Friday, May 16, 2008

Relativism is the Stance of the Powerful

Greetings from Norway!

Za, Maddie and I spent the last two days traveling to Norway so he could do some work with a Norwegian collaborator. I am here mostly to walk around with Maddie and take in the culture of my mother's family. I must look pretty Norwegian because the minute I was off the plane, everyone, including the taxi driver kept speaking Norwegian to me. After I told him (twice) that I was American, he slipped back into Norwegian and then apologized and said I just looked so Norske. :)

While I was on the plane over here, I started re-reading Linda Gordon's Woman's Body, Women's Right: Birth Control in America and I was struck my a claim she makes in her introduction. I wish I could quote it directly, but I left the damn book on the plane. Anyway, after laying out the program of the book, she indirectly indicates that this book (especially since it was published in 1975) embraces the liberation politics of the women's movement. She also clarifies that she is a social historian and hence a class analysis is part of the methodology. Anyway, the line that made me stop and think was a claim that relativism and neutrality are luxuries of those in power.

I wanted to write about this here because I am curious what the rest of you think of this view. I took her to be describing the standpoint of the historian. I wonder if she would extend this view of neutrality to other investigations.

For years I have labored to convince students that relativism is a narcissistic stance. I basically stole that riff from SteveG In my experience, there are two camps of students who cling to relativism. The first camp defends relativism because they believe that it is the more inclusive and hence culturally sensitive stance to take as moral thinkers. I am not always sure where they develop this view? Is it in middle or high school when they have multi-cultural days? Is it something they pick up in social studies? Hard to say. But, what they do is make the move that the fact of cultural differences implies a normative stance: that we ought not judge others by our own moral principles or codes.

The second camp includes students who don't want to argue about morality or who don't want to have to defend their own moral views against others. If anyone ever tries to challenge them on a moral belief and they don't want to be morally judged or (more likely) develop a cogent defense of their views, they begin to embrace a moral view that "it's all relative." It is largely this camp of students that I believe Gordon is criticizing (although the first camp is not mutually exclusive from the latter).

In any case, the stolen speech I give on the harms of relativism is to show that embracing relativism is equivalent to saying that you don't have to take seriously another's view or bother to let your own view be challenged. SteveG's way of framing this problem is still largely in moral language: you are not treating the other as a "person" (the technical word for moral agent).

Linda Gordon, however, is making a political (more specifically, marxist) argument against relativism: those who adopt a relativistic moral stance are obviously those in power. They are the capitalists. They are the elite. They are those who do not need to worry that they will be mishandled by the police or justice system; they are those who do not need to worry about overt or covert discrimination for jobs; they are those with the means to be well educated; they are those with wealth.

I wonder if Gordon's analysis of relativism--as a moral stance adopted by the elite--makes sense of the worldview of my students at a SLAC? Or, might this be a common stance of Americans in general?


What do you think