Relativism

A bit over eight and a half years ago I wrote my college entrance essay. It was an exploratory essay wherein I discussed an evolution in my thought from a world of black and white, good and evil to one of indistinct shades of grey. In this essay I advanced one of my core tenets: that in the most saintly people there are flaws and in the most heinous something of good. If memory serves, my examples were Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler. Admittedly Roosevelt would not have considered himself a saint, but I had an aversion to work back then and the apposition worked nicely.

The larger issue is that a true black and white version of good and evil exists only in fiction. Both moral terms are easy to throw around in writing and speech, but, ultimately, they are perceived categories. To repeat my Hitler example, only taking it one step more polemical, he genuinely believed that the extermination of the Jews was a morally good–or at least necessary–act. I think perpetrators of genocide everywhere feel the same way. This does not exonerate the actions taken by any stretch of the imagination, but when there is active thought behind these actions they must be explained somehow. If not, the actions are done without thought or done in insanity. Actions themselves may be evil when done under these circumstances, but I have a hard time categorically labeling them, or even people who do bad things rationally, truly evil. That is a subjective category.

I am not the same person I was then, both for better and for worse, but that tenet remains. It is part of what it means to be human. There are also evils in the world. There are truths. There are facts. There are “universal” goods. These concepts are unique to each person, at least at the level of understanding. This is relativism.

Relativism is the fundamental claim that perception will not be uniform from person to person to person even if the underlying facts have not changed. What we call universal truths (or facts) are that way because people collectively agree upon them. I believe that the same principal applies to language. Words mean what they do because they are, more or less, agreed upon–not because they simply are. Moreover, many words have multiple meanings and/or carry different meanings to different people. Yes, words are used to convey and describe things that are, but the perception of those things will not be the same.

Perhaps this is a tacit admittance of objective truths. I am willing to admit that they may exist. Nonetheless those objective truths are inaccessible. Relativism–my version of relativism, anyway–argues that perception is what is relative, not the underlying facts. Thus, when someone pokes holes in relativism by demonstrating there are inarguable facts there is no problem. It is merely a demonstration that some perceptions are more universal than others.

Then there is the issue of relativity versus objectivity in history. In the world as we know it today, actions and events do take place. The Olympics are going on right now; the bird flew from the tree to the feed and back again, pausing only to snatch a seed; I am typing with my laptop set on a wooden table. Some of these actions are currently ongoing but will, at some point, exist only in the past, a past that is in that future time entirely inaccessible except through a retelling. It is the job of reporters, historians, essayists, and other storytellers to conjure up that past for an audience. Presumably the storyteller sees some merit in the writing (even if that merit is financial), and the audience will agree or disagree with the merit. Of course, the better the storyteller, the more likely the audience will accept it.

So there is an objective history that once happened, but merely from a narrative standpoint, the past is beyond our reach and therefore subject to the relative perception and interpretation of first the storyteller and then the audience. The relativistic nature is further pronounced when the objective behind the story is to draw conclusions from the past or to ascribe motive.

This is not an indictment of the endeavor, either. If anything, the relative nature of history means that more people should become involved in the research and writing so that more voices get heard. Historians themselves are conduits of the stories and of the past, but, by their very human, flawed, nature, do not have access to the Truth.

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