We start awake. A strange figure moves towards us in the dark.
“It’s a tiger!” you whisper “It’s about to pounce on our son as he sleeps across from us!” Carefully, you aim your rifle at the advancing shadow.
“Stop!” I cry. “It’s our son, returning to his sleeping bag. Don’t shoot!”
“How can you risk giving the benefit of the doubt to a tiger? A tiger killed our other child!”
“How can you not give the benefit of doubt to our child?”
“If I wait another second” you say “the tiger will spring and our son will be killed.”
“If you do not wait,” I say, “you will shoot your son.”
Kaki asked me recently to explain the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Even managing to resist the temptation to be flippant, I found it harder than I would have thought. Policy differences are too complex and biased explanations led to questions that are even harder to answer, like “why would anybody believe that?”
Talking to kids requires you to think on the fly, and the answer that finally satisfied her was more about differing world views than political parties. I told her that some people believe there is only one right way to act and other people think there are more than one answer to the same question. I told her, basically, that Republicans are absolutists and that Democrats tend towards moral relativism. I’m not entirely happy with the answer, even beyond its obvious over-simplification, but I can’t quite dismiss it as pabulum either.
More and more the thing I am most interested in are these tensions between the dichotomous points of a polarity. The people who fascinate me are those who maintain, within themselves, a continuum between typically mutually exclusive traits- the stable artist, the driven hippy, the conservative intellectual, but here I am in binary again. There is one or there is not one. No correct perspective, one correct perspective. Absolutism toggled on and off, and I am deeply bothered by this.
Articulating the light and shadow attribute of two diametrically opposed worldviews was an interesting exercise:
Absolutism- fanatic, certain, judgmental, in action, hubristic, heroic, confident, reactionary
Relativism- compassionate, uncertain, humble, equivocal, humanistic, pacifistic, hesitant
Absolutism- There is one correct perspective
Relativism- There are many correct perspectives.
Absolutism- There is one correct perspective and I am correct in my attempts to bring all persons into alignment with it.
Relativism- There are many correct perspectives and I am correct in allowing all persons to choose between them as suits their particular circumstance and situation as long as their choice does not impinge upon my own choices or the choices of others.
Absolutism- There is one correct perspective and I am correct in trying to spread the freedom of democracy and the wealth of modernization to everyone who is oppressed or poverty-stricken.
Relativism- There are many correct perspectives and no one perspective is any more correct than any other so I am correct in allowing every perspective to flourish and am free to judge none inferior.
The clash between Bush and Bin Laden is absolutist against absolutist. Each believes with absolute conviction that the other is evil. The clash between Bush and Bin Laden against me is that they are certain and I am not. Just because they lack my hesitation I am unlikely to win. I know I oppose both their absolutism, but relativism is anti-absolutism and not inherently, pro anything more dynamic than careful deliberation and consensus. Absolutism is cheerful pro-Itself and has a tremendous speed advantage. Relativism can walk around looking at a situation from so many perspectives it ends up dizzy.
Democrats end up being the ones who’d rather risk inaction than be guilty of absolutism and Republicans end up being those who’d rather risk taking the wrong action than no action at all. And it ends up sounding almost like a personality thing. Do you shoot first and ask questions later at the risk of shooting an innocent man? Do you wait till you’re certain the person advancing intends to do you harm and risk allowing him to land the first punch? Or the first- and likely only- gunshot? Would you rather be guilty or dead? And for a group that tends not to be heavily church-going, it’s the democrats like me who’d rather risk death than sin.
A relativist may have a highly evolved personal morality, but feels very uncomfortable imposing it on anyone else. An absolutist will believe his morality is universal and correct and not only have no trouble at all holding others to that morality but believe that failing to do so abets evil. But relativists tip their own hand. We may not be certain what is right for the world, but we damn well know it’s not the unilateral morality of the absolutists. If there is no point from which we can see what is moral for all people and in all situations, we can at least see that the belief that one has such knowledge is erroneous, and on that point we are absolute. As a relativist, I am an absolutist that absolutists are wrong. Oh dear. Oh, my!