How Relativism supports Dirty Politics?
If there is one thing we’ve learjedin the Trump years, it’s that many people who would have thought themselves relativists turn out to have some pretty solid convictions.Stephen Krogh
[Trevor Noah] promised to go beyond mining comedy out of candidates eating corn dogs at state fairs. But that doesn’t mean the ultimate goal isn’t to entertain viewers, particularly in a time when news and parodies of news seem to be blending together. “I’m not trying to create a straight-up news show.”Pointer
For some, it might be surprising that researchers saw the origins of the term fake news represented by the Daily Show. In the meantime, the term ‘fake news’ is attributed to the political opponent who is blamed for the destruction of our political discourses and for the most part follows an evil intent. The origins story of the term, however, reveals that the problem lies deeper and is tied to the structure of the media used on both sides:
The distinction … lies in the characteristics of the modern information age, where almost everyone enjoys online access and is able to generate and spread content… the rise of “fake news” …[is]… a result of the rise of the internet as a source of information and the ability for anyone to post content online to reach an audience.”Terry Lee
Since on both sides of politics propaganda has its established formats, it must be right to baptize this age as the post-truth-era. Truth becomes a matter of presenting alternative facts or as Rorty has described it quite unironically: “Truth is what your contemporaries let you get away with.” With regard to this cynical premise, relativism seems to support the counterfactual fabrication of factoids in the dirty business of politics and it urges the question: Is relativism the philosophical, dark underbelly of fake-news and our political problems?
Philosophy and Relativism
Relativism and philosophy seem to be closely related. In a discourse that lasted more than 2000 years, philosophers consistently returned to its beginning with mostly empty hands. Lawrence Kraus comments on this:
“Of course, philosophy is the field that hasn’t progressed in two thousand years.”LAWRENCE KRAUSS, 1954 – PRESENTAmerican Atheists National Convention, 2012
Philosophy thus often occurs as a discipline that twists truths, obfuscates our perspectives, and sophistically engages in fruitless battles that lead us to nothing.
Accordingly, philosophy’s dirty relativism occurs as a useful instrument for political discussions. But even though philosophy has a relativizing attitude, its genuine relativism is not essentially related to political cynicism.
On its way, philosophy’s goal was to transcend any stage of knowledge. Alfred Eisleben would say, it attempted to build “a sky-ladder into the nothing of the universe”. Though philosophy achieved by virtue of skepticism higher and higher standpoints, it also attempted to transcend beyond the limits of empirical thinking and thinking overall. It quickly became the attempt to relativize any belief, position or instituted knowledge. While its goal was to constitute real, everlasting knowledge, revolution, quite paradoxically, became its institution leaving nothing to firmly believe in. So while philosophers destroyed superstitions and false theories, oppression and power, they were also responsible for the eroding ground below our house of sciences. Philosophy’s progress has, at the same time, initiated the destruction of our common ground until it was unclear whether any kind of foundation would count as safe anymore. Philosophers like Descartes therefore warned that our building of science would stand on shaky grounds and believed that only a solid foundation could guarantee knowledge.
Despite these predictions and warnings, however, the doomed card-house of sciences still stands. Under the impression of philosophy’s alarmism, pragmatic sciences, producing real knowledge, replaced the seemingly fruitless exercises of philosophy. Philosophy occurs now as a hypothetical debating-club for dandies entertaining themselves or as a mean for politicians twisting truths.
Not so dirty: a positive Note on Relativism
Relativism, like scepticism, is one of those doctrines that have by now been refuted a number of times too often. Nothing is perhaps a surer sign that a doctrine embodies some not-to-be-neglected truth than that in the course of the history of philosophy it should have been refuted again and again. Genuinely refutable doctrines only need to be refuted once.
Alasdair MacIntyre 1985:22
Despite our attempts, we could not kill relativism. It was seemingly refuted often and MacIntyre postulates that the denial of acknowledging its refutations speaks for a lack of integrity. If we grasp philosophy, however, as the ultimate human project that could not yet provide a stable, firm and everlasting foundation, then, as I claim, it is relativist. So it is not about disproving relativism, the burden of proof is on the foundationalists.
But also looking at the arguments against relativism, it should become clear that most people fight against skepticism than against relativism. Contrary to popular belief relativism does not imply that there is nothing grasped and nothing gained. In fact, our practical sciences are relativist, too. They formulate theories of knowledge that are only warranted by practical experiences (relativism allows for that). Moreover, at any point, they can revoke there theories and replace them with other theories, especially if our experience fundamentally changes. In other words, we always develop knowledge relative to given conditions of experience. This obviously does not imply that we do not gain knowledge. For example, we learn how to build cars and learn how to drive a car, even though as drivers we do not know many details about it. Engineers might not know the last details of all physical processes, but they know that for practical purposes it will suffice. In other words, we do not need an absolute ground, in order to be practical.
Obviously, it would be absurd to claim that we know nothing just because we do not know something perfectly. Looking at Socrates, we must therefore also wonder whether he said, he knew nothing or whether he meant he does not know absolutely. Then, however, what does it mean to be relativist? Relativists do not deny that we can have knowledge measured with regard to a practical outcome, they are, however, skeptical with regard to absolute knowledge. Thus, serious relativists never claimed that the foundation of our thinking is impossible. Relativism acknowledges that maybe one day we transform our minds and find a particle of knowledge that will reveal the secret ground of our universe. Until this moment, however, we stick with the idea that our knowledge is based on our experiences that may or may not represent the whole of our world. Yet, independent from absolute claims, relativism acknowledges that we produces knowledge relative to our shared experiences.
Relativism is therefore no Friend of Liars
Relativism is not a friend of twisters, liars and sophists. It is not a political attitude but a genuine way of living. It is a way to live and with its reliance on experience that we can share and repeat. With this common ground, it is an answer to liars.
Relativism as a Genuine Way of Living
Beyond our practical experiences, however, we should focus less on the bits of knowledge we know, but compare our knowledge to the our insurmountable ignorance. From the perspective of the absolute, we do not know. Here, we speculate about the meaning of life, true morals, the will of the universe or God, its existence and truth. Here, we are humans wondering about what is. The open questions that lie ahead of us only allowed for relativist answer so far, and that as an experiential fact is our current nature. We are beings who fundamentally wonder about the world, our soul and God. We should rather ask questions than block ourselves with answers.
Here are some questions that might be relevant for relativism:
1. What is relativism?
2. Who are famous relativists?
3. What is moral relativism and what are other forms of relativism?
4. Are relativists atheists?
5. Are relativists agnostics?
6. Can relativism be a defendable position?
7. Why relativism? Don’t we just see that the world is there?
8. Can we deny that the world exists?
- “Although someone’s beliefs and assumptions may not be true and do not describe reality, they will still drive their behavior. So if someone doesn’t believe in truth, count on him to lie. If someone says there are no objective facts, expect her to be careless with facts to further her own interests. If someone explains everything by referring to evolution and the ‘selfish gene,’ be sure that at some point, he will be extremely selfish on behalf of the fitness of his own survival.” Os Guinness,
- Time For Truth: Living Free In A World of Lies, Hype, and Spin
“…if someone doesn’t believe in truth, count on him to lie. If someone says there are no objective facts, expect her to be careless with facts to further her own interests. If someone explains everything by referring to evolution and the ‘selfish gene,’ be sure that at some point, he will be extremely selfish on behalf of the fitness of his own survival.”
We all need a solution for the flood of misinformation that has come over us, but is the only ark we have the concept of a shared external reality that we can objectively know? Is there something that can warrant the progress of our society beyond the concept of an external reality? Maybe, it is, indeed, relativism.
Words: Digital Wildfire