08 Jan 2009

Kimball on the Tyranny of Relativism

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Roger Kimball in the January New Criterion:

It is often said that an anthropologist is someone who respects the distinctive values of every culture but his own. We in the West are all anthropologists now. It is curious, though, that proponents of relativism and multiculturalism should use ethnocentrism as a stick with which to beat the West. After all, both the idea and the critique of ethnocentrism are quintessentially Western. There has never in history been a society more open to other cultures than our own; nor has any tradition been more committed to self-criticism than the Western tradition: the figure of Socrates endlessly inviting self-scrutiny and rational explanation is a definitive image of the Western spirit. Moreover, “Western” science is not exclusively Western: it is science plain and simple. It was, to be sure, invented and developed in the West, but it is as true for the inhabitants of the Nile Valley as it is for the denizens of New York. That is why, outside the precincts of the humanities departments of Western universities, there is a mad dash to acquire Western science and technology. The deepest foolishness of multiculturalism shows itself in the puerile attacks it mounts on the cogency of scientific rationality, epitomized poignantly by the Afrocentrist who flips on his word processor to write books decrying the parochial nature of Western science and extolling the virtues of the “African way.”…

Why does relativism, which begins with a beckoning promise of liberation from “oppressive” moral constraints, so often end in the embrace of immoral constraints that are politically obnoxious? Part of the answer lies in the hypertrophy or perversion of relativism’s conceptual enablers—terms like “pluralism,” “diversity,” “tolerance,” and the like. They all name classic liberal virtues, but it turns out that their beneficence depends on their place in a constellation of fixed values. Absent that hierarchy, they rapidly degenerate into epithets in the armory of political suasion. They retain the aura of positive values, but in reality they are what Gairdner calls “value-dispersing terms that serve as an official warning to accept all behaviours of others without judgment and, most important, to keep all moral opinions private.” In this sense, the rise of relativism encourages an ideology of non-judgmentalism only as a prelude to ever more strident discriminations. “Where conditions permit,” Gairdner writes, the strong step in:

    either to impose a new regime or, as in the Western democracies, where overt totalitarianism is still unthinkable, to further permeate ordinary life with the state’s quietly overbearing, regulating role. Relativism is the natural public philosophy of such regimes because it repudiates all natural moral or social binding power, replacing these with legal decrees and sanction of the state.

Read the whole thing.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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“They all name classic liberal virtues, but it turns out that their beneficence depends on their place in a constellation of fixed values.”

It’s that constellation of fixed values otherwise known as culture that gives us the security and cohesiveness that allows us to recognize and accept those whose values are different from ours.

What the relativists seem to have forgotten (or prefer to overlook) is that the unwritten rules and sanctions of culture are fluid and mutable. Allowances are made. Sights are remembered but forgiven. But in a governmental or relativist culture we forced to endure rigid, compulsory laws and regulations. We can’t make allowances (that wouldn’t be fair, now – would it?) and transactions are punished and then forgotton.

Though they may seem to be more rigid and restrictive at first glance; culture and ethics are much more fluid and adaptable than relativism.



Never Yet Melted » Kimball on the Tyranny of Relativism


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