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Relative Vs. Absolute

Battle of Symbols

Relative Vs. Absolute

"The Pentagon as a legitimate target? I actually don’t have an opinion on that."

David Westin, President
ABC News

The concept of freedom has a symbolic correspondence to the cultural phenomenon of postmodernism and its rejection of universal absolutes and so-called "meta-narratives." In a large sense, relativism is the cultural manifestation of the political ideology of freedom just as absolutes and universals are manifestations of the political ideology of equality in a cultural context.

As we suggest above, freedom and equality have long served as symbols of western (freedom) and eastern (equality) civilizations which found historic embodiment in American culture. The cyclic battles between the two have formed a ubiquitous, hidden subtext of American history. Twentieth century American history witnessed the contemporary expression of this cycle and its movement from equality to freedom. The final two decades of the twentieth century saw the steady decline of equality and rise of freedom. In economic, market terms, the change has been from a mass market to segmented, niche markets. Three television networks became five hundred cable channels. A few types of soup broke into fifty flavors. Magazines became customized for smaller and smaller audiences.

The 90s in America saw the mixture of French postmodernism ideas with the cyclic movement towards freedom in the world’s longest and greatest experiment in capitalism. Whether postmodernism invaded and infiltrated American academia or was simply a useful ideological explanation in the right place at the right time, is debatable.

Whatever the case, the greatest extension of the symbol of freedom was represented by America in the 90s and on September 11, 2001 it stood directly against the Islamic culture, representing perhaps the greatest symbol of equality in modern world history.

Both freedom and equality, though, had been changed through the years. Somehow, the darker unconscious "shadow" qualities of both symbols had hijacked the symbols. The freedom from oppression that America’s founders had fought so hard for had now become little more than a justification for a relativistic culture of extreme capitalism, market populism and "feelings" with a decaying sense of ethics and morality. Freedom for many Americans no longer meant the freedom to escape oppression and begin a new life but rather the freedom to go the mall at any hour and buy any product or drive the biggest SUV possible. Events like the OJ Simpson trial, the Clinton affair and the post-Presidential battles of November 2000 reinforced the idea that everything was relative … and free, attached to no "meta-narratives" of morality.

Likewise, the better qualities of equality that the Prophet Mohammed brought to a segmented culture fourteen hundred years ago was being mixed into a dangerous new "virus" of religious totalitarianism.

What will be the long term effects of the events of September 11th on the battle between relativism and absolutism, those dark shadow siblings of freedom and equality? Will a new light of truth shine on them and bring them out of the shadows? Will cycles in both east and west civilizations continue along their natural paths with the return to equality in America and a new understanding of freedom in the Islamic world?

Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a leading postmodernist scholar, discusses the events of September 11th and postmodernism. In the article "Condemnation Without Absolutes" from The New York Times (10/15/2001) he writes:

"During the interval between the terrorist attacks and the United States response, a reporter called to ask me if the events of Sept. 11 meant the end of postmodernist relativism. It seemed bizarre that events so serious would be linked causally with a rarefied form of academic talk. But in the days that followed, a growing number of commentators played serious variations on the same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern intellectuals have weakened the country's resolve. The problem, according to the critics, is that since postmodernists deny the possibility of describing matters of fact objectively, they leave us with no firm basis for either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back."

Fish speculates whether the atrocities of September 11th ushered in the end of the postmodern age of relativism. Rather than answer it, like any good postmodernist, he turns the question into another element of relativism by suggesting it depends on how one defines it:

"Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger."

So it depends on how one defines relativism. The question is relative so of course it follows that the answer is also relative. One is reminded of another phrase by a recent American leader: "It depends on what is is." In the verbal high jinks Fish plays, the question of whether convictions are even sustainable in a relativistic culture in the first place, not to mention whether some obtain the "privilege" of being "preferred" over others, is somehow lost. One ends up playing ball in the park Fish builds rather than building one’s own ballpark.

In the process, Fish changes the moral relativism of postmodern freedom into a method for understanding by offering a new "preferred" definition:

"But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought."

A good thought in some ways but postmodern relativism in America has never meant this and there is little hope that it ever will.

More than a type of "walk a mile in my shoes" mentality the hyper-extension of freedom in America has created a narcissistic "bowling alone" attitude. The freedom of any conviction and at the same time no enduring convictions. The shadow face of freedom.

It faces the shadow force of a world culture with one absolute conviction. There is little freedom to prefer certain convictions over others.

The ultimate sadness might be that only the lesser unconscious shadow qualities of each of the grand symbols of freedom and equality – that is relativism and absolutism - will end up going into battle against each other while conscious truth and goodness of the main symbols are relegated to little more than feeble cheerleaders on the sidelines of the coming battle.

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