Martin Amis arrived back in Britain to find white, middle-class demonstrators marching with "We are all Hizbullah" placards. "Well, make the most of being Hizbollah while you can," Amis writes, "As its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, famously advised the West: ‘We don’t want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you.’"
In answer to a reader’s question about the most depressing thing about returning to Britain Amis says :
People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist, and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead.
Of course we’ve been here before. Stalin’s orifice was a favourite gathering place for Fabian socialists like George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs. George Orwell was one of the few well-known socialists who didn’t mistake lies and delusion for loyalty and solidarity. Naturally, many of today’s writers are eager to be tomorrow’s Orwell.
Martin Amis’ father, Kingsley, had been a member of the communist party in his youth. So a few years ago his son wrote a non-fiction book about Stalin. titled Koba the Dread. This prompted James Heartfield to take a swipe at Amis in Spiked, "Poor old Martin," he said, "still arguing with his dad."
So what about Amis’s take on the stupefied placard wavers — is relativism really to blame?
Liberalism is constantly under attack for being a hypocritical ideology. When people defend liberal institutions against attacks by religious fundamentalists they are accused of being ethnocentric and intolerant — in other words not liberal. After all, say the critics, if members of all faiths and traditions have and equal right to practice their beliefs why aren’t Catholic MPs allowed to speak out against abortion and gay marriage? Why aren’t they allowed to ban them? Liberalism, according to this argument, is a repressive ideology. Worse still, it’s a repressive ideology that’s in denial about being a repressive ideology — it’s like a sleepwalker with a loaded gun.
If liberals fall for this argument they’ll find themselves actively campaigning for illiberal government. After all, if circumcising girls or hating Jews is a part of your culture or belief system then it would be intolerant and ethnocentric for liberals to tell you to stop. So, rather than be guilty of intolerance and ethnocentrism, these liberals invite their new illiberal friends to write their beliefs into law — they call this ‘democracy.’ And in a democracy, MPs should feel free to legislate for morality. As long as democracy is doing the repressing then it’s not really repression at all.
Liberal philosopher Richard Rorty doesn’t have much patience for the idea that liberalism demands tolerance of intolerance. If we start thinking this way:
We then find ourselves wondering whether our own bourgeois liberalism is not just one more example of cultural bias.
This bemusement makes us susceptible to the suggestion that the culture of Western liberal democracy is somehow "on a par" with that of the Vandals and the Ik. So we begin to wonder whether our attempts to get other parts of the world to adopt our culture are different in kind from the efforts of fundamentalist missionaries. If we continue this line of thought too long we become what are sometimes called "wet" liberals. We being to lose any capacity for moral indignation, any capacity to feel contempt. Our sense of selfhood dissolves. We can non longer feel pride in being bourgeois liberals, in being part of a great tradition, a citizen of no mean culture. We have become so open-minded that our brains have fallen out (p 203).
Rorty has no doubt that liberalism is a creation of Western culture. And he doesn’t deny that liberal institutions are sometimes imposed on unwilling citizens. But at the same time he doesn’t feel at all conflicted about this. The reason he doesn’t feel conflicted or hypocritical is because he’s a relativist.
Relativism is not the belief that all beliefs are equally valid. It is not the idea that we are never allowed to reject any idea as false. That isn’t relativism, it’s incoherence. Relativism is the idea that the truth or falsity of a statement is created in a similar way to the way a location is created by the grid lines on a map. A mountain that sits at E3 on one map might sit at H7 on another. What E3 or H7 mean depends on the system of grid lines. Or to put it another way — my claim that the mountain is at E3 is relative to grid system of the map I’m using. (And, just as an aside, it’s possible to have perfectly good ‘maps’ that don’t adhere to the usual conventions about representing space and distance.)
Of course if that was all there was to relativism then there’d be no real problem. Once you understand how any two grid systems work you can translate coordinates from one system to another. The thing that turns relativism into a problem is something called incommensurability. This is the idea that not only are there different systems for understanding and describing the world, but that it’s not possible to create translation manuals for every pair of systems.
If you’re not a relativist you’ll simply reject the possibility of incommensurability. Because readings from all truthful maps can be translated from one to another, there’s a sense in which they all share the same system. And if it’s not possible to translate, then one of the maps is wrong.
There are some people who don’t care about whether maps ‘tell the truth’ or not. All they care about is whether a particular map gets them to where they want to go. For example, Harry Beck’s famous London Underground map grossly distorts spacial relationships. It tells lies about how far away one station is from another. It flattens out the curves in the train lines and misaligns their directions. But as any pragmatic tube user will tell you, the Central Line isn’t really red and the Piccadilly Line isn’t really blue either. Big deal.
Some philosophers have the same attitude to belief systems. As long as the system is easy to use and lets you predict and control your environment to get what you want then metaphysical truth doesn’t matter. So far so good you might say. But don’t belief systems also tell you what to want? Don’t they show you how to tell the difference between good and bad?
And this is where relativism gets really controversial. Imagine you’d convinced yourself that there were no good arguments for one moral belief system over another. Does this mean that the rational thing to do is follow self-interest? Not really. What arguments are their for that moral belief system? So how about believing in nothing — nihilism? Again, the same answer. The real question is not what you should believe in but what you do believe in. And the answer to that will probably come from your cultural background. Or at least that’s what moral relativists would say.
If you think about morality in this way you won’t find any reason at all to tolerate other people’s belief systems. The only reason you could possibly have for tolerating another person’s belief system was that your belief system happened to be liberalism.
So relativism isn’t stupefying after all. In fact it’s mostly irrelevant. For philosophers like Rorty, the cross-cultural agony of ‘wet’ liberalism is a psychological rather than a philosophical problem. If someone wants to destroy your way of life why would you want to encourage them? You’d have to be crazy.