I've been hearing a particular term a lot lately. This term is actually many centuries old, but it seems that during the past two or three years or so, it's really gained popularity.
The term is 'moral relativism,' and it has been hijacked by Bill O'Reilly and his fellow hardcore, right-wing, often-Christian TV and radio blabbermouth types who splash it around like high-school swimming-pool bullies shoving chlorinated tsunamis into the eyes of defenseless nerdlings.
Like 'unpatriotic' and 'against the troops,' 'moral relativism' has become a term of bludgeoning and marginalization. It's usually employed when discussing hot-button issues like gay marriage, abortion, drugs, prostitution and/or pornography. Whenever anyone-usually of the liberal and libertarian ilk-defends such unwholesome activities, O'Reilly and other hardcore, right-wing, often-Christian blabbermouths announce that these defenders are 'moral relativists,' then shut off their microphones and shout them down to size.
Which is not only rude; it's also wrong. It's wrong because they are not using the term correctly. Moral relativism is not simply a synonym for tolerance.
Dictionary.com defines relativism as 'a theory that moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or cultures holding them.'
For example, if one culture maintains bestiality is taboo while another embraces it, the moral relativist concludes that neither is wrong. So whether yours is a system of democratic capitalists, theocentric autocrats or dog-fucking savages-it's all okie-dokie because there is no universal ethical code by which to measure them.
What I like about this worldview is that it recognizes the right of any society to set its own system of mores-that every culture knows what's best for itself because every culture is beholden to its own unique geographical, political and historical circumstances, which also happens to be the premise of America's (dying) emphasis on local government and states' rights.
Also attractive about moral relativism is that, by definition, it deters colonialism. When one culture believes itself to be superior to another, it uses that belief to justify invasions, assassinations, forced religious conversions and all the other predictable, colonialistic bullcrap these so-called superior societies pull on those they consider morally inferior.
The problem, however, is that when you follow relativism down its inevitable slope of slipperosity, you plummet into a dark and ugly paradox. Because, if it's true that anything any society does to itself is A-OK, then what about Adolph Hitler and his Holocaust? What about Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Pol-motherfucking-Pot? What about every tyrannical society that ever kneeled at the altar of the iron maiden? By definition, moral relativism concedes that tyranny and genocide are not amoral. And you're just not going to find too many people who subscribe to that worldview who don't have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on their MySpace friends list.
Indeed, I'm closer to a moral relativist than anyone I know. And the reason I say that is because, when asked the 'Was Adolph Hitler evil?' question, I am the only person I know who might consider answering, 'No, I do not believe Adolph Hitler was evil.'
Now, before you lurch off the toilet and howl in protest about the hideous remark I just made, let me say, in my defense, that I'm not a true moral relativist. A better label would be agnostic moral relativist. As with anything else, I think maybe it's true or maybe it isn't. But the reason I can even consider the potential non-evilness of a beast like Adolph Hitler is because I'm not quite certain that evil exists at all. I just wonder sometimes if the Holocaust and other acts of genocide aren't like tsunamis, or earthquakes, or disease, or computer hackers, or forest fires, or man-eating sharks, even. Yes they are destructive entities in this world, but destructive entities-whether designed intelligently or Darwinianly-are part of the ecosystem of the universe. So the question is, if something is vital to the ecosystem of the universe, how could it be wrong, immoral or evil?
Yeah, I know, it's an extreme position, but don't you wonder what would happen to the planet if all the bad people, the bad animals and the bad organisms disappeared and suddenly everything and everyone was good? I have a nagging suspicion that that would be very, very bad.
However, when I debate this position with my liberal or libertarian friends, all they ever hear are the words 'Hitler' and 'not evil,' then pounce on me like street thugs on a drunken tourist in the middle of the night. It is a position they cannot fathom, will not tolerate and loathe to their very core, which is exactly how I know there simply aren't that many moral relativists out there.
That's how I know the hardcore, right-wing, microphone-shutting blabbermouths are full of shit when they call a liberal or libertarian a moral relativist. Because your typical liberal or your typical libertarian does believe in right and wrong. It's just that their right and wrong is different from the right-wing blabbermouth's idea of right and wrong.
For instance, liberals and libertarians think it's wrong to discriminate against people based on their sexual preferences, wrong to criminalize a sexual business transaction between consenting adults, wrong to let the government dictate a woman's reproductive rights and ludicrous to suggest they lack morality. But isn't it always the same thing with the right-wing blabbermouths? Their idea of patriotism is the only idea of patriotism, their idea of family is the only idea of family, their idea of morality is the only idea of morality, and if you dare to argue, they sharpen their quiver of catchphrases and aim them at your face. This in itself is reason to consider them entities of pure evil. However, when they use the catchphrases incorrectly, well, that's evil and pathetic.
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