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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Theological Notebook: Against Tolerance; the Pakistani Murders 
6th-Mar-2011 11:29 pm
St. Paul Debating (12th century)
Dan pointed out to me a column from The Guardian dealing with the ongoing problem of Western unwillingness to defend liberal principles, in this case as exemplified in the response to the assassination (or martyrdom) of civil rights activist Shahbaz Bhatti this past week (and of Salmaan Taseer, earlier) in Pakistan. Bad right-wing thinking is at least pretty blatant in its illiberality. Bad left-wing thinking, unfortunately, paints itself into an illiberal corner using mis-applied liberal impulses.

As I look at the post-modern cultural context we operate in today, it's a potential problem I have to address with my students. The Modern mindset still believed, like the ages before it, that one could find and follow truth in reality: thus the Enlightenment trumpeted the achievements of the new sciences in teasing out truths of our universe. Likewise, Enlightenment philosophers attacked Christianity not because they were bigots, ostensibly, but because they thought it was a set of untrue claims about the world. That approach still leaves everything in the realm of study, examination, debate, and evidence.

The Post-Modern mindset that is emerging has ultimately given up on the idea of truths in reality, at least in any realm beyond the physical sciences, whose technology obviously works. There is a well-meaning moral thrust behind this, as Charles Taylor pointed out 20 years ago in The Ethics of Authenticity. Its desire to avoid conflicts between religions and worldviews has led it to embrace peace at the cost of saying that there cannot be any great moral codes that everyone must follow or any one "correct" religion, out of the belief that such irreconcilable perspectives end in conflict, as has been seen before in history. John Lennon's "Imagine" might be considered the great hymn of such a philosophy, with its claim that a world with no religions would be naturally more peaceful. The popular impulse to be "spiritual but not religious" is motivated by similar ethical drives, imagining that by "rising above" identifying one particular view as right, to the exclusion of all others, one is living out in themselves a more enlightened and tolerant ethic.

The only problem is, it doesn't work out that way.

We are amphibians, in terms of our philosophical orientation in this world: we live at a great time of historical transition between worldviews, with most of us being half-Moderns and half Post-Moderns. Most of us have mixes of these philosophies in our heads, and, since we live in a culture that has little patience for the long work of philosophy, most of us haven't done the work of trying to sort out these ideas, of "checking the math" of different groups' ideas to see why one might claim that a particular view is right or true, and to find where they might not be compatible, or might not even be ideas that we want to endorse. (To anyone who hasn't done the work of "checking the math," truth-claims sound like close-minded arrogance, and we do like to put the kabosh on such people.) To the extent that we are Moderns, we want to promote ideas of human rights and universal justice. Good stuff! To the extent that we are Post-Moderns, we recognize the importance of perspective, both individual and cultural, and we want to hold to that "prime directive" that no person or culture has the right to impose its ideas upon another. Also pretty good stuff.

But the two philosophical approaches are incompatible, at least, if the Post-Modern privileging of perspective is taken to its logical extreme.

An example: we might say as Moderns that women ought to have equal rights in society. If we say this as Moderns, we say it because we believe it to be a moral truth, regardless of whether one personally believes it or not. That's what a truth is. And so we would come down on the side of those Moderns who wrote the Declaration of Independence, saying that "we hold these truths to be self-evident," that they are true for all and everywhere. But as Post-Moderns, we want to say that no culture has the right to impose its values on another culture, which seems like a pretty good rule of behavior, looking at past overwhelmings of one culture by another, such as in the European migration to the Americas. But if we really hold that value as absolute, then we cannot say, for example, that women ought to have equal rights in Middle Eastern Islamic societies, because that would be an imposition of Western liberal values on another culture, violating its integrity.

See? It doesn't go both ways, if one really absolutizes the Post-Modern perspective. Women either ought to be granted such rights, or the status of women in society is solely a matter of cultural perspective, but both cannot be true. Thus we have the surprising historical irony that the Vatican has become the most outspoken defender of that old Enlightenment (in its truth-embracing aspects, if not its anti-Christian aspects). That whirring sound you hear is Voltaire, Jefferson and Hume spinning in their graves.

So now we have the problem of Western unwillingness to defend liberal principles. The Post-Modern mindset in this culture has tended to go farther down the line of embracing perspectivism or subjectivism, and that unwillingness to "impose a set of values on another group," even to the point of being unwilling to "impose" values like a universal human rights ethic, which, problematically, is at the very heart of liberal values. We either believe in a democratic Liberty as the right of all human beings, or we do not. If we believe it, but only for those who already possess it or "want" it, then we betray the Declaration and we bow down to every thuggish group that can pass itself off as an alternative "culture."

We have to do some hard, delicate and painful work: we have to dare to converse and to raise the possibility that some values, cultures and perspectives might not be true, good, or beautiful. And that instantly is opened up to the Post-Modern accusation of blasphemy: it's "intolerant." But do I really want to tolerate totalitarian regimes? Do I really want to tolerate the oppression of women?

We have to get past our fear of being declared intolerant. (Which is, of course, just a rhetorical strategy to shut one up: no great tolerance there.) We have to be willing to embrace the greater tolerance of actively engaging in dialogue and disputation with alternative points of view, rather than hope that the simplistic "tolerance of all viewpoints" will magically lead to cultural peace. That Post-Modern hope was well-meaning, and driven by the good values of tolerance and peaceful co-existence, but in its absolute and naive form, it empowers every oppressive group under the sun, and it only sounds reasonable, tolerant and enlightened as long as the militants haven't yet entered into your country or your neighbourhood. It is a far greater tolerance (hell, let's just call it "Love" instead) to actively be, for example, a Christian engaged with a Muslim, both of whom are free to say, "I think that you're dead wrong about what you believe and here is why," and then still buy one another a Coke, than it is to be the person who, in the name of tolerance, says that we should abstain from embracing one position or another, and instead should all be "tolerant." That sort of pseudo-tolerance is just the latest, and far most violent, form of Western Imperialism that has ever been conceived, as it de-legitimizes any perspective other than its own, all in the double-speak of peace, tolerance and openness. It makes having ghettos look absolutely humane.
The Pakistan Killings Are Not About Blasphemy
Western liberals are happy to denounce white extremists, while covering up militant Islam with a blanket of political correctness

Nick Cohen
The Observer, Sun 6 Mar 2011 12.53 GMT

After Salman Rushdie published The Satanic Verses, religious "scholars" doubted whether the Ayatollah Khomeini had the right to order his murder. They had no liberal qualms about executing a writer for subjecting religion to imaginative scrutiny. They believed that blasphemers and apostates must die as their religion insisted. But only if they were citizens of an Islamic state. As Rushdie was living in London in 1989, a free man in a free country, the clerics concluded that religious law did not apply to him.

The Rushdie controversy was the Dreyfus affair of the late 20th century. It established today's dividing lines between the secular and the authoritarian, between those who were willing to defend freedom of thought and inquiry and those who wanted to censor and self-censor to keep fanatics happy. We can gauge how low we have sunk by remembering that at the start of the battle 23 years ago there was a tiny regard for the forms of legality, even among those who were otherwise happy to condemn free thinkers to death. However brutal they were, they respected their version of due process.

The Islamist murders first of Salmaan Taseer and then of Shahbaz Bhatti show that what tiny scruples blood-soaked men possessed vanished long ago. The best way to describe the terror which is reducing Pakistani liberals to silence is to enumerate what the assassins did not allege. They did not say that Taseer and Bhatti must die because they were apostates – or, to put that "crime" in plain language, because they were adults who decided they no longer believed in the Muslim god. Taseer had not renounced Islam. Bhatti could not renounce it as he was the bravest Christian in Pakistan, who campaigned for equal rights for persecuted minorities with the dignity and physical courage of a modern Martin Luther King.

Nor did their assassins claim that their targets had committed the capital crime of blasphemy. Taseer and Bhatti had not said that the Koran, like the Talmud and the New Testament, was the work of men not god. They did not denounce Muhammad's morality or offer any criticism of his life and teaching. If you wanted to reduce the whirling, brilliant narrative of Rushdie's Satanic Verses to a single sentence, you could say that it was in part a "blasphemous" account of the early history of Islam. Taseer and Bhatti attempted nothing so brave. They confined themselves to making the modest point that Pakistan's death penalty for blasphemy was excessive and barbaric, and that was enough to condemn them. Their killers murdered them for the previously unknown crime of advocating law reform: blew them away for the new offence of blaspheming against blasphemy.

One Pakistani journalist I spoke to described his fellow liberals as members of a persecuted minority, who now knew that if they spoke out, they would be shot down. Salmaan Taseer's daughter, Shehrbano, wrote a heartbreaking piece for the Guardian in which she despaired of a "spineless" Pakistani elite that was too frightened to praise her father or condemn his murderers.

In the networked world, censorship by the authoritarian state or clerical paramilitaries is meant to matter less. Technology enthusiasts can point to Twitter revolutions as proof of how emancipatory democratic ideas seep into apparently closed societies. But the ideas that Pakistanis need from America, Europe or "the west" to help fight armed theocracy are not there for surfers to find.

Fear plays its part in keeping western opinion quiet as well. It is hard to credit, but liberal society responded pretty well to the threat to Rushdie in 1989. Penguin refused to withdraw the Satanic Verses. Booksellers ignored threats and bombs and carried on selling it. But once the global wave of terror had passed, no one wanted to put themselves through what Rushdie and Penguin had been through, and a silence descended. Even the supposedly militant "new atheists," whom genteel commentators damn for their vulgarity, steer clear of religions that might kill them. Close readers of Richard Dawkins will notice that almost all his examples of clerical folly are drawn from the Catholic and American evangelical churches, whose congregations are unlikely to firebomb his publishers.

The fear is still present. Last month, four men were convicted of slashing the face and fracturing the skull of Gary Smith, a London teacher who had made the mistake of taking the windy official pronouncements about "promoting diversity" seriously and taught Muslim girls about Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism. Political violence comes from the British National Party, English Defence League and various splinter groups from the IRA, as well as Islamists, and that is before you raise your gaze and examine the assorted gun-totting crazies who inhabit the fringe of American politics.

The difference between Islamism and the rest is that liberals are happy to denounce white extremists, while covering up militant Islam with the wet blanket of political correctness. They do not confine themselves to saying that, of course, society must protect people from being murdered for their religion, as Slobodan Milosevic murdered the Bosnian Muslims, and punish employers who refuse jobs to members of creeds they dislike, as Protestant employers in Northern Ireland once refused to hire Catholics. They maintain it is illicit to criticise religious ideas. Thus, along with the admittedly faint fear of violence, western writers who want to provide arguments against religious misogyny, homophobia, racism and censorship must also live with the fear that their contemporaries will accuse them of orientalism or Islamophobia.

The world may pay a price for the monumental blunder of treating religious ideologies – which are beliefs that men and women ought to be free to accept or reject – as if they were ethnicities, which no man or woman can change. Not the smallest reason why the Arab revolution is such an optimistic event is that al-Qaida and the Muslim Brotherhood have been left as gawping bystanders. Their isolation cannot last. Eventually, if Arab states move towards democracy, there will be a confrontation with political Islam. Arab liberals, like Pakistani liberals, will search the net for guidance. They will discover that far from offering strategies that might help, timorous western liberals have convinced themselves that it is "racist" to criticise raging fanatics who no longer even bother to pretend that they are anything other than liberalism's mortal enemies.

m.guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2011

Pakistan Minister Shahbaz Bhatti Shot Dead in Islamabad
Shahbaz Bhatti – a Christian critic of Pakistan's blasphemy laws – killed by assassins who left leaflets signed 'Taliban al-Qaida'

Declan Walsh in Islamabad
Wednesday 2 March 2011 15.11 GMT

Self-described Taliban gunmen have shot dead Pakistan's minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, an advocate of reform of the country's blasphemy laws, as he left his Islamabad home.

Two assassins sprayed the Christian minister's car with gunfire, striking him at least eight times, before scattering pamphlets that described him as a "Christian infidel". The leaflets were signed "Taliban al-Qaida Punjab".

Bhatti's 22-year-old niece Mariam was first on the scene. "I rushed out to find his body covered with blood. I said "uncle, uncle" and tried to take his pulse. But he was already dead," she said at Bhatti's house, extending a bloodstained palm. The sound of wailing women rose from the next room.

Bhatti's assassination was the second killing of a politician in Islamabad over blasphemy in as many months, following the assassination of the Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer outside a cafe a few miles away on 4 January.

Dismayed human rights activists said it was another sign of rising intolerance at hands of violent extremists. "I am sad and upset but not surprised," said the veteran campaigner Tahira Abdullah outside Bhatti's house. "These people have a long list of targets, and we are all on it. It's not a matter of if, but when."

The only Christian in Pakistan's cabinet, Bhatti had predicted his own death. In a farewell statement recorded four months ago, to be broadcast in the event of his death, he spoke of threats from the Taliban and al-Qaida.

But he vowed not to stop speaking for marginalised Christians and other minorities. "I will die to defend their rights," he said on the tape released to the BBC and al-Jazeera. "These threats and these warnings cannot change my opinions and principles."

Lax security did not help. Witnesses and police said Bhatti was travelling with just his driver when he came under attack less than 50 metres from the Islamabad home he shares with his mother.

A small white car carrying gunmen blocked his way. After an initial burst of fire they dragged Bhatti's driver from the vehicle, then continued firing through a side window. "It lasted about twenty seconds," said a neighbour, Naseem Javed. "When I rushed out I saw the minister's driver standing by the car, shivering, and his niece weeping and shouting."

"They fired 25 bullets," said a police officer beside a bullet-pocked pavement, holding a handful of brass Kalashnikov bullet cases.

As they left the gunmen flung pamphlets on to the road that blamed President Asif Ali Zardari's government for putting an "infidel Christian" in charge of a committee to review the blasphemy laws. The government insists no such committee exists. "With the blessing of Allah, the mujahideen will send each of you to hell," said the note.

Last November Bhatti joined Salmaan Taseer in championing the case of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was sentenced to death last November for allegedly committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad.

"This law is being misused," Bhatti told Open magazine at the time. "Many people are facing death threats and problems. They're in prison and are being killed extra-judicially."

The government later distanced itself from the blasphemy reformists, repeatedly stressing that it had no intention of amending the law, leaving Bhatti and Taseer politically isolated. Now that both men are dead, angry supporters say the government bears some responsibility for not protecting them politically, if not physically.

"The government distanced itself from anyone who took a stand on blasphemy. I blame them for being such chickens," said Abdullah.

Ali Dayan Hasan of Human Rights Watch said Bhatti's death represented "the bitter fruit of appeasement of extremist and militant groups both prior to and after the killing of Salmaan Taseer".

The embattled Christian community also voiced concerns about its safety. "We feel very insecure," said Bhatti's brother in law, Yousaf Nishan. "In this society you can't open your mouth, even if you want to say something good, because you're afraid who you might offend."

The assassination raised fresh questions about the safety of Sherry Rehman, a parliamentarian who also championed reform of the blasphemy laws, and who has been in semi-hiding since January.

She was not available for comment. Friends said she may have gone into hiding again, fearing for her safety.
7th-Mar-2011 11:13 am (UTC)
where does the idea that
"There is Truth, but it is ultimately unknowable, in its entirety, and we each approach it the best we can, by the method that seems best to each of us, which is heavily mediated by our individual cultural contexts. When someone from another context is doing something Wrong (from our point of view), it is proper to engage and try to convince them to behave otherwise, and we will be more effective at that if we respectfully understand where each of our conceptions of Truth is colored by our experiences, those that are common to us as human beings, and those that differ by virtue of our cultural contexts."
fall on your post/modern continuum?
7th-Mar-2011 04:08 pm (UTC)
Heyya. Is that a quotation from a particular text, or is that directly from you, trying to articulate the balance?

I think that this statement seems to be the way of wisdom that straddles and takes in the best of both the Modern and the Post-Modern insights. The Modern holding to the idea that Truth is knowable, and that Reason is a power that transcends our merely animal perception and instinct, cannot be jettisoned. The Post-Modern insight that our perception (of Truth, if we allow such a possibility) can be coloured and influenced by a host of personal and cultural perspectives is a critical one as well, which should temper and caution our attempts to articulate those truths as best we can.

I do want to highlight a distinction that you make: "There is Truth, but it is ultimately unknowable, in its entirety...." Some take that "unknowable in its entirety" and turn that into "unknowable," taking the quick road to relativism, whether espoused relativism, or an effective relativism because of a social pressure to not make any truth-claims in view of one's own limited knowledge. But if I read you rightly, and strictly, I think we are on the same page. Few insights were more important for me in thinking through these questions than seeing the distinction between "knowing truth" and "knowing truth exhaustively." The latter would indeed be a divine perspective: as a human it is entirely beyond me. But this does not mean that I cannot know things truly, and have real access to objective truths: "Bart was an orange cat." "Rape is an objective evil." Einstein's "the total internal energy of a body at rest is equal to the product of its rest mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light in a vacuum." I do not have to surrender to the dictum that "It's all just a matter of perspective," the idea that, with the power of reason, I can perceive, identify, articulate, and proclaim truths. These examples show a variety of truths able to be grasped: historical, ethical, and scientific. (I admit that it's harder to talk about truths regarding God, although that's complicated by the utter ignorance of most of our culture of the philosophical and theological sciences. There's no more effective "immunization" from such disciplines than the avoidance of studying them in our "sound bite" culture, combined with the dogmatic claim that this avoidance makes ones opinions just as valid as those who have undertaken such studies, because, of course, such things don't count as "real" knowledge. There's bad first principles, too....)

The Modern excess was to over-estimate what could be determined, a la Kant, by means of "reason alone." The extent to which we depend upon cultural constructions, paradigms, unprovable first principles, has even come to be recognized in the "hard" sciences. The Post-Modern excess is to absolutize its insight, or engage in the reductionism that this recognition of the importance of perspective in our thinking therefore indicates that there are no objective truths (outside, perhaps, the hard sciences), or that no such truths can be determined or recognized by individual human beings.

Both tendencies in thought (and of course I realize I'm painting with huge brushstrokes here, but I think I'm on pretty safe ground in these generalizations about the history of ideas) can equip us with great insights, and also ought to encourage our dual modesty and responsibility: to recognize that there are truths in the universe to which we are accountable, and to recognize that determining these is a delicate operation, and one which requires of us to learn from one another with great humility.

7th-Mar-2011 04:08 pm (UTC)

Again, it seems that there is an unintended irony where poorly-understood Post-Modern thinking slides into relativism. The ethical impulse in this move is usually one coming from an idea of being humble before diverse humanity, and, for the sake of peace, holding back from making any absolute moral pronouncements (say, especially, of moral truths). But the result of abdicating from being willing to point to any objective truths is twofold. First, it instills mandatory moral relativism as a cultural paradigm, which is, in the name of tolerance, inadvertently an absolute act of social or intellectual violence against all other viewpoints. (Although this act of violence is often unrecognized as such because when we do it, we perceive ourselves as doing the good act of "defending tolerance" or somesuch.) Second, we replace the true humility called for by recognizing the great truths of the universe or God with the sole "truth" that there are only perspectives or narratives, which in the case of any single consciousness means (again, ironically, with what was intended as an act of humility) that we replace humility with ego.

Does that help clarify what I'm trying to articulate, or are there problems I'm not seeing? I'm quite interested in being in the midst of this Modern/Post-Modern historical turn in itself, but I also find that it seems critical to address (in some basic way) at the beginning of doing any theological or philosophical work with students simply because of this "immunizing" effect that such presuppositions in the students' heads has upon any attempt to study the subject. If I don't figure out a way of adequately addressing these effects up front, any subsequent study might be impeded, or at least heavily viewed through such lens, which is fine if it's conscious and addressed, and simply a problematic prejudice if it is not.
8th-Mar-2011 12:04 am (UTC)
The quote marks are just me trying to use a multi-sentence comment as a noun in the framing sentence. The words are mine.

Honestly, I don't find poking at the extremes to be very informative in navigating the middle balance, and (not teaching undergraduates) I encounter viewpoints more absolutist than mine more often than I encounter viewpoints more relativist.

I agree that humility is key.

But what's the philosophical name for the balance I described? (orthodoxy?)
9th-Mar-2011 12:07 am (UTC)
I was starting to write, "Huh. That's definitely not the case for me," but then I got snagged thinking over your line about running into more people with absolutist viewpoints than relativist viewpoints. Maybe I'm not sure what viewpoints you are calling absolutist, and maybe its a matter of what populations we are moving in. Since I find myself in the midst of highly-secularized undergraduates, tacit forms of relativism seem (from what I can observe) to be far and away more dominant, with a sprinkling of strong traditionalists or religious fundamentalists, and then a remaining minority of students who are capable of actually questioning their fundamental presuppositions. (The claim of being "open-minded" often being just a euphemism for being politically-culturally Left.)

The problem I'm dealing with is that I usually find relativism (despite its claim to the contrary) to be as absolutist as any kind of religious fundamentalism. Scholars have drawn distinctions sometimes between "hard" and "soft" relativisms, with hard relativism being, if I recall correctly, the conscious and dogmatic version – "there are no absolute values or meanings in reality" – and soft relativism being the unconscious, culturally-inherited or assumed form. Both tend toward absolutism, it seems to me. The first demonstrates this tendency simply by being an asserted universal position. (And thus frequently attacked for the logic-bending of allowing itself to make the absolute claim that there are no absolute claims.) The second option, by being inherited or assumed (especially in a non-philosophical culture), tends toward a more difficult absolutism, one of the "invincible ignorance" of those who cannot really bring themselves to challenging a cultural consensus or imagining a (more-complex?) alternative to it.

I guess I feel that it's pedagogically useful to "poke at the extremes in order to try to inform navigating the middle balance" because most students gravitate toward the extremes. The soft relativist, if the diagnosis is correct that they are empowered by a noble moral impulse valuing tolerance and peace, is unconsciously absolutist by having misapplied that good impulse in a way that values its ends over any consideration of truth, and will gladly do violence (often not physical) in order to achieve its ends. Consumed with the apparently self-evident righteousness of such ends, that approach lends itself to the "invincibly ignorant" tendency I mentioned earlier. It is difficult to get people to look at complex effects of their ideas, especially when the dominant intellectual or moral culture rewards them for espousing those positions. The traditionalist or religious absolutist is easier for me to deal with, pedagogically, at least on the Christian side of the equation, because the Tradition itself carries the impulses within it that will dismantle religious fundamentalisms.

But our popular intellectual culture seems to me to encourage extremes. Maybe it's a factor of "sound bite" news/media culture and "analysis." I see it all the time, for example, in the constant contrasting of the "religious" option of creationism being set up as the only other position to contrast with the "secular/scientific/rational" option of a materialistically-interpreted theory of evolution. The fact that most of reflective Christianity has long since come to terms with, and even been creatively employing evolutionary perspectives is not mentioned. Whether that's because those ideas are too complex to be expressed in the fifteen seconds at most allotted for a news broadcast story, because of a prejudice in secular circles against presenting the most intelligent or persuasive form of Christian thought, or because there is a love affair with simple "either-or" presentations, I cannot say. I am dismayed at how often I read AP news stories where a rote form is followed of presenting "both sides" of an issue by obtaining a one-sentence quotation from the spokespersons of the two most extreme groups on either side of an issue. Certainly that sort of pro-forma presentation doesn't aid in the synthetic thinking of a reading public.

9th-Mar-2011 12:07 am (UTC)

Since students inherit such tendencies toward bifurcated thinking, it seems really useful for me to address these tendencies, whether as a point of mass movements in the history of thought like a transition from Modernity to Post-Modernity, or whether as a point in media studies for the habits of how ideas are presented in current news-reporting. I just know as a student of the history of ideas what a liberation it was for me as an undergraduate to start to get a sense of where all my ideas – especially those that just operated as assumptions in my head – had come from. Only then could I really judge them, and decide whether they were worth keeping or not.

I suppose that "orthodoxy" might be the correct theological (more than philosophical) term here. While "orthodoxy" has a bad flavour in secular circles, despite their own orthodoxies, as being a word reflective of what is imagined to be a peculiarly religious close-mindedness, in the Christian Tradition, "right opinion" has always been that very open balancing act, allowing for a wide variety of theologies and spiritualities to flourish. Nicaea may have nixed Arius's theology as adequate, or Chalcedon proclaimed the "fully God, fully Human" formula regarding Christ, but they did not articulate any single way of expressing Trinitarian or Christological belief.

So does that seem reasonable, or do you think that I'm over-estimating the presence of the extremes in popular thinking, or the usefulness in addressing them?
9th-Mar-2011 11:41 am (UTC)
Of course relativism, when taken to its extreme, becomes a sick kind of absolutism. That is the nature of extremes. Absolutism, also, when taken to its extreme, becomes a sick kind of relativism, once everyone (auto-deified) proclaims "There is Truth, and I know it Completely, and noone could disagree with me, because it is self-evident."

So all you prove when you demonstrate that extreme relativism is absurd, is that extremes are absurd. So, yes, not useful at all.

As for popular media, its sole purpose is to elicit emotional responses because that's more likely to sell the products it is advertising (follow the money). It is possible to say little in many words, and it is possible to say much in few, and the fact that media (by design I think) says little in few is not worth engaging.
10th-Mar-2011 01:50 am (UTC)
Your point that extremes (or perhaps we can call them reductionisms) are absurd and hardly worth bothering about is clear – but, I'm afraid, only to those for whom it is already clear. I grant that very rarely do you find anyone actually articulating something as silly as the circular and clear "there are no absolute values or meanings in reality," and thinking that they can get away with that. The problem, it seems to me, is that the kind of pervasive "soft" relativism of popular thinking packages itself as the ultimate Moderation or even the ultimate Liberality.

I suppose then that my chief concern pedagogically is to reveal that relativism is such an extremism or reductionism: again, not as a simple statement or a "fact" that can be dutifully jotted down in a class lecture, but in such a way that has students work out full scope of the problem on their own.

To be moderate, generous, tolerant and peaceful seemed to be the conscious intent in the "high" forms of the ancestors of this current tendency in thinking, in Descartes trying to find a sound basis for knowledge in the self alone or Kant's attempts through finding "religion by means of reason alone." At a popular level today, I think these ideas still drive people, and the popular idea of universal "tolerance" seems the most direct way to proceed to these noble goals. The much more "low-brow," money-driven "bread and circuses" that you point to in contemporary media reinforce that subjectivist tendency. From an abundance of sources and influence, there has come to be an all-pervasiveness to giving an unassailable ethical status to the self and to the worthiness of its opinions.

And this comes so close in many respects to the Jewish/Christian insistence on the sacred nature of the human person that it's hard sometimes to weed out what is more and what is less useful in this emphasis on the individual. But that it does end up being a systemic problem in Western thinking seems to me a critical problem worth examining with students, especially as it is such a part of their inherited philosophical "operating system." These tendencies, absolutized in the ethic of the problematic faux-tolerance so often articulated today, undermine not only something like a primary orientation toward God (as a theistic concern) but even fundamental democratic processes like freedom of speech, rule of law, or a universal human rights ethic (as potentially secular concerns). Even adamant secularists like Habermas have been publicly worried that the West is undermining itself as it moves in this direction. I can see a change in my own lifetime when there was once an ideal in the American Left that the ACLU would go to bat to make sure that the American Nazis could have their odious march in heavily-Jewish Skokie, Illinois, whereas now in the more polarized and more postmodern Left, hear more often a general thinking that anyone who is a "conservative" and doesn't think the right thoughts (possibly from a whatever-phobia, which seems a more modest version of the Soviet labeling of any dissent as mental illness) is by definition uneducated and ought not to speak. So I'm worried when self-defined liberals are so illiberal.

So I guess I'm saying that, having an idea that looks so good on the surface as the ethic of blanket "tolerance" does, but which, so crudely applied as a universal or absolute ethic, has sent roots entirely through our cultural consciousness. It's not seen as extreme: it's seen as mainstream, moderate and liberal, so my hoped-for "usefulness" is to just try to consciously find out with students if its claims are true. Trying to pull out that idea and to analyze it or critique it is as difficult as physically pulling out a dandelion and its roots: it's that pervasive below the surface. And if the idea isn't the best one, getting people to see it, comprehend its vast nature and how it has integrated itself throughout the facets of our living, and then maybe even to critique it and replace it with something better – well, that's challenging the ultimate orthodoxy, and all the harder for it being considered self-evidently true, morally unassailable, and relatively unconscious.
7th-Mar-2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
Hi Mike,
Angie Brunner DeWeese commented on your Facebook post.
Angie wrote: "Good thoughts!!"

See the comment thread

Hi Mike,
Angie Brunner DeWeese commented on your Facebook post.
Angie wrote: "Really good!"
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