Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Why I am a relativist


Smartarse title, an echo of Melanie Phillips' 'Why I am a progressive' (really). I could call myself an Orwellian, but like Kafkaesque, that word has come to refer to the horrible things he exposed. So, 'relativist' it is.

The common expression in French, il faut relativiser, means more or less 'you have to look at things in perspective'. Sometimes,  as here, it could be translated as 'minimise'. Some examples from Le Monde's forum:

Cela dit, il faut remettre en perspective la période que nous venons de traverser et parfois relativiser des propos exagérés. [pas disponible]

[Relativiser Saddam, robert, 03/10/2003 18:30] Bien sûr qu'on peut relativiser, c'est ce qu'ont fait les dirigeants occidentaux pendant des années en soutenant Saddam contre l'Iran. Vous dites Saddam c'est l'abominable choléra mais les occidentaux l'ont préféré à la 'peste islamiste' pendant des années.

[Letel, 03/10/2003 22:35] Bien sûr que les puissances occidentales ont "relativisé" Saddam par rapport aux mollahs iraniens, en fonction de la politique internationale.

Here, "relativisé" takes on a sense of 'choose the lesser evil'.

'Relativism' is a favoured term of abuse of both the late Pope and the current one. The former in 'Memory and Identity' wrote that after the [what he describes as 'so-called'] European Enlightenment 'Man remained alone: alone as creator of his own history and his own civilisation; alone as one who decides what is good and what is bad [ ...]'.

Curiously, the attitude of some on the secular Left - the Chomskys, Galloways and so on - also seems to me to be a sort of absolutism. You can talk about women and children being killed when the Americans bombed Falluja (to deny a safe haven to terrorists targeting Iraqi police and civilians in Baghdad and elsewhere), but that is not the same thing as attacks whose sole aim is to kill innocent people. I argued on a forum last year: 'Many on the "anti-war" side seem to demand perfection'. I went on to quote from a passage of Orwell: 'the choice before human beings is not, as a rule, between good and evil but between two evils. You can let the Nazis rule the world; that is evil; or you can overthrow them by war, which is also evil'. Thus, it was necessary to be on the same side as Stalin (and the British Empire) in order to defeat Hitler. After that, preferring George W. Bush to Saddam Hussein (or Osama Bin Laden) does not seem too difficult. ( One result thrown up by a Google search leads back to the word  'perspective'.)

Of course, deciding what is (relatively) good and bad is not easy ....The examples from Le Monde's forum concerned the argument about whether, bad as Saddam was, the 'mullahs of Iran' were even worse. I have always thought that, even in its darkest days, Iran was not as bad as Saddam's Iraq and moreover Iraq under the rule of its Shi'a majority would not be as bad as Iran. However, that involves a judgment, even a leap of faith, no less than believing in heaven and hell.

To be continued.

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