January 1, 2011
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger coined a phrase in 2005 that I’ve thought about almost every day since he gave his address in Rome, just before he became The Pope. He said that we were moving toward a “dictatorship of relativism.”
The reason why that phrase struck the gong of my mind is because something wasn’t adding up in all of the soft goo talk of relativism by our culture. You see, there’s this idea that if you stand for nothing, then you are the open minded person on the block. You’re the harmless one, because you don’t take a stand on anything (other than the stand of not taking a stand on anything.)
To claim that all morals are relative to the individual sounds innocent enough. Who can deny the curb appeal of platitudes like “It may be true for you but not for me.” I have to live by my truth, but I can’t be considered a good boy if I project my personal, local truth onto you, your situation or your culture. That would imply not only that there are objective truths, but that I can know them…and we can’t have that. Knowing the truth is bad… and we know this to be true.
But it wasn’t the “relativism” part of Ratzinger’s statement that struck me, it was the “dictatorship” part. It’s not a word we associate with the free, minimal ethic of relativism. The relativists are the good guys, they are the opposite of moral objectivists like me. Obi-Wan said, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” It’s probably a bad idea to mix logic and Lucas, but his writing would make me a Sith. The bigger problem is that if Obi-Wan was speaking with absolute certainty then he would be a Sith too.
Relativism can’t leave everyone else alone, because it is just another absolute claim. It demands that everything be relative to the individual, and is no less vulnerable to the trappings of dogmas as any other philosophy. Man is the problem, and relativists are made of the same fallen stuff that makes an absolutist dictatorial. Man’s nature has a dictatorial streak, so that relativism can be rammed down your throat by culture with the same gusto as Sharia Law but with even more self-righteous certitude.
Relativism isn’t relativistic about itself, it’s absolutist. Openness isn’t open to closed systems of thought, syncretism and other relativist buzz-words are self refuting to a point of absurdity. The self proclaimed tolerant are among the most intolerant people. Scratch a pluralist and a mean absolute statement against absolutes gushes out.
America is a pluralist culture, and that should give us the first clue about what kind of totalitarian we’re likely to create. The man who believes in nothing the loudest is the winner.
My favorite Relativist parable is about the three blind men feeling different parts of an elephant who describe what it’s like. One man feels the face says, “An elephant has a long nose.” Another feels the leg and says, “No! An elephant is like a tree trunk!” The last blind man pulls bags of money out of the elephant’s bottom and says, “This elephant ate Deepak Chopra!”
The Dictatorship of Relativism always seems to know that everyone else is blind, but that his own vision about their blindness is above reproach.