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.