Mischief of Memes

Today’s popular public discourse is worrisome



The gravestone of former New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal reads, “He kept the paper straight.”

Last month, A. G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, disavowed “hiding behind” old standards. Sulzberger went on to say, “We’re not retreating from the principles of independence and objectivity. We don’t pretend to be objective about things like human rights and racism” (NYT June 8, 2020 B2). Blimey! His comment offers obfuscation, not clarification.

Let’s displace, step by step, the Boss’s nonsense from the establishment stilts on which it’s perched.  Some philosophical leverage is in order.

First, if independence and objectivity go together, is Sulzberger telling writers that they should follow his lead and no longer think independently about rights and racism? Well, then, who should think for them? Or is it, just maybe, that he’s urging them not to think for themselves unless they can and suggesting that they can’t?

Second, is the boss implying that he’s okay with pretending to be objective about other matters of great substance? If the NYT is pretending to be objective about abortion and euthanasia and sexuality, it’s a sorry pretense indeed.

Third, and bear with me gentle reader, is Boss Sulzberger of the opinion that there are “brute” moral facts that need no supporting premises? Maybe so. But then we’d best note a pair of fluttering red flags. One is the temptation, from which few are exempt, to substitute idiosyncratic intuition for authentic moral fact. The other flag is that there are critical premises that support moral judgment. Such premises emerge from an understanding of what it is to be a human person. Ethics depends on philosophical anthropology.

Now a fresh question comes center stage, and it’s one with which we all need to wrestle. (Sulzberger now exits Stage Left.) St. John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, taught that ethics depends on philosophical anthropology which in turn rests on metaphysics. Staying the course with such an exploration is hard work. Plus, the wages are low. This I admit, though I point out that at least the work is steady.

Still, a survey of today’s popular public discourse is worrisome. Therein we find an ubiquitous virus which we ignore at our own peril: the slogan, now in the novel form of the meme. It’s a thought blocker, no matter its source. (Any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell should be kept there!)

The latest celebrated example of such a slogan is “Black lives matter.” God knows how true this is. But if we say nothing but this, no matter how many times, we bypass persistent questions that we should pursue. “How much do they matter?” “Why do they matter?” “Do all human lives matter?” “Why in our established disorder do the lives of the unborn and the elderly, lives in the womb and the nursing home, matter so little?”

People quarrel, says Chesterton, because they don’t know how to argue. Here’s a quarrel from the Fourth of July. The protestors are in an oceanside standoff, and one brandishes a fresh slogan likely to morph into a  meme. It reads “BLM” in bold letters and underneath “Beach life matters!” Ah, yes. But how much and why? To avoid the ridiculous we better take at least a few steps, one argument at a time, toward the sublime.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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