Monday, July 2, 2018

The Trouble with Relativism

From a comment on a social media post advocating that we stop protesting people with Trump hats:
"The trouble with refusing to serve someone because you abhor their views, is that tomorrow someone else will do the same thing to you."

Here was my response:
That's like saying we have to tolerate everything in order to support tolerance. We don't. As Popper said, "We should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant." It's not that one principle has to govern all actions, but that we have to look at the use of the principle and decide from there. Someone with a Nazi armband can be ousted from a restaurant by the owner because they clearly and openly advocate harm to a group of people, which we can all agree is heinous and wrong. But someone with a rainbow shirt isn't advocating harm to anyone; they just want to be allowed to exist. So refusing them service should cause an outrage. 

This is an increasing problem with relativist views. I see it in my students often who really want everyone to be right all the time. "He's not wrong; he just has a different idea." But there can be right and wrong ideas. In fact, there HAS to be. We have to all agree that holding a view that harming other people based on their group affiliation is just plain wrong. People who hold that immoral view have to be TOLD they're wrong over and over by everyone they meet.

Or else. If that view gains traction, which it is, then we KNOW the path our society could take. It's up to us, right now, to stop it in its tracks.

ETA in brief:

Her: Allowing the state to dictate what we're allowed to do or not allowed to do is advocating totalitarianism.

Me: That's a slippery slope. Canadians have lived with hate crime laws on the books for decades without becoming totalitarian in nature. We are able to stop discrimination without lumping in non-discriminatory actions. It is possible to create a clear line.

For the Popper quote, see Notes to Chapter 7, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, or page 544 of this PDF.


Larry Hamelin said...

I should probably read The Open Society, but I suspect Popper is delving into a philosophical pseudo-problem. Tolerance per se isn't a virtue, it's a tool: we should tolerate the tolerable and condemn the intolerable. We should, for example, tolerate homosexuality not because tolerance itself is a virtue but because homosexuality is tolerable. We should not tolerate racism because racism is intolerable. We can disagree about what is tolerable and what is intolerable, but arguing on the basis that tolerance itself is a virtue is absurd.

Never mind hate speech or hate crime laws, the notion that "[a]llowing the state to dictate what we're allowed to do or not allowed to do is advocating totalitarianism" is absurd on its face. First, that's what the state is for. The state dictates, for example, that we are not allowed to arbitrarily kill each other. More importantly, even in a democratic republic, the state is not some exogenous entity: it is part of society, and the individuals in that society have considerable influence on what the state can and cannot dictate.

Marie Snyder said...

@Larry - Absolutely! Unfortunately neither I nor another commenter could convince the original poster. As we tag-teamed her, trying to explain this idea in a variety of ways, she shut us up with, "LOL round and round we go!" because obviously she is either unwilling or unable to see the reason behind our arguments.

Larry Hamelin said...

Of course you couldn't. You can't reason a person out of a position they didn't reason themselves into.

But the larger issue is, I think, just the idea that tolerance by itself is a virtue is not really tenable.

"The trouble with refusing to serve someone because you abhor their views, is that tomorrow someone else will do the same thing to you." Well, duh. Of course they will. We might as well say that the "trouble" with disagreeing with someone is that tomorrow someone else will disagree with you. The trouble with voting against someone is that someone else will vote against you.

If, for example, Sarah Huckabee Sanders is a good person, then it was a terrible thing to deny her service; if she's a terrible person, it was good to deny her service. To say that it's bad per se to deny her service regardless of whether she's a good person or a terrible person is nonsense.

I expect people who think I'm terrible to try to ostracize me. If they really believe I'm terrible, then it would be cowardice to refuse to confront me. I don't expect to live without conflict. One of the reasons I try not to be a terrible person is precisely so people don't ostracize me.

Marie Snyder said...

Yes, you've got at the crux of the problem.