to John Press in an entry yesterday is an essay in itself and is really on a different topic from the main topic in that thread. It should have its own title and link, which I have provided here. I also reproduce the comment below:
The so-called right which dismisses your idea as cultural relativism could be described as neoconservative mainstream conservatism, or, to use a more precise term, right-liberalism. These conservatives are universalist ideologues who, in an overreaction against left-liberal relativism and the terrible damage it has caused to our culture, deny the substantial fact that the human world is organized into a plurality of different cultures and civilizations. For these universalist conservatives, there can only be one truth for all mankind, consisting of individual rights and equality, and a universal democratic political system reflecting them. The universalists mistake their abstract ideal for the substantive and actual. The actual is that there are different and mutually incompatible human civilizations, based on different and incompatible visions of truth. The experience that initially gave birth to relativism—and that is still the main justification for relativism today—was the disturbing discovery by Christian and Western thinkers that the world consists of a plurality of highly distinct civilizations/cultures/religions. However, it is a huge intellectual error to look at the plurality of civilizations and religious truths and conclude from it that “all truth is relative,” or, more nakedly, that “there is no truth.” To recognize the fact of the plurality of civilizations does not logically and necessarily lead to relativism.
Here is a better way of explaining the plurality of civilizations. There is ultimately one universal and infinite truth, but mankind, in its geographical, historical, cultural, racial, and political diversity, will inevitably perceive and experience this truth in very different ways, and thus embody and express it in very different forms. We could also say that even if Christian truth or democratic truth were the ultimate truth, it would still be the case that other peoples, particularly Muslims, believe in very different truths from ours, and, whether their truth is true or not, we do not have the power to make everyone in the world believe what we believe. We must deal with Muslims as they actually are.
To repeat: the plurality of civilizations does not logically lead to relativism. It does not mean that there is no truth. Rather, it means that different men, situated and constituted differently, perceive truth differently. Thus I happen to believe that Islam is a false and destructive religion that degrades mankind and is a mortal threat to all non-Muslims. I also believe that Christianity is the highest and truest religion and the one that best fulfills the potentialities of human nature. But my belief that Islam is false, indeed the belief of two billion Christians that Islam is false, does not change the fact that Islam actually exists, and, even more important, that it is true to its adherents. Therefore to understand the reality of Islam, we must understand how Muslims themselves understand and experience it. The truth of Islam (a phrase which refers, not to the objective truth of the doctrines of Islam, but to the intelligible reality of Islam as experienced by its adherents) can only be grasped by seeing, at least to some extent, Islam as Muslims see it.
But for the neocons or right-liberals, who believe that there is only one truth, anything that is incompatible with Western universalist democracy, such as Islam, does not really exist. It is merely a mistake, or a type of “extremism.” It is a mad cult of “evil doers,” or the “desperate” terrorist activity of the “dead-enders” (GW Bush’s phrase) who have refused to get with the universalist program. Therefore there is no need to see Islam as Muslims see it. This leaves neocons incapable of recognizing that Islam is a coherent and self-sustaining belief system that has its own internal integrity. At the same time, neocons’ blindness to the reality of Islam doesn’t mean that they dismiss it entirely. Rather they conveniently divide Islam into, on ene side, the “bad” and “false” Islam (i.e., the real Islam), which they say is unreal and a mistake (describing it as, e.g., “extremists who have hijacked a great religion”); and, on the other side, the “good” and “real” Islam (i.e., the Islam that doesn’t actually exist), which is moderate and compatible with democracy.
Here is another way of understanding this neoconservative blindness. Being universalist ideologues, the neocons are imperialists. An empire recognizes only itself as real and valid; all other systems and types of societies that happen to exist in the world consist merely of deluded or recalcitrant people who haven’t yet gotten with the imperial program.
Of course, the Muslims are also imperialists who think that only their way is true and valid and that all non-Muslims are merely perverse Allah haters who haven’t yet gotten with the program and must do so or be killed.
Both the Western neocons and the Muslims are incapable of recognizing the reality of the Other.
Therefore, in the minds of the neocons, someone like you, who does recognize the reality of other cultures, is a relativist and a denier of truth.