Monday, April 25, 2005


One of the more annoyingly triumphalist insults that someone sure about their moral code can levy against an opponent, any opponent, is that of being a relativist. The alleged relativist is then forced either into making some kind of stand on first principles (which is very difficult to do on the fly) or into drinking cavalierly from the poisoned well. The charge has always been reductive, and it has often been mobilized to perpetuate real injustices.

Gay teens being harrassed and committing suicide at disproportional rates? We mustn't mitigate social stigma against homosexuals; that take a relativistic stance on homosexuality! Black students not performing as well on SATs as white students? The SAT doesn't need to be overhauled, that's crazy relativistic talk! Arab nations are uncomfortable with Western human rights declarations about women? Damn the torpedoes and force a regular diet of Baywatch on those Afghans!

Relativism makes bigger headlines in America than it does in Europe (although my limited experience with Bavarians, the state from which Benedict XVI hails, suggests that there a real sense of moral-cultural identity still obtains), but there is a serious global problem involved, as my last example should have suggested. Relativism is a charge that is invoked in domestic politics, where it tends to be used by reactionary religious people and fellow-travellers, but it is also, and more importantly, used on the international stage as a code-word for a position on the problem of modernization. Simply put, some countries are still operating within tribal social systems that often inflict great harm on their individual citizens. How is the international community to interact with such countries?

Long before 9-11, academics were pondering such questions, and I recall there being a heated debate on the left about how best to confront the specific injustices being perpetrated on the women of Afghanistan. The moderate-left consensus seemed to hope that a gradual engagement with the area would over time produce conditions less oppressive. It remains unclear to me whether this is a relativistic or a realistic position, according to current definitions of such terms.

That these very serious debates about the universality of human rights declarations in the modernizing world should, for me, come home to rest in domestic debate makes me sad. Yes, we are entering a new age of hyper-mediality, in which every freshman in my Comp class types faster than she or he writes manually, in which anyone with any agenda can open a blog to advocate a world-view, in which the online community one belongs to may be more determinate than one's physical location, in which someone, somewhere, will produce fantasies that encourage the worst side of anyone. Still, I remain convinced that the real danger of this over-consumerized age in the West is that of selfishness and self-righteousness, rather than a sincere meditation on how other people live. Far too much of the relativism-talk has been used to justify an unthinking defence of our own pleasures and preferences.

Anyway, all this is prolegomena to my finding thought-provoking David Velleman's recent post at Left2Right, defining "relativism" from a very "ivory tower" (as one commenter noted) position. He gives a taxonomy of relativisms, saying, in effect,"I do not think that word means what you think it means."


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