As I browsed through the boards of Pinterest followers, this gem by Oscar Wilde caught my attention:
“It is absurd to divide people into good or bad. People are either charming or tedious.” – Oscar Wilde
I couldn’t help but smile, since in our times, we most certainly do tend to blur the boundaries between “good” and “bad” and opt for the more politically correct “tedious” (or “boring”) and “charming” (or “exciting”).
Ironically however, “boring” is “bad” in our world of constant change and never-ending newness. “Exciting” or “novel”, “cool” or “different” is “good”. But “boring”, “tedious” or whatever is no more judgmental than “evil”, “vicious”, “coward” or “mean”. It is just our contemporary label for enacting that age-old ritual born of human civilization: blaming and condemning some, while praising an even more exclusive elite: the “wise”, the “virtuous”, the “heroes”, the “saints”.
To praise or blame, to mark some as worth imitating and others as deserving to be shunned or worse, is the foundation of ethics, of character-building, and thus of education and culture-making. We are no more civilized or open-minded than warrior tribes or so-called “primitive” cultures. We might just have stranger ideas about what to call “noble”, “wise” or “heroic”.
For what is fascinating about the quote is not that it reflects “liberal”, “cool” or “avant garde” values. Of course it does. What is fascinating is that in modern times we have come to consider it a value to shun the very words, the very labels “good” or “bad” that denote, not mere (moral) opinion, but right (moral) judgment.
The words “good” and “bad” do not mince truth. They imply it. They demand it and rest upon its attestation. But our “uneasiness” with the moral judgment “good” vs. “bad” stems not from tolerance, openness and progressiveness. Rather it stems from the implicit or explicit denial that we can know what is true, and therefore that we can know what is good. Instead, we make a virtue of being “cool” relativists, at reducing what is “true” and “good”, “false” and “bad” to random opinion.
The quintessential sign of this predicament is the other falsity that we live by: that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder when, in fact, it is as objectively real as truth and goodness, because it is another aspect of being like truth and goodness. But we delude ourselves that just as I can prefer the green dress and you can prefer the blue, and it matters not that the former reflects quality and craftsmanship and the latter is a cheap, badly-made synthetic, so I can prefer to believe in rotten tomatoes and you can prefer to believe in rhubarbs. It simply matters not, because truth/goodness/beauty/being is unknowable—and therefore irrelevant—anyway.
The irony of this predicament is that we are immersed in all knowledge, have reached astonishing heights of technological sophistication, and we claim to be “educated” because we have titles behind our names. And yet, when we give up what makes us human—the right exercise of our reason—what is left of us?
I can think of no better words that those of Marshall McLuhan:
“It is a mark of a feeble and vulgar mind to be impressed by the size of the solar system and ignore the grandeur of the internal dimensions of moral life and rational free will.”
Amen to that.