Chuck Klosterman and Relative Morality

Thoughts on “But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past”

By: Matt Ryklin

When I was fifteen I had ridiculous opinions. Of course, at the time I didn’t think they were ridiculous, I thought they were well deliberated, intelligent, and insightful.

Everyone looks back with some disgust and amazement at how they behaved when they were younger, but the opinions I’m talking about weren’t only related to music, or fashion, or how to get girls. When I was fifteen, I was of the opinion that we shouldn’t legalize gay marriage. Now, I couldn’t imagine holding this opinion, and I even look disdainfully upon those who do. How could you not legalize gay marriage? It has no effect on anyone except for the positive effect it has on people in love who want to be together. I can’t possibly imagine not being for the legalization of gay marriage. And yet nine years ago, I didn’t think it was necessary.

This is where my head went when I first heard of Chuck Klosterman’s newest book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. He seeks to explore how future society will look back upon the time in which we currently live. To do so, he first explores how we look at the past and how our present morals and values shape our perception and distort reality. Then, he examines how predictions about future society are almost always wrong, because we naturally employ present-day values in order to create these predictions. Klosterman then uses this analysis as reason to question nearly everything we think about ourselves in the present, asserting that our present is draped in an unavoidable relativism that makes it difficult to reckon with right and wrong, and makes it almost impossible to attempt to understand how future societies will think about their past – our present.

I want to analyze my fifteen-year-old self and figure out why he thought what he thought. First, he had no contact with any gay people. I think this is really the most important point. In my high school of over 1200 students, there were maybe a handful of gay people, and they were all, to my knowledge, in the closet. There were whispers that maybe they were gay, but none of them were out and proud. I understand why. I don’t think it was necessarily an antagonistic environment, but it certainly wasn’t a welcoming one and I can’t imagine how horrible it would have felt to be gay and afraid to let your classmates know. It was not a friendly environment for gay people and I can only hope it has improved.

This lack of exposure led to two main problems for me as a would-be ally to the gay community. First, I had no way to understand the gay experience. Second, the plight of gay people was peripheral and irrelevant to me. It didn’t feel like a real problem. I think these two dilemmas arise in any situation in which someone experiences a lack of exposure to any other group.

For example, while my background did not prepare me to sympathize with the gay community, it has always allowed me to relate with and understand other minority or traditionally marginalized ethnicities in America. I was privileged enough to grow up in a town where my school was only 50–60% white. This exposure to other ethnicities has been fundamental to my intellectual development. I also have the benefit of having immigrant parents myself, and so it has always been easy to relate to non-traditional American ethnicities (by that I generally mean ethnicities of a non-Western European origin). This experience meant that the plight of minorities in this country was relevant to me and was something I understood on a personal level. I interacted with both family and friends who were immigrants and I heard and learned about the difficulties they experienced as ethnic or racial minorities. Conversely, until college, gay people were totally unfamiliar to me. I had no direct exposure to their plight. These conditions are what allowed an otherwise understanding and smart boy to arrive at not supporting gay marriage.

The reason I was not in support of gay marriage, however, was not solely because of ignorance and lack of sympathy. I arrived to the conclusion through what I thought at the time to be impeccable logic, but I now believe is a traditional logical fallacy — the slippery slope. I believed that if we were to endorse gay marriage, then it would pave the way for perhaps supporting bestiality, prostitution, or any other number of things that we still hold to be taboo.

As a young history buff, my rationale was rooted in the past. In the year 1900, I claimed, it would have been inconceivable to imagine a society in which gay marriage was legalized. Perhaps it would have even been as inconceivable as it sounds to us today to imagine a society in which a man can marry his goat. I claimed that as time went on, societal taboos would continually become destigmatized. At some point we would have to stop, right? We can’t allow a man to marry his goat, right? Well, of course not. But if you asked Matt born in 1867 about gay marriage, he probably would have said the same thing. Matt born in 1991 thought, at age fifteen, that gay marriage should be the stopping point in order to prevent future goat marriages.

It’s obvious to me now that I was immature and wrong. Since that age, I have experienced more and more of the world and it has opened my mind and refined my logic. It seems preposterous for gay marriage to be illegal. I don’t know anyone, save my 80-year-old Russian grandparents, opposed to gay marriage. Am I in a different bubble from the one fifteen-year-old Matt was in? I don’t think so, and this takes us to Klosterman’s book. While fifteen-year-old Matt may have arrived at the wrong conclusion, I think there may be some value in the logical process in which he engaged, and I don’t mean by a reassessment of the slippery slope.

Klosterman’s book is all about trying to imagine the future. What will it be like? How will they view us, their ancestors? This is, as he states, an incredibly difficult process, because often the future is so unbelievably different than the present, that no one could have possibly predicted it. This is what fifteen-year-old Matt was getting at — if in the past we found gay marriage to be crazier than flying pigs, and now it’s legalized, what will be legalized in the future that we now think is crazier than those pigs?

Klosterman reckons with the idea that we could be modern day Aristotles and that in 1000 years people will laugh at how stupid we are: “Will our current understanding of how space and time function eventually seem as absurd as Aristotle’s assertion that a brick doesn’t float because the ground is the ‘natural’ place a brick wants to be?” (page 99). He chats with some very smart people who dispute this idea. Neil Degrasse Tyson, in particular, asserts that since the year 1600, the scientific method has assured that any advancements we make in science are objectively true advancements and that we will not, one day, be Aristotle’d. Looking at science since 1600 would seem to prove Tyson correct, but of course everyone in Ancient Greece probably thought the same.

Bringing this back to taboos, I wonder now whether we are perhaps approaching a universal moral standard that will not be undone or altered, similar to the universal scientific correctness that Tyson maintains. That is to say, we will legalize gay marriage and guarantee human equality, but we will never allow a man to marry a goat. Maybe there is some agreed upon line beyond which society will never venture. In some ways, this seems like the natural culmination of a very old idea, perhaps begun in the time of Aristotle — the core pillar of our modern democracies, that all men are equal.

It has taken over two thousand years for this principle to near realization. Maybe we as a human race have innately agreed that this is the principle that should unite us, and the only reason we keep destigmatizing societal taboos or outcasts is because those disenfranchised people have good logical grounds to protest their exclusion from this core tenet. Their reasoning comes across as valid to enough of population that society decides to include them in the “all men are created equal” designation. Slowly, we begin to realize the phrase. And, perhaps when we do, it’s over. There are no man-goat relationships because that would breach the core value of human equality. Animals are not humans. There is no slippery slope, or, rather, the slope is slippery, but we eventually get to the bottom of the hill, and there we can rest.

So, great — I think I’ve arrived at what appears to be an enduring theory of progress in relation to society’s acceptance or rejection of its members’ behavior. I’ve outwitted fifteen-year-old Matt and I think I am in a position where 90-year-old Matt won’t look back at 24-year-old Matt as an idiot (at least not in this regard).

But, as Klosterman suggests — when you think you know something, you need to reconsider — the future is never what we expect. And so, the biggest conundrum of Chuck Klosterman’s theorizing is this reevaluation of how we should think. If we accept that it is nearly impossible to predict how our values will be seen in the future, that we could be “wrong”, then how do we defend anything with conviction? How can we hold tightly to any system of beliefs if that system is subjectively tied to the time in which we live, and could very well be deemed as “wrong”, reprehensible, or immoral in the future? The very idea that we can make progress in these areas undermines the presence of any certainty.

We could acknowledge this fact, but ignore it. Our skepticism of the existence of any eternal objective moral code or values could resign us to simply fighting for the contemporary code. I don’t care that people living in the year 2540 look back at us as being bigoted for not letting a man love a goat. Right now I think it’s wrong so I will not allow it. But, how do we even decide what is contemporarily right? Most people make that decision by simply absorbing a mix of history and zeitgeist; and their conclusion is one they believe is objectively correct. But, if this decision is shown by time to be subjective, then how do we apply logical arguments towards the fight for our values? Is it any different than arguing over a favorite food? If it’s possible for someone’s ostracized beliefs to one day become the moral standard (and as with gay marriage, this process can occur within a couple decades, not centuries), then how can I with any certainty fight for what I see as right today?

The primary dichotomy with which we are contending, then, is the conflict between progressive ideas and conservative ones. That progressivism exists at all is evidence that morality changes over time and, because the progressive ideas of yesterday become the normal of today, it would appear throughout history that fighting for something progressive is remembered more fondly. Fighting for civil rights, for gay marriage, for refugee assistance, for drug decriminalization — all of those who fought for these rights are now remembered fondly by our society at large. Conversely, all those fighting against these rights are perceived more and more as ignorant. This would suggest that perhaps we should just always be liberal, because society has tended to move in that direction, and so we will be looked upon favorably by our future generations.

I think that’s a pretty fair prediction — that future society will progressively appear more liberal to us in the present. For example, I think in 25 years our conception of gender and its fluidity will be remarkably different than today. Younger people tend to be more liberal and older people more conservative, and so as the older people die, society moves forward. Past liberals become modern conservatives and give birth to more liberal babies, who will one day become conservative relative to their society, too. But, again, this assumption is largely based on trends over the past few hundred years, and is not without its outliers – the Islamic world is less liberal by Western standards than it was before. It’s theoretically possible that conditions push society more conservatively. There are also countless examples in history in which a society liberally progressing is thrown off track, like Rome’s transformation from republic to empire, or Germany’ evolution from the Weimar Republic to Nazism. Predicting the future to consistently be more liberal is still too tangential of a conclusion. We need to get closer to a core understanding of human nature, and perhaps that will help us predict.

Maybe just as Neil Degrasse Tyson believes we are moving towards an objective understanding of the known universe and the rules that govern it, we are also moving towards an objective understanding of humanity and the values we hold and are “meant” to hold. Or maybe humanity is and always will be confusing.

For one thing, how are we supposed to disentangle any objective moral rules from the subjective motives of the people who hold them. Take “all men are created equal.” Is it an objectively correct statement towards which we are hurdling at never before seen speeds, or is just another expression of the same selfishness that has always governed human action? When the Founding Fathers of America articulated this principle, were they seeking to help humanity? Or were they simply seeking to put in place a system that would prevent kings, because kings were bad for them personally, as non-nobles in an aristocratic system?

Were the first political champions of voting rights for women or African Americans driven by their innate moral compasses, or did they see a personal reward in these fights? It’s likely that at least some of them saw that pushing for reform would win them the black or female vote, guaranteeing them more power. And those opposed seemed to drop their opposition as soon as they thought it would weaken their power and position to hold the line.

Today, a part of the Republican Party’s platform is the installment of stricter voter ID laws. This, despite evidence to show that voter fraud is almost non-existent. The unspoken impetus for this is that, most likely, the people lacking ID would vote Democrat. It’s not really about voter fraud — it’s about winning elections. And would the Democrats be so opposed to these laws if these voters were not assumed to be theirs? We can’t know for sure, but I imagine they don’t want to lose elections either, and so they care.

“All men are created equal” might be an objectively correct statement, but it’s also a powerful piece of rhetoric. Its history in America is a history of elections and power. So it’s inevitably going to be intertwined with the desire for power in a way that, say, “Force equals Mass times Acceleration” is not.

This brings me back to men and goats. While it’s possible that the inclusion of all people into our equal rights rhetoric will bring an end to the legalization of former taboos, I also fear the eternal quest for power will render morality timelessly subjective. If enough men want to marry their goats that it could sway an election, and those men have enough social justice allies, maybe a political party will jump on the opportunity. They will be attacked by the media and by the other political party — just look at Republican rhetoric about gay marriage — but history tells us taboos are only taboo until enough people tolerate it and it is dragged out into the public. Then a taboo becomes something about which to be prideful. When a cult gets big enough, it’s called a religion.

And for the most part, my morality and the morality of my era deem this progress to be good . Even if the motivation behind the political endorsement of new movements is shrouded in pragmatic selfishness, the result is good — more people have more rights, and less people are stigmatized for who they are. This is a good thing. We believe this to be progress, and we have been on this path for hundreds of years as more and more people are welcomed into society’s accepting arms. Perhaps the only wrong point of view is to be against this progress, even if we are talking about men and goats. Klosterman, in fact, covers the possibility that in the future our conception of intelligence changes and we come to believe animals have greater intelligence than us, possibly because of the way they process emotions. If we become that much of an animal loving and worshipping society, then why can’t a goat be in love with a man? And who is to say no one will see an advantage in pushing this idea towards general acceptance?

As Klosterman says, we have no way of really knowing these things. We cannot use our value system as a way of predicting the future, because values change dramatically across generations. However, I question whether we can use history to make some possibly timeless generalizations about humankind. Is it wrong to characterize human history as an endless quest for power? If we assume this is standard human behavior, then while it is still difficult to predict what the future will be like, we should be able to make some broad predictions based on this understanding. Or maybe humans stop becoming a power-seeking species. Maybe we all live in virtual reality chambers, pleased by endless goat pornstars, lavished by virtual Michelin Star chefs, floating in eternal pleasure and contentment, never to read a book again.

But, for now, I recommend reading Chuck Klosterman’s latest book — But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Present As If It Were The Past. It will likely send you on your own personal adventure, as it did for me. So, grab it soon before it, too, becomes the toilet paper of tomorrow.

Matt Ryklin is a 24 year-old writer living in New York. Feel free to contact him at or @matweet222



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1 Comment

  1. Stefan Schindler

    For an interesting and enlightening variation on your essay and Klosterman’s book, kindly allow me to suggest Richard Rorty’s PHILOSOPHY AND SOCIAL HOPE, and in particular Chapter 18: “Looking Backwards From the Year 2096.” You might also want to look at Michael Parenti’s AGAINST EMPIRE and THE TERRORISM TRAP; and Lewis Lampham’s PRETENSIONS TO EMPIRE, and his newest book, just released: AGE OF FOLLY. Then, to continue your self-education, you might want to read JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE (by James Douglass, inspired throughout by Thomas Merton); THE DEVIL’S CHESSBOARD (by David Talbot); THE NEW RULERS OF THE WORLD (by John Pilger); and THE NEW PEARL HARBOR REVISITED (by David Ray Griffin). Meanwhile, check out THE PEACE ABBEY FOUNDATION website; and another website: ENGAGING PEACE. Many thanks for your honest, courageous, insightful, provocative essay.

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