The Hot Potato

Invoking relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep doing it?

One of the ideas that Douglas Murray comes back to time and again in The Madness of Crowds is the backward relationship within contemporary progressivism between confidence and evidence. When it comes to identity politics, Murray points out that lack of scientific or biological or mathematical data is not a problem for many activists. They simply ignore it; or, they pit experience and felt needs against cold, inhumane information, and ask audiences which of these is more likely to keep people oppressed. In the emerging social justice culture the level of certainty always exceeds the amount of rational justification. This is why people can lose their livelihoods or even be criminally prosecuted for believing in something that no serious consensus disputes—the categories of male and female, for example.

Certainty is a strange thing. In a religiously postmodern era it is fashionable to cast certainty as the enemy. Aren’t all we just giving our best guess? Yet as postmodernism gives way to the kind of New Morality that Murray documents in his book, one wonders whether the death of certainty hasn’t been greatly exaggerated. From where I’m sitting it doesn’t look people are capable of living without it. Even the most irreligious groups need an unshakeable framework that imputes meaning into their lives and beliefs. For many who’ve been shaped by western higher education, that framework is social justice.

Yet even the critics of social justice mania cannot cleanly critique certainty. For one thing, almost every opponent of outrage mobs and shout down chants believes with certainty that free speech is an absolute good. At the very least they believe with certainty that people ought to be able to hold unpopular ideas and a job at the same time. Now those open-minded philosophers who extol doubt and portray the life well lived as one of never knowing what’s above are in a real pickle: If certainty is the enemy, then we can’t be certain that those who wield certainty to suppress their opponents are certainly wrong.

I thought about this after listening to a “deconversion” narrative by podcasting duo Rhett and Link. Alisa Childers also listened to it and she put the issue well:

After poking holes in Christianity, Rhett offered no plausible alternative to explain reality. When he jumped the Christian ship, he didn’t jump into another boat, but into a “sea of uncertainty.” His Christianity has been replaced with what he calls “openness and curiosity.” He describes how liberating it’s been to let go of the “appetite for certainty.” To the careful observer, it’s evident that Rhett has traded in one worldview for another: Christianity for postmodernity, with all its skepticism, denial of absolutes, and relativism.

Except it’s not actually relativism, right? As Rhett rattles off the list of scientific discoveries he made that his childhood Christianity could not explain, he didn’t sound very relativist. He didn’t sound like a true patron of uncertainty. The scientific research he had read was not vulnerable in the presence of “openness.” Despite the plaintive word picture of a person exchanging rigid dogma for a peaceful, relaxing float on the river of discovery, what’s actually happened is that Rhett is certain of something he wasn’t certain of before: That Christianity isn’t true. The buzzwords of openness and curiosity obscure the reality of a door slamming shut.

What’s most interesting to me is not how often people decide that the religion they were raised in is not true. It’s how often people sand over their definitive religious or ideological transformations with language about “openness” and “curiosity.” It reminds me very much of transgender activists on a college campus, screaming “Who are you to judge” while they campaign to get an administrator fired and harass his or her family. The nod to relativism has never been more performative and less genuine in culture than it is right now. So why do we keep offering it?

My only theory is that in the current intellectual climate, the best way to bring someone over to your side is not to try to convince them they’re wrong, but convince them they’re irrelevant. “Look, I’m not saying I’m right, I’m just saying I’m open and curious and you’re not.” Who wants to hear that? Ours is the era not of debates and arguments but of epistemological hot potato: whoever carries the baggage of certainty for too long loses. Here’s how you win: Say you’re not sure, then act as if you are. You’ll avoid the existential crisis of having no center, and best of all, you’ll seal yourself off from almost any critique. Define yourself as open, and everybody else gets closed automatically.