The telltale sign of Mother Culture’s lies is that they don’t make sense. This isn’t much help, however, since the people of our culture are so used to things that don’t make sense. Received wisdom is wisdom that by definition goes unexamined. You might say that my “method” for exposing Mother Culture’s lies is to be alert to received wisdom; notions that are accepted without question almost always turn out to be lies.
It’s received wisdom, for example, that “everyone knows right from wrong,” unless they’re insane. (This is in fact one of the judicial tests of sanity: if you don’t know right from wrong, then you’re insane.) In fact, however, the people of our culture are constantly debating what’s right and wrong—whether abortion is right or wrong, whether capital punishment is right or wrong, whether war is right or wrong, whether it’s right or wrong for homosexuals to marry, whether it’s right or wrong for women to be clergy.
Most often people will defend the concept by noting that everyone agrees that murder and theft are wrong. But murder is by DEFINITION wrongful killing and theft by DEFINITION wrongful taking; if the killing isn’t wrongful, then it isn’t murder, and if the taking isn’t wrongful, then it isn’t theft. A hundred years ago, smoking marijuana wasn’t wrong; now of course (because we’ve passed a law against it) smoking marijuana is wrong. If things that are right one day can become wrong the next, then how can it be said that everyone knows right from wrong?
It’s received wisdom that schooling is an unquestionable—almost divinely-mandated– necessity for humans. In The Holy, part of the reason David Kennesey sets out on his voyage of discovery is his realization that the schools exist to persuade us that every road leads to the marketplace, that life is entirely about getting jobs, getting ahead, making money. He rejects this teaching and seeks a road for himself that is not found on any of our cultural maps.
It’s received wisdom that humans have things called rights, which they’re born with in the same way that they’re born with lungs and kidneys. But fifty years ago women in this country didn’t have the right to have abortions, and doctors who performed them were criminals. Women now have that right, though it could still be taken away (if the “Right to Life” contingency ever becomes the majority).
It would be simple to cite many more examples of rights that people lacked one day and gained the next or possessed one day and lost the next. It would seem, therefore, that rights are not innate or “God-given” or inalienable; they’re things you have only if people AGREE that you have them, and if they stop agreeing that you have them, then you don’t have them any more.
In the absence of agreement, you can only ASSERT that you have (or someone else doesn’t have) a given right, and the only way you can back up this assertion is by resorting to authority (for example, holy scriptures)—which only works if your opponents happen to accept the authority you cite. The most effective authority, of course, is the law of the land (but even this authority can be rejected—as opponents of abortion do—since the law of the land can always be changed).
updated: 15 Feb 2004