The main virtue of relativism is that it is supposed to make us more tolerant and open-minded as an antidote to judgmental closed-mindedness. Perhaps because of this, relativism has become the default position of many college students, science fiction/fantasy fans, and other intelligent, educated people in our society. It's supposed to be the crowning achievement of tolerant, sophisticated people, a victory over the dim-witted dogmatism of absolutists who seek to impose their views on everyone else.
But is this picture accurate? I think it may not be. In fact, I suspect that the type of relativism pervasive today may, contrary to its self-professed ideals, be making us dumber and nastier.
Two Dogmas of Relativism
First, let's define relativism. In the most general (and craziest) sense, relativism is the view that every view on anything is just as good as every other view, or alternatively, that a belief is made true just by the fact that some individual or group believes it to be true. Few people go this far. While I occasionally find a college student willing to bite the bullet and say that things like the shape of the Earth or the fact that 2+2=4 are relative to society’s whims, the type of relativism most prevalent is what I would call scientistic relativism. This is the idea that science, especially hard sciences like physics and chemistry, gives us the cold, hard facts about reality, while every thing else – aesthetics, politics, religion, philosophy, and value of any kind – is relative to the beliefs of some individual or group. In what follows, read “relativism” as “scientistic relativism.”
According to relativism, Dan Brown is as good a writer as Shakespeare and Waterworld is as good as Bladerunner if you believe that; whether utilitarianism or Buddhism are true or whether democracy is a good idea depend on whether you or your society believe they are. Things like racism and sexism aren’t so much factual errors as they are fashion trends that have fallen out of favor (although given the rise of Trumpism, one wonders how unfashionable they really are).
My point here isn’t about whether relativism is true (although I seriously doubt it is, and I think it’s a prime example of the philosophical shallowness of contemporary life). My point is to question what have become the two dogmas of relativism: that it is an intellectually sophisticated doctrine and that it promotes tolerance.
Does It Make Us Dumber?
Relativism is supposed to be an urbane view that promotes open-mindedness. I have observed precisely the opposite: relativism often leads directly to uncritical dogmatic self-assurance. After all, relativism allows an individual or a group to have beliefs without the need for pesky things like evidence, reasons, or arguments in favor of those beliefs. Just believing them is enough. As I’ve argued before, relativism would render many of our beliefs literally irrational since we would have no need to attempt to provide reasons in their favor. What’s the point of thinking critically about whether your beliefs are true if they’re true simply because you believe them?
The rise in popularity of conspiracy theories as of late might be explained by the relativism that seems to be lurking in the drinking water of our society (unlike fluoride, it actually causes harm). If the truth of what you believe is assured by the fact that you believe it, then conspiracy theories not only make sense, but they may be required to preserve your belief.
This is, I suspect, what’s at work in a lot of the bizarre conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton and in Donald Trump’s unhinged insistence that the election will be rigged. Rather than accept evidence contrary to one’s unfavorable opinion of Clinton or the idea that Trump is a winner, elaborate conspiracies are theorized as a way to neutralize any possible counter-evidence. Rather than adjusting one’s beliefs in the face of evidence, one adjusts evidence in the face of one’s belief.
Does It Make us Nastier?
But surely, one might say, relativism makes us more tolerant: what’s true for you is true for you and what’s true for me is true for me. Again, I have observed precisely the opposite: relativism leads to a narrow-minded dogmatism that negates any moral or rational imperative to listen to those who disagree or to engage in civil, rational dialogue.
This has been nowhere more apparent than in what passes for political discourse in America these days. Some of this can be blamed on Trump’s campaign for dragging us all into the mud, but our problems go much deeper than this recent political debacle, terrible though it may be.
Kathryn Schulz, in her book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, identifies three assumptions that often lead us into error: the Ignorance Assumption, the Idiocy Assumption, and the Evil Assumption (p. 107-110). Our attachment to our own belief causes us to think people who disagree must be ignorant, idiotic, or evil.
This is especially true on the internet. What I have found most annoying lately are people who keep directing you to more (often biased and inflammatory) websites, as if the mere lack of information is what accounts for deep political disagreement rather than underlying issues or points of philosophical disagreement (another example of the philosophical shallowness of modern life). The idea seems to be: “Everybody would agree with me if they just read the same opinion piece from Breitbart or Huffington Post!”
Another common tactic is to denounce people who disagree with you as being idiotic, evil, or both. In the absence of rational dialogue, the tools of political discourse become irrational persuasion and ridicule by means of nasty internet memes, fixation on personal or physical details, and good old fashioned name-calling. If you don’t need reasons for your beliefs and you don’t care about understanding or – gasp! – learning from the opposition, then our current political climate makes perfect sense. You can be as nasty as you want. You don’t really have to converse with anyone who disagrees or say anything of substance even to your ideological compatriots. As Nathan Heller puts it, “In a climate where common language is not held accountable to common meaning, ‘taking a stand’ becomes a mostly theatrical exercise.”
To be 100% clear, this is not a partisan issue. All of this can be found across the political spectrum from the anti-science left, Bernie Bros, and mainstream Democrats to Trumpists, Ayn Rand libertarians, and mainstream Republicans. The dissolution of honest political discourse is an equal opportunity, non-partisan issue, although it gets worse on the extreme fringes of any particular political ideology.
Is Relativism to Blame?
Can we really blame all this on what is, despite its popularity, a fairly abstract theory of what makes beliefs true? I’m honestly not sure.
It could be that the real factor is not relativism, but the shallow, ephemeral nature of internet communication. Or maybe it’s the petty selfishness that has infected our society. Or maybe it really is a partisan issue. Or the work of the Illuminati. It might be plain old dogmatism, which has been with us for a long time. Perhaps relativism has now become as much a gateway to dogmatism as absolutism ever was, which says something about the human need to believe we are right at all costs.
It would be easier if I could say that the answer is whatever I believe it to be, but this is difficult when I’m not sure what I believe. Maybe one way to be less dumb and less nasty is to be less sure about what you believe in the first place.