For the last five decades and more, youth culture has been a driving force in our society. As young people gained increasing amounts of discretionary spending power, purveyors of products and entertainment became increasingly interested in “what the kids like these days,” to the point that much of our popular culture—music, movies, television, web content—is geared toward the interests of adolescents and young adults. It seems, though, that this influence of the youth is not limited to shaping the way we seek pleasure, but has even seeped into the way we think and express ourselves.
This aspect of the phenomenon can be summarized in one word: “whatever.”
We’re well familiar with this stereotype: the disaffected teenager, rolling his eyes at authority figures and responding to attempts to reason them into a position or behavior with a spat-out dismissal: “whatever.” All the reasonableness the parent can muster breaks against the walls of “whatever” like waves upon shoreline cliffs.
“Whatever” rejects reason. It is an assertion of pure willfulness: “I dismiss your facts, your arguments, your appeal to my intellect. I simply say no. I will not. I refuse. You cannot move me.”
We encounter this “whatever” reasoning (or anti-reasoning, as it would rightly be called) in far too many places. It fills internet threads and comboxes like a torrential rain, ceaselessly pounding and drowning out all else. Seriousness is replaced by snark. Consideration is pushed out by callousness. Fair-mindedness is swallowed up by foul language.
One version of this falls under the category of the ad lapidem fallacy. The ad lapidem argument (“argument to the stone”) is a logical fallacy in which the person simply dismisses, mocks, or ridicules the other’s position or argument without actually addressing it. The name comes from a story in which Samuel Johnson responded to the immaterialist philosophy of George Berkeley by kicking a stone and saying, “I refute it thus.” Rather than examine Bishop Berkeley’s thinking, Dr. Johnson instead elects for performance art.
Whereas a reductio ad absurdum follows the logical chain of the opponent’s reasoning to its unacceptable ends in order to point out its flaws, the ad lapidem fallacy bypasses the point being made and simply declares it silly. It is an assertion, not an argument, with sarcasm as its primary tool. It aims not at the intellect but at the herd instinct, trying to create a jeering crowd behind it. (To find examples, simply follow a Twitter account of a person with a different viewpoint from you, and you will notice quickly how common this fallacy is.) It is much easier to employ “whatever” thinking with a mob behind you.
The patron saint of the “whatever” movement is Friedrich Nietzsche. All of the essential elements of this attitude can be found in his philosophy. (Think of the older brother from Little Miss Sunshine, with his obstinate refusal to speak to his family, pointing to his poster of Nietzsche as his inspiration.) In his “transvaluation of values” the adherents find the freedom to discard standards, mores, and traditions if they find them ill-suited to themselves. In his “will to power” they discover that the ability to assert oneself over against other people and the world in an act of destructive defiance, hoping to create the order they desire.
But all of this puts things exactly backwards. Rejecting morality because I find it does not fit me is like cutting up my right shoe because it will not fit my left foot. Placing willfulness before goodness only begs the question: ought we do something simply because we can, or because we want to? If wanting something makes it good, then no person can condemn another’s actions as immoral. When we remove our actions from the realm of intellect and place them in the domain of will, we can no longer argue about what ought to be done: we can only fight and see whose will prevails. “Whatever” thinking, then, is the tool of the bully and the despot, the basic attitude that might makes right.
This is the constant battle in the public square: will our civil discourse be governed by reason, or by sophistry? Will it be dictated by our intellects or our wills? (Just where the emotions fit into this scheme is a whole other subject, best left to another essay.) Will we say to one another, “Come now, and let us reason together,” or will we say only, “Do what I wish”? What seems like a childish rejoinder can in fact hide a deeper hostility to reality itself. Taken to its extremes, it embodies the worst of existentialist philosophies, denying nature and nature’s God in favor of one’s own project of self-creation. I will decide what I want. I will decide what’s good for me. I will decide what I do.
But such a radical move does not truly liberate the individual; it only annihilates him. Denying the pull of reason and reality denies the person underneath. There’s no “there” there. It also negates any commonality between people, for what can I share with another if I am constantly reinventing myself? Thus we cannot have any dispute in the public square, for there is nothing public—only the private, only the isolated, only the lonely. There is no point of contact with their fellow man, for there is no basis of fellowship. Only alienation.
You might think this melodramatic. To that, one can only respond: whatever.