If you want a clear sign of the downfall of American civilization, listen to the crazy way teenagers and their clueless adult imitators talk.
"Dad, I wrecked the car? But it's okay, the other guy has insurance?"
"I got my eyebrow pierced today? It really hurts?"
This maddening way of speaking, in which every statement ends with a rising intonation that makes it sound like a question, has spread like a disease from the Valley-girl airheads of the 1980s to just about everyone under thirty today.
Linguists disagree on what this phenomenon means exactly, but some observers say it is a symptom of our society's deepening antipathy toward any sort of firmly held belief or conviction. By making every statement sound vague and open-ended, people avoid the appearance of committing to a principle.
"There ain't no wrong, ain't no right," sang Janes Addiction, a popular early nineties rock band. Popular culture (including academia) teaches that there are no moral certainties, that everything is relative. If an act is considered "right" in a certain cultural context, goes the conventional wisdom, then we have no right to pass a different judgment.
Jettisoning moral principles allows us to more easily accept things that a few decades ago would have been repulsive to the general population, like homosexual marriage or "The Jerry Springer Show."
Obviously, the moral relativist line of thinking leads to absurdity. A sociology professor once told me the Aztec religious ritual of flinging virgins into live volcanoes was acceptable, since that was "morally correct" in the Aztec's cultural context.
Don't confuse this type of thinking with open-mindedness. The tolerance of moral relativists extends only to those who share their view that every manner of behavior should be tolerated.
As an experiment, watch the vague uneasiness that arises in a university classroom if you express a firm opinion against, say, abortion, America's moral equivalent of the Aztec ritual. You may literally be run out of the room, or at least branded "backwards" and "reactionary."
In such an atmosphere, anything resembling an expression of a deeply held conviction is a breath of fresh air. A declaration by the Catholic Church earlier this month said followers of other religions were in a ``gravely deficient situation'' regarding salvation. Some religious leaders, including some Muslims, said such a declaration would harm interfaith relations.
Instead, Muslims should be congratulating the Vatican for having the guts and conviction to say that they believe their religion is correct, that they are in possession of a moral and spiritual yardstick by which humanity should be measured. As a Muslim, of course, I think the Catholic religion is incorrect (that's why I converted from Catholicism to Islam)--but they deserve respect for bucking the moral relativist trend. And if the Catholics believe they have a monopoly on salvation, how does that prevent others from talking with them about how to make the world a better place?
Moral relativism is a stage in our civilization's slide toward moral and intellectual bankruptcy that began when belief in God was removed from public life. The German philosopher Nietzsche observed correctly that without belief in God, the concept of morality loses all meaning. His problem was that he didn't believe in God, and so he lost all morality.
In his continuously developing worldview, Nietzsche took the idea further when he said that the only "right" thing is that which one feels like doing, regardless of who is hurt in the process. The concept finally reached its logical conclusion with Nietzsche's mental breakdown and subsequent hospitalization in a mental institution for the rest of his life.
For the sake of America's sanity, let's hope Muslims get their act in gear and fulfill their responsibility of helping to bring religion back to public life.
And please, please, please, let's help bring some sanity back to the English language?