Thursday, December 4, 2008

My problem with relativism

My dad posted this on his (now defunct) blog a few years back:

Relativism has been much talked about lately because of the words of Pope Benedict XVI.  [He's referring to these comments from 2005. - Jac]  I greatly respect what I’ve heard from the new pope so far. He is defending Western civilization, a civilization I love and I find worth defending. But I’m also concerned that relativism is turning into the new anti-intellectual, anti-progressive code word. I’ve been asking myself to what extent I’m a relativist.

It turns out that I’m relatively relativistic, not absolutely relativistic. In the normal course of things, I’m eager to consider all points of view and welcome input from all cultures and groups. I support affirmative action even though it doesn’t serve my self–interest and may at times have worked against me. By temperament I prefer a diverse world. Although I go to a medical doctor, I’m open-minded enough to have tried acupuncture. You get the idea.

Where does my relativism stop? It stops at the absolute necessity of defending our civilization’s survival. Thus I supported the war in Afghanistan and was impatient with those who thought that this country had no right to shoot back against its real enemies. I opposed the war in Iraq because I did not feel that Saddam’s regime, however odious, represented an imminent threat against us.

I’m disgusted by those on the left whose cultural relativism consists of an absolute disapproval of the United States: those who gleefully point up every historical misdeed of this country while excusing the misdeeds of other countries as being results of different cultural values. Those who make cushy livings in the United States by vilifying the United States, biting the hand that feeds them. They belie their own claims to relativism. The historical misdeeds need to be brought up, faced honestly, and used as incentives to avoid similar wrongs in the future. But people who act as if the most important thing about George Washington was that he was a slaveowner are simply obtuse.

This issue is important today because Western civilization really is under an imminent threat, perhaps more in Europe than in this country. Islamic militants understand this and European leftists do not. In Holland and France recently the peace–loving liberal public has received some big shocks: the murder of filmmaker Theo Van Gogh for making a film critical of Islam, and a number of violent attacks on French students by Muslim gangs shouting racial epithets. Such incidents have galvanized the right and split the left in those countries. The backlash does not promise to be edifying or thoughtful. The conflict is bound to increase.

The Islamicization of Europe is a real threat for the next generation. It shows an intent to take revenge not only for the Crusades but for the Battle of Tours. Meanwhile, relativist leftists are starting to look more and more like their liberal, well–bred counterparts in Chekhov’s plays: sitting around chatting amusingly about their own helplessness and the need to reform society. They don’t dare stand up in their own defense because it’s not the attractive thing to do.

No society, whether privileged or not, has an obligation to comply in its own demise. Liberalism does not mean permitting others to try to destroy you.

If I’m only relatively relativistic, then, does that actually make me more relativistic than the absolute relativists? Who knows? I’m not into solving paradoxes. I live comfortably with them.

But it means I’ll never be fully acceptable to the left. I saw an example of this about a decade ago when I was living in the doctrinairely leftist environment of Madison, Wisconsin. I had a friend who was a leftist activist – a nice, mild-mannered guy, and we had a lot of interests in common. He was going through a divorce, and I’d gone through one a few years earlier and could talk to him about it. We were at a social gathering one evening and there was some Indonesian gamelan music on the stereo. I like Indonesian gamelan music and had just enjoyed a concert of it at the university. So we were talking about how nice the music on the stereo was.

This gave my friend an opportunity to make a multiculturalist point. “How come Mozart is so much better known than Indonesian gamelan music?”

“Maybe because Mozart wrote better music?” I asked.

He looked at me with utter horror, as if the mask had been peeled from my face. “Better music?”

I had said the impermissible. And though the discussion ended there, after that evening he and I never got together socially again.

But you know, much as I can enjoy Indonesian gamelan music, Mozart is better. Tastes can vary. I may like Rembrandt and you may like Titian. But anyone who thinks Jeff Koons is an equally great artist is simply a fool.

I agree with just about all of that. (I do have one quibble, but I'll get to that later...)

I responded in the comments section:
I've had many conversations with Madisonians along the lines of your conversation with your friend about Mozart and Indonesian gamelan music. It amazes me how friends of mine who have devoted enormous amounts of time toward honing their own artistic talents can turn around and insist that no evaluation of artistic merit can possibly have any authority. If no art is better than any other art, then what motivation does the artist have to perfect his or her craft?

It often seems to me that one of the main things driving aesthetic relativists is the idea that objective aesthetic judgments are somehow just too self-centered to be acceptable. "Who are YOU to say that this art is better than that art? You think YOUR taste is any better than anyone else's?!" Well, yes, my taste in music is better than some people's, because I have chosen to spend a lot of time listening to music closely and repeatedly. And my taste in poetry is not as good as many people's, because I have not done what it takes to refine my taste in poetry. This is not being arrogant; it's just being honest.

The irony that always comes up in these conversations is that it is the relativists who are most interested in imposing their own absolute pronouncements on art. The relativist essentially says: "My whole aesthetic theory is the infallible truth; don't you dare contradict me." This same relativist will, of course, criticize me for being close-minded because I have the audacity to suggest that a Brittney Spears song is not quite as good as the 9th Symphony.

BTW, let's not fail to give Indonesian gamelan music its due. After all, it inspired Debussy to write some of the greatest music of all time.


1. A very intricate analysis of the merits of relativism (much more balanced than I'm willing to be!).

2. The philosopher Simon Blackburn on why he's not a relativist.

3. "We need to stop being such cowards about Islam."

(Painting by Vermeer; file from Wikimedia Commons.)