia, only one half of whites over the age of 50 say that they would be “fine with it” if a family member married an African-American. By way of comparison, about the same percentage of this group supports same-sex marriage.
Giving the generational differences in attitudes towards same-sex relationships, the “social equality” Gushee speaks of is not far away. (It’s certainly closer than it is for African-Americans.) But pushing for complete, total, and unquestioning affirmation right now from the few remaining holdouts won’t complete the process—if anything, it will spark further resistance and resentment. Then again, the dictatorship of subjectivity has never been good at delaying gratification.
Image courtesy of RyanJLane at iStock by Getty Images. Illustration designed by Heidi Allums.
Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at BreakPoint.org. His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.
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