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Anxiety Culture: Anti-Perspectivism

Our rulers don't want us to think for ourselves on the most important questions

Frightened populations seem to want simple "truth". And ruling authorities have always been glad to provide it, via priests, political speechwriters, the media, etc.

Cognitive relativism, otherwise known as perspectivism, undermines authority's "truth," as it implies thinking for oneself on all matters. Not surprisingly, most forms of relativism/perspectivism are misrepresented, smeared and discredited by those who wish to maintain control.

Misrepresenting relativism

Relativism is sometimes misrepresented as a sort of spineless, anything-goes, chaotic, anarchic, immoral, weak, cowardly, degenerate free-for-all. Picture those old propaganda campaigns on the "dangers" of marijuana – you'll surely turn into a deranged axe-murderer… and, worse, a moral relativist (cue the screams/thunder horror soundtrack).

Cultural relativism is often portrayed as being irrational (philosophers who write in relativistic terms – eg Nietzsche, Foucault, etc – are called "irrationalists" by people who don't like them). Jamie Whyte's recent book on logical fallacies, Bad Thoughts, misrepresents relativism as something which contradicts facts:

"This [Cultural] Relativism about truth is inconsistent with some very well-known facts, such as the fact that the earth orbited the sun in 900AD. Cultural Relativism entails, on the contrary, that in 900AD the sun orbited the earth. This is what people believed, so it was then true."

Compare the above with a more accurate (in our opinion) version of cultural relativism:

In 900AD, most people thought it "true" that the sun orbited the earth. Cultural relativism says that since this "truth" was dropped following cultural changes (eg scientific advances), how can we be certain that the current "truth" won't also be dropped (eg by future science).

Everyday Perspectivism

"Is it true you ate all the doughnuts?" We don't answer everyday questions by explaining that truth is relative. But everyday "truth" can be seen as relative to the extent we're not infallible in our perceptions – eg "true, as far as I'm aware." (The probability of our perceptions misleading us might seem small, but it isn't zero).

Moral Relativism

It's in the "moral" realm that relativism is most bitterly attacked and misrepresented. For example, it's often claimed that moral relativism removes all grounds for objecting to cruelty, slavery, malice, etc. In fact, relativism doesn't remove all grounds for opposing such things – just absolutist grounds. You can object to cruelty, etc, on the grounds that you abhor suffering – no need to invoke moral absolutes (such as "evil").

It's also argued that perspectivism allows each individual to decide what is "right" and "wrong", and that this is a "bad" thing. But why is it a "bad" thing for individuals to decide such matters for themselves? Democracy doesn't require moral absolutism in order to outlaw slavery. It just requires a majority opposing slavery. Each individual is free to decide whether to oppose slavery, and on what grounds. That is, de facto, moral relativism/perspectivism.

Absolutist Control Systems

Authority (in the sense of established power) requires "absolute" truths that aren't open to question. Most authorities seem to hate perspectivism because it undermines the very thing that authority rests upon.

Take one example: market fundamentalism. This has elevated certain economic beliefs into absolute "truths" (eg the "truth" that maximising profit must take precedence over everything else, to achieve the ultimate good, economic growth).

To question such "truths" is to undermine the authority of those who derive power from the market system. If you work for a corporation, you can test this by telling your boss that you're going to take it easy at work, because you question the idea that maximising shareholder profit must take precedence over your quality of life as an employee. (You could also point out that it's possible to work profitably for a company without working to maximise profits – especially on the low pay most people receive).

A sure sign that you're dealing with the type of authority which rests on absolute "truths" is that you're made to feel like some kind of blasphemer, lunatic or criminal, just for raising reasonable questions.

Perspectivism in action – questioning the "truths" of authority – is discouraged at an early age (eg in school), often with crude behaviourist reward/punish techniques. It's not surprising that social reaction to relativism/perspectivism is often viscerally hostile.

Untrue Claims of Absolute "Truth"

"Light travels faster than sound. This is a scientific discovery, and it is true. It is pointless to add that it is absolutely true, since truth is always absolute." (Jamie Whyte, Bad Thoughts)

For a truth to be labelled "absolute" you need total certainty that it will never be refuted (or amended, qualified, reworded, etc). Anything less would mean changing the truth's status from "absolute" to "relative" (or "provisional").

Karl Popper claimed the only way to prove a scientific discovery "absolutely true" is to carry out an infinite number of experiments. But some anti-relativists claim Popper was an "irrationalist". However, Stephen Hawking (who isn't often accused of being irrational), says:

"Any physical theory is always provisional ... you can never prove it. No matter how many times the results of experiments agree with some theory, you can never be sure that the next time the result will not contradict the theory." (Hawking, A Brief History of Time)

In other words, science can't provide "absolute truth". And if science (arguably the most "objective" method we have) can't give absolute truth, you shouldn't expect it from [insert your favourite authority here].

Absolutes aren't necessary for us to function. Most scientists realise that Newton's laws of motion are not absolute truths, but they work okay for getting people to the moon and back.

"Each society has its regime of truth… that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; […] the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true." (Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge)

This document is a print version of www.anxietyculture.com/perspec.htm. It can be freely distributed for non-commercial uses, but copyright applies otherwise.