In the language of our intellectual and cultural elites, we often find repeated phrases that seem to have a life of their own. Like the symptoms of an undiagnosed, contagious disease, these phrases suddenly appear and spread quickly throughout the language of our popular discourse until they, and the assumptions they conceal, are accepted as self-evidently true. It is sometimes difficult to keep such phrases – and the intellectual attitudes they imply – from our own speech. Indeed, the most dangerous traps to guard against, and the most difficult errors to correct, are those that seem most harmless – and which make us appear modern, enlightened and liberal.
Relativism is one such error and the oft-repeated warning against “imposing one’s values” is one such phrase. The contentious cultural issues of the day are hardly ever mentioned without the caution that one cannot impose his values on others. Whether the specific issue is abortion, euthanasia or gay “marriage,” the warning is the same: what is true for one is not true for all and no basis for consensus on moral issues exists. But this claim, so widely accepted in modern society, is not only indefensible, contradictory and contentious, it also amounts to a form of intellectual terrorism that shuts down any kind of debate before it can even begin.
Relativism seems to be a broadminded, even generous, intellectual attitude that does not presume to pre-judge the positions of others. This, however, is not the case. In fact, relativism amounts to a modern form of censorship – and, although the attitudes of the censorious autocrat and the liberal relativist seem opposed, their effect is exactly the same. For the censoring authoritarian, truth is what he wants it to be and any other position is ruled out in advance. Relativism, on the other hand, accepts any position, but, in doing so, undermines the claims of every position and, thus, stifles speech and free expression in the same way as censorship. The relativist allows every opinion to be held, but deems them all equally equivocal.
Indeed, the intellectual climate created by relativism is no less toxic than that of the most repressive regimes. As then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said to his brother cardinals before entering the conclave in which he was elected pope, the modern world is “a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.” In this penetrating statement, the future pontiff identified the concealed egoism at the root of relativism: whereas the dictator makes others subject to his truth, the relativist appoints himself as the arbiter of truth, under the veil of equanimity. While seeming to grant authority to others, he aggrandizes himself in this very act.
Relativism, then, sets up the individual as a dictator over truth. But, at the same time, relativism is simultaneously set over every individual. The relativist mindset has produced the intellectual loneliness that is so prevalent in modern life. In an age in which modern technology connects us to each other in so many trivial ways, we cannot communicate about what matters most, nor escape the metaphysical isolation that relativism imposes on us. Even when like-minded groups do come together to make arguments in the public sphere, the pall of relativism overshadows such discussions, prohibiting all debate in advance. Relativism seems liberal in theory, but is totally oppressive in effect.
In his book Orthodoxy (1908), in a chapter entitled, “The Suicide of Thought,” G.K. Chesterton warned the modern world that “there is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped,” a thought that “only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own.” Chesterton was then warning his readers about the dangers of skepticism. As we now languish under the intellectual oppression of relativism, it is clear this warning was not heeded. For relativism is merely a more advanced stage of the disease Chesterton had already identified: relativism is skepticism that has metastasized in the larger culture. Now, more than a century later, in the wreckage that is our modern public discourse, we can recognize and appreciate the wisdom of his warning.
Relativism removes the very basis of reasonable debate in public society and puts everyone at the mercy of innuendo, opinion and conjecture. And, when people do seek coherence in politics, they opt for the appealing, but illusory, neatness of ideologies that sacrifice reality at the altar of doctrine. Thus, while seemingly innocuous, relativism tears at the fabric of social life; what begins as an indulgence ends in incoherence.
Robert Frost once said, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel.” We, however, cannot afford to adopt the poet’s urbane indifference; we cannot abdicate our side in the defence of truth, nor concede this quarrel to those who would merely agree to disagree. Our model, instead, is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life in the defence of his flock: “I know my sheep and my sheep know Me” (John 10:14). Amid the modern din of opinions, we must strain our ears for the voice we know and shut them against those voices we do not. Moreover, we must raise our voice in the defence of a truth that is more than the mere opinions of the age, but is, rather, absolute – a precious gift that we have only received. For, pace Frost, we must take our own side in the great struggle against falsehood, because the truth is worth fighting for. It is, indeed, all we have.