Compassion and the Enduring Influence of Relativism

One thing which makes relativism hard to challenge is that not so many people are conscious relativists. Few people will claim to believe that there is no absolute truth, or that morality is culturally relative, or that reality is individual and subjective. Saying things like “true for you but not for me” has become much less common, probably in part due to the effort of Christian apologists and even secular thinkers to combat this pernicious idea. However, the influence of relativism in popular culture is far from gone. Many of the ideas about religion and morality that people do absorb from the culture are relativistic ideas, but they are disguised. The relativistic views that are the most influential are implicit.

For example, take the following scene from Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Jon Ronson is a journalist with one foot in the world of film-making. He wrote the The Men Who Stare At Goats which was later adapted into a film. He wrote The Psychopath Test and was one of the screenwriters in the Netflix film Okja. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed explores several modern cases of severe online public shaming of individuals, sometimes for trivial provocations, and other times, for real wrongs. In the course of his exploration of public shaming, Ronson takes a look at the notion of shame itself and at a group therapy initiative that attempts to eradicate shame by practicing “radical honesty”. To them, radical honesty means being completely transparent about whatever you’re thinking or feeling in the moment (which is a bad definition of honesty). Ronson joins the group for a session or two. At one point, things escalate after Ronson refuses to take the “Hot Seat”, which involves becoming the center of the group’s questions and comments and having to respond in a “radically honest” way. Ronson refuses and everybody gets angry with him. Being “radically honest”, they have no problem telling him how angry they are. This causes things to escalate. Some people accuse him of being cowardly and of being condescending. In the course of this, Ronson gets angry himself. But the focus of my thoughts will be something Ronson says in the course of his anger. It is what he says to morally criticize what they are doing that peaks my interest:

There is nothing I dislike more in the world than people who care more about ideology than they do about people. You swamped me with a tidal wave of Brad’s ideology.[1]

So Ronson gets shouted at by the group as a result of their ideology of radical honesty. Ronson responds to this by saying that they have regarded their ideology as being more important than people, namely himself. Why does shouting at him mean that they regard their ideology as more important than him as a person? Presumably, because shouting at him causes pain. But notice that Ronson is doing exactly what the “radically honest” interlocutors are doing but in the name of a different ideology. Like the radical honesty group, Ronson has his own ideas about what is good and right ( his ideology) and he is prepared to shout angrily at people in the name of this ideology. He is doing precisely what he is condemning the radical honesty group for doing in the very act of condemning them. He can say that their ideology is wrong and that his ideology is right, but he cannot say that they are being ideological in what they believe to be good and right, and that his own beliefs about what is good and right is not “ideology.” He cannot maintain that he is allowed to shout at people in the name of his own ideas about good and right, while others are not allowed because they are being “ideological”, because that is hypocritical and self-defeating. He can say that they are not allowed to shout, because their ideas are wrong. Clearly, it is wrong to shout at people in the name of wrong ideas. But popular culture has trained people to think that this type of thinking is arrogant in that you believe yourself to have “the truth” and everyone else is wrong. Everybody with any idea about what is true and good does this, including relativists, which means that if it is arrogant, everybody is arrogant. Relativists reserve for themselves a place outside of the moral universe from which they view it and judge those within it. They don’t apply their own rules to themselves.

Relativistic views often involve the defender of them in hypocrisy and self-defeating statements, because relativistic ideas are normally self-contradictory. You cannot avoid having an ideology. An ideology is just a set of ideas about what is true and right. If Ronson believes that one should not make ideology more important than people, then that is his ideology. If the measure of people making their ideology more important than other people, is shouting at them or causing them pain, then doesn’t that mean Ronson has also made his ideology more important than people in shouting at them? There will come a time in any ideology of the good when you will have to hold people accountable to it, and that will never be a pleasant affair. People are going to get hurt. But it is unavoidable. You can set up humane and compassionate rules for how that accountability process has to take place, but if a community is going to be a moral community, there must, at least sometimes, be some sort of community sanction.

The moral motivation behind relativism has some legitimacy. Relativism in the West has been an attempt to inspire compassion to people with different ideas and values, but it is definitely a very wrong way to do it, that ultimately undermines true compassion. The concern is “ideological violence” but even the police are violent against individuals based on an ideology of what is good. The police and the officials of the criminal justice system believe that if people do certain things, they must be brought in front of a court to answer for and be sentenced for it, violently and coercively if necessary. The Allies were violent against the Nazis and their allies based on an ideology of the good. All violence is ideological. All violence presupposes that getting what the violence will get you is worth the violence. So one cannot pretend that the problem with violence or aggression is that it is ideological.  The only thing you reveal by complaining about “ideological violence” or ideological aggression is that you don’t agree with the ideology in the name of which violence or aggression is being perpetrated. But you are disagreeing in an irrational way.

The way to prevent people from killing each other in the name of their values is not to declare that there are no objective values or objective ideologies. The solution to illegitimate violence, aggression and malice is to take seriously the virtue of mercy. Mercy does not try to say that we can treat people well because they’ve not really done anything wrong ( as relativism does). That, in actual fact, undermines mercy and compassion, because it means that you can only treat someone well when you don’t believe them to have done anything wrong. This is the anti-mercy implication of LGBT activists claiming that you must approve of homosexuality in order to be compassionate to homosexuals. That is a complete inversion of what compassion means. Compassion precisely presupposes disapproval. If you can only be compassionate if you approve of people, then how are you supposed to treat people you disapprove of? And if you think like this, doesn’t that mean that you must then, of logical necessity, hate the people you disapprove of? If you believe that goodwill cannot coexist with disapproval, then your disapproval justifies, even necessitates, hatred. I think this lie is entrenched in the culture and will leave a bitter legacy.

Mercy accepts in an unqualified way that the person has done wrong, even severely wrong, and is fully responsible for it without making any excuses for them, and yet, offers benevolence and goodwill. This is the message of the cross of Christ. Jesus says in John 13:34:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Jesus loved us by not identifying us with our sin, but showing mercy and dying for us. If Jesus loved us this way, then we must love others that way too. Romans 5:8 says:

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

And so we must treat others. We must not sit in judgment on each other and attempt to punish each other. We must leave judgment and punishment to the throne of the Almighty, and then we must show mercy. Showing mercy does not mean failing to tell people they’re doing wrong, or not thinking them wrong when they do wrong. It means we can have goodwill and act benevolently to people even though they’re doing and believing wrong.

[1] Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, (New York: Penguin, 2015)  p. 173

One thought

  1. I essentially agree with your thoughts about relative rightness. I am frustrated with those who will not listen because they “know” what is right, which means you are wrong. There is no listening or appreciation for real differences. What keeps us from civil disagreement? Pride?, Fear?


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