Polarization is ruining our political culture. But perhaps you already know this.
Most likely you are already part of the “exhausted majority,” the two-thirds of the population that Charles Camosy, an ethics professor at Fordham University, writes about in his new book.
Your deepest yearnings for a better world are frustrated. What can inspire you if you feel weighed down by political disillusionment and the coarseness of contemporary culture?
In his book, Camosy offers a positive vision for the exhausted majority. Its title sums up his action plan: Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People.
Pope Francis has repeatedly named the problem we must overcome with the phrase “throwaway culture.” Camosy takes up his challenge, and offers an inspiring solution.
Camosy articulates a “consistent life ethic” that affirms all the values the “exhausted majority” already agrees upon. He cites data showing that the destructive polarization holding us all back has its source in two warring ideological tribes that each only make up a sixth of the population. That means only a third of society consists of people whose minds will never change, whereas two thirds of people comprise the “exhausted majority” who have much more in common than is usually recognized.
The devastation across our culture reminds me of a powerful image from the final episode of the pop culture phenomenon Game of Thrones. The image symbolizes how, in the name of “liberation,” a popular tyrant brings nothing new, only the customary madness of violence and war.
After embracing her dark side, the character of Daenerys Targaryen surveys the devastation she has rained down on the people of King’s Landing. Her military forces are arrayed and ready to continue with her imperial conquests.
Just as in Game of Thrones, the “throwaway culture” mindset of our times is visible across a scorched landscape. The bleak panorama causes the exhausted many to lose heart.
The people in charge seem to have no game plan, other than to try and recruit us for their side. What they want most is simply for us to hate the others, the side they want to defeat.
Game of Thrones became famous for its eight seasons on HBO, serving up a sensational spectacle of violence and pornography. Interestingly, in its final episode it pulled back from the very formula that had garnered it a popular following.
Instead, it self-consciously emphasized the theme of storytelling, reflecting on the role of stories in bringing about lasting change. Unusually, the dialogue and action of the final episode remained decorous and restrained, as the events unfolded with the solemnity of a Greek tragedy.
Accustomed to the preceding seasons’ shocking spectacles, many viewers have loudly criticized the final season for failing to meet their expectations. In the last episode, the main characters instead turn to sober ethical deliberation about right action.
The writers of the show thus served up an unexpected yet suitably happy ending for Game of Thrones’ violent world. Similarly, Camosy encourages us to rethink the cultural expectations we might currently have.
His “consistent life ethic” would have us leave behind political polarization. After all, political polarization simply cedes power to the minority third of the population. And that belligerent minority wants only to fight enemies.
The “throwaway culture” mindset will never be happy until it exterminates (“throws away”) the inconvenient. But as the finale of Game of Thrones suggests, only mercy and forgiveness, not conflict and warfare, can heal both them and us.
Camosy says we must be guided by fundamental ethical principles: Negatively, we should never reduce other people into being mere instruments in service of some other purpose, disregarding their inherent dignity. Positively, we should always resist any form of violence against the vulnerable and marginalized.
He identifies the need for consistent principles across an entire range of ethical issues. Cultural sex practices cause sexual assault, abuse, and hookup culture. Reproductive biotechnology harms women, children, embryos, and people with disabilities. Abortion directly kills the vulnerable and pressures vulnerable women to remain non-pregnant.
The poor are discarded by the economy, migrants are dehumanized and abused, and the vulnerable die prematurely. Robbed of their own inherent dignity, non-human animals and the environment are treated as mere instruments in service of consumer culture. Euthanasia and state-sponsored violence programmatically kill off the marginalized.
Camosy helps us to envision what a satisfying and happy ending to all this could be.
As with Game of Thrones, don’t be fooled by the noisy minority that wants to drag us all back down into the old game plan. They want only their own preferred violent ending, in which the hated must die and the designated heroes win.
But the majority is actually yearning for a happier story, one that will elevate us. A consistent life ethic can take us there, beyond throwaway culture’s dispiriting game of thrones.
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