What connects the phone-hacking press scandal and the riots erupting around the country? At rock bottom it is the question of value, or values. Why do we hold certain things to be important, sacrosanct, precious, worthy of careful protection. And other things not. And, most importantly, where does consensus come from on those matters?
A relativistic approach to truth claims there are no universal things that are true for everyone. Merely individual truths or personal preferences. Where the rubber hits the road with this pernicious teaching, is that the corollary is that there are no such things as reliable shared values and that authority is considered to be prima facae a bad thing - an imposition of power on freedom, a tyranny. And so relativism is a grand tool for the proclamation of individual freedoms, which is not, in itself a bad thing - we are right to be wary of tyranny.
But it becomes an extremely bad thing when the message is that there is no such thing as value. And make no mistake, that is a persistent undercurrent of our relativistic culture. When that is taught it is no surprise to find:
1. Kids who don't know why stealing is wrong ("wrong"? What does that mean? Right and wrong are outdated and redundant moral categories as far as relativism is concerned)
2. Newspapers who can't tell where the boundaries lie between the public interest and gross professional misconduct and criminality
3. Authority figures, whether teachers or police or parents, being systematically stripped of the their punitive powers to the point where authority no longer commands respect but is sensed to be powerless to intervene
4. A generation who think that their rights extend to an almost infinite degree and that the individual - not society - is the only arbiter of truth, value and behaviour
David Wells wrote convincingly a generation ago that there are three forces controlling society. Law, licence and - keeping the two at bay from each other - unenforceable virtue. Doing the right thing because it is the right thing, not because you are coerced. The trouble is that all the institutions that undergird unenforceable virtue - family, promise-keeping, service of others, humility, church, a despising of greed - are seriously undermined and in some cases completely destroyed by relativism.
Remove this middle space and what you are left with is a direct conflict between law and licence which the last nights have graphically illustrated. The underlying problem is not criminality it is lack of shared values. And the problem under that is the dismissal of Truth. As one Muslim woman said on the news the other evening "isn't this just what happens when a country cuts itself loose from its values?" The only response left? Throw 16000 police officers at the problem in a desperate attempt at containment.
If the riots aren't the real problem, the police presence will never provide a lasting answer. Only a return to society that wants truth will do that. This week reveals a deep dysfunction, normally disguised with a veneer of (God-given) civilization. The mechanisms of civilization have been systematically eroded by relativism to the point where, paper-thin, they have begun to tear apart to reveal the horror beneath.