A Graveyard For All: The Trouble With Relativism

Naming a book The Book of Absolutes is a bit hubristic. It’s also redundant. The Book should suffice to christen the book that reveals absolutes. Setting that defect aside, I believe that we should forgive author William Gairdner’s boast, too. His candour and daring is refreshing in an age awash in wishy-washiness. I much prefer it to the feigned humility of one who formulates comprehensive rules and recommendations for restructuring society and then labels it but “a theory.”

Combining historical exposition and theoretical discussion, drawing on research from both the natural and human sciences, Gairdner’s objective is to counter the relativistic prejudices of our times by communicating an array of ideas, both empirical and normative, that express general, universal, fundamental, or absolute truths. Finding that we presently overemphasize our particularities and hastily surmise that everything is different and difference is everything, he argues that a renewed awareness of the permanent, constant and common is essential to our individual and social well being. The Book of Absolutes is written more for the educated public generally than academic specialists. Parents concerned about the corrosive effects that attending university may have on their children’s values and behaviour will benefit from Gairdner’s account of the opinions that have purchase within the academy. This book will also arm resilient and thoughtful students with defences against the credos of their more sophisticated peers.

Gairdner surveys various forms of relativism, including moral, cultural, cosmic, cognitive and linguistic. His analyses help to disclose the sources and examine the effects of the confusions that they represent. He criticizes the enlightened (and at root, judgmental) nonjudgmentalism that attends them in intellectual and popular discourse. These radical views have attained a semblance of plausibility and the appearance of profundity, he argues, through careless and wilful misrepresentations of human imperfections and partialities. For instance, the obvious fact that nobody knows everything is used to insist that nobody could know anything. Because mind and body prove interrelated, thought itself is exposed as an epiphenomenon of biological mechanisms. Observing that people are subjects within an intersubjective social context, everything that everyone ever sees or says is said to be wholly subjective. Legitimate complaints about oppressive uniformity are transformed into unmitigated celebrations of diversity. Valid objections to systemic injustices against some who are different are used to justify new injustices as former exceptions to the norm form the bases of new rules. Because some claims to absolute truth led to repressive political regimes, it is supposed that denying the existence of meaningful truths will render men harmless. But tyrants love relativism since it exempts them from criticism, washes their hands, and enervates their foes.

At best, relativistic doctrines prove mistaken and self-contradictory. At their worst, Gairdner argues, they are duplicitous and damaging. To be sure, many decent people casually affirm relativistic opinions with good intentions. Thought through, relativist positions resolve into riddles that tangle enthusiasts up in snags. We are familiar with the observation that those who insist that nothing is absolutely true nevertheless uphold the absolute truth of that claim. It furthermore seems to me extremely ideological to classify everyone’s views – especially everyone else’s – as ideological. Repudiating all overt authorities, the relativist does not always perceive how susceptible he or she becomes too subtle forms of indirect power and how much he or she relies on implicit judgments. Even though objective standards of right and good are declared abhorrent, iniquities are regarded as easily identifiable, their perpetrators readily identified, and solutions promptly intuited. Meanwhile, transgressive behaviour and subversive ideas are praised as if being unconventional were inherently good.

Nonjudgmentalism is touted as a progressive outlook, but that’s funny, since the idea of progress implies judgments regarding better and worse. It is supposedly equally inoffensive to all, but it is like a dish prepared blandly at a banquet so as to avoid distressing the gastronomically challenged—it not only pleases no one, but offends those who know how it ought to be spiced. Nonjudgmentalism is best understood as a strategy, always polite and particularly politic whenever saying that we cannot make judgments is preferable to fighting over them. Still, it always represents judgments already made, forgotten or suppressed, taken for granted for convenience’ sake or smuggled in unexamined. When articulated they are proclaimed “neutral” or “the consensus” or “the way of history.” Their promoters labour to silence and punish holdouts until these ideas reign undisputed. Relativists assume that being nonjudgmental prevents them from condoning oppression. Refusing to engage in critical judgment is, however, like submitting to a commandment not to think. The imposition of nonjudgmentalism therefore stifles something vital to humanity’s capacity for freedom.

I am perplexed when different cultures are said to be distinct and comprehensible only to their indigenous members and yet understanding and appreciating those cultures is deemed possible, needful and worthwhile, indeed, the very essence of being cultured. In rejecting all “privileged perspectives,” relativists overlook how much they privilege their own view. Typically, Western adherents of cultural relativism condescendingly purport to admire others’ ways of living while both preferring their own culture (by making their livelihoods within it) and criticizing it most harshly if not exclusively, despite its distinctive openness to otherness, concern for global justice, and capacity for ongoing public self-criticism. The less palatable ideas and practices of different cultures and times past are waived away as just the way they think there or behaved back then—simultaneously if unwittingly vacating their apologists’ own views of significance, including their criticisms of the modern West. (It’s just the way they think here and now.) Those who refrain from appraising the views and practices of other societies simply because they recognize that their own society is imperfect actually judge everything in accordance with some preconceived notion of perfection that dictates how things could, should, and would be, if only. Enamoured of a romantic expectation of perfection and distraught over the persistence of imperfection in the world, they tend to condemn the society that they are most attached to – their own – frustrated that it is not (yet) good enough, though confident that their critiques are essential to its rightful (i.e., leftward) transformation.

The art of persuasion is frequently likened to mere manipulation, but the argument that they are indistinguishable should not, on its own terms, persuade anybody. It is also baffling when thinkers mean to communicate the idea that it is impossible to communicate meaning. Normally, they remain certain, at the very least, that they understand what is meant by “power.” They frown meaningfully upon it together whenever they encounter or uncover it, though less so when they attain it.

Unsurprisingly, those who demean attempts to adjudge interpretations of things clearly prefer interpretations that replicate their stance regarding the irreducible subjectivity of all interpretation. But people who ask “what is truth?” or remark that “good is a point of view” are admitting that nothing they say is trustworthy. Nobody should follow them except insofar as they hope to score a piece of the action and plan to hit the jackpot.

An appreciation for the religious impulse and even admiration for the faith of others, especially non-Christians, is not unknown among relativists, especially those who imagine themselves as being on a personal spiritual journey. Others are devoted to secular statism, materialism (whether ontological or commercial), scientism or historical progress in ways resembling theism. Gairdner describes the theological qualities of postmodernism specifically, emphasizing the kinship between Jacques Derrida’s philosophy and Jewish mysticism. Gairdner begrudgingly respects Derrida, “a meticulous and careful scholar” who “never considered himself a relativist even though that is the inevitable consequence of his method” (p. 253). In contrast, he regards Michel Foucault as a wretched charlatan deserving only derision. He disparages their legions of disciples who have obtained “a licence to indulge in complexly layered verbal pyrotechnics guaranteed to produce unchallengeable new meanings for whatever” (p. 262). Gairdner specifically addresses Derrida’s claim that “deconstruction is justice” (p. 266), which deserves admiration for its sincerity. Ultimately, it proves impossible not to have some view regarding the nature of justice. There is no getting around right and wrong or beyond good and bad. There are only men who magnify themselves or look to mislead others by affecting otherwise. Derrida’s forthright definition suggests that justice is something like the disadvantage of the stronger, a notion that resonates with the Beatitudes. In striving to avoid the derivation of any “ought” from an “is,” it practically derives its oughts from what isn’t. It is an uncompromising and otherworldly conception of justice in the light of which men must appear so very blameworthy for falling into the sin of constructing and reproducing power relationships. No wonder those who espouse postmodern playfulness become so humourless. We cannot be saved from our abandonment of meaning by proudly contending that our own words create meaning.

A natural aversion to being judged adversely impels people to embrace nonjudgmentalism, transforming fear into enlightenment, cowardice into courage, and indifference to others into compassion. Relativism effectively means, “Don’t get in my way!” When one who stipulates some version of “I’m okay, you’re okay” accuses others who hesitate to affirm everybody else’s okayness of presuming that their own ways of life are unassailable, it is redolent of psychological projection. Any fair-minded attempt to make evaluations of better and worse includes the discovery of defects in oneself and an awareness of the possibility of learning from others and the necessity of seeking out their assistance. It is perfectly alright that nobody is altogether okay. We all make judgments of better and worse, and we all look to persuade others and find ourselves persuaded by others regarding what should be done, individually and collectively. That’s okay too. The exercise of practical judgment is not somehow incompatible with caring for others if we keep our limitations and failings in mind, whereas high-minded nonjudgmentalism can only flatter. (Without a doubt, there are certain final and absolute judgments that mere mortals should not make, but Lord, please save us from homilies on Matthew 7 and John 8 devised to re-imagine the divine as a rubber stamp for leading secular sensitivities.)

Individuals today have become persuaded of the sanctity of their autonomy, construed subjectively, and charmed by the assurance that each of us is the sole and rightful author and executor of his or her own customized “life plan.” Society is expected to show respect for our arbitrary choices and idiosyncratic appetites and empower us to succeed in satisfying them. Insisting on always getting what one wants without ever facing opposition is, however, the fantasy of every tyrant. In an overreaction against tyrannical regimes, we risk reconstituting ourselves as an assortment of petty tyrannical types. It is notoriously difficult for any society to escape from underneath an overt tyrant. Let’s not internalize tyranny and hail it as freedom.

In an interesting treatment of the relationship between twentieth century natural science and prevailing morals, Gairdner illustrates how Einstein’s theories of relativity were seized upon in the popular imagination and misread, wilfully or negligently, in order to lend credence to relativism in ways unjustified by and contrary to the meaning of the science. The relativism to which so many were already committed gave them licence to creatively interpret relativity to suit their fancy. It goes to show that even those who want to deny that there is any correspondence between reality and our interpretations of things long for an account of reality that confirms their interpretation of things. Human beings naturally yearn to feel at home in the world. They will endeavour to compel non-human nature to agree with their view of human nature, even when their view is that there is no such thing as human nature.

In criticizing The Book of Absolutes, I would begin by indicating that Gairdner sometimes treats empirical findings that are true in general and for the most part too much like things that are true always, generating the potential for overstatement. It is furthermore unclear what moral or political conclusions follow from many of the empirical universals and near-universals that Gairdner highlights. He details several of these, pertaining to subjects like language acquisition, biological traits, and social norms. I suppose that it is sufficiently challenging these days to open people up to the possibility that some such may exist in the first place. But Gairdner downplays or underestimates the modern technological imperative. Even where certain biological facts and social behaviours seem constant, we moderns are primarily interested in knowing how things arise and work in order to create new things and force existing things to operate differently. While some modern scientists themselves may be motivated by the search for truth, the joy of discovery and the desire for reputation, all modern empirical science is available for and intended for application—otherwise neither private nor public funding would be so forthcoming.

Gairdner reports extensively on research in fields like socio-biology and cognitive science. I am grateful to him for his generous reading of writers like Steven Pinker who try my own capacity for generous reading. These sciences elaborate upon their limited findings in order to posit far-reaching explanations for human behaviour. Gairdner welcomes their empirical findings without endorsing their metaphysical presuppositions or furthermost speculations. But all knowledge of why human beings think, feel and act as they do supplies the necessary groundwork for discerning how to make human beings (or their successors) behave otherwise. The discoveries of evolutionary science, genetics, neuroscience and so forth should dispel romantic illusions regarding the malleability of men and women, particularly with respect to the power of social engineering to achieve radical change quickly. The popularisers of these sciences, however, are not short on visions of the future spectacularly enhanced thanks to their hard work, and their excitement is infectious. They do not quell the appetite for radical change, and they may facilitate it by pointing out hitherto unanticipated and unattempted avenues. Gairdner’s faith that the discovery of empirical universals and near-universals yields necessarily conservative consequences is hopeful.

Gairdner is aware that modern scientists and technologists opportunistically employ moral relativism in public to shield and support their inquisitive and incursive activities. Should people concede that every effort to make a moral judgment is a nonstarter, the right to perform any experiment or implement any innovation is secured. The relativist pass seduces us easily because our love of technology is virtually erotic. Our commitment to it has become second nature to us. In its pure form, the modern technological project is grounded on the promise that anything is possible so long as everything is permitted. When people endeavour to make reasonable judgments regarding the purposes and prospects of science, however, they should refrain from adopting an all-or-nothing mentality. We should neither throw our hands up in the air as if riding a runaway roller coaster nor oppose science as if all of it were the devil’s work.

Another criticism is that Gairdner moves too swiftly through the early modern roots of our present condition. Postmodernists praise novelty and boast of their originality, but they mainly take the insights that patient and clever early moderns implied and reiterate them loudly and explicitly. Their tactics are different (and counterproductive because they overestimate their power), but their long-term strategy, “to subvert the structures of language” (p. 264) in order to transform ways of living indirectly by changing ways of thinking (and not thinking), is the same one that their early modern masters used to great effect. Gairdner’s decision to focus on the versions and constellations of ideas that have greater currency nowadays nonetheless makes sense as a means of making his arguments more familiar and accessible to his readers.

On a practical level, relativistic attitudes prevent people from learning from and communicating with each other. People become quick draws with conversation stopping retorts like “that’s just your opinion” and “who are you to judge?” The preservation of political liberty, however, depends on respectful dialogue, the ability to recognize when one is being persuaded or manipulated, and a capacity for discerning what to be persuaded by and when. People fortunate enough to live in any relatively free society owe it to themselves and their fellows to cultivate these talents. In depriving us of these skills, relativism prepares us instead for a society befitting slaves and masters.

Canadians have a very practical interest in attending to the questions that Gairdner treats in this book. Our experiment in multiculturalism, like all experiments, may turn out well or poorly. We need not pronounce multiculturalism unqualifiedly good in order to be good Canadians. Multiculturalism should not jealously command our blind devotion, nor should we try to sustain it on relativistic grounds. To the extent that it can be expected to function and endure, we must be able to reckon on the existence of some commonalities, however mundane, however loosely. Multiculturalism should be embraced on the basis of a reasonable judgment that it represents a relatively just and advantageous way for human beings to live together, and given our circumstances, appreciably preferable to the alternatives available to us. While Canadians, especially young Canadians, will solemnly swear that multiculturalism is the best of all possible worlds (having happily combined all worlds into one), it need only be relatively good and satisfactorily sustained in pedestrian ways for pragmatic reasons. Difference must be given its due respect without being worshipped or glorified. We must fairly assess multiculturalism’s shortcomings and potential pitfalls in order to defend it well, especially against those who would take advantage of the freedoms it stands for and extends in order to empower overreaching illiberal undertakings, whether pre-modern in their foundations or postmodern in their dreams.

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