All Articles All Articles

Sometimes asking for the impossible is the only realistic path. Banner

Relativists' Necessary Inconsistencies

Relativists' Necessary Inconsistencies

By Dennis Loo (3/15/14)

In the academy nowadays it is popular to hold relativist views – everyone has their own “truth” and there is no objective truth and no objective reality. In the non-academic world this view also enjoys widespread adherence – in the world of commerce it’s the in-thing to tell people that they can have things their own way, commodities tailor-made for individual preferences. “I have my opinion, you have yours, and facts can mean whatever I want them to mean.”

It is impossible for even the most avid believers in relativism to actually function as relativists in their day-to-day life. No society could actually operate based on relativist principles – society would quickly fall apart because no one could be counted upon to do what is expected of them. Everyone, including avowed relativists, lives their lives as if objective reality exists. Science, notably, depends upon an objective world’s existence: an empirical universe that does not depend for its existence upon human consciousness.

While it is true that everyone has different interpretations of what is going on in any given situation, it is even more true that virtually everyone except the certifiably insane or very young children acts according to universally recognized norms about the reality of physical objects, location, time, and the laws of physics such as mass. If you parked your car on the second floor near the west elevators in the parking garage this morning, when you return to pick up your car, you will find it exactly where you parked it in the morning, barring an earthquake or other disaster that moved your car, and barring someone stealing your car.

The blatant inconsistency of those who claim to be relativists – they say that no objective reality exists, but they all act as if there’s a shared empirical world – is a sign that relativism is a bankrupt philosophy. If it were true, then you could live it and there would be no inconsistencies between your beliefs and your lived practices.

Relativists who try to implement their philosophy in concrete ways invariably make a royal mess of things. For example, when I was a graduate student, my fellow teaching assistants (TA’s) and I went on strike. With one exception, the TA strike leaders on my campus were postmodernists. Postmodernists believe that there is no objective reality and no objective truth; it is all interpretation. It is all “text,” or “discourse.”

After the strike had been underway for a few weeks, the suggestion was raised at a strike meeting that a poll be conducted of TA’s at the university to see how many TA’s were still honoring the strike. The postmodernist strike leaders opposed such a survey on the grounds that the results of the survey might discourage people and thereby injure the strike. They did not want to know the objective truth, nor did they want anyone else to know the objective truth. They worried the truth might conceivably harm morale. These same strike leaders also never bothered to seriously reach out and discuss the strike with potential allies such as the faculty and those who worked on campus (such as construction workers). Their failure to do this created endless amounts of consternation among supportive faculty and workers who would have otherwise been pleased to honor fellow workers on strike, sizably contributing to unnecessary friction with those who would have been fast allies. These postmodernists’ idea of a strike was literally that a strike existed if there were at least a handful of strikers with strike signs walking in a picket line at the entrances to campus. Since they were all about “”representation” and “signs and symbols,” a picket line with signs = a strike. Working with others by organizing and outreach was not their idea of striking, perhaps because outreach smacked too much of something real rather than representational.

Those who wish to dismiss the idea that injustices need to be fought against can also find in relativist philosophy a handy justification for their and others’ inaction: if it’s all about interpretation, then those who are suffering are merely suffering subjectively and your sense of their suffering is also merely subjective for you. That makes it so much easier to dismiss real injustices as phantasms of those experiencing those injustices, providing narcissistic or self-centered individuals with a ready-made excuse for their self-centeredness.

If the radical changes that need to take place and cry out to take place are to take place, relativism has to be repudiated as an obstacle in the way.

Add comment

We welcome and encourage discussion and debate. We find truth via contention.

Security code

Elaine Brower 2

Elaine Brower of World Can't Wait speaking at the NYC Stop the War on Iran rally 2/4/12