On the Intolerance of Relativism

From French philosopher Chantal Delsol, in her book The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century:

If every group contents itself with assuming its identity without ever wanting to impose it on others, one might think that the result would be social harmony along the lines of a gentleman’s agreement. The age of religious and ideological conflicts would be replaced by a long-lasting tolerance made possible by relativism: no group possesses the truth any more than any other.

That there are many relative points of view, however, does not in fact bring peace because relativism is by nature intolerant: it destroys the founation on which any common discourse must be based. Under relativism, we move from one type of quarrel to another: from fighing for universals to fighting for particulars. In the society of late modernity, abuse is hurled no longer in the name of ideologies, but in the name of identities. Individuals rally around their lifestyle preferences, their cultural attachments, or their status as historical victims. I am no longer an advocate of this or that revolution: I am young, or a Basque, or a woman, or an environmentalist.

Page 127 (emphasis added)

On the surfact it seems ironic, but truly nobody is more intolerant than a thorough-going relativist. He has to be, because he is, as he confesses on his silly bumper sticker, intolerant of intolerance.

But that means he is intolerant of any truth claim other than his own, and his own he roots in a contradiction caused by despair.

He must be, by the nature of his position, opposed to any truth claim. In other words, he must be opposed to every statement that anybody other than himself makes.

Why? Because truth is intolerant of falsehood. It has no room in its universe for the false. The false, after all, does not exist except in a broken relationship between subject and predicate. And broken relationships bring death and suffering.

Truth, therefore, is intolerant of falsehood. Relativism, on the other hand, is intolerant of truth because of the intolerance of truth for falsehood.

With Truth you can carry on a discussion as long as you humble yourself before her Authority. With relativism, any discussion will be a silly dance of experimental rhetoric, and the experiment will be to see what you can get away with while you dance.

The goal of relativism, when she speaks, is to provoke truth into a reaction so it can point at her intolerance and convince people to turn away from her inflexibility and unkindness.

Of course, the relativist can’t actually oppose every truth claim in practice, and he doesn’t really have to because there is no need for the relativist to be consistent.

He can shift with his preferences as much as the moral relativists of the 20th century did, adapting Pragmatically to the culture in which they speculated, from Imperial, Weimar, and Nazi Germany, to Mussolini’s Italy, to Progressive America, to Soviet Russia, to Hollywood.

The one thing the relativist shares across every culture is his impulse to collectivism and his quest for the total state.

Therefore, his relativism remains an impractical parlour game until he enters an academic classroom, creates a work of art, or runs for office.

Then, beware, you who oppose the Tolerant.

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Beyond Good and Evil II

In this post, I wrote these words:

Widespread homosexuality is both cause and effect of social and personal disintegration. More precisely, the gay agenda has already and will continue to wreak moral havoc. It does so by implementing a logic of permission that is untenable, but having been implemented becomes the habitual language of moral thought by which the great mass of men go about making moral decisions.Let me explain what I mean.  

I began to talk about the “logic of permission” and then digressed a little when I started to think about where we get our permissions. I think for this series of thoughts to be useful, I need to be more concrete and to discuss the logic of permission that is followed in conventional morality and to explain why it is so harmful. This might take a post or two. Bear with me.

There are some basic defenses of homosexual behavior in particular that make it a lightning rod in this debate. These include the appeal to tolerance, the defense of love, and the notion that people are born homosexual.

In this post, I will address the issue of tolerance, but please note my intention. I am trying to show that the “logic of permission” used to defend homosexual behavior “wreaks havoc” on morality itself. What I mean is that, if we accept this logic for homosexuality, then we develop patterns and habits of thought that undercut our ability to make moral decisions. Even if we argue that homosexuality is a unique and special case, we still, being humans, develop these patterns and habits of thought.

We are reminded incessently that tolerance is a virtue and that we are showing intolerance if we “condemn” or “judge” gays. The reason this argument is so effective is because the words are so slippery – they border on meaninglessness. As an aside, for humans to rob language of meaning is truly one of the most evil things we can do. Language is a mark of the Divine Image and it separates us from the beasts. So we have to guard the meaning of words.

I changed my mind. That isn’t an aside. One of the bad habits the appeal to “tolerance” causes us to develop is the habit of mangling language and making it meaningless. Loss the language war and all is lost. Define what the terms mean and you are a long way toward winning any debate. Language must stay bound to nature, to reality, to things as they are. When language loses its power to mean, society is done. Put that in terms of degree and you’ll see what is happening already.

Tolerance is a meaningful word and a good thing. But it isn’t always a good thing. Everybody knows we shouldn’t tolerate everything, a confession expressed by the solipsistic bumper sticker “tolerate everything except intolerance!”. In other words, you have to decide on some things  that you won’t tolerate. You have to make (hold on to your hat) judgments about what to tolerate and what not to tolerate.

But people who grow up hearing tolerance celebrated in the abstract, as though it is a universal virtue, as though we should tolerate everything, are morally crippled. For a society to make a law is to determine that some things will not be tolerated, say, speeding, rape, child abuse, tax evasion, causing global warming, etc. But judgment, discretion, decision making take practice and that practice must begin with obeying what authorities say about right and wrong (first parents, then others). A standard must be supplied and when that standard is violated, decisions must be made about what short falls will be tolerated and which will not.

Tolerance is a “relative virtue.” Sometimes we should exercise it and sometimes we should not. To appeal to tolerance as the reason for allowing something is begging the question. It is like saying, “we should allow this because we should allow it.” Tolerance is not an abstract virtue. It is concrete, related to specific circumstances, specific people, at specific times, and calling for specific responses.

Should we tolerate homosexuality? I don’t know. To answer the question, I would have to know what you mean. I don’t believe we should stone homosexuals. I don’t have any trouble being friends with homosexuals (as long as they can tolerate me).

Should we judge homosexuality? That depends on what you mean too. I believe that homosexual behavior is wrong and unhealthy. Does that mean I am judging homosexuality? Sort of. But it is not I who am making this judgment. I feel utterly unqualified to develop my own moral law. I believe what I believe because the authorities I believe teach it, namely, the Christian tradition and human nature. So to be precise, I am not judging it, I am submitting to the judgment of those who know and I am allowing my behavior and attitudes to be regulated by those who know.

This is an important point. So called “anti-homosexuals” or “homophobes” are accused of “judging” homosexuals. In fact, many of them are guilty of this charge. They establish themselves as the makers of the moral law and then they attack homosexuality on no greater charge than that they don’t like it. It grosses them out or bothers them or scares them. This is wrong, because we do not have the right to compel others to live according to our tastes just because they are our tastes.

In short, if H-S is wrong, it isn’t wrong because I don’t like it.

But that is precisely what the H-S lobby has been able to respond to. America lost its moral footings a long time ago. We commit every crime under the sun and we practice serial polygamy. Heterosexuals have made marriage a meaningless concept. H-S’s look at that and say, “who are you to judge me.” It’s the right question. The only right answer is something like, “Nobody. I don’t judge you. But the moral law and the law of God does have something to say to both of us. I break it here and here and here. I seek healing. Can you see that you also need healing?”

Our Lord told us not to judge. So did the apostle, St. James. James said that when we do, we judge the law ourselves. What did they mean?

H-S would have us believe they meant that we should not recognize some behavior as wrong or even some people as evil. It’s hard to imagine how Jesus and St. James could be regarded as not believing some people are evil. Jesus called people things like white washed sepulchres and hypocrites. So clearly they aren’t arguing that we shouldn’t judge because, after all, nothing is wrong.

Jesus followed his instruction not to judge with the admonition not to “Case your pearls before swine”! Yikes. That sounds judgmental!

Or maybe we miss His point. What both James and our Lord are telling us is that we cannot set up ourselves as the judge – we cannot set ourselves above the law itself and sit in judgment on the law. We are not fit to do so. We must submit to the judgments contained in the law.

Looked at from this perspective, something rather ironic becomes evident. Two people are guilty of “judging.” One, those who determine that things are wrong because they don’t like them. Two, those who determine that things are right because they like them. In other words, the bigot who feels free to beat up H-S because they scare him is judging and the H-S who won’t submit to the law is also judging.

So we’ve crippled people’s ability to think morally by turning tolerance from a relative to an absolute value. And we’ve weakened ourselves by failing to understand what our Lord meant when He said, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”

The third way we’ve crippled people’s ability to think morally is by overthrowing the notion of a moral law rooted in human nature to which all of us are bound. More on that later.