The Relativistic Malaise

When I was attending art college in the city of Pittsburgh (USA) I was forced to take a sociology course on world culture. One day we were discussing the Middle East and very shortly a heart-swell of anti-American sentiment sounded throughout the classroom. I politely objected, noting that the United States’ misadventures in the Middle East were merely catalysts for long simmering sentiments native to the people of that region — that the core problem was not Muslim hatred of US militarism, but rather: a hatred for the West itself. I went on to say, quite gingerly, that such sentiment should be discouraged and that, ideologically, we should not only inoculate ourselves against Islamist thought but also actively combat it. The class (almost entirely) turned against me with indignation, “How can you say that?” I replied, “Because I value my culture higher than theirs.” This, as it turned out, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, it was too much to take in. Eyes widened, voices murmured, visages of perfect confusion slowly changing into visages of would-be inquisitors. They quickly retorted what they felt was obvious, that no culture was ever superior to another. In their mind such a thing was not only narrative anathema, it was also a logical impossibility.

A lengthy discussion then ensued between myself and half of the class. The teacher, a kindly soft-spoken soul, looked on with dismay, wanting to help me but disagreeing with me too much to bring herself to do so. She was a keeper of the established order and so it would have been utterly heretical for her to act upon her obvious empathy. My only proper compatriot was a former marine, a large, crew-cut man nearly into his thirties, who had served and seen combat in Iraq. Even he could not dissuade that yammering mob, he who had actually been to these places, spoken with its Muslim inhabitants, dined with them and learned their culture. Even his experience, conviction and argumentation was shunted aside for things such as, “Well, what does better even mean?” “You don’t get to decide what is right and wrong.” “Muslims are people too.” “We’re all one people, we need to act like it.”

Such is the fruits of relativism, that school of thought which purports that all knowledge, all-knowing and all truth is constrained by some timely construction (society, culture, history, philosophy) and is thus not absolute nor can it ever be. It is the school of, “Everything is what you make of it.” Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the fundamental proposition of relativism, however, is irrelevant. One’s values need not be objective for them to have a profound importance. As I have come to realize my Pittsburghian classmates had gone unconsciously beyond traditional relativism into something else, a sort of relativism of even relativism itself. It should be obvious that such a state of mind is to be avoided like the plague. A philosophy, a culture which refuses to value itself (in any but the most petty and passing of ways) and also thinks that doing so would be evil is a culture that is (or already has) committed spiritual suicide. They are people who have, as Nietzsche oft-said, lost their vital forces, they are those whom have lost the drive to impose their wills, and the culmination of all previous judgements, out upon the world, however fractionally. They lack a crucial militarism of the mind, any cleaving to principal, they’re sloths attempting the ascent of the fruit tree, bereft of claws.

A final note, one should not neglect empathy and even some sympathy here when engaging with such people — with the sloths. My verbal duel against my classmates lasted for several sessions (bearing some fruits, some converts, if you will) and ended without calamity, without anger and without hate. Indeed, I made many friends in that class and my most virulent detractor, a would-be Hispanic tough, even told me on the last day of class, “You know I was wrong about you.” I was frankly curious and asked him why, he replied, “Cuz, you know, you listen. Ain’t nobody listening, everyone just wants to talk, talk, talk.” I thanked him for such a gracious compliment and we chatted away the remainder of the class on our experience with our respective women our philosophies and our musical taste (Scott Walker and Bach for me, The Beatles and Jay Z for him)  In short, be wary of underestimating (as I did) the persuasive power of good temperance, measured words and an open, charitable disposition.

Kaiter Enless

Author. Editor. Publisher. EIC: Logos Literature.

4 thoughts on “The Relativistic Malaise

  1. Good temperance, measured words and an open, charitable disposition are excellent – indeed I believe that I can win over almost anyone with those given sufficient time.

    But time, time is the problem. Outside of forced scenarios such as the university classroom, you are unlikely to get ten seconds of someone’s attention, let alone attention over multiple sessions. This problem is magnified as we continue down the

    1. I would certainly agree that deep questions of import (formative philosophies and political opinions) require months or even years of fairly regular conversation to actually change. It’s a hurdle which I do not see a way around (barring some incomprehensible calamity) and thus I practice patience.

  2. “I value my culture over theirs”

    “WAAAAAT?!!! You can’t say that. All cultures are equal. Full stop.”

    “Do you not think they value their culture over mine? Let us say that this is somehow not obvious and grant it anyway. Then are they to be held to the same standard?”

    “[Prog spidey senses tingling] Of course. No culture is superior to any other culture is universal value.”

    “But it’s obviously not a universal value. Practically everyone in the world, outside of the West, has a culture which privileges its own parochial self over outside cultures.”

    “[Wile E. Coyote is now suspended in mid-air 10 m past the cliff edge] No. All must agree that no culture is superior to any other culture. Diversity is our strength.”

    “That’s just your own culture talking. No other culture thinks that. You would impose your culture by force on others. This is because you value your culture over theirs.”

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