If you ever hear yourself saying phrases like “Who’s to say” (meaning who is to say which opinion is better), or “That’s just your opinion” (meaning all opinions are equal), chances are you’ve absorbed the relativism so central to the postmodern zeitgeist (1). About five years ago, the Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn wrote a book called Truth: A Guide, in which he challenged the relativist position with some gusto. For Blackburn relativism is a serious and charged topic. Blackburn accuses postmodern relativism of being “something which corrupts and corrodes the universities and the public culture, that sweeps away moral standards, lays waste to young people’s minds, and rots our precious civilization from within” (2).
The problem of relativism is indeed an important one and I was pleased to hear that Blackburn was pushing it into the public spotlight with his book on the topic. However, I was furious when reading the review of his book in The Globe and Mail, where the reviewer (also a philosophy professor) dismissed ‘the scourge of relativism’ as a philosophical bogeyman that doesn’t actually exist in society. I knew this to be patently untrue, as I’d heard this precise viewpoint expressed time and time again by people.
I happened to be doing graduate work in philosophy at the time of this review, so I asked my students, and got several other TA’s to ask their students, if they agreed with the views of cultural relativism. People holding relativist views believe that different cultures have different values, and that there’s no possibility of values that could be true for all cultures. All values are deemed equally valid. This view rejects the possibility of their being anything intrinsically valuable in the world; value isn’t discovered, it’s invented.
The results of our informal survey were rather startling. Approximately three quarters of all students agreed with this view. Many of my students couldn’t even see why it was an issue at all, they agreed with the principles of cultural relativism with a certain matter of fact nonchalance. It was a good lesson in how quickly new ideas can become received wisdom and unquestioned habit.
And a new idea it is. The move toward cultural relativism is the result of a recent social-historical context; it’s in large part a reaction against the moral injustices of modernity (4).
As I wrote in my first sketch of modernity, one of the primary features of the modern worldview was its universalism. To recall the passage by Isaiah Berlin, “One of the central doctrines of the Enlightenment was that human nature was fundamentally the same in all times and places; that local and historical variations were unimportant…That there were universal human goals; that a logically connected structure of laws and generalizations susceptible of demonstration and verification could be constructed [that] would replace superstition, prejudice and ignorance” (5). There’s a very real sense in which this universalism represented a significant moral advance, a widening of the circle of human care. And indeed it led to anti-slavery movements, to women’ssuffrage movements, and to the idea of human rights. It also led to the internationalist sentiment behind the Communist credo “Workers of the world unite!” Workers of the world unite? The boundaries of local cultures had certainly been transcended in this new emergent universalism.
But this universalism carried with it a dark side too. It became the handmaiden of a harsh imperialism, and many cultures were disastrously forced to rapidly conform to its new standards. In Canada, Australia and elsewhere, the history of relations with native populations is a dreadful one. The second American invasion of Iraq is a recent example of what can happen when value systems are forced onto another culture. This cultural domination angered many European intellectuals and it produced a backlash. The postmodern thinkers “rejected universalism, rationalism, the Enlightenment, and all grand narratives whether they promoted progress, the nation, the people, or the working class. In their view these notions were part and parcel of Western imperialism that sought to dominate and subordinate less developed cultures of the world by bringing them within the circuit of global capitalism” (6).
The so-called ‘universal’ values of modernity were eventually seen as a smokescreen for exploitation and authoritarian control. So how could one counter this new and brutal domination system? This could be done by intellectually undermining all its claims to universality, and by stridently promoting and emphasizing the values of difference, diversity and pluralism.
This move towards pluralism has come at a price, however, creating some troublesome consequences. The first and primary problem is that this move towards respecting difference and diversity was actually a moral stance, and a worthy one. It wanted to protect the marginalized and the different; it was an inclusive value that extended the widening circle of care instigated by the moderns. However, by pushing their stance toward the extreme of cultural relativism, which they thought would remove any future possibility of values-based imperialism, postmodern thinkers cut off the very possibility of making any binding ethical judgments at all.
It was a well-intentioned move that inadvertently cut off its own feet in the process, for the obvious question becomes, “Well if each culture has their own truth, and no truth is higher or better than another, then does this mean that Hitler was just doing his thing, and that massacring Jews was just his truth”. I asked my class of students this seemingly extreme question and I’ll never forget the young girl in punk garb who looked at me defiantly and said, “That’s right, that was Hitler’s truth”. It’s an unfortunate turn of events when an initially ethical stance leads one to be incapable of uttering universally and unequivocally that the Holocaust was a horror that was wrong and should never be repeated, period. But these are the exactly the kind of grotesque contortions of the moral mind that cultural relativism can lead people into.
It’s no surprise that it’s been a series of Marxist thinkers- Jurgen Habermas, Fredric Jameson, David Harvey, Terry Eagleton, among others- who’ve been among the biggest critics of the postmodern relativist position, for this relativism undermines any possibility of an ethical critique of capitalism, or finding common values for a common struggle against its excesses. Thus Terry Eagleton writes, “If generalizations about humanity can be valid, it is among other things because human beings, belonging as they do to the same natural species, share an immense amount in common. To say this is not to overlook the politically explosive differences and distinctions between them. But those postmodern thinkers who are enraptured by difference, and with dreary uniformity find it everywhere they turn, should not overlook our common features either. The differences between human beings are vital, but they are not a solid enough foundation on which to build an ethics or a politics” (7). The Marxist writers have been quick to realize the politically damaging consequences of the postmodern slide into relativism, and they have asserted an important public voice of opposition to it.
Another consequence of the relativist worldview is that we can begin to construct a distorted picture of what exactly a culture is. A culture begins to look like this completely isolated and roped off foreign territory, when in reality it’s anything but. Cultures have been constantly mixing for thousands of years, and well-established trade routes (bringing more than just goods) have been criss-crossing through the world’s cultural zones for that entire time. Migration, diffusion and porous boundaries are more accurate to the historical reality. As the French philosopher Edgar Morin writes, “At the origin of all cultures, including the most bizarre, we find encounters, unions, syncretisms, and cross-breedings. All cultures have the ability to assimilate what had been foreign” (8).
To think that our cultures are these neat shrink-wrapped and isolated entities, incapable of truly understanding one another or sharing common values, is a mental half truth that distorts reality. I recently shared a beer with an Irishman at an Irish pub here in Vancouver, and he told me a story about leaving Ireland for the first time in his twenties and going to France for a holiday. He said that his time in Bordeaux was a revelation; “this is the way it should be done,” he told me. He loved Bordeaux, and not just the warm weather and agreeable geography. He loved the food, the pace of life and other cultural features of his newly found Eden.
And as I heard him saying this I thought to myself, how could this strict view of cultural separation be right given what this guy is saying. How could a guy from Limerick, Irish to the core, leave his culture for the first time in his life and in one week in a new place and culture not only recognize the different local values and customs, but want to immediately adopt them as his own! A danger of the cultural relativist position is that we emphasize difference to such an extent that we hinder our capacity to recognize the universals among us too. We can become so sensitive to making sure the ethic of difference is upheld that we unknowingly create fixed mental stalls that keep us artificially apart.
Another related problem with the postmodern move towards plurality and difference is that it creates the conditions for a new tribalism (9). With the rejection of cross-cultural values that might be shared in common, people are forced to find new and often smaller spheres of identity, whether it is based on race, class, ethnicity, gender or nation. The move to protect our differences thus threatens to break the world apart into a bewildering fragmentation; it also tempts forth the protective violence that was at the heart of tribal life. The fundamentalism and the terrorism of our age are intricately tied up with this story.
So what is the post-postmodern way out of this mess?
The philosopher Edgar Morin seems to have captured the paradoxical route forward. “The idea would be to move toward a universal society based on the genius of diversity (homogeneity lacks genius), which would lead us to a double imperative, inwardly contradictory but fruitful for that very reason: (a) everywhere to safeguard, propagate, cultivate, or develop unity; and (b) and everywhere to safeguard, propagate, cultivate, or develop diversity” (10). How this will look in action will be something that we’ll have to work through, hash out, and negotiate together.
It strikes me that it’s at the level of local culture and community that our diversity can best flourish. An example of this local diversity can be found in the heritage food movement happening now in many countries, where fantastic old foods and recipes, many which had deep historical ties to the local culture, are being brought back again. This relation to the local and the geography of place is crucial for a rich and connected human life, and it was deeply eroded by the universalizing and centralizing tendencies of modernity.
The local can also be a place for experiment and innovation, a site for the production of new values and forms of human organization, new methods and ways of life tried that if successful can be imported out and adapted in other regions of the world. The city is an important locus for this sort of decentralized local experimentation, one that can respond to the needs of the local geography and culture.
But at the very same time that local culture and diversity is being strengthened and developed, we need to stretch ourselves outward and connect as a trans-national citizenry too. We’ll need to continue to negotiate and agree on integrative norms and rule sets, guiding values for the ongoing globalization process that is connecting us all. What might these values be? Values that already seem to be taking on a global identity include regulating the excesses of global capital; the need to move to a sustainable energy future; local food security and healthy food production; the end of human slavery; limits on the use of force and war; freedom and liberty for the citizens of all nations (hence the recent global support for the people of Iran and Burma); human rights and in particular, women’s rights; religious unity and religious cooperation; environmental concern; minimalist living and slowing down; international law; economic justice; international development; resilient communities and so on.
So it appears we have an interesting challenge ahead of us if we’re going to transcend the limitations of the relativist worldview while still retaining its important moments of truth; there’s a paradoxical practice for us to perform in the post-postmodern age- to respect and develop our diversity while simultaneously building the bridges of our common collective future. Godspeed and may this Eros driven process be so.
“Recognizing diversity is certainly a noble endeavor, and I heartily support that pluralism. But if we remain merely at the stage of celebrating diversity, we are ultimately promoting fragmentation, alienation, separation, and despair. You go your way, I go my way, we both fly apart- which is often what has happened under the reign of the pluralistic relativists, who have left us a postmodern Tower of Babel on too many fronts. It is not enough to recognize the many ways in which we are all different; we need to go further and start recognizing the many ways that we are similar”. –Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything
(1) “Postmodernity is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms, it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which breed a degree of skepticism about the objectivity of truth, history and norms”. Eagleton, Terry. The Illusions of Postmodernism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996. p.vii.
(3) The original notion of a meme came from the work of the scientist Richard Dawkins. It has been picked up by many social thinkers, including the people behind Spiral Dynamics who define it as a “thought/action pattern that replicates and communicates itself as a system through people and societies”.
(4) It’s worth noting that many of the technical arguments used by postmodern thinkers have a pre-history in the skeptic and cynic philosophers of the ancient world, but the social context is wholly different and in battling directly against modernity, postmodern thinkers used their considerable skill to push this skepticism in extreme and inventive directions.
(6) The passage goes on to say- “Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Lyotard, Baudrillard, Badiou, Zizek, and others decried Eurocentrism, logocentrism, phallocentrism, and all forms of liberal authority as essentially totalitarian structures of control. In opposition to the domination of the Western culture and global capital, they promoted the cultures of the Third World and the marginalized subcultures with the First World”. Gillespie, Michael Allen. The Theological Origins of Modernity. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008. p.359.
Also: The historian of ideas Richard Wolin writes that postmodern thinkers “had an ethical agenda to purvey. [They] sought to highlight the hypocrisy of traditional humanism [Enlightenment values], which, in the era of decolonization (Vietnam, Algeria, etc.), appeared to serve as the ideological window dressing for the corruptions of the imperialist West”. Richard Wolin. Labyrinths: Explorations in the Critical History of Ideas. US: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995. p.176.
Also: “You cannot describe someone as oppressed unless you have some dim notion of what not being oppressed might look like, and why being oppressed is a bad idea in the first place. And this involves normative judgments, which then makes politics look uncomfortably like ethics”. Eagleton, Terry. After Theory. London: Penguin Books, 2003. p.149.
There are unlimited examples of this overall point, but here are a few minor ones. The tomato only came to Italy via South America in the 17th century, changing its cuisine and culture, while the Portuguese brought the red chili to the orient, changing several foreign cuisines and cultures in the process. Or take the example of the firearm. It was invented in China (somewhere around 1200 AD), taken by Mongol armies to Europe where it was rapidly developed by the warring European nations, and then eventually sailed on a Portuguese ship to Japan where “within a generation the Japanese were using their new firearms more effectively than the Europeans”. Dyer, Gwynne. War. Canada: Vintage, 2005. p.206-210.