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On the Intolerance of Relativism

From French philosopher Chantal Delsol, in her book The Unlearned Lessons of the Twentieth Century:

If every group contents itself with assuming its identity without ever wanting to impose it on others, one might think that the result would be social harmony along the lines of a gentleman’s agreement. The age of religious and ideological conflicts would be replaced by a long-lasting tolerance made possible by relativism: no group possesses the truth any more than any other.

That there are many relative points of view, however, does not in fact bring peace because relativism is by nature intolerant: it destroys the founation on which any common discourse must be based. Under relativism, we move from one type of quarrel to another: from fighing for universals to fighting for particulars. In the society of late modernity, abuse is hurled no longer in the name of ideologies, but in the name of identities. Individuals rally around their lifestyle preferences, their cultural attachments, or their status as historical victims. I am no longer an advocate of this or that revolution: I am young, or a Basque, or a woman, or an environmentalist.

Page 127 (emphasis added)

On the surfact it seems ironic, but truly nobody is more intolerant than a thorough-going relativist. He has to be, because he is, as he confesses on his silly bumper sticker, intolerant of intolerance.

But that means he is intolerant of any truth claim other than his own, and his own he roots in a contradiction caused by despair.

He must be, by the nature of his position, opposed to any truth claim. In other words, he must be opposed to every statement that anybody other than himself makes.

Why? Because truth is intolerant of falsehood. It has no room in its universe for the false. The false, after all, does not exist except in a broken relationship between subject and predicate. And broken relationships bring death and suffering.

Truth, therefore, is intolerant of falsehood. Relativism, on the other hand, is intolerant of truth because of the intolerance of truth for falsehood.

With Truth you can carry on a discussion as long as you humble yourself before her Authority. With relativism, any discussion will be a silly dance of experimental rhetoric, and the experiment will be to see what you can get away with while you dance.

The goal of relativism, when she speaks, is to provoke truth into a reaction so it can point at her intolerance and convince people to turn away from her inflexibility and unkindness.

Of course, the relativist can’t actually oppose every truth claim in practice, and he doesn’t really have to because there is no need for the relativist to be consistent.

He can shift with his preferences as much as the moral relativists of the 20th century did, adapting Pragmatically to the culture in which they speculated, from Imperial, Weimar, and Nazi Germany, to Mussolini’s Italy, to Progressive America, to Soviet Russia, to Hollywood.

The one thing the relativist shares across every culture is his impulse to collectivism and his quest for the total state.

Therefore, his relativism remains an impractical parlour game until he enters an academic classroom, creates a work of art, or runs for office.

Then, beware, you who oppose the Tolerant.

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