In 1987, the American philosopher Allan Bloom opened his withering dissection of the faults of the higher education system, The Closing of the American Mind, with the observation of the triumph of relativism. "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of," he remarked, "almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative." In the face of the various claims to truth and the divergent ways of life that characterise modern society, higher education had responded, Bloom argued, by promoting the idea that the real danger was the true believer. This, he noted with bitter irony, was "the great insight of our times."
According to multiculturalism, the study of history and of culture teaches that all the world was mad in the past; that wars, slavery, xenophobia, racism, and chauvanism all derived from the fact that men in any given place invariably thought they were wiser and better than men elsewhere. The multiculturalist's goal, then, is not to correct the mistakes and to really be right; rather it is not to think you are right at all.
Bloom's observation not only continues to be confirmed, but relativism has become institutionalized in the higher education sector and is now taught as a formal doctrine. This is accomplished both through broad intellectual tendencies such as postmodernism and poststructuralism as well as in particular curriculum areas such as cultural studies, anthropology, literary theory, women's studies, the sociology of science, and the history and philosophy of science.
One of the intellectual devices by which this has been accomplished is through a change in the meaning of the term "culture." Until recent decades, this term was widely used in the sense established by Matthew Arnold in his great nineteenth-century tract, Culture and Anarchy, where it meant "the best that has been thought and said." His concept of artistic excellence and of its critical appreciation by an educated elite provided the principal rationale for the teaching of the humanities for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century.
At the same time, however, the discipline of anthropology had its own meaning for the term. Anthropologists used culture in the sense defined by the nineteenth-century German romantic movement, by which it meant the whole way of life of a distinct people. As academic politics after the 1960s succumbed to a fierce kind of egalitarianism in which excellence and elitism became pejorative terms, the Arnoldian definition lost its position. The belief that all cultures were equal took its place.
This notion of cultural relativism entailed a radical re-thinking of Western intellectual life. In aesthetic criticism, it meant traditional standards had to be jettisoned. Italian opera could no longer be regarded as superior to Chinese opera. The theatre of Shakespeare was not better than that of Kabuki, only different.
In political thought, the pursuit of universal values such as human rights became suspect. Rather than principles that were eternal or self-evident, cultural relativists said these values were bound by their own time and space. They were simply the ethno-centric products of the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. Instead of "human rights," the fashionable term became "social justice." Human rights not only derive from the West but they have also been written down in declarations and laws, so it is possible to check what they mean. "Social justice" lacks these qualities, but this gives it the advantage of meaning whatever one wants it to mean. Moreover, there is no way of ever telling when it is satisfied. Social justice thus offers an unlimited vista of political appeal.
The major problems for the acceptance of cultural relativism have come from its source in anthropology. Cultural practices from which most Westerners instinctively shrink, such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, the incineration of widows, and female genital mutilation, have had to be accorded their own integrity, lest the culture that produced them be demeaned.
The reality is that if all cultures are relative, then we are faced with moral nihilism. If values are always expressions of something called culture, and there are no universal moral principles, then no culture can itself be subjected to any values, because there could be no trans-cultural values to stand in judgement over any particular culture. Cultural relativism, in short, approves any cultural practice at all, no matter how barbaric. It is a philosophy of "anything goes."
Moreover, cultural relativists are faced with two other unresolvable dilemmas. They endorse as legitimate other cultures that do not return the compliment. Some other cultures, of which the best known is Islam, will have no truck with relativism of any kind. The devout are totally confident of the universalism of their own beliefs, which derive from the dictates of God, an absolute authority who is external to the world and its cultures. They regard a position such as Western cultural relativism as profoundly mistaken and, moreover, insulting. Relativism devalues their faith because it reduces it to merely one of many equally valid systems of meaning. So, entailed within cultural relativism is, first, an endorsement of absolutisms that deny it, and, second, a demeaning attitude to cultures it claims to respect.
Adapted from: "The Cultural War on Western Civilization," by Keith Windschuttle (January 2002).