The right way to hate, and the problem with hipsters

“Hipster” is a hard word to define, but a good approximation might run something like this: “An individual whose life serves as a billboard advertising self-aware distaste for the often crude and sometimes contemptible patterns of modern American life.” Coming largely from the middle and upper classes, the hipster knows well the vulgar, unaware consumerism that characterizes his social strata, and he’s embarrassed by it. He’s defined largely by what he dislikes, and he mostly dislikes the sort of things that ought to be disliked by any decent person. When he joins battle–and hipsterism is a sort of continuous, slow-motion skirmish against conventionality–irony and disinterest are his weapons of choice, as if bourgeoisie sensibilities are too loud to be fought with anything but a shrug.

And therein lies the fundamental problem with the hipster. He is not usually for anything in any definite, discernible way.  Admittedly, he is probably quite fond of certain kinds of music and art. But even here, does he really love Sufjan Stevens for being Sufjan Stevens, or does he love Sufjan Stevens because doing so makes a statement about the sort of person who prefers Justin Bieber? Granted, Sufjan Stevens does in fact make much better music than Justin Bieber ever could–as do many other things, some of which are insects–but it seems a disservice to Sufjan Stevens to love him primarily for not being Justin Bieber. It is all very well to ironically drink PBR and smoke cheap cigarettes, wear skinny jeans, and ride a fixed-gear bike, but to what end, once we get past the surface rejection of mainstream American culture?

If hipsterism were to be accused of a crime, the charge would be disloyalty: disloyalty to good things. In itself, there is no virtue in disliking bad things. Any idiot can do that, and most of them do. In fact, hating all the right things may only make the situation worse. We can all agree we ought to reject consumerism, but there are many versions of not-consumerism that would quickly make us long for the bad old days of yore (see for example any moment in the past 100 years of Russian history). Hatred of Communism gave us McCarthyism, and opposition to interminable war in Vietnam yielded the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. “Anything would be better than this” is never actually true.

Any proper hatred must begin with love if it is to be either healthy or effective. My objection to abortion is not primarily grounded in distaste for the procedure, but in love for human life. (If abortion were outlawed tomorrow, to be replaced by infanticide, it could hardly be called a victory.) I hate socialism, not because I am viscerally opposed to shared ownership of the means of production, but because I rather like people and prefer that we starve as few of them as possible, a goal which socialism is notably inferior at achieving. I reject Islam only because it directs people away from the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Our antipathy must be rooted in love–in a primary loyalty to what is good–if we’re ever going to get anything done. We cannot make progress if we don’t know where we’re going. There must be an ideal to guide, even if it’s an ideal too perfect to be achieved in a year, or a thousand. It wasn’t dislike of slavery that ended the institution; it was belief that all men are created equal. And when the abolition of slavery did not fully achieve that ideal, the push for truly equal rights was led by men who had a dream.

If we aren’t for something, something for which we’re willing to work and fight and cry and dance, then we’re good for nothing. One of the few songs which I actually despise is John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” He sings, “Me and all my friends / We’re all misunderstood / They say we stand for nothing and / There’s no way we ever could / Now we see everything that’s going wrong / With the world and those who lead it / We just feel like we don’t have the means / To rise above and beat it / So we keep waiting / Waiting on the world to change / We keep on waiting / Waiting on the world to change.” It might be the hipster anthem (if anthems weren’t such unpleasantly decisive things): He wants you to know that he’s very upset about bad stuff, but as long as that’s clear to everyone, he’s quite content to sit around in skinny jeans drinking PBR, waiting on the world to change. He has no loyalty to anything, so he does nothing.

Every time a hipster puts on an ugly shirt simply because it’s an ugly shirt, every time he gets on his fixed-gear bike and congratulates himself because he’s making a statement, he is changing the world; he’s making it just a little bit worse. He’s beating something with nothing. On the other hand, wearing an outfit simply because you like it, or listening to music simply because it’s good, or riding a bicycle (with a fixed gear or multiple gears or no gears at all) simply because doing so is a delight; none of these will accomplish very much in themselves, but they do have this one, essential virtue: they are for something. And if you only love it long enough, you can beat anything with something.

Is God good?

In Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” he offers the following response to the Christian argument that objective moral standards are inexplicable unless God exists.

[The moral argument] has all sorts of forms. One form is to say there would be no right or wrong unless God existed. I am not for the moment concerned with whether there is a difference between right and wrong, or whether there is not: that is another question. The point I am concerned with is that, if you are quite sure there is a difference between right and wrong, then you are in this situation: Is that difference due to God’s fiat or is it not? If it is due to God’s fiat, then for God himself there is no difference between right and wrong, and it is no longer a significant statement to say that God is good. If you are going to say, as theologians do, that God is good, you must then say that right and wrong have some meaning which is independent of God’s fiat, because God’s fiats are good and not bad independently of the mere fact that he made them. If you are going to say that, you will then have to say that it is not only through God that right and wrong came into being, but that they are in their essence logically anterior to God.

“Is that difference due to God’s fiat or not?” The problem is called Euthyphro’s Dilemma, taking its name from the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates wonders “whether the pious or holy is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods.”

Both Socrates and Russell offer us a choice between two options. The first says that “good” means “that which God approves.” Love is good because God says it is; murder is bad for the opposite reason. At first glance, this definition may seem acceptable. The problem is that if God’s fiat, or preference, is the only standard of goodness, it seems meaningless to suggest that he is himself good. Imagine a god who declared torture, rape, and murder to be good. If “good” is merely an expression of divine fiat, then those acts would be good, as would the god who sanctioned them. However, if a god who approves of torture, rape, and murder is no less good than one who hates such evil, then the word “good” is meaningless when applied to God. Like Katherina in The Taming of the Shrew, we may call day night, but only by sacrificing the meaning of both words. When goodness is founded only on divine fiat, we are left with an arbitrary morality dictated by an amoral God.

The alternative appears no more appealing, however, for then we must conclude that goodness is grounded in some standard other than God’s fiat. Love is good because it is, and God approves accordingly. However, if there is some standard of goodness which informs God’s approval of that which we call good, then God is in some measure bound by these external rules. He is not sovereign, for he is merely recognizing an authoritative goodness originating outside himself. We love our enemy because God commands it. If God loves goodness because goodness demands it, is he truly God?

This, then, is Euthyphro’s Dilemma: On the one hand, goodness grounded in the fiat of an amoral God. On the other, goodness constraining a less-than-sovereign God.

Fortunately, these are not the only two options. Russell and Socrates have offered us a false dilemma – an argument inaccurately positing only two options. In reality, Christian theology going back to the early Church offers a definition of goodness that falls into neither of these traps. Instead, the Christian understanding of goodness is grounded in God’s nature.

God is good. This is the Christian premise in understanding goodness. Therefore, that which conforms to God’s nature is good. Love is good because God loves. Forgiveness is good because God forgives. Intelligence, creativity, and even existence are good because God possesses these attributes. Goodness is not predicated on God’s amoral fiat, but neither does it direct him. God does not arbitrarily declare what is good; he is good. He is not bound by an external standard, because he is the standard.

Because the Christian defines goodness in an object (be it human, amoeba, or rock) as correspondence to God’s being within the bounds of the object’s created nature, both horns of Euthryphro’s Dilemma are avoided and we can have a meaningful definition of good grounded in the being of a good and sovereign God.