Or straw man—the same thing, really.
This post’s edition of hay*-covered solemnities concerns that which threatens to bring down/is significantly degrading/has already brought down Western Civilization, aka, all that is Good and Holy in the world: Relativism.
Mind you, the crusade against relativism isn’t confined to the autocratic right; Good Liberals are also apt to say, before observing that what’s okey-dokey in one society might not fly in another, that of course they’re not advocating relativism, but. . . .
I’m not a particularly Good Liberal, tho’ I don’t have anything against them. In fact, the imaginary Good Liberal brings forth exactly the point that needs to be made about relativism: that there is a difference between recognition and advocacy.
I am one of those who merely recognizes relativism (as well as its aliases-slash-cousins social constructivism, anti-foundationalism, and epistemological nihilism), as opposed to those who advocate on its behalf. (I don’t know many people outside of first-year grad students who are advocates, but I’ll get to that in moment.)
First, recognition. I mean this plainly, which is to say, I relativism as a condition of our (post)modern existence. There is no singular rule, no singular god, no singular absolute standard against which to measure ourselves. There is no transcendent rule, no natural law, no universal order of human life.
There is no inherent meaning. There is no essential good and bad.
But this does not mean that no rule is possible, no standards may exist, and no judgments of good and bad are allowed. It simply means that any questions of judgment cannot be thrown back to an absolute or transcendent marker.
It simply means that questions of meaning have no necessary relationship to capital-T-Truth.
It simply means that capital-T-Truth may not much matter.
To recognize all of this is not to say this is good or bad. As the saying goes, It is what it is.
Those who think this is bad tend to mourn the loss in culture of an overarching purpose/underlying order; some try to figure out how to live with this, some blame those of us who point out the fractures for causing them, some deny any fractures exist, likening them to surface cracks distracting us from a deeper unity.
Perhaps they’re right, the denialists. I have no way of knowing.
And I’m fine with that.
Some might think this makes me an advocate of relativism, but it simply means that I refuse to take epistemological sides. I look through time and space and see so many ways of living, so many ways of being, and instead of choosing one over the other, shrug and note that outside of a way of being, I can’t say that one is absolutely or transcendentally better than the other.
Again, this doesn’t mean I can’t have my own preferences or that I can’t judge. It does mean that I have to lay out the terms of that judgment, terms which have no final grounding in any sort of metaphysic. Terms which can be rejected, in other words.
It’s not as if I’m completely at sea. I live in a particular time and place, and can call upon the values and concepts of this time and place—this way of being—in order to make my arguments and interrogations. But I have no ultimate trump card, nothing to throw on the table to say, absolutely and finally, Ha! I win. Instead, any wins are provisional, subject to override and undertow, and thus in need of constant defense and elaboration.
Nothing can be taken for granted.
That’s my starting point—nothing can be taken for granted—and while I understand that life might be easier if I could, epistemologically, take a few things for granted, that’s not something I choose. Instead, I choose the nothing.
But this doesn’t make me an advocate for nothing and, to be fair, I don’t think most advocates for relativism choose nothing, either. Even Nietzsche, who’s sometimes held up as the grandee of nothing, recognizes rather than advocates nothing. His great challenge is, Precisely what will we do with all this nothing? Now that God is dead, what?
What he did advocate, an embrace of the life of the Overman, repelled many, but the advocacy for the Uber-life is but one response to the condition of nothingness, not its apotheosis.
Anyway, I snarked earlier that only the eager young joyfully embrace relativism (and no, I’m not just talking about an earlier version of me), but this isn’t quite right, either. Rather, there are those who, in the name of its corporate-friendly version, diversity, admonish that it’s not acceptable to judge those from other cultures or with other ways.
If this is what people choose, well, it must be okay.
Not that one might can’t say ‘Whatever’ to the choices of others, but that one must say this. In a sense, this type of advocate implicitly accepts the charge from the absolutists, et. al.: absent something eternal and outside of ourselves, we can make no judgments.
Again, the crucial point is not that no standards may exist, but that no standard must exist.
There is another dimension, of course, which adds some urgency to these issues, which is the consideration of power. It’s too late (cursed that 9-5 job!) for me even to finish the exegesis on relativism, much less sketch out the implications of power, so allow me the upshot when I say that such a consideration argues in favor of setting standards.
But that’s another post.
*I know hay isn’t the same thing as straw, but gimme a break: I’m not in Wisconsin anymore, and my audience is muuuuuch more sophisticated than those persnickety rural types who insist upon dunning us sophisticates with their petty knowledge of, oh, farming and plants and nature and everything. Honestly.