The Compass Points Everywhere

Charlie Accetta
Nov 10, 2013 · 3 min read

The social quality of a society is determined more by the methods and tone of its arguments than by outcomes. After all, the list of dead civilizations exceeds those existing presently by whatever the total number is, minus our one. Many of those dead worlds provided the moral and civic designs that underpin our current structure, so there was much worth saving. In the end, each civilization, no matter how worthy, exhibited a fatal flaw that hastened its demise. Many societies experienced a warning period of upheaval, a patch of time when the moral compass pointed away from the original tenets that allowed it to thrive, wrested in an opposite direction to serve some perceived better interest. The gradual and eventual fall of Rome proceeded when the Senate was bribed into silence and imperial edicts eroded respect for traditional gods. Classical Greece before it began to fade as the bodies of its Athenian philosophers were ground into dust by Spartan warmongering. Clashing bronze replaced dialogue. The rest, as they say, is history.

The societal compass has taken a Kantian bend in our present world, where we individually employ reason to determine a moral stance, the exact pose of each person distorted by the statistical smoothing of the democratic process. Immanuel Kant can be forgiven for not foreseeing the effect of the mass of separately developed thoughts applied against a unified dogma. A single accepted direction for social morality is impossible when we are each free to argue our own specific solution. We adopt the belief that our own moral compass is the only one operating effectively and become imperious in this belief. When challenged, we parry. We cannot hear Kant’s logical heart beating while beating a fist against our own. Dialogue requires twice as many ears as mouths, along with an equal number of focused minds. The math of it is both simple and daunting.

For every social debate, there is a range of opinion divided by infinite segments. As it has been from the beginning of time, most people are incapable of voicing exactly why they believe what they believe, but that no longer prevents them from trying. Read the signs carried by children and fools at the driveway entrances of abortion clinics or nuclear weapons sites. Read the memes posted by your politically-challenged Facebook friends. None of that is original to the person in possession, but watch what happens when such content is challenged. Clashing bronze replaces dialogue. The problem with this “thought by proxy” is that it rewards the loudest, most gratuitous, most outrageous among us with the spotlight. One person posts it and twenty more repeat it and each times twenty more until, suddenly, one snide piece of moralizing pop art becomes a chain-letter representation of a movement.

It isn’t supposed to work like that, where a one-liner attached to a Photo-shopped image is allowed to evade the tests traditionally applied to moral or political arguments. We allow it because our Founding Fathers allowed it for themselves. That was a time when influence was earned, when the argument was first filtered, then distilled, then aged like a fine single malt whiskey. The barrels were guarded, the cases and bottles sealed and released only when true value was determined by certified arbiters of taste and reason. Now, it seems we’re awash in moonshine and the drunks are directing traffic.

The moral compass is broken. True North is no longer true. We are, each of us, endowed with the inalienable right to be anarchist, mad bomber, special interest, yogi, Messiah and Anti-Christ. Was it inevitable that the movement towards the rights of the individual would manifest in a way that would require a new Declaration of Independence from the tyranny of well-funded cartoonists and the mindless parrots on their mailing lists? Viewed another way, is this exactly what was supposed to happen? Was the compass supposed to reflect eternal struggles and force us to take sides … to grab on to one side of the needle or the other and extract our best efforts to be heard above the noise? There is that hopeful thought, set hard against the fateful lessons of civilizations long gone.

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