The Problem Is Not Relativism, But Equality
Relativism or equality? In my previous post, I said that the root of the politically correct rule against judgmentalism—at least when judgment is directed against enemies, criminals, terrorists, cultural aliens, and alternative lifestyles—is equality. This differs from the usual conservative view, which is that the root of nonjudgmentalism is ethical and cultural relativism.
Relativism—the idea that you have your truth, and I have mine, and there is no way to choose between them—has always been conservatives’ chief analytical tool in describing the beliefs and agendas of the cultural left, including political correctness. Unfortunately, the concept of relativism fails to get to the heart of the problem, and so it fails to have real impact on people’s thinking. Indeed, there is often a kind of ritualistic, rote quality in the way conservatives denounce relativism. If they don’t believe in relativism, then what is the non-relativistic truth that they do believe in? It turns out to be nothing more than liberal democracy: all men are created equal, all have equal rights. But liberal democracy, in and of itself, does not offer a sufficient alternative to relativism. Liberal democracy means the procedural equality of individuals. Cultural relativism means the substantive equality of groups. While these two ideas are fundamentally different, they also have a key point in common, which is that they both place little or no value on the existing substantive goods of our own society.
In the name of the one truth that they really believe in, equal rights, the liberal democrats (also known as conservatives) have drained away most of the meaning from most of the substantive things people once believed in: biological realities and distinctions; cultural realities and distinctions; transcendent realities and distinctions. The liberal democrats still believe in those realities, but only in a weak, uncertain, inarticulate way.
For example, they mock at the left’s assertion that men and women are the same; but what sexual differences do the liberal democrats themselves believe in? After all, they’ve gone along with every step in the feminization of the military, only opposing the final step of placing women directly in combat.
Similarly, they believe that the left’s denial of cultural differences is “silly,” but they themselves believe that cultural differences are irrelevant in the light of the equal capacity of people of all cultures to assimilate to a culture based on equal individual rights—a belief that has led to the inundation of America by alien cultures and to profound and lasting damage to our culture, including our belief in individual rights.
Similarly, the liberal democrats honor religion, but mainly as a generic justification for the idea that all men have an equal right to freedom. They don’t want to uphold their own religion over any other and they support the immigration policies that are admitting all the world’s religions in full force into America, including the one religion that is the most hostile to America and its freedoms.
Thus the liberal democrats end up going along with most of the things that the leftist relativists seek. Because the only good the liberal democrats believe in—the equal rights of men—is an abstract rather than a particular good, they lack any concrete basis on which to oppose the leftist relativists who seek the destruction of our civilization.
As for politically correct nonjudgmentalism, the source of it is not relativism but equality. People don’t want to judge, because to judge is to place yourself higher than the thing you’re judging. This is especially the case when the thing being judged has been historically oppressed, marginalized, or excluded. The belief in equality means that the things that have been put down in the past must be raised up, while the things that have been raised up in the past must be brought down. Therefore the alien and the oppressed and the excluded must be given a permanent holiday from normal judgments and standards, while the native and the oppressors and excluders must be permanently subjected to the harshest standards. That’s the leftist view, the view that favors aliens and terrorists over our own country—and, once again,what concrete alternative do the liberal democrats have to offer to it? What they offer is a globalized world consisting of people with equal rights, a world in which biological, cultural, and religious differences have been thinned out to the vanishing point. Since the liberal democrats have no concrete vision of natural, cultural, and spiritual order, they cannot offer effective resistance to the leftist relativists who push concrete group agendas that have some force and passion in them.
The thing to be opposed therefore is not relativism, but that principle which is the root both of relativism and of the liberal democracy that provides an insufficient bulwark against it: equality.
The article is dead on target. From a certain perspective relativism and equality are the same thing: the elimination of an authoritative, privileged frame of reference. Liberalism wins the semantic game with “conservatives” by allowing them to resist moral relativism while simultaneously, in self-defeating fashion, signing on to equality.
I’ve even seen Einstein’s physics used to argue that there are no privileged frames of reference, that everything is relative. It is an odd argument, because relativism asserts that nothing can be knowable, universal, and objective; while relativity purports to describe things that are knowable, universal, and objective. But in any event relativism, relativity, and their conflation are deeply impregnated in the modern mind and are heavily entangled with equality.
Liberalism, like all political ideologies, sets itself up as a privileged frame of reference: in liberalism’s case one which demands the elimination of privileged frames of reference. As such it ultimately demands the destruction of everything. It can’t help but recycle what it views as the old tyrannies, though, e.g. socialism as neo-secular-monarchy, the U.N. as neo-secular-papacy, and the EU as neo-secular-holy-roman-empire.
I agree that relativism and equality are intimately connected, and that it doesn’t make sense to reject the one without the other. If you just reject relativism, then as Mr. Auster points out you get a kind of conservatism that can’t assert much of anything or go anywhere. On the other hand, if you just reject equality and keep relativism you get Nazism - see http://www.counterrevolution.net/vfr/archives/000453.html#180Posted by: Jim Kalb on June 17, 2002 7:22 PM
I still have doubts that the root of relativism lies in the liberal understanding of equality alone.
If you listen to liberals themselves, they usually don’t explain their relativism in terms of equality.
Frequently, they begin with a confession of their loss of faith and then move on to talk about the importance of their individual autonomy.
A few examples. A girl named Carly, having confessed she “used to go to church” but doesn’t now, criticises the church as “very judgemental. It condemns single mums, homosexuals, women who have abortions … Your body is your body and you’re allowed to do what you want with it.”
Or an Australian journalist, Phillip Adams, an avowed atheist who writes that “I believe and have always believed that life is totally meaningless … the only meaning life has is subjective, what we care to assign to it … Morals are simply expedients … clearly if you live in a universe where there’s no meaning, there is, finally, no absolute morality.”
Or another columnist, Terry Lane, who defends the screening of a notorious film “Salo” not on the grounds of the “equal substance” of its contents, but because “As an autonomous moral being, I do not concede to others the right to determine what I will watch.”
If we derive meaning from life from being a self-created autonomous individual, doesn’t this lead on logically to relativism, as we are obliged to reject any standards imposed externally upon us, whether by a natural moral order, by tradition, or by authoritative institutions?
Having said this, I don’t deny that a certain understanding of equality does seem to be an organising principle within liberalism. I’m reluctant though to desribe it as the first principle.
I thank Mark Richardson for his excellent point and examples. I agree that the loss of faith in God, or the loss of belief in the transcendent in some form, is at the root of people’s rejection of the possibility of making judgments about right and wrong (which should really be called nihilism not relativism).
At the same time, I think that the loss of belief in God or truth is at the root of the belief in equality. Once there is nothing higher, then all things become equal, and there is no basis to choose between them. So, to salvage my earlier argument, equality is still the basis of relativism, but the loss of truth is the basis of equality.
Transcendent truth and hierarchy of values seem inextricably connected. Think of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:12-13:
“And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac.”
What the dream suggests to me is that it is the very existence of God above all things that establishes the right hierarchical relations and mutual differentiations of all things below God. They acquire their relative value from where they stand in relation to God.
So the loss of God leads to the feeling that everything is equal to everything else, and that to judge anything is an illegitimate act of dominance.
By the way, the denial of God leading to equality leading to relativism or nihilism is analogous to what happened in the 18th century when the modern idea of equality was born. People resented the idea of a social hierarchy of classes that made one man intrinsically inferior to another. The rejection of the authority at the top of the hierarchy (analogous to the loss of faith in God) was coeval with the embrace of the equality of all classes below that top level.
In any case, I’m agreeing that relativism, rightly understood, is at the root of nonjudgmentalism. But do the conservatives who make the anti-relativist argument understand this? As I pointed out in the original post, most conservatives who criticize the relativist denial of truth say that the truth being denied is the truth of democratic equality! How can such a thinned-out understanding of truth as mere equality—an understanding of truth that lacks any substantive sense of the transcendent—stand against the more radical form of equality that is relativism or nihilism?