We are all Losers
By Milton J. Bennett
The losers in the current US presidential travesty are not just those of us who voted against a bigoted ignoramus, nor are they just the misguided people who are being betrayed by that person. In the same sense as Je suis Charlie, we all are losers in the assault on civil society that is occurring. But also like Charlie, we all have some complicity in creating the conditions wherein this tragedy is occurring.
One story about that complicity – the “arrogance of the elites” – appeals to the many liberals who tend toward self-castigation. They are so sorry for saying that Trump supporters seek solace in God and guns, or that Trumpistas are a bucket of deplorables. OK, the latter is probably over the top, but nevertheless the allegations are not the real point. Of course less-educated people are annoyed when more-educated people comment on their views. They are pleased to point out the inadequacies of their more educated peers, and examples are ample. But the inadequacy of one group is no assurance that their accusers are less inadequate. In other words, lack of education doesn’t confer superiority. Conversely, having education does not confer intellectual elitism. Most educated people are just articulating current epistemology, which in the 400 or so years since the scientific revolution has pretty much settled on the importance of evidence in making claims of truth. There is nothing “elite” about this position.
A more convincing story of complicity is the failure of liberals to deal with the accusation, “You say you are inclusive, so what about including my neo-Nazi point of view?” Or, “You say you support free speech, so why are you trying to suppress my expression of racist opinions?” Or, “You say you support diversity of identity, so what about my identity as an uneducated white male who hates everyone else – aren’t you a hypocrite for not supporting that as well?” Insofar as liberals are driven by relativism, it is difficult for them to counter these demands. They may say, “Zero tolerance for intolerance,” but that position is not really supported by the relativist assumption that every perspective is worthy of respect. And as depicted in the Doonsbury strip above, they get rolled every time.
The original early-20th century idea of cultural relativism was that our limited worldviews were “not good or bad — just different.” Cultures could not be evaluated according to universal standards of civilization – every cultural context was sophisticated in its own right, and people born into one context were limited to that perspective. Since the mid-20th century, social science (notably, intercultural communication) has mitigated this extreme form of cultural relativism with strategies for comparing and understanding cultures without recourse to universal standards. But in many other corners of academia the original idea of relativism has continued to flourish (or fester, as the case may be). And it is that unmitigated relativism that is allowing liberals to get rolled.
The main vehicle for unmitigated relativism in academia is critical theory. In both arcane and popular forms, it analyzes relationships in terms of clashing worldviews and the dynamics of power that enable one worldview to dominate over others. On the one hand, critical theory guards against claims of universal truth that are in fact expressions of one cultural worldview. But in rejecting the questionable claim of objectivity, critical theory supports the idea that bias is natural and inevitable. Ironically, this also supports the Fox News argument that its flagrant bigotry is just a necessary counterpoint to liberal prejudice. In their rigid tolerance, it is difficult for liberals to say, “well, not all perspectives are respectable…).
The idea of political correctness is an application of critical theory. Its laudable intention is to limit intentional and unintentional impositions of bias, particularly those made by dominant group members. However, taken to the extreme, political correctness becomes bigoted in its own right. Over zealous pc police provide easy targets for Trumpistas to poke at “liberal hypocrisy,” exactly for being intolerant of intolerance. Insofar as the pc police are enacting relativism in a dualistic way, they deserve the criticism.
We need to adapt to the interconnected world we have created with our intentional action or supported with our passive consumption. To that end, it would be helpful to drop the extreme form of relativism that argues for respect but that actually perpetrates bias and enmity. Instead, we need to make conscious commitments to constructing viable ways of living in the new world. A commitment to equity is not a “perspective” – it is a conscious rejection of bigotry. And racism is not a “perspective” – it is a commitment to inequity. These ethical decisions are not cases of “it’s just different” relativism. They are decisions about what kind of real world we want to live in. One way or the other, we are complicit in the outcome.