Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Relativism Knocks...

... Absolutism Answered.

In the West there is often commentary on issues of multiculturalism, tolerance and political-correctness, especially in relation to "Western values" - which Gandhi deemed to be a "good idea". But these debates have developed in reaction to controversies, like the Danish Cartoons of Mohammed, which are part of the wider problems of relativism. The problem of relativism, in all of it's variants, is that there appears to be no rational way to adjudicate conflict as that would constitute absolutism. This is why the cartoons of Mohammed was such a difficult issue. Iconography has been an accepted part of Christianity for centuries, but iconography of God or the Prophet is not acceptable within Islam because it is feared it may lead to idolatry. To the relativist, both perspectives are equal, right and wrong change according to the culture, no culture is absolute. In that sense, freedom of speech cannot be promoted as a universal value, without reverting to a vulgar relativism, but neither can the perspective of Muslims on iconography.

In a world without being able to make moral judgements to bring such conflicts to an end leaves us in a limbo of cultural stagnation and moral segregation. At it's most extreme and terrifying, this would mean in one part of town drugs and prostitution are legal while in another religious law is enforced and discrimination against gays is common. The atomistic view of the human species, underpinning relativism, that we are made up of different societies and cultures in which certain practices and belief systems have resulted from the conditions in such places. This does not take into account the fact that human beings have always moved around, integration is possible and has occured in the past. Sadly it would appear that liberal intolerance has emerged to fill this void in the place of a real solution to the problem of relativism. To judge terrorists according to the standards of Western values, though this is even more paradoxical and misguided, it is expressed throughout society.

Even on the internet phenomenon that is YouTube relativism has become a subject, by proxy issues, of debates over related political and religious issues. The political community of YouTube are a varied bunch, ranging from socialists to libertarians, and share characteristics with radio-show hosts in the US. The videos are typically monologues delving into certain issues, occasionally these monologues are responses to rebuttals by other users. Just as in the US radio-show hosts often attack one another, Michael Savage has attacked Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in the past. In regards to the problems of relativism, the coverage of related issues - such as whether or not the burka should be banned - on YouTube ranges from arguments that focus on the subjugation of women and verge on racism to those that shoot down all criticism as racist and a sign of the decadence of the West.

The internet is a great medium through which "cults" can be generated, just as radio and television, that are centred around charismatic personalities and entertaining shows etc. One such personality is Pat Condell, the face of New Atheism on YouTube, who endorsed UKIP in the General Election of 2010. Pat Condell was a comedian in the 1980s and has now made a come-back on YouTube over the last couple of years. UKIP is the leading Eurosceptic party in Britain today, it consists mostly of reactionary liberals and nationalists. Just like right-wing radio-show hosts in the US, Condell rants about the Labour Party and the hypocrisy of a liberal elite destroying Britain with multiculturalism and political-correctness. Mostly these videos are monologues, consisting of witty polemics, and are largely one-way in the sense that there is no interaction between the personality and the viewer, other than through emails and other videos.

Pat Condell stands for freedom, equal rights and secularism as part of his own liberal outlook - adding a dose of hippie anti-war rhetoric. He not only assumes rational and autonomous behaviour from others, he demands it of them and in doing so elevates such liberal ideals to an absolutist level. Thus, even multiculturalism and political-correctness are an obstacle to the "Good Life" Condell advocates. This clashes with the contemporary forms of liberalism which emphasise a neutral state over a pluralistic society based on relativistic assumptions about culture and morality. It could be argued that the liberal intolerance emerging today is a return to the days when liberals like JS Mill had a clear idea of how people should be living - a flourishing life free of constraint from absurd religious traditions and the masses.

These demands go largely unheard as society and the world are far more complex than a consensual arrangement upheld by free individuals, as liberals would have us believe. In a sense, the controversial way that Condell refers to Islamism as "Islam" is really derived from an overly simplistic understanding of complex religious and cultural entities. All of the Abrahamic religions are complex in that they are not just religious groups, made up of many sects, but are sometimes connected with cultural and ethnic identities - as well as political thought. The homogenous and static "Islam" that Condell describes is partly a figment of his imagination, the Qu'ran should not be thought of as the sole origin of Islamic extremism, given the extent to which the political turmoil of the Middle East has contributed to the rise of the phenomenon.

It is as if there is a kind of confrontation between the rational mind and the indifferent universe - similar to 'the Absurd', as Albert Camus wrote of it - taking place in the emergence of liberal intolerance. The ideals may be espoused, by the likes of Pat Condell and Christopher Hitchens, as a solution to the problems of relativism - how to judge religious extremism etc. But these ideals, of various liberties and rights, are commonly understood today as permissive and as a consequence the world remains indifferent. Promoting freedom of speech as a value for it's own sake seems quite strange as many would argue that free-speech is the protection of values, but is not a value in itself. Because people express their views because of some underlying reason or cause, not for the sake of expressing them freely. This is the point that liberals, like Condell, are missing.

If liberalism works best when everyone is a liberal, then liberalism is no more absolute than Christianity as it can then be written off as relative in the same manner. It could be that tolerance and pluralism should be ensured, while the ability to make moral judgements that transcend cultural boundaries is maintained and not taken to an authoritarian extreme. Multiculturalism does not go far enough in furthering tolerant pluralism, as it gives us pluralism but in practice we merely ignore the differences between us - as opposed to celebrating those differences. A benign form of ethnocentrism may be appropriate, as Rorty proposed. This view accepts that values differ from culture to culture, adding that we cannot help but favour the values we have been conditioned with. We cannot help but judge other cultures in accordance with such morals, though we should not repress others and should only promote our culture in the way we would recommend a book to a friend.

Related Links:
Albert Camus - The Absurd
Vote Small, Think Big
Richard Rorty's Ethnocentrism

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