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The Inconsistency of Relativists

The Inconsistency of Relativists

By Dennis Loo (3/15/14)

One of the most dangerous forces at work in our world today, perhaps the most dangerous force, is an assault on truth coming from the Right and from some elements of the Left, bolstered by the growing power of increasingly concentrated corporate media, advertising, public relations, and government propaganda, emanating from both major political parties, all trying to convince us of what is true irrespective of actual truth. Stephen Colbert satirically dubbed this trend to downgrade truth as “truthiness”—the semblance of truth. This attack on reality, on science, on reason, and on the Enlightenment is intimately connected to developments in the economy and politics, this book’s core subject. Globalization and its political expression, neoliberalism, could not continue to exist and prevail without the degradation of the meaning of truth. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 2)

In the academy nowadays it is popular to hold relativist views – the idea that 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. Some version of “I have my opinion, you have yours, and facts can mean whatever I want them to mean" is very common in discussions, both face-to-face and online.

It is impossible for even the most avid believers in relativism, however, 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 actuality upon human consciousness. Airplanes fly and satellites orbit earth based on empiricism, not postmodernism's perjorative about "scientism."

While it is true that individuals can have differing 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 in the world are to take place (e.g., the catastrophe of global warming), relativism has to be repudiated as a philosophy and recognized for what it is as an obstacle in the way.


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