Relativism is a key weapon of those who seek to undermine Western civilization and its distinctive culture, one which embodies crucial values, its morality based on individual responsibility, and its strong respect for those who seek objective truth.
Relativists often have a particular dislike of science. Generally, if one employs data or arguments derived from scientific inquiry that they can not rebut, they will reply in their cant phrase: “We must not privilege science.” Their choice of the word “privilege” already gives the game away. For the relativists there is no truth, only a series of stories about the world which are all equally valid and from which they can choose without ever having to justify their choice. Likewise, there are moral relativists who reject the traditional moral norms of Western society and deny that transgressions against them can be unequivocally condemned. Finally, there are cultural relativists. They deny that the remarkable material progress, the respect for individual rights, freedom, and autonomy, and the establishment of representative democracy that constitute the Western achievement are a mark of its superiority over cultures that lack these.
Curiously, relativism may be part of an absolutist ideology. Relativists can be absolute in their relativism and, indeed, are often authoritarian. Should you concede to them that relativism may have its uses in some cases but that, in the particular case under discussion, relativism makes no sense at all, they get angry. You have infringed a central principle—everything is relative and that is absolute.
It is a doctrine that has grown in strength and enters ever new areas. Two key questions arise. First, why has it grown in strength? Second, how do relativists settle disputed questions of fact and explanation when they have abandoned all reliable standards? What kinds of tricks do they employ?
The answers to both these questions have the same source: egalitarianism. I would go further and predict that the great culture war of the twenty-first century will be between the adherents of truth and those of equality. Truth will set us free; much egalitarian thinking will have the opposite effect. Relativism will be employed in the service of equality when egalitarians feel it necessary to evade or destroy truth. But their master ideology is the promotion of equality at all costs. However strong their relativism is, it will be discarded when it has inconvenient implications for equality.
At one time, a favored ideology of the egalitarians was some form of Marxism, and they did not need relativism because they supposed they possessed the scientific key to all truth. Marxism provided a detailed, systematic theory that ostensibly explained all manner of diverse phenomena. If you disagreed with Marxists, they would call you “unscientific.” It was a doctrine that often appealed to physical scientists, some of whom even betrayed their country. They did not like the more tentative, fragmented, piecemeal assessment of society, history, and economics propounded by those who studied them in a scholarly way. They saw central planning of the economy as more “scientific” than a market economy because it seemed more organized and orderly like the hard sciences they studied. The Marxists did not deny the importance of scientific truth; rather, they distorted it and dishonestly appropriated the prestige science enjoyed, much like the Freudians and Social Darwinists did. The Marxists undermined the beliefs of their opponents and social classes other than the proletariat by describing them as manifestations of their location in the system of production. Only they had access to secure truth, for their position and that of the working class they claimed to represent was guaranteed by a “scientific” theory, one rooted in the “scientific” analysis of history.
Then Marxism failed, both from its intrinsic intellectual faults and because the societies based on its tenets completely collapsed. Subsequently, egalitarians said, in effect, “if we do not have a uniquely superior hold on truth, then there is no truth.” It helped that the working class was no longer seen as the central deprived group to be sanctified and uplifted by intellectuals; they had transferred their egalitarian zeal to the causes of ethnic, racial, and sexual minorities and of course to feminism, animal rights, and Third Worldism. The proliferation of the downtrodden demanded fragmentation, and this led to an abandonment of the old single certainties and grand narratives which had claimed a unique pseudo-scientific validity. Egalitarian relativism triumphed and the downgrading of science became a reality.
The British journalist Damian Thompson has provided us with two extreme examples of the total denial of scientific truth by feminists in contexts that are quite outside their main area of concern:
In 1998 … Columbia University Press published Aliens in America, a study of the alien abduction phenomenon by Professor Jodi Dean, a leading feminist scholar. In it Dean refused to acknowledge that alien abductions do not exist and have never happened; instead she praised “the UFO community” for challenging oppressive and exclusionary “norms of public reason.”
In the relativists’ view, scientific findings are merely sets of agreements no different from deals between politicians, the pronouncements of lawyers, or the policies of public servants endorsed by a committee or commission. For them, scientific theory is no more valid than such unfalsifiable untestables as feminist theory, psychoanalytic theory, literary theory, or queer theory. There is a trivial sense in which the idea of the “social construction of science” has a point, particularly when it comes to disputes about ideas or findings in new areas of research. Funding and publication are strongly influenced by the established view, by fashion, and by influential cliques— funding in particular reflects the external pressures of powerful outsiders.
But if we take a longer view we can see that science is different. The chemistry of 1995 was almost certainly better than the chemistry of 1895, and we have clear criteria for demonstrating this and for placing our faith in textbook chemistry. There have been hiccups and reversals and log-jams, and there will no doubt be more in the future, which is why the relativists say “You can’t be certain.” You don’t have to be. It is enough to be reasonably certain that the findings of chemistry are true, and certainly more true than the findings of those in the humanities or social studies with a “theory” to grind. In the latter case, changes in views and even “facts” are often entirely driven by ideology or even mere fashion; it is possible to dispute reasonably whether the views of 1995 are in fact better than those of 1985. Even when they are, it may be because of the progress of science, which has provided superior technical means of deciding timing or authorship.
The second example of feminist thought quoted by Thompson is just as revealing and equally absurd.
The French feminist critic Luce Irigaray solemnly described E=mc2 as a “sexed equation” because it privileges the speed of light over other speeds that are equally necessary to us.
Curiously, the comment undercuts the relativists’ usual affection for the theory of relativity, a theory about which they have not even the most elementary understanding. They like the idea that time and space can be regarded as relative because, if that is the case, perhaps truth and morality can be treated in the same way. Relativity is also the key example used by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which they feel utterly undermines the special and general authority of science, dragging it down to the level of their own work in the humanities and the soggier social sciences which is nothing but idle theorizing that never establishes anything. To such minds the importance of the fixed speed of light in a vacuum is an imposition, nothing more than a socially constructed “privilege.” Ironically, the speeds that are most necessary to us are all firmly set within the framework of Newtonian physics. It is a mere matter of policy how we balance safety and fuel saving against freedom and the cost of wasted time, but within our human-scale world the laws governing momentum and acceleration are not relative in the way traffic regulations are.
The relativists’ greatest enmity is, however, reserved for those who apply scientific ideas about careful measurement and proper logical inference to human affairs in ways that cast doubt on the dogmas of equality. Their biggest bogeyman is the steadily advancing body of evidence showing that there are very substantial differences between the average intelligence of the members of distinctive groups such as social classes or ethnic or racial entities. They do not devise careful experiments or comparisons to test or refute these views, but instead retreat into rhetoric and speculative assertions that can not be tested. Their favorite tricks are either to undermine a researcher’s reputation—to the extent of trying to get him dismissed—or, in the true spirit of social constructionism, to set up a committee of eminent but inexpert scientists to pronounce officially that no such differences exist. Truth does not come into it.
When the Harvard psychologist John Mack declared that UFO abductions were a real phenomenon, his colleagues were told to treat him with sensitivity and as a respected scholar. Yet when Larry Summers, the President of Harvard, suggested—not very vigorously given the strong evidence in his favor—that, in general, women lack an intrinsic aptitude for mathematics and science and that there are limits to the effects of upbringing and social engineering in this respect, he eventually had to resign. In both cases, truth lost out to social pressure, the worst kind of relativism.
A similar belief in cultural determinism contributes to moral relativism. We are told not to pass moral judgments on individuals who have committed atrocious crimes because their actions are a product of their culture. Besides in a different society such actions might not be condemned at all. Morality becomes no more than a series of competing values of which none can be given precedence. The relativists’ mantras are “You must try and see it from the perpetrator’s point of view” (unless, of course, the victim can be defined as belonging to an especially downtrodden group) and “Who can say what he or she might have done placed in that situation?” Once again, relativism is enlisted in the service of equality. To deny the validity of moral standards is to make equal the evil-doer and the virtuous and to rank ordinary people struggling as best they can to stay on the path of duty and morality alongside those who have thrown away their conscience.
For the true relativist, it is not permissible to pass judgment on the cultural differences which they have just used to deny individual moral responsibility. Within a society there may be an underclass with a culture of criminality, violence, idleness, and family instability, yet the relativist will not condemn the culture of the underclass as inferior. In Britain, Hindus from south Asia are remarkably law-abiding, industrious, and successful within the educational system, such that they have been upwardly mobile and now, on average, exceed the indigenous population in both income and wealth. By contrast, Muslims from the same sub-continent tend to fail dismally in the marketplace. Very few Hindus ever get convicted of a criminal offense, but the proportion of Muslims in British jails is double their proportion in the general population. Nevertheless, the egalitarian relativist will go to extraordinary lengths to deny that the differences between the cultures of the two religious communities are the main factor accounting for the very wide social and economic gap between them.
In either case, there is a curious reversion to the economic determinism of the past, an insistence that all such differences are exclusively a product of poverty and deprivation. To suggest that, in large measure, the culture of the group causes this state of affairs is ruled out as a valid explanation, regardless of the evidence. Moves are made to preclude the gathering of data that might indicate this. Karl Marx, who firmly— and often quite arbitrarily—praised or condemned the cultures of entire nations according to whether they were “progressive” or not, would have found it rather surprising, as indeed would Beatrice Webb, who, in the early years of the twentieth century, admired the well-organized Japanese then impinging on China and had no sympathy for their Chinese victims whom she described as rotten with homosexuality.
Thus the egalitarians have created a formless world in which there are no independent criteria for truth, morality, or evaluation. Everything is reduced to an “equality game.” The question of whether or not a statement is true according to objective criteria is set aside. Instead they ask—who benefits from it being true? Does it further the interests of groups arbitrarily defined as “oppressed?” Where do the sympathies of the speaker lie? Likewise, the moral content of an action now depends on the social identity of the perpetrator, and particularly where he or she or the groups they belong to stand in the equality stakes. Impartial justice disappears altogether. Were they to create a statue of Justice, she would not be blind but selectively myopic; her scales would be loaded so as to favor equality rather than equality before the law. Whether or not a culture merits respect does not depend on its content but on how it fits into the equality game. Ethical problems only arise when there is a collision between the demands or interests of two groups, both of whom have “equality claims” as, say, when there is a high level of child molestation within an aboriginal group, when a Muslim minority persecutes homosexuals, or a lesbian batters her partner. Even then, it is often resolved simply by denying or covering up the facts or arbitrarily changing the meanings of words and categories.
Egalitarian relativism is a two-pronged attack on Western civilization. Western objectivity, virtues, and culture are attacked because they are Western, and Western relativists respect every culture and tradition except their own. Western values are also attacked on the spurious grounds that they are merely a cover for the protection of Western interests. This is a curious position to take, given that equality is a Western value that could never have emerged from an oriental despotism, a caste-based society, one based on the rule of a dominant tribe, or even one based on a Confucian striving for hierarchical harmony. The relativists’ views are descended from and are a perversion of a valid tradition of equal justice, equal rights, and equal consideration. Even today true believers in egalitarian relativism only exist in the West. For those outside, it is merely a convenient weapon to be used against the West—they would never use it in this way to undermine their own, often oppressive, un-Western traditions.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 5, on page 19
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