Guest Post: The Death of Relativism

Be careful what you wish for: The Death of Relativism

For many years, people of strongly held beliefs have attacked the inconsistency and hypocrisy of flabby, late 20th Century relativism. The relativism of recent decades has often led to a widespread apathy about the big questions of life and civilization, and to a lazy (often ignorant) amalgamation of differing opinions. To those with strongly held convictions it was regularly infuriating, and sometimes patronising.

Relativism is the view that whether something is ‘true’ or ‘right’ depends on it’s context: cultural, historical, or personal. It has many good points, but it does lead to a rather condescending attitude to disagreement. By saying ‘your belief is ok/true for you’ to a Christian – or a Muslim, Jew or Hindu – you are telling them (implicitly, if unconsciously) that they are wrong, even naïve, to believe that Christianity is literally ‘true’, and that it would be false in a different context. Indeed, you are claiming to know the nature of their religion better than they do. To take Christianity, this is patently false: either Jesus rose from the dead, proving his claims to divine and saving identity; or he’s still dead, disproving his claims. The Bible says as much (1 Cor 15:17-20).

So, such relativism is patently false. It’s also dangerous. When Barack Obama visited China in 2009, he challenged Chinese premier Hu Jintao on China’s poor human rights record. President Hu glibly responded by speaking about ‘mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs’ (diplomatic speech for ‘you can’t tell us what to do’), and told Obama not to try and impose American/Western values on China. Given China’s recent human rights record, I’m glad Obama ignored this advice.

Recently, however, there are signs (in the UK) that relativism has died a death. This is, no doubt, what many of belief and conviction have been hoping for – finally people accept that some things are right, and others wrong, and we can have a debate about disagreement without seeming offensive. But be careful what you wish for.

The ‘signs’ that relativism has started to be replaced by a more absolutist set of beliefs point to a mixed picture. On the one hand, condemnation of the treatment of women in many countries is admirable, necessary and unquestionable. Relativism wouldn’t allow such a ‘judgmental’ approach, but we’re now beyond that.

But, on the other hand, some debates (and views) seem to be banned, in the name of certain, more popular, beliefs. Let me point to two examples. One is a tiny instance of a big problem. The other is a public, nationwide debate of small issue.

The first is the recent charging of the footballer Luis Suarez for racist abuse. I’m not so interested in whether Suarez himself was guilty or not. Instead I want to look at one detail of the incident. The accusation was that, during a football match, Suarez had repeatedly referred to a black player on the opposite team as ‘negrito’ (a Spanish word, in the Uruguayan dialect, similar to ‘negro’). Interestingly, Suarez didn’t deny this. Instead, he pointed out that such a word is not offensive in the Uruguayan dialect, and is an affectionate term, used amongst friends, which doesn’t really translate as ‘black man’ or ‘negro’. This was backed up by many Uruguayans, including politicians. The President even declared his full support for Suarez. When he was found guilty, Uruguayan journalists attacked the English FA for their ‘pseudo-moralism’.

Whether or not Suarez was guilty, these point seemed worth discussing. After all, in some countries calling someone ‘dog’ is extremely offensive, in others it’s used amongst friends. Yet, in Britain, this was (with shocking ease) taken as evidence of Uruguay’s national, institutionalised racism. Suarez was found guilty with negligible reference to these important linguistic complexities. The case for the defense was mostly ignored. Relativism might have been a little more cautious.

Turning to another example, let’s look at the current UK debate about marriage. Again, I’m not going to put forward a view, but I am disappointed how the debate has gone. Officially, there’s a consultation going on about whether to extend ‘marriage’ to same sex couples. Yet, listen to the Equality Minister, or most debate on the topic, and you discover that there is no discussion. The Equalities Minister says she will make it happen, regardless of what the consultation throws up. Those who offer an opposing view are regularly called bigots and homophobes (often inaccurately), before serious debate can be reached. One MP was sent death threats for supporting the Coalition for Marriage – even through this petition has 10 times the signatures of it’s opposite petition. Apparently, some views are more equal than others.

So, for those of us who hoped that the end of relativism might signal a period when discussion, debate, and – MOST importantly – disagreement could once again be central tenants of liberal, democratic life: were we terribly, terribly wrong? After all, relativism allowed you to say what you thought, even if it thought you were quaint (and wrong) for believing it. I’m starting to get nostalgic already.


Johnny has also written a brilliant piece on Bonhoeffer and Truth.


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