The Flattening of Meaning
If you have been paying any attention to the culture in the last decade you will have noticed something that I like to call “the flattening of meaning.” This occurs when the culture decides that everything is society is exactly as valuable, meaningful and important as absolutely everything else in society, and everything is given the exact same amount of social status because nothing is more valuable, excellent praiseworthy, worthwhile, beautiful, or important then any other thing. Nothing is inherently, objectively better, more desirable, superior, greater or more excellent any other thing. Everything from fashion choices, to lifestyle choices, to relationship decisions is only considered to be valuable, worthwhile or good as a matter of individual opinion, not as a matter of objective fact. So while individuals might like or appreciate some things more than others, on a social level, everything that exists has exactly the same status as everything else that exists. The idea that some things are to be lifted up above other things is tossed aside and everything is placed on the exact same even plane. The mountain range of culture where some things have a higher status than other things because they are considered to be better, greater, superior, excellent, important, or more meaningful is bulldozed and flattened, and everything is placed on a flattened out cultural plane where everything has the exact same social status as every other thing.
This is where our culture is currently heading.
All ideas, concepts, expressions, art, lifestyles, ways of living, family arrangements, and views of the world are given the same social status, and none of them are elevated above the others. Every single way your life might turn out is exactly as good as any other way your life might turn out.
It is this set of cartoons on a civilization wide scale:
What is the message of those cartoons?
The message appears to be that very thing that a woman might do is exactly as good (or as bad) as every other thing that a woman might do.
The cartoons are depicting various different possible outcomes that a woman might experience as thought they are all equally good, meaningful, acceptable, or valid. It appears to be claiming that singleness and marriage, childlessness and parenthood, prudishness and promiscuity, having a family and being single, having kids or not having kids are all considered to be exactly equal in value. According to that cartoon, it is not inherently better to be married, or to have kids, or to be promiscuous, or to do anything and no one way of living is in any way inherently better than any other way of living. All there is are different ways of living and not one is inherently any better than any other, it’s simply a matter of what a particular person wants at a given time.
That is a perfect example of what I mean by the flattening of meaning.
In post-modernity nothing has any inherent meaning anymore. Nothing is ever thought of as objectively, good, beautiful, superior, outstanding, well-done, or excellent, and there is no real, objective, universal, transcendent value in anything. There are no objective standards for what constitutes a good life, there are only personal standards and life goals that each person makes for themselves based upon whatever it is they have decided they want. Mix in the fact that what a given person might want is (according to postmodernism) just a matter of social and cultural conditioning and what’s left is individuals chasing goals and picking how they live based on a combination of social conditioning and self-centered desire chasing.
It’s hollow, shallow, and nihilistic.
That said, there is a reason that those cartoons were made, and why the woman who made them, Lainey Molnar, has more than one million instagram followers. She has captured the spirit of our age, and the moral ethic of our age, in way that resonates with people.
Let me try to explain what I mean by that.
The moral ethic of our age says that everyone in society must have all the exact same social and cultural privileges. That is, it is not enough for their to be equality under the law, everyone must have and equal amount of social power, agency, clout, respect, desirability and status. The reason why that there is a move to say there can be no objective standards for what is good, worthwhile, beautiful, and valuable because having standards of that sort creates social inequality. If society decides there are objective standards for what is good, worthwhile, valuable, and beautiful that would mean that social cache, clout, prestige, opportunities, resources, and social power will accrue to people whose life most aligns with those standards at the expense of those who disagree with those standards. In other words claims that standards are objective or that some things are objectively valuable privileges the people who agree with those standards and pursue the things said to be objectively valuable while marginalizing those who prefer a different standard or have different values.
For example, if we elevate monogamous marriage and say being married to just one person is better then being single, or polyamorous, or sleeping around, or playing the field, then that would unduly privilege married people. Such an elevation would grant married people social esteem, social prestige, clout, power, resources, and opportunities that are not given to single people, polyamorous people, confirmed bachelors, divorced people, and so on. Thus, in order to do away with all social inequality the postmodern world has decided to do away with, you might say deconstruct, all the objective standards and objective value judgements which might lead to some people having more socially power, clout, resources, etc, than other people.
And this leads to nihilism.
It leads to nihilism precisely because of what is going on in the cartoons at the beginning of this essay. When people tear down all objective standards and objective value in the name of preventing anyone from being privileged at the expense of anyone else they utterly flatten the social and cultural world. When there are no objective standards there is no way to determine what might be good, true, beautiful, lovely, excellent or worthwhile, and without objective value there is no center of gravity for ones goals to revolve around. In short, without objective standards and objective value nothing actually matters.
And this is nihilism. It’s is like floating in a world without gravity; there is no way to know which way is up and which way is down and there is nothing that holds the world together. The result is the existential equivalent of vertigo and a society that is coming apart.
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In our culture today we are presented with a nearly infinite number of options, but we are constantly reminded (by the sorts of people who make things like the cartoons at the beginning of this essay) that no option is objectively better than any other option. We are then given the option told to pick what we want, without being given any way to determine what might actually be worth wanting. The question that never gets answered is: if everything is exactly as valuable as every other thing, why would we want to pick anything at all? In the absence of objective standards and objective value, what differentiates one thing from another?
Once you get to the bottom of the postmodern view of the world you realize that there is no objective point of reference at all by which you can orient your life, and all that is left is subjective preferences. And it is even worse then that. On apostmodern understanding of the world what one prefers is merely a result of socially conditioned preferences absorbed from a culture one neither chooses nor creates. Thus, on a postmodern view preferences do not express ones unique individual value judgments, preference are that expression of the socially conditioned value judgements one has absorbed from the culture. According to a postmodern reading of the world there are no objective standards, nothing is objectively valuable, and your preferences are determined by social conditioning from a culture you never chose nor created.
Again, this leads to nihilism.
If we accept that there are no objective standards and no objective meaning, if there is nothing objective that we can look to in order to orient our values, goals, and preferences then we are left with a world in which nothing really matters. All that is left is to pursue whatever wants we happen to have as a consequence of how we were socially conditioned by the society we happen to born into.
Such a view makes life pointless.
Obliterating the standards and value structures which served as the lighthouse, compass, and anchor of our civilization will leave us rudderless and adrift with no map, no ability to navigate, no anchor to keep us where we are, and no destination for us to aim at. The culture seems to think the thin gruel of person preference can be a replacement for the nourishment of objective meaning and transcendence, and it is about to find out that it was dead wrong about that.
Thanks for reading.