Phi Beta Cons

Kevin Barrett and Relativism

According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor, the controversial University of Wisconsin, Madison, lecturer Kevin Barrett claims “that the U.S. government planned and carried out the 9/11 attacks, the World Trade Center imploded due to explosives set up ahead of time in the buildings, Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone’s plane crash was no accident, and Osama bin Laden has probably been dead since 2001.”
Barrett explains in the article that he uses a Sophist technique in teaching, ”in which he presents a wide variety of viewpoints and encourages debate on them.”
This is not Sophist so much as sophistry. He’s hiding behind the shield of relativism in order to be able to advance a point of view that would be dismissed if rigorous standards of evidence were in place. Presenting differing points of view does not mean you forego judgment among them as to which is the nearer or further from reality. The obligation is still there to weigh the evidence and come to conclusions. Barrett claims he has evidence for his views. It needs to be evaluated and refuted. True, we’ve had to waste an awful lot of time on cracked ideas like Holocaust denial in recent decades, but we can’t count on common sense to dismiss unworthy notions out of hand.  
As if in proof of this, Barrett cites the fact that 42 percent of Americans in one poll believe that they were not told the whole truth about the attacks as evidence of growing acceptance of his views. The poll result is a little dispiriting, but it does not logically support him. Rather, as he uses it, it’s a mixture of the logical fallacies of “mass appeal” and “non sequitur.”   
Cultural relativism has got to be challenged by taking a stand for truth. It may be difficult sometimes but there is no choice because relativism is eroding the foundations of our society.
I think we became especially aware of how the academic postmodern attack on truth had emerged into the general culture–contrary to those who said that what happens in academia doesn’t matter in the larger picture–in the O.J. Simpson case, which, apart from diminishing the trust many of us had in our jury system, gave us a horrifying glimpse of the soullessness of our trial lawyers. They appeared nightly on television, lending credence to the most ridiculous theories of the defense lawyers, who were another piece of work in themselves. Hiding behind the idea that we have an adversary system that enables the truth to emerge from the clash of views, they allowed themselves to entertain any ridiculous theory thrown up by the defense, such as that Nicole and Ron may have been killed by Columbian drug dealers.
But the adversary system can only work with people who have some standards for their mental universe; it can’t work when gamesters and tricksters are allowed to put anything into the mix. We should stand up for truth again, without scare quotes, and when someone says that’s your opinion, we should say, yes, and here’s my evidence, what’s yours.  And as philosopher Thomas Nagel has declared, we can’t repeat often enough that saying there is no truth is actually stating a truth, and therefore undercuts the relativist position entirely!  

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