Phi Beta Cons

It’s Not Relativism

Clark’s Friday post referring to Charles Murray’s critique of cultural relativism in the academy reminds me of a point that I’ve been wanting to make for some time: Our colleges are not overrun with either moral or cultural relativism. The problem is the opposite — moral and cultural absolutism that is occasionally so extreme that it would make a Bob Jones theology professor blush.
In a truly morally relativistic environment, there would be great difficulty in getting a straight answer from a professor, diversity dean, or student activist on the morality of same-sex marriage, for example. Or the justice of the Iraq war, or even the worth of Wal-Mart. Instead, does anyone have any doubt what the academic establishment’s answer is to any of the following questions: Was the Iraq war justified? Is consciously race-based affirmative action a proper response to historical injustice? Should achieving “diversity” be a central goal of the academy?
As for cultural relativism, does the academy paint a “warts and all” picture of indigenous cultures? Even the act of equating the Aztecs and Greeks (to take Murray’s example) requires that the academy magnify the flaws of the Greeks and minimize the flaws of the Aztecs, so that the culture that invented democracy is “equated” with a culture organized around human sacrifice on a mass scale. The “western civilization bad, other cultures good” formula of so many lectures and books is anything but relativistic. Simplistic, maybe, but not relativistic.
I routinely receive correspondence from concerned parents who worry about relativism. What they need to understand, however, is that academic relativism is a tactic, not a substantive position. When a student of orthodox faith or a person of traditional belief presents a position, they are often countered with the classic relativistic verbal shrug (i.e. “that may be true for you but not for me”), but when the shoe is on the other foot — when the issue is dear to the heart of the academic — the position could not be more absolute. Insults like “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobe” do not come from relativism, but from absolutism.