Relative Absolutes

Seems some of the conversation in the ‘comments’ area is getting a little sidetracked by some really old cunundrums. Please allow me to try and help, while clarifying some of my own positions.

There’s a dangerous misperception, held by a lot of people, that ethical contentions and open-mindedness are mutually exclusive. There’s some truth this notion. (See? That’s my relativism showing…) People who want to be tolerant of every point of view often find themselves lost in a relativistic haze. They follow the logic of infinite tolerance and end up in a place where they have to think, “well, Hitler must have had a real beef with the Jews if he was so mean to them. Let’s find out what was really bothering him, and then just address it.” Or, “how is it really better to be a citizen of a country that promotes bad labor conditions in the third world, than to shoot up a classroom filled with children of that country’s citizens…?”

Once people get that far into relativism (or post-modernism, or abstractness, or existentialism, or a lot of other systems of thought that can lead one astray if they aren’t more careful about their method of engagement) they tend get scared, and come running back the other way. Into absolutism. A lot of the ‘born-again’ Christians and Jewish ‘returnees’ I know are people who grew intolerant of the moral relativism that seems to be implicit in these systems of thought. It’s hard to live in a world without some certain metrics – measures, gradients for progress. An absolute to hang one’s conceptual hat on.

Likewise, many people take the reverse journey. They might have been raised in a strict, exclusive religious faith or racist doctrine – told to believe that their one, singular path is the only path, and that everyone else is damned. Eventually, something happens that just can’t fit into this absolutist scenario – a personal tragedy, or the person meets one of the ‘damned’ and falls in love, or the person finds out he or she is gay, or creative, or a revolutionary or compassionate with all living beings – and the whole perfect model cracks. They find themselves thrown in the other direction, refusing to accept any ethical template, even provisionally.

I’ve attempted to find a way of occupying the middle ground between these two seemingly irreconciliable world views. I like to think of all points of view as provisional – as models for the way the world works. We each have our own models – we can’t understand reality without them. That’s why I like RA Wilson’s notion of “reality tunnels.” (See Lacan, the psychologist, for more on this idea.) We can’t help but see the world through the model we have developed for it.

That’s not a terrible thing, as long as we understand that it’s going on. We accept that our perception of reality and “reality” are different things. And we accept that everyone has his or her own model, and that this model might conflict with our own. Problems arise when we mistake our model for the absolute truth – for when one person’s absolute truth conflict’s with another person’s absolute truth, there’s very little room for negotiation.

Again, where relativists get into trouble is when they insist that all models are equal. They are not. Scientific models, for example, prove their effectiveness by how accurately they can predict the behavior of events in the physical universe. Good social models generally help people get along better, not worse. In short, all narratives do not bring with them the same effects. Some are better than others at describing the world, predicting behavior, and even generating results that hurt less people.

You can believe in the notion of reality tunnels without abandoning your critical faculties or ethical template. You can come to the conclusion that nobody really knows God or the “truth” – that we can, at best, develop models for understanding such things – without abandoning the notion that there is a God, or that there is a truth. There’s just a lot of ways of seeing them.

Now, as for statehood. A brilliant Jewish philosopher named Spinoza – 1600’s – understood that states were, essentially, fictional constructs used to organize people. He also saw how, in order to maintain the sanctity of their states, monarchs adopted state religions, and invented – yes, invented – state ethnicities, so that people felt like they were part of the same club. This is really the main reason that Jews were expelled from so many places from the 1300-1700’s. Spinoza introduced the enlightenment concept that state and religion should be separated. (This progression of thought is brilliantly chronicled by Karen Armstrong in Battle for God, a crucial analysis of the imbalance between mythos and chronos that leads to fundamentalism.)

Some Jews, in the 1800’s, decided that it was the best course for Jews (who were hated, killed, and worse by new nationalists) to simply create a state of their own. This became known as “Zionism.” Zionism had many versions – some were religious in nature, and others were completely secular. I’ll get into more of that, later. At its best, in my view, Zionism was a way to create a provisional model for a “state” in which Jews would be free to live without fear of expulsion or extermination. At its worst, Zionism was a way to prepare for the coming of the messiah by occupying the lands of mythical Biblical Israel.

But this European-style Statehood is relatively new to the Middle East. So is the entire notion of “Arab” – invented by academics in France in the 1900’s to address post-colonialism in the region – but this is another long conversation. All I mean to point out is that the nations of the Middle East are stuck in an almost Jacobean era conception of state and race, and are suffering for having little experience with the dangers of state religions. The predicament is further mired by the widespread adoption of European-style anti-Semitism, revived by the Nazis but actually exported to the region by Stalin.

These primitive understandings of statehood, which are used to some extent by both sides in the current conflict, have led to an impasse that will be difficult to solve through rational political means.