American culture is infected with Relativism, the belief that everyone creates his or her own truth. In other words, that people don’t only have a right to their opinion—their opinions are necessarily right! At first thought, this notion seems eminently democratic and fair. It makes each individual the arbiter of fact and fiction, truth and error, wisdom and nonsense.
However, as Mortimer Adler noted*, this idea is as false today as it was when it was first proposed in Ancient Greece. The statement “every opinion is right” is itself an opinion. Therefore, its opposite, “every opinion is wrong,” must be equally valid. That is a contradiction, and the only way out of it is to acknowledge that we don’t create truth—we search for and, if we are fortunate, find it. In addition, the opinions we form along the way are correct only if they conform to the truth.
This perspective may cramp some people’s intellectual style, but it is actually a blessing because it reflects a fundamental principle that guides philosophy, science, history, and every other field of inquiry—the principle of contradiction, which states that an idea may not be both true and false at the same time and in the same way. This principle admonishes us not to merely assume that our ideas are sound, but instead to examine them critically before trusting them.
As a result of our culture’s ignoring this admonition and embracing Relativism, many Americans believe that whatever they think and feel must be true so they need not make any effort to examine it. Moreover, that they are justified in regarding other people’s disagreement as a personal attack on them.
The effects of these beliefs are everywhere evident. The following are among the most common and serious:
It has become increasingly difficult to have a meaningful discussion of moral (or other controversial) issues. More and more people are unwilling to apply objective standards, religious or philosophical, in the evaluation of human behavior. The reason? They believe they have an inalienable right, not only to their opinion, but to their own subjective truth.
The concept of excellence is fast losing its meaning. Relativism posits that all terms of evaluation—excellent, mediocre, fallacious, flawed, and so on—are hateful and psychologically harmful. Thus culture in general, and education in particular, has proclaimed that every performance is excellent in its own way. Today, education officials are pressured to abolish grading (“Give everyone an A”) and to make all games and sports cooperative rather than competitive so that everyone can be awarded a trophy.
The rule of law is widely regarded as unfair and even inhumane. The best example of this notion is the movement to abolish the distinction between legal and illegal immigration. The popular view among liberals and progressives is that everyone who crosses a country’s border, with or without permission, has the same rights as a citizen. From this perspective, laws regulating immigration are considered a violation of human rights. This view has led leaders in a number of cities to give sanctuary to people in this country illegally and even to claim biblical justification for doing so. Moreover, religious leaders, who should know better, are often their greatest supporters.
The meaning of tolerance has been radically changed. It used to mean respectful regard for and treatment of those with different views. Now it applies, in practice, only to people who agree with one’s point of view. Those who differ may be mocked, prevented from speaking, and even assaulted. (This may not seem a logical extension of relativism, but it is. If I believe my opinion has the status of truth, I am likely to consider opposing views as error and those who hold them as both malicious and threatening to me. And I need no other justification for this belief than my claim to being an arbiter of truth.)
A particularly nasty example of intolerance was the demonizing of the late Alan Colmes in Slate Magazine in an obituary column immediately after his death. Even though Colmes shared the author’s liberal perspective, the author still called him a “buffoon and patsy” and a “weakling” who was “absurd,” and “useless.”
Political correctness has displaced common sense in many instances. For example, it has created absurd standards on college campuses and elsewhere, such as regarding someone’s feeling of being offended as decisive proof that an offense occurred. The underlying idea for any such standard is the relativistic view that whatever one thinks or feels must be true. Given that view, the perfectly sensible argument that the “aggrieved” person may have misinterpreted the event, or imagined an offense where there was none, is automatically disallowed.
An example of politically correct thinking that has occupied campus officials, state and federal legislatures, the media, and the courts is the transgender bathroom issue. If it were not for the scientifically ludicrous—and thoroughly relativistic—notion that a person’s actual gender is whatever he or she feels it to be on any specific occasion, the issue could have been decided by a simple, common sense rule: “Anyone whose felt gender does not match his or her birth gender should use the private restrooms designated family or men/women.”
Journalism’s ethical tradition is ignored by many journalists. That tradition demanded that reporting be objective and commentary fair. But journalists have been influenced by relativism in the general culture and, in many cases, in their journalism classrooms. They therefore tend to believe that they need not seek and find truth—they can instead create it merely by forming opinions. From that idea it is but a short step to the conviction that, as possessors not just of ideas but of truth itself, they have a right—indeed, an obligation—to propagate that truth and to combat all ideas that challenge it. That conviction, alas, is the mother of bias.
America faces many serious and complex issues. Whether or not we resolve them will depend on many factors, but among the most important is the mindset that influential people (and, indeed, all of us) bring to the task. Unless we find ways to counter the influence of Relativism and infuse our culture with the common sense view of truth and reality, right and wrong, and responsibility, we are not likely to succeed.
*Mortimer Adler, The Great Ideas: A Lexicon of Western Thought (New York: Macmillan, 1992), p. 595.
Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved.
VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America’s Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.