See Chapter 1 in this new series here: How to Outwit a Radical Feminist
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, let’s talk about cultural relativism. Can we do that, for a second? Because it seems relevant.
If you’re new to the tortured logic of modern progressivism, you might be surprised to see college campuses and media outlets across America trembling with doe-eyed concern for the safety of Muslims in Paris. After yet more innocent civilians were gunned down in cold blood by Islamist extremists, it might seem more natural to you to worry about, oh, I don’t know, the safety of innocent civilians being gunned down in cold blood by Islamist extremists. Perhaps, in your naïve opinion, it seemed odd to watch well-coiffed intellectuals wringing their manicured hands over the West’s virulent islamophobia.These things might appear strange to you. Well then, my tender little sugar muffin, it’s time to talk about cultural relativism.
And how to destroy it.
First, the basics: Cultural relativism is the idea that, in the words of one early proponent, all cultures are “coexisting and equally valid patterns of life.” This means all cultural practices — all ways of dressing, marriage customs, religious beliefs — are just as good as one another. Scholars have since pointed out that the only way for this to be true is if there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” to begin with. So cultural relativism presupposes a morally neutral universe: no real “right” or “wrong,” just different value systems.
Like many dumb ideas, cultural relativism first took hold in academia in the early 1900s. But soon it seeped out into the world of politics and journalism. There, it got distilled into the mantra that “we are all one,” and our disagreements are really just misunderstandings. If only we could learn about the cultures of our enemies, we’d see they’re not evil at all. We Westerners just have to see things from the other point of view.
That’s where things really got nutso. If all religions are valid, then no religion is bad. Which means that in order to defend their position, cultural relativists have to scrupulously ignore the fact that radical Islam is a violent, destructive ideology. So Boko Haram becomes a group of “militants” and “insurgents.” The jihadis who blew up the Boston Marathon morph into “self-styled American patriots.” And the New York Times edits out the obvious reality that Charlie Hebdo was attacked by radical Islamists.
Against those who dare to suggest that not all religious beliefs are peaceful and life-affirming, cultural relativists have a powerful weapon. It’s called “hate speech.” This is a term to describe any expression of animosity directed at a minority group, religious or otherwise. Since all religions are really of equal value, only a bigot would say that some religious systems dependably motivate their adherents to murder the innocent. On college campuses, anyone who even considers the possibility that Islam encourages violence gets accused of hate speech. It works, too: students at Brandeis managed to silence Ayaan Hirsi Ali because her impeccably researched criticism of Islam was too “hateful” to be allowed.
It’s time for campus conservatives to fight this drivel on its home turf. We should start with the root assumption, the basic stipulation that there’s no such thing as good or bad. Now, no one can “prove” that the moral universe exists, exactly. But if it doesn’t, that’s where the conversation ends. If nothing has moral value, then everything, from philanthropy to pedophilia, is of equal worth. You can’t make an argument for anything over any other thing. You can’t even say “I should be able to do what I like,” or “do no harm.” Why should you? Because your pleasure is good? Because pain is bad? But we already said nothing is inherently good. If someone claims to be a relativist, he should have absolutely no problem watching you punch a child in the face. If he thinks you maybe shouldn’t do that, well, then he’s not actually a relativist.
So the whole structure is rotten at its foundations. Either there’s such a thing as good, or there isn’t. If there is such a thing, it follows that ideas can either be good or bad. They can foster altruism and joy, or they can engender violence and brutality. Religious ideologies are ideas. Christianity, Buddhism, Islam: these are systems of belief that either affirm or degrade the dignity of the human spirit. It’s important to understand them, yes — to pick them apart carefully and examine them at the roots. But it’s not hateful to conclude, after doing so, that one or another of them is broken and corrupt, that it stands for oppression and has to be opposed. Maybe the true pacifism of Islam is being horribly disfigured by virulent extremists. But maybe not — and we have to be able to ask the question.
The Huffington Post recently deplored what it termed a “double-standard” in the American mindset. When surveyed, 83 percent of Americans said that those who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity aren’t true Christians, whereas only 48 percent said the same about Muslim terrorists. Well, that’s just it: either unconscionable violence is consistent with the tenets of your creed, or it isn’t. The people in that survey might or might not be mistaken, but they’re surely not espousing a double-standard. They’re assessing two ideologies by the same standard, holding the actions of the faithful up against the values of each faith. Cultural relativism forbids us, with mounting hysteria, from making those assessments. It slanders and belittles those who do. Where it can, it bullies them into silence. That’s why we have to take it down.
That’s it for this chapter of The Campus Conservative’s Field Manual. If you’ve got experience or tactics for doing battle with cultural relativism, post them in the comments! And as always, stay tuned for more to come.