Relativism is the Trump card

Relativism is the Trump card

For Unitarian Universalists, being open-minded must not mean being empty-headed.

Business people play "telephone", whispering a message down the line until the answer changes from "A" to "B".

© mangsaab/istock

© mangsaab/istock


With rising seas and violent storms, humanity has been suffering the early consequences of climate change. While floods endanger our bodies, a change in cultural climate has begun to threaten our minds and souls. With the election of Donald Trump, American society is awash in post-factual ethical relativism. According to this view, reality is determined by ideology, and morality is whatever an individual or group asserts it to be. There is no ethical reasoning, no argument from principle, no cogent response to “might makes right” other than wresting power and forcing others to comply.

Both environmental changes and social transformations are of our making. The painful irony of global warming is that the fossil fuels that provided comfort are now producing misery as villages sink into melting permafrost. In a disturbingly parallel manner, the ideas meant to produce tolerance of differences have created a sinkhole of abhorrent bigotry. Among the impassioned opponents of Trump’s “alternative facts” and values (e.g., misogyny, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia) are my university colleagues in the humanities and social sciences. Faculty and students are outraged by policies undermining environmental protection. And therein lies another uncomfortable irony.

The conceptual framework that Trump is exploiting was constructed by the scholars who are now so justifiably upset. Out of postmodernist departments came assertions that science is merely a social construct and that scientific knowledge is just Western hegemony. Supposed truths about the world are the creations of those who privilege testability and rationality over other ways of engaging nature. Cosmology and evolution became alternative creation myths to those of indigenous people.

To be sure, the collection of practices and standards called ‘science’ is a cultural artifact, prone to bias and fallible in its theories. But facts are not subjective inventions.

To be fair, this account oversimplifies postmodernism, which can more plausibly assert that scientific explanations reflect objective reality viewed through the lens of culture (this seems almost self-evident and not terribly exciting). But other postmodernists describe science as reductionist experimentation for the purpose of dominating people and nature—and this radical view is more enticing for those seeking rebellious ideas.

To be sure, the collection of practices and standards called “science” is a cultural artifact, prone to bias and fallible in its theories. But facts are not subjective inventions. That the climate is warming, species are disappearing, and UV radiation causes cancer are not creations of a cabal of white lab-coated men. There are differing claims and interpretations but not “alternative facts.”

Likewise, the intellectuals who preached the cultural relativism of morality insisted that universal ethical norms were an invention of the Enlightenment. Ethics simply reflect alternative values expressed by equally worthy societies. Different, even opposing, norms were not to be critically analyzed but warmly embraced—the problem of logical contradiction being another Eurocentric standard.

Undoubtedly, cultures differ in what they consider to be right (some engage in genital mutilation and slavery) and ethical judgments are often difficult to make. However, not all acts condoned by a society are morally defensible. Exploiting Native Americans along the Dakota Access Pipeline, shifting the cost of climate change onto future generations, and placing toxic waste dumps in impoverished neighborhoods are wrong. These are not “alternative moralities” to the (allegedly) equally viable position that wealth and power confer moral superiority.

Those who ironically provided the opportunity for Trump to create his own facts and ethics (e.g., denying climate change and forcing an oil pipeline onto Indian land) meant well—as did many Unitarian Universalists who aligned with postmodern critiques. There are good reasons to object to scientism (the view that all knowledge comes through science) and the STEMtosterone-laden approach to solving environmental problems. Likewise, there are good reasons to consider other people’s beliefs about what is right and just.

We threw out the humanist baby with the hegemonic bathwater.

But as Unitarian Universalists worked to balance scientific rationality with the spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions, the pendulum swung far into transcendent mystery. We threw out the humanist baby with the hegemonic bathwater. We risk floating free from the anchor of reason and the rudder of science—and in so doing provide the opportunity for the currents of post-factual moral relativism to sweep us out to sea.

The natural and moral realms are complex. Transforming the impressionistic worlds of ecology and virtue into silhouettes is a mistake. But the existence of gray doesn’t mean the absence of black and white. We ought to cultivate humility, but being open-minded does not mean being empty-headed. That we don’t know everything doesn’t mean that we can’t know somethings: the glaciers of Wyoming are receding, and allowing lead to pollute the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, is wrong.

If only the people of Tuvalu could appeal to “alternative facts” as their island disappears. And if only an appeal to cultural relativism and a declaration of “America First” actually relieved us of moral responsibility to help the people of other nations. But “if only” is neither a political plan nor a moral position.