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The Age of Hubris

Cardus Executive Vice President Ray Pennings delivers a thoughtful essay on the Age of Hubris and the way in which dignity and humility serve as essential ingredients to effective disagreement. 

5 minute read
Topics: Civil Discourse
The Age of Hubris August 23, 2017  |  By Ray Pennings
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The Age of Aquarius was supposed to bring peace, harmony and liberation. At least that’s what the 1960s song told us. I guess I missed the verse describing the Age of Hubris that was to follow.

Hubris, in ancient Greek times, described “the intentional use of violence to humiliate or degrade.” The connotation evolved over time to its current sense of “an overweening presumption that leads a person to disregard the divinely fixed limits on human action in an ordered cosmos.” The Age of Hubris seems an accurate label for today.

Much ink has been spilled and megabytes misused concerning statue removal, Presidential tones, and even whether it is appropriate for a sportscaster named Robert Lee to work the University of Virginia football team’s season opener. Feelings and responses seem the standard by which decisions are judged these days, and the children of the Aquarius seem to believe that the love and harmony belonging to our generation can be enjoyed only to the degree Aquarian sensitivities are affirmed and not offended.

Let’s not be ambiguous here. When protestors proclaiming Nazi slogans and symbols walk through our public spaces, it is not a matter on which “all sides” need to have dialogue and be understood. The principle that all humans are equal before God in dignity and worth is foundational to Western civilization and society.  When we wax eloquent about the battles that soldiers fought on behalf of our countries, human dignity is the principle for which they stood tall. When at war for such basic principle, nuance is not required.   

We defend all life. We condemn those who suggest that some portion of the human species is superior to other parts. When people seek to make such distinctions, suggesting the value of some lives are ultimately worth more because of skin pigmentation, religion, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, or smarts, we respond unequivocally: No! As a Christian, I know that what makes human beings special, from the greatest sinners to the most pious saints, is they are image bearers of God. Full Stop. The modern, secularized version has got rid of the image of God part, but still holds on to constitutional and universal principles of human dignity, making them part of the foundation on which democratic societies are built.

But saying that there is only one acceptable argument on the core question does not mean that it is the only question that we can and should talk about. I have no hesitation in condemning President Trump’s equivocal (to use the most charitable term) response to the Charlottesville demonstration. Equally, I have no hesitation raising questions about the media and protesters’ reaction to his words.

The instigation for the Charlottesville protests and counter-protests was a proposal to remove a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. “My peers and I feel strongly about the removal of the statue because it makes us feel uncomfortable and it is very offensive,” reads the petition to City Council prompting the debate, sent in by local high school students.   

Various recommendations were made in response, including relocating the statue, or transforming it with fuller information regarding its history. In the current political milieu, sadly, such compromises and efforts to put truth first are the immediate casualties of what the fight is really about.  

The response to Charlottesville is, I suggest, a metaphor for the politics of our age. Civil discourse and learning from history aren’t part of the equation. The only acceptable political response is to assuage the feelings of the offended, and in so doing affirm their beliefs. There is only one question. The world is black and white. If you don’t agree with me on everything, you are evil and must be opposed.  And whether we like it or not, the inevitable outcome of absolutizing every issue is the imposition of power which often ends in violence. This time it was the neo-Nazis, and they must be condemned. But the logic of the beliefs and approach of all sides powerfully remind us: Politics has consequences.

The triumph of feelings over discourse isn’t just manifesting itself in Charlottesville on the issue of race. Those who are out of step with progressive culture on issues such as marriage, gender, and sexuality can no longer be taken seriously because they are deemed unworthy of being understood.  Labels, rather than arguments, are the automatic response to any politicians who dare say, for example, that the Gay Pride Parade doesn’t represent everything they believe in. Woe is the politico who says he or she would rather take a pass on Pride than compromise conscience. 

What of those who take a contrarian view on when human life begins, even if they try to justify the position using only scientific and biological arguments? They are told the debate is over, and they are deemed dinosaurian for continuing to engage it.  

I confess to being sceptical that this generation can be so uniquely insightful about the modern version of human dignity, with its attendant corollaries regarding race, conception, gender, sexuality and death.  Call me old-fashioned if you will, but I suspect that the science of the next century will make some pronouncements regarding the consequences of separating child-raising responsibilities from biology, and of tinkering with marriage as historically understood, that will cast us 21st century progressive Westerners into a less-than-favourable light. 

I am not at all sure the statues of the present day will pass the wisdom-test of our successors.

So what to do with it all? Perhaps a heavy dose of humility and a rediscovery of the core principles of human dignity are a place to start. If the test of human dignity is how we respect and deal with those with whom we most profoundly disagree, there aren’t very many of us who are making the grade these days.

To be sure, President Trump embodies an approach to public life and politics that earns the title hubris.  But he’s hardly alone. Many on all sides speak and act with the utter self-confidence that their position, stated in the starkest terms and without due regard for history, much less of their own finitude, is the absolute position with which all reasonable people will agree. Those who do dare disagree are, by their very disagreement, judged unreasonable and therefore less than worthy as citizens and even as human beings.  

Welcome to the Age of Hubris. It almost makes me yearn for the return of Aquarius. 

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