Back in the 1980s, Herbert Stein, who chaired the Council of Economic Advisers under presidents Nixon and Ford, articulated what came to be known as “Stein’s Law”: “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
What Stein had in mind were unsustainable economic trends, which, with or without outside intervention, would collapse under the weight of their own flaws and unsustainability.
Unfortunately, “Stein’s Law” doesn’t seem to apply to unsustainable bad ideas.
Case in point: a recent article in the New York Times about Dylann Roof, who has been charged in connection with the nine murders at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
The article quoted several friends and acquaintances of Roof, all of whom knew about his racist ideas and his desire to use violence. One friend even recalled a time when Roof pointed to a Black woman, used a racial epithet, and said that he would shoot her.
His friend told the Times, “He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.”
Listen to that statement: “He was a racist; but I don’t judge people.” Those nine words represent the logical terminus of our insipid relativism. We’re so wary of being seen as “judgmental,” we can’t even bring ourselves to unequivocally condemn racism.
Now lest you think that Roof’s friend is an outlier, consider the opening of Allan Bloom’s landmark book, “The Closing of the American Mind” from nearly thirty years ago. In it, the University of Chicago professor described the hold that relativism had on young people—a relativism that, as the subtitle of the book put it, “impoverished their souls.”
“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of,” the books opens, “almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending. That anyone should regard the proposition as not self-evident astonishes them, as though he were calling into question 2 + 2 = 4.”
Bloom then tells the story of his students’ response to the Hindu custom known as sati, wherein a widow is burned on her husband’s funeral pyre. When the custom was banned by the British, the Hindu priests complained, prompting British general Charles James Napier to reply, “This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property.”
One hundred and fifty years later, Bloom’s students were so committed to their relativism that they either remained silent or “[replied] that the British should never have been there in the first place.” I’m guessing most Indian widows would disagree.
It’s important to understand that as ridiculous as it may seem, the kind of relativism on display in the Times and in Bloom’s classroom is the norm, not the exception. Bloom was correct when he wrote that “students, of course, cannot defend their opinion,” and relativism is the result of indoctrination. But, as we all know from experience, indoctrination can be difficult to overcome, and in the meantime, it prompts people to think and act in harmful ways.
That’s why I said “Stein’s Law” doesn’t seem to apply to bad ideas. People will defend the indefensible, as we saw in the case of the Planned Parenthood videos, and insist that truth is relative, even when it comes to burning widows or condemning racism.
This is why worldview, especially Christian worldview, is so vital, especially for our kids. If we do not teach them right from wrong and where the authority to distinguish the two comes from, they will get their ideas about the subject elsewhere.
Stonestreet is the Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and is heard on Breakpoint. Copyright© 2015 Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with permission. BreakPoint is a ministry of Prison Fellowship Ministries.