American culture in the present day is characterized by extremes. We live in an era of right and wrong, good and evil, black and white, patriot and terrorist, us and them – and the influence of such distinctions is only growing stronger as we move further into the 21st century. One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of this oppositional rhetoric. The most obvious – and politically charged – are found in President Bush’s speeches, riddled as they are with religious and moral dichotomies presented as fact – remember the “Axis of Evil?” However, those in power could not employ these strategies if their citizenry did not consent to them. I believe that the current political discourse is merely one indication of a greater societal tendency toward reductionist and absolutist thought.
The reason for this change is twofold. First, Western philosophy has always swung between relativist and absolutist notions of truth, the gray area versus the black-and-white area. My high school English teacher referred to this as “the great cultural pendulum,” a back-and-forth pattern that has been in motion since medieval times. In the last century, modernism (late 1800s to the repressed 1950s) gave way to post-modernism (1960s and beyond), with the latter’s focus on relativism and diversity. And after 40 plus years of post-modernism, society is simply due for a backswing into a new – and as of yet unnamed – era.
However, historical events also influence the movement of the pendulum. Sociologist and philosopher Michel Foucault believed that the need for social control increases at times of cultural breakdown and change – and control is ultimately the driving force behind absolutist thought. Think about it: The world is a chaotic place, with natural disasters, inexplicable tragedies, and war, but also love and fortune. Faced with this randomness, people have two choices: Accept the entropy as it is, or impose a system upon it. Most choose the latter, ascribing their behavior and that of others to religion or moral codes, luck, fate, Allah, Jesus, etc. When faced with an event, they interpret it from within this system, which is both easier and safer than having to consider context and the frightening prospect of meaninglessness.
So, back to Foucault. The events of 9/11 were the catalyst for a society-wide change in American culture, a prime example of breakdown leading to the desire for a more rigid social structure. This change is not merely observable in government and politics, but also in all domains of society.
For example, consider the simultaneous rise in eating disorders and the widespread “obesity epidemic” afflicting Americans. Behind these concurrent phenomena is the same absolutist thought pattern: Gluttony is bad; therefore I won’t eat anything. Think of the covers of women’s magazines, with headlines like, “Lose 25 pounds in 10 weeks” and “Guilt-Free Gourmet” next to a picture of a chocolate cake. The omnipresent association of guilt and food leads to repression, which ultimately leads to indulgence. People must eat, of course, and once they do they swing to the opposite end of the spectrum and overeat. Case in point at UCSB: One of my roommates freshman year announced she was dieting “moderately,” which she defined as eating only one meal per day, as opposed to nothing.
The exact same pattern may be seen with Americans’ views of sexuality. We have abstinence-only education and virginity pledges, juxtaposed with our fixation on sex and nudity. While retaining our Puritan values on the surface, Americans are the number one consumers of pornography in the world, and are perversely attentive to every sex scandal, “gay” Teletubby and nipple-slip story that may arise in the media. Once again, an absolutist maxim (sex is bad/wrong/dirty) lends an illusion of control that ultimately drives people toward the opposite extreme, sexual obsession and fetishism.
This pattern is, quite simply, unhealthy – a fact that has been shown in history, with powerful societies descending into extremes at times of breakdown, as in the orgies of food, sex and violence at the end of the Roman Empire. Although I doubt we will see a real-life “American Gladiators” any time soon, it is still important for individuals be aware of absolutism, so that they may forge their own path between all of the extremes.