Our rulers don't want us to think for ourselves
on the most important questions...
Frightened populations seem to want simple "truth".
And ruling authorities have always been glad to provide it,
via priests, political speechwriters, the media, etc.
Cognitive relativism, otherwise known as perspectivism,
undermines authority's "truth," as it implies thinking
for oneself on all matters. Not surprisingly, most
forms of relativism/perspectivism are misrepresented,
smeared and discredited by those who wish to maintain control.
Relativism is sometimes misrepresented as a sort of spineless,
anything-goes, chaotic, anarchic, immoral, weak, cowardly,
degenerate free-for-all. Picture those old propaganda campaigns
on the "dangers" of marijuana you'll surely
turn into a deranged axe-murderer
and, worse, a moral
relativist (cue the screams/thunder horror soundtrack).
Cultural relativism is often portrayed as being irrational
(philosophers who write in relativistic terms eg Nietzsche,
Foucault, etc are called "irrationalists"
by people who don't like them). Jamie Whyte's recent book
on logical fallacies, Bad Thoughts, misrepresents relativism
as something which contradicts facts:
"This [Cultural] Relativism about
truth is inconsistent with some very well-known facts, such
as the fact that the earth orbited the sun in 900AD. Cultural
Relativism entails, on the contrary, that in 900AD the sun
orbited the earth. This is what people believed, so it was
Compare the above with a more accurate (in our opinion) version
of cultural relativism:
In 900AD, most people thought it "true"
that the sun orbited the earth. Cultural relativism says that
since this "truth" was dropped following cultural
changes (eg scientific advances), how can we be certain that
the current "truth" won't also be dropped (eg by
"Is it true you ate all the doughnuts?"
We don't answer everyday questions by explaining that truth
is relative. But everyday "truth" can be seen as
relative to the extent we're not infallible in our perceptions
eg "true, as far as I'm aware." (The
probability of our perceptions misleading us might seem small,
but it isn't zero).
It's in the "moral" realm that relativism is most
bitterly attacked and misrepresented. For example, it's often
claimed that moral relativism removes all grounds for objecting
to cruelty, slavery, malice, etc. In fact, relativism doesn't
remove all grounds for opposing such things
just absolutist grounds. You can object to cruelty, etc, on
the grounds that you abhor suffering no need to invoke
moral absolutes (such as "evil").
It's also argued that perspectivism allows each individual
to decide what is "right" and "wrong",
and that this is a "bad" thing. But why is it a
"bad" thing for individuals to decide such matters
for themselves? Democracy doesn't require moral absolutism
in order to outlaw slavery. It just requires a majority opposing
slavery. Each individual is free to decide whether to oppose
slavery, and on what grounds. That is, de facto, moral
Absolutist Control Systems
Authority (in the sense of established power) requires "absolute"
truths that aren't open to question. Most authorities seem
to hate perspectivism because it undermines the very thing
that authority rests upon.
Take one example: market fundamentalism. This has
elevated certain economic beliefs into absolute "truths"
(eg the "truth" that maximising profit must take
precedence over everything else, to achieve the ultimate good,
To question such "truths" is to undermine the
authority of those who derive power from the market system.
If you work for a corporation, you can test this by telling
your boss that you're going to take it easy at work,
because you question the idea that maximising shareholder
profit must take precedence over your quality of life as an
employee. (You could also point out that it's possible to
work profitably for a company without working to maximise
profits especially on the low pay most people receive).
A sure sign that you're dealing with the type of authority
which rests on absolute "truths" is that you're
made to feel like some kind of blasphemer, lunatic or criminal,
just for raising reasonable questions.
Perspectivism in action questioning the "truths"
of authority is discouraged at an early age (eg in
school), often with crude behaviourist reward/punish techniques.
It's not surprising that social reaction to relativism/perspectivism
is often viscerally hostile.
in the last resort are the truths of mankind? They are the
irrefutable errors of mankind" (Nietzsche)
Untrue Claims of Absolute "Truth"
"Light travels faster than
sound. This is a scientific discovery, and it is true. It
is pointless to add that it is absolutely true, since truth
is always absolute."
(Jamie Whyte, Bad Thoughts)
For a truth to be labelled "absolute"
you need total certainty that it will never be refuted (or
amended, qualified, reworded, etc). Anything less would mean
changing the truth's status from "absolute" to "relative"
Karl Popper claimed the only way to prove
a scientific discovery "absolutely true" is to carry
out an infinite number of experiments. But some anti-relativists
claim Popper was an "irrationalist". However, Stephen
Hawking (who isn't often accused of being irrational), says:
"Any physical theory is always
provisional ... you can never prove it. No matter how many
times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you
can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict
(Hawking, A Brief History
In other words, science can't provide
"absolute truth". And if science (arguably the most
"objective" method we have) can't give absolute
truth, you shouldn't expect it from [insert
your favourite authority here].
Absolutes aren't necessary for us to function.
Most scientists realise that Newton's laws of motion are not
absolute truths, but they work okay for getting people to
the moon and back.
has its regime of truth
that is, the types of discourse
which it accepts and makes function as true; [
techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition
of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying
what counts as true." (Michel