We are all familiar with the expression, “getting burned” by someone or something. We use it in the obvious sense, such as when we touch something very hot, and we also use it to mean that we have learned from a previous, negative experience. We may also use the expression to mean that someone has given us a particularly harsh level of criticism. Yet while this “burning” level of criticism rarely benefits anyone, we have now witnessed the banishment of virtually any type of corrective criticism in Western culture, to the point where no one seems to realize that something rather more important than someone’s personal feelings are burning. And this state of affairs stems largely from the confusion of the fluctuating standards of personal taste with the unchanging standards of personal virtue.
While I cannot say that my opinions are any less…well, opinionated now than they were 20 years ago, it is clear to The Courtier that his opinions on many matters have softened somewhat as he has gotten older. This is not so much because of an abandonment of a sense of standards, or a befuddling of a line between good and bad. Rather it is a realization that some things, which are not intrinsically right or wrong in themselves, simply come down to a question of taste.
For example, both watching a basketball game and eating chicken wings are, in essence, matters of personal taste; for me, these things are both awful, and I do not enjoy them. We can certainly talk about whether or not we like these things, and why, without addressing any deep, important questions of our time. Depending on our answer, we may not be asked over to Phil’s house next week to participate in the combination of both these things, but that’s as may be. What is disturbing about our present age, however, is that we have confused expressing our personal taste, and the relative nature thereof, with the expression of concern over moral issues, which are not in fact relative.
If someone were to say to you that they do not care for a particular reality television program – and sadly one is spoilt for choice these days – because the people in it behave in a completely depraved fashion, the common response to such a statement is not one of, “We should complain to the broadcaster and get this off the air.” Instead, the response is dismissive: “If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to watch it.” Is that simplistic response really a legitimate answer to this type of criticism?
It should be obvious that since I do not want to watch said television program, because I find it morally objectionable, I do not need to be told not to watch it when I express a criticism of its moral content. Obviously I have already reached the conclusion that there is something wrong with this content, otherwise I would have said nothing, and my purpose in raising the issue is not really for my own benefit. Rather, it is for the benefit of both of us.
To put it another way, if I see a pot bubbling away on a hot stove, I know that it would be dangerous to touch that pot without some sort of protection. Otherwise, I shall end up burning my hand. Yet what is my obligation when I see that you are about to pick up that bubbling pot without using a tea towel or an oven mitt: do I simply stand there and say nothing, because I am not supposed to judge your actions?
Let us take this analogy a bit further, and look at what happens next. Ask yourself, what happens when you decide to behave stupidly, and pick up that boiling pot, while I keep my mouth shut. When you cry out in pain and anguish, am I supposed to just ignore you and go about my business? No: you would expect me to help and comfort you, providing you with some type of treatment, and taking you to the doctor if need be.
Now imagine that not only did I say nothing before you picked up that pot, since I cannot judge your actions, but I did nothing, as you stood there screaming and crying after injuring yourself. If I did not help you, you would criticize me for being inhumane, and you would be right to do so. You might even conclude that I was lacking in basic human decency, and that I was a cruel person with no feeling toward others.
Therefore why is it acceptable for me to assist you after you have ruined your hand, but not acceptable for me to warn you not to burn your hand in the first place? For surely the latter is far easier than the former, let alone less costly and time-consuming for both parties. If of course you do not listen to my warning and burn yourself anyway, then we can take that as it comes, However if I can persuade you not to burn yourself in the first place, aren’t we both better off, in the end?
Our culture has gone so far in the direction of not wanting to hurt anyone’s feelings, that we are terrified to open our mouth and say that something is wrong or inappropriate, for fear of being criticized or shunned by our peers. I must stand by and watch you burn yourself on the stove while saying nothing, and then clean up afterwards, again while saying nothing. This is utter nonsense.
If we are to bring Western society back from the selfish malaise into which it has fallen, we need to start asking the questions which our contemporary culture does not want us to ask. In doing so, we will be rejecting the assumptions which we are told are those held by reasonable people. And if that is what is to happen, gentle reader, then I say, so be it. I am not going to stand idly by and watch you injure yourself.
At the same time, remember that being right does not absolve you from helping another pick up the pieces when things fall apart. We must be the very first at hand when someone needs our assistance and we are in a position to provide it, even if we find it unpleasant or inconvenient. Otherwise, we are standing by the stove, saying, “I told you so,” as our fellow man writhes in pain from his poor decisions. Not only does this do no one any good, but it is simply a variant of the gross selfishness which got us into our present mess in the first place.