In search of truth, relativism halts real debate

Most of our parents love us very much; as we grew up, they taught us we were the most important things in the world, unique and special. Further, common understanding of the world tells us all people are created equally. So when two disagree, we are loathe to call one perspective better. To privilege one person’s idea is to insult another person ­— to infringe on his specialness.

We see popular discontent with this particular state of affairs both in campus discussions about the Yale Political Union and in nation-wide perceptions of the leading presidential candidates. A friend told me his problem with members of the union is that “they take themselves too seriously.” (You know this comment cuts to the core because YPU officials spend so much time denying it.)

The union’s apparent concern is with having everyone speak. Everyone’s point of view must be heard because everyone is so special. Similarly, no one wants an idea “to win,” because that means someone else’s idea loses. So it seems I must now believe ideas to be good insofar as I or someone similarly important thought them, not insofar as they are true. An idea’s triumph demonstrates the superior power of its creator. Lest we be imperial, we allow for a diversity of opinion. If I prefer liberal democracy and you prefer dogmatism, we should hear all sides, rather than shut down the diversity of opinion by attempting to crown one argument “better.” This conviction — that something is important because I think it — demonstrates a fundamental belief in my own importance. Hence, my friend said “they take themselves too seriously; that is, themselves and not the ideas.

Two weeks ago I argued that the Western canon would provide us reasons to prefer liberal democracy to religious dogmatism.

Several people, including Dariush Nothaft ’08, a fellow staff columnist for the News, argued I played fast and loose by accepting categories, such as “the West” and “good,” which he considers socially constructed. I concede that the particular books that stand in the Western canon were chosen by those with the power to establish curricula. The chronological and geographical boundaries of the West are whatever your teachers say they are, and the canon does or does not include Voltaire (or whomever) for arbitrary reasons. But it does not follow that, because culture constructs some categories, all are just as arbitrary.

The Western canon may be culturally constructed, but Nothaft and others go too far when they imply that “good” and “true” are just as arbitrary. It is true that, as Nothaft points out, America did not support a free Haiti in the early 19th century. We now confidently can say America was wrong, unless we think that “wrong” is only what those in power say it is. That many great minds have disagreed about what, exactly, is good in government does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as “good” in government — just as that many people have disagreed about what, exactly, is the movement of the sun does not demonstrate that there is no such thing as the sun.

Instead, it demonstrates that this is a question many consider important. In my last column, I argued that college is a time to consider those great questions and to argue with those great minds. The purpose of such search must be to find the right answer, even if we despair of completing the task, not to collect as many answers as possible, even if some (or most) are obviously wrong.

Much ink has been spilled about the rhetoric of the News’ two endorsed candidates: Sen. Obama’s lofty oratory about post-partisan patriotism versus Sen. Clinton’s verbal violence against the GOP, and Sen. McCain’s “Straight Talk Express” versus Gov. Romney’s confused contradictions. We can see these disagreements through the lens of my disagreement with Nothaft. People perceive, perhaps wrongly, that a President Clinton would use words for the purpose of tricking opponents and winning politically. People perceive that Gov. Romney insists that such and such thing is “true” because whoever has power — the Massachusettes legislature, the votes in the Republican presidential primary — wants it to be true.

On the other hand, people suppose Sen. Obama says things are true because they are. He would reason out the best policies and enact them. Similarly, Sen. McCain believes certain things to be true, and he behaves as if they are true. These popular views, like the widespread antipathy to the YPU, demonstrate that people instinctively say what they believe to be true, work as if it is true and identify with people (and presidential candidates) who do the same. We do not artificially promote views we think wrong.

Therefore, since I believe that liberal democracy is good and worth defending, I defend it.

Michael Pomeranz is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Mondays.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    “they take themselves too seriously.”

    Antipathy to the YPU also abounds because of the perception of privilege granted upon certain individuals and modes of thinking. Many don't really feel welcome in an environment where they feel that sophistry governs the tone of debate, as unionists seem to care more about who speaks and how an argument can be countered (however poorly) with great rhetoric than about actual intellectual honesty. Also, there's the notion that unionists (some more so than others) think way too highly of themselves and are likewise far too quick to look down upon others and their ideas. And, of course, some people are just obnoxious, but I'm not sure that can be helped.

    More to the point, I think there is something to be said about the question of the first principals that various sides bring to a discussion. However, as you fairly point out Michael, many positions really just aren't tenable. That brings me to my next point: often times the problem is with the wording of resolutions. Too often people are left wondering either 1) what the hell does that mean or 2) why would anyone seriously argue against this. The former fuels the perception of excessive elitism, self-righteousness; the latter fuels the perception of rampant sophistry.

    I don't think the Union can be faulted, however, for demanding that one give an account for his view of good and that one thinks it universal. Many other such questions and critiques are likewise legitimate, at least in theory.

  • ANON

    The author ignores the obvious reality that our chief defense against relativism has been traditional religion, see for example Pope Benedict XVI.