Monday, April 30, 2007

Which Clash Of Civilisations?

In the Guardian recently, Julian Baggini considers the moral vacuum that has been created between relativism and dogma.

The clash of civilisations is happening not between Islam and the west, as we are often led to believe, but between pragmatic relativism and dogmatic certainty. [...] How did we get to this dismal Hobson's choice? The finger of blame has to be pointed largely at academics and intellectuals who have been so keen to debunk popular notions of truth that they have created a culture in which the middle ground between shoulder-shrugging relativism and dogmatic fundamentalism has been vacated. [...] Perhaps the most powerful idea to filter through from the universities to the streets was articulated by Foucault, who adapted and popularised the Nietzschean idea that what passes for truth is actually no more than power. There are no facts, only attempts to impose your view on the world by fixing it as "The Truth". This idea is now so mainstream that even a conservative like Donald Rumsfeld could complain about those who lived in the "reality-based community", arguing "that's not the way the world really works anymore ... when we act, we create our own reality."

EoR is impressed by Donald Rumsfeld channelling Deepak Chopra while demonstrating the power of the Nonsecret.

Baggini argues that this postmodernist inspired relativism has, in fact, widened the gap from dogma and made dogma more attractive because of its unflinching certainty:

Far from making liberal openness more attractive, such denials actually make it appear empty, repugnant and weak compared to the crystalline clarity and certainty of dogma.

Baggini concludes:

They owe us an apology for failing to either see themselves, or make it clear to others, that in the everyday world we can and must distinguish truth and falsity, right and wrong, even if on close examination these terms do not mean what we thought they did. Science may not be God-like in its objectivity, but it is not just another myth. Moral values must be questioned, but if discrimination against women, homosexuals or ethnic minorities is wrong here, then it is wrong anywhere else in the world. Truth may not be the simple phenomenon we assume it to be, but falsehoods must be challenged.

Unless we can make a convincing case that the choice is not between relativism or dogmatism, more and more people will reject the former and embrace the latter. When they do, those who helped create the impression that modern, secular rationality leaves everything up for grabs in the marketplace of belief will have to take their share of the blame.

Which really, EoR suspects, the vast majority of the population would agree with. You don't regularly see alties walking across busy highways because "they create their own reality". Instead they check for an opening in the traffic first. You don't regularly see alties stepping out of tenth floor windows because "they create their own truth". They take the lift. You do, however, see alties regularly taking homeopathic water, having needles stuck in indeterminate and nonexistent "meridians", and having nonexistent "auras" smooth and placated. Because "they create their own reality and truth".

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