Believing all things are relative is considered the cool intellectual orientation, the popular presupposition. This philosophy is rooted in an assumption, that no matter the topic, everything is in constant flux, and all is random. Therefore, one’s perception, analysis and conclusions are temporal, driven by orientation, perspective, inherent biases and prejudice. This thinking has led to the idea that ‘truth’ is always evolving, that it is personal, individual, not universal. Therefore, each person can have his or her own ‘truth’ and no one should challenge that ‘truth.’
The contrary philosophical approach is to believe some things are absolute. People who believe in absolutes claim certain things are universal, irrefutable, ironclad, and eternal. Murder is always wrong for example. Other examples: gravity, love, selfishness, good, evil, death, God.
One might expect the relativists to be more open-minded given their free-thinking ways, and indeed they claim to be more flexible and tolerant and inclusive, because, after all, everything is relative, all is personal truth.
One might also expect absolutists to be less open-minded, more doctrinaire, less tolerant and more dictatorial, because after all, if something is absolute, there can be no argument.
Yet the strangest thing comes to mind observing these two general groups. In reality, the relativists show themselves far more intolerant and dictatorial that the absolutists. It shows up most glaringly whenever public policy is considered and discussed.
The vast majority of the time, watching representatives from each group interact, you find the relativist (R type) shouting down the absolutist (A type). Most of the time an R will rapidly go personal, hitting below the belt, emotionally, forgetting the rules of rational debate. On the contrary, most of the time you find an A trying to lay out a rational argument to explain a given point of view.
Imagine an R and an A interacting about abortion. The A type will invoke absolutes: God created humans, unborn babies are humans, they are innocent, killing them is murder. This position and these beliefs drive R types crazy. They go off on furious tirades in opposition. It often leads to violence anymore. Certainly, the hate speech and threats reside primarily with R Types, though it must be acknowledged that A types have sometimes allowed a sense of self-righteousness to drive them to kill or injure abortion doctors. Still there is no comparison between the respective rage barometers. R types are most often found insisting A types conform or be punished, a dictatorial impulse driven by absolutism!
Similar patterns are found any time people interact about homosexuality, same sex marriage, or climate change. Curiously, the R Types quickly forget about relativism, resorting instead to a new claim to absolutism. For them it is absolutely true that homosexuality is just another way to be human, an orientation that the homosexual cannot change any more than a black person can change skin color. Therefore, same sex marriage is absolutely a right and there is absolutely no justification for opposition. Furthermore, the debate is absolutely finished concerning climate change and anyone standing in opposition to the theory of man-made global warming is a denier, and worse, an enemy of the environment, an enemy of humanity, absolutely.
This thinking gives way to all kinds of punishments for straying from the orthodoxy of R types, even as claim the tolerance high ground but live in absolutism.
Meanwhile, A Types have attempted to interact with respectful debate, or they have compromised their former belief in absolutes to either accommodate the increasingly aggressive opposition, or to avoid conflict altogether.
The real tragedy in all this is Truth gets lost in the shuffle, and we wind up incapable of communicating on any constructive level. Rational inquiry in the search for solutions is totally lost. All becomes one clash after another. Either that or we shift between clashing and retreating to our group think gatherings, slandering the other side with more vitriol.
There remains an old saying that once held sway but is now virtually ignored: Let’s agree to disagree agreeably.
The trouble ultimately is A types have tended to vacate the debate arena and R types have assume an absolute right to conquer and dominate A types. This is a recipe for endless war, especially now that A types are moving back into the arena.
We either teach our kids to agree to disagree agreeably, or they’ll have to learn to stomach endless war, for when truth is negotiable and there is no common ground, war is absolute.