Saturday, May 22, 2010

Lazy Relativism, Again

As readers of this blog (and students in my classes) know well, I hate lazy relativism. I readily concede that there are lots of things about which we cannot know the Absolute Truth (s'il y en a), but regardless of the strengh or weakness of any particular truth-claim, it will ALWAYS be the case that its opposite cannot also be true. That's the principle of non-contradiction, a fundamental axiomatic rule of logic, upon which rational discourse itself depends. As much as we may sometimes want to do so, none of us can violate it and still make sense. Over the course of my several posts on this blog about relativism, it has occurred to me that I can, at times, sound a bit schoolmarm-ish about the whole issue, what with my prattling on and on about the mutual exclusivity of P and not-P. I've barely tarried with the question of why one would want to posit two mutually exclusive truth-claims simultaneously or, correspondingly, why one wouldn't want to posit a truth-claim (and subject oneself to the axiomatic necessities of logic) at all. So, today I'm putting on my sympathetic hat and I'm going to try to articulate what I think is so dangerously seductive about this particular rational pitfall.

Taking a position, especially a position in matters of politics or ethics, is a difficult thing to do. Part of this difficulty arises, I suspect, because we intuitively and rationally understand that one major consequence of taking a position on any particular moral or political issue is that we are (logically, necessarily) commiting ourselves to opposing another position. If I say that capital punishment is immoral, or that it should be illegal, then I am at the same time saying that capital punishment is NOT moral or (justifiably) legal. If I run into someone who thinks that capital punshiment is both morally and legally justifiable, then I am obligated by my own position to oppose my interlocutor's position, that is, to think they he or she is wrong. And here is where the seduction of irrationality begins to sound its siren call: we (by which I mean "good liberals") generally don't want to preclude the possibility of others holding positions that are antagonistic or oppositional to our own, because we believe in protecting the rights of free speech and freedom of conscience. We are, for the most part, good fallibilists as well, meaning that we generally permit the possibility of our own error. And most of us are some hybrid of capitalists and democrats, too, who believe in both the merit and the justice of a (largely unregulated) marketplace of ideas. For the last 30 or 40 years, there is yet another character-ingredient thrown into the mix as well-- an appreciation for diversity-- which has made us (thankfully) critical of the pretensions of a "view from nowhere" subject-position that has so regrettably ignored, silenced or erased contributions from non-dominant groups. So, here we are, good liberal-fallibilist-capitalistic-democratic-multiculturalists (hereafter, LFCDM's) and, for all of our principled commitment to Truth and Justice and Right, we find ourselves unable to commit ourselves resolutely to any particular true, just or right position.

I submit the following as an exmaple: Miss Oklahoma (Morgan Woolard), answering an interview question about Arizona's new anti-immigration law at the most recent Miss USA competition.

I think it's safe to say that what Miss Oklahoma means by "I see both sides in this issue" is "I don't really want to take a position on this issue." But, of course, she DID take a position on the issue (when she said "I'm a huge believer in states' rights... so I think it's perfectly fine for Arizona to create that law") and then she took the OPPOSITE position (when she said "I'm against racial profiling"). To reconcile these two positions, which of course cannot be reconciled, she offered the "I see both sides in this issue" platitude. The Arizona law under consideration is a law that permits, some would say necessitates, racial profiling as a manner of immigration policy enforcement. Quite simply, one cannot be BOTH "for" the law AND "against" racial profiling. But Miss Oklahoma, not incidentally, was answering this question in the course of trying to win the Miss USA competition, which means that not offending potential detractors from her position was more important than actually taking a logically-defensible position.

So, sure, it's not hard to see what is so seductive about the "I can see both sides of this issue" (non-)position in the course of a competition like the Miss USA pageant. My worry, though, is that this same strategy is used by LFCDM's everywhere, even when they are not pursuing a tiara. It's as if the non-position of Miss Oklahoma has become the default position of LFCDM's, the very definition of what it means to be an LFCDM. There is good reason for an LFCDM to want to "see" both (or all) sides of an issue, not least of which is because rational and critical consideration of all perspectives provides one the most solid foundation for taking and defending the claims of one perspective over another. But simply "seeing" or understanding all of the competing claims on a debatable issue is only the first step toward weighing in on the resolution of that debate. It is not a position. Or, as I have said many time before on this issue, it is not a logically defensible position.

Nobody wins a tiara for being a lazy relativist. (Even Miss Oklahoma didn't win one. She was the First Runner-Up.) Perhaps what needs to be rethought, I suggest, is the very seduction of the tiara for LFCDM's. There's nothing about the various parts of that identity-- neither the L, nor the F, nor the C, nor the D, nor the M-- that wouldn't find lazy relativism contrary to the very history of its position. Yet, somehow, the LFCDM combination has produced this strange, frightened, accomodating, fatuous, sycophantic and ultimately unreasonable creature, fated to impede the very rational discourse that is the rightful inheritance of its constituent traditions.


Art Carden said...

Well, that's one way of looking at it. :)

marcus battle said...

the gut-wrenching realization that washed over me was that this is the legacy of feminism, multiculturalism, and whatever 'deconstruction' was supposed to be. this is the world w/o Logos and, well, it sucks! what is frustrating is that the *force* of the truth of the law of non-contradiction simply isn't felt because all truths have been reduced to (statistical) probabilities. if there is an exception, then claim P isn't "True". i simply don't know what to do to combat this stuff.

more and more i'm seeing that this is the inherent difficulty of putting into place policies like affirmative action and others w/o explicitly providing the rational justification for such policies. the logic of such policies, at face value, justify precisely what you describe here as lazy relativism, it seems ("for the sake of equality we will treat persons unequally, etc., etc."). this, i contend, is one of the striking failures of post-civil rights era politics--flowery/ "inspiring" rhetoric replaced sound argumentation. M.L.K.'s rhetorical style, unfortunately, wound up overshadowing his sound rational arguments.

question: how do we recover Truth w/o reviving the legacy of Enlightenment thinking? i'm at a loss right now...

DOCTOR J said...

@Marcus: I know you know this already, but I just want to say for the record that IF it is the case that lazy relativism is the legacy of feminism, multiculturalism and deconstruction (an odd list there, by the way) THEN it is an *unearned* legacy. That is to say, it is a legacy based on what I think is a misreading/misunderstanding of those movements.

On the other hand, I think that those who find themselves unburdened by logical axioms because "all truths have been reduced to (statistical) probabilities" are agents of another legacy: namely, neo-liberalism. It's the neoloberals (and NOT the feminists, multiculturalists, deconstructionists) who are so enamoured with the social sciences and who feel so comfortable imposing a kind of reductive economic analysis on all questions of meaning and value. And it's also the neoliberals who remain ever in thrall with the idea of the autonomous individual who is able to calculate and determine his or her values in isolation, without challenge or regulation by some outside authority like government, popular opinion, or even logic. (Aside: this is, of course, partly a legacy of the "liberal" tradition-- one that feminism, multiculturalism, and deconstruction aimed to correct, mind you-- so we can't ignore the "liberal" in "neoliberal" and we ought not ignore our own implication in its reflexive voluntarism).

I'm with you in bemoaning the substitution of rhetoric for reason. Where there is no logos, there is no logic. Sigh. As to how we might recover the Truth of the Enlightenment without all of the Enlightenement baggage... well, that's at least part of the aim of my current manuscript. I'll let you know when you can pre-order a copy. ;-)

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I've come to think that a huge part of the problem is that we (and I'm going to leave this "we" intentionally vague) have managed to construct a kind of discourse that systematically denies any attempt to knit its various elements together --- which, if you stop and think about it is pretty much what Plato accused Protagorean relativism (or Plato's straw-man version of Protagorean) relativism of.

So assuming for a second we agree with both of Miss Oklahoma's statements (we shouldn't --- states shouldn't have rights, at least not the sorts of rights states righters want them to have --- but lets ignore that for now), the problem, pace Dr. J. isn't that she's not taking a position but that she's taking both positions. Now you could respond well yeah, but that was my point of talking about the law of non-contradiction in the first place -- such that ultimately taking both positions and taking no position are one and the same.

But I think that there's a reason to distinguish them, and this gets at the notion of not wanting to oppose another position. The first step of any good analysis is to at least understand what the other side believes (e.g. I know why people claim to believe in states rights and my rejection of that trope is informed by a rejection of those reasons) --- now, at some point this involves a certain openness to the arguments of that position and a certain precision from judgment --- this isn't the same as fallibilism, it's more like old school skepticism but I think it's ultimately compatible with the kind of fallibilism you acknowledge.

Now, I'll give Miss Oklahoma some latitude because she's young and naive. Although I personally think a) you shouldn't believe in states rights and b) the way in which Arizona grossly trammels over 14th Amendment individual protections in particular means that even if you believe in some states rights you shouldn't believe in Arizona's right to be racist, nativist douches, I'm not sure I would have minded if she had said "You know, I can't decide --- on the one hand, I think that there are good reasons for states to have rights and so I wouldn't want to endorse a remedy that involved the federal government overruling Arizona law, on the other hand this seems like a pretty clear endorsement of racial profiling, which I think is wrong" I would have been perfectly happy with that answer.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Why? Because it showed an awareness of the point that you make here: that you can't hold both positions, so even if you find something to be compelling about both sides, you also understand that in the end you'll have to make a decision. The fact that Miss Oklahoma can't do that isn't just that she's dumb --- or rather, if it is that she's dumb it's because "our" style of discourse has made her dumb (something you brought up with regards to those Tea Party maniacs) --- because it's told her that in order to be fair to both sides she has to accept both of their perspectives and that she can't do that if she considers the ramifications of either view.

I apologize for this long comment, but the point of re-constructing what I take to be the thought process behind this is that I've started to think it's something much more insidious than just laziness -- we as human beings naturally make connections, we can't help but engage in some form of rational thinking even if our rational principles aren't so good. But we're told that to make those connections is to do violence to the other view --- that we can't respect the other without accepting the perspective of the other --- and rather than engaging in some sort of dialectical (or if you prefer, dialogical) consideration of this difficulty, we do violence against our own capacity for reason.

Who's the culprit here? I suspect that we liberals and deconstructionists are being too hard on ourselves, and too open, too generous to the absolutism if we throw our hands up in the air and reply: "Why, it must be us."

DOCTOR J said...

@IdeasMan: I'm sypathetic with your effort to distinguish between taking *both* sides and *not taking* a side-- and I think that's both an interesting and a potentially helpful distction-- but I'm going to insist that they're still the same... for many of the same reaosns that you want to distinguish them.

The thing is, when you take a position, it has both a positive and a negative dimension. If I am "for" x, if I affirm x, then I am also "against" something, negating something-- at the very least, I am against/negating not-x. So, if I understand "taking a position" to necessarily involve both of these dimensions, then it must be the case that "affirming both sides of an issue" is the same as "not taking a position at all" because it has no negative/negating dimension to it. It's not all yes-saying (pace Nietzsche). Yes-saying is also a no-saying.

I also would have been happy if Miss Oklahoma had given an answer more along the lines of what you suggest, which acknowledges that there may be several "positions" at stake in what is being (perhaps wrongly) bundled as a *single* issue. But, of course, she didn't answer like that. She gave a "both/and" answer-- which, I suggest, is a non-answer-- for just the reasons that you articulate. Namely, she saw her task as *only* involving yes-saying, without realizing that one "yes" precludes the other "yes."

I also agree with you that this is not (entirely) the fault of liberals and deconstructionists and feminists and multiculturalists. It's a caricature of those traditions/movements to represent them as irrationally or unreflectively endorsing all comers. You're right, it's the neoliberal/libertarian influence at its most insidious that tells us that no one should tell us we're wrong... leading us to (erroneously) believe that we are not to tell anyone else they're wrong, either.

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Yeah, I didn't take you to be blaming liberals/intellectual relativists per se (though people often do) ---

I was thinking about this whilst walking into a meeting on campus today to work on revising the "first-year" experience at my school and trying to think of a catchy tag for the problem you're highlighting, something like "The Illiberal application of liberalism" or "Using humanism inhumanely" -- I dunno it still needs work

DOCTOR J said...

SPEP panel? ;-)

Lorenzo said...

... who feel so comfortable imposing a kind of reductive economic analysis on all questions of meaning and value. Really, cite one passage where someone states that they believe that economics covers all questions of meaning and value?

who remain ever in thrall with the idea of the autonomous individual who is able to calculate and determine his or her values in isolation, without challenge or regulation by some outside authority like government, popular opinion, or even logic. Again, cite one passage of someone stating that they actually believe this.