November 17, 2009

It’s all relative

Culture of relativism stunts intellectual and personal growth.

A barometer of the culture on campus, the Maroon Viewpoints section often reads not like a collection of confident editorial opinions expressed with certainty and conviction, but as a series of self-conscious psychological confessions, scrambling to rationalize the clear neuroses that all members of the royal “we” seem to share. Why do we insulate ourselves and avoid socializing? Why aren’t our classes fulfilling our need for a definite worldview? Why do we have inordinate rates of mental illness? We all seem to be aware of these questions, but in the end dismiss them with some trite resignation to the unfortunate fact that personal confusion and social awkwardness are facets of life at the University.

However, if we decide to continue to search for a real explanation beyond this resignation, the culprit behind our intellectual, personal, and social ills lends itself quite readily. The basic cause of this general sense of ennui is not some sad metaphysical truth about the absurdity of our existence, a truth implied in the resignation to our current way of living, but rather the denial of truth altogether. The modern acceptance of relativism, both in the formal philosophies of academics and in the mainstream culture those philosophies generate, destroys any sincere intellectual ambition on the part of earnest young students, leaves them utterly confused in all spheres of life, and is the root cause of the palpable despair on campus.

When bright, mentally active students enter the University, most of them are excited that they will grow in their knowledge, meet people willing to challenge their views and spark genuine debate, and mature into a career buttressed by the understanding they have gained. They find themselves, however, surrounded by skeptics in their teachers and fellow students, so that they soon learn that seeking an objective answer to any of the questions discussed in the Core is a sign of unfortunate naiveté. The reminders to never judge and always respect any opinion, no matter how unjustified, occupy every aspect of life at the University. A handout at ORCSA’s Student Organization Reapplication Training conference this year advised students that, “when managing conflict, seeking the ‘truth’ can trap you rather than set you free. Truth is relative to a person’s point of view.” This is just one example of the steady cultural aversion to a belief in objective knowledge, which saps the enthusiasm from any diligent scholar.

The widespread acceptance of the relativism of both knowledge and morals stunts intellectual growth and personal maturation. If everything is ultimately subjective, we are all islands of consciousness inventing the truth for ourselves as we go along, with no real sense of grounding. Who, then, needs to go to their Hum class and actively engage with ideas when it is known that truth itself is whatever you think it is? How can you develop interpersonal relationships beyond the superficial when you have no guidelines by which to seek the company of good people, but have only learned to judge no one? The abandonment of objectivity has left the academy paralyzed with no answers to these questions, fractured into overlapping disciplines that agree on no basic truth, writing jargon-filled papers for insular audiences, and despairing of any enjoyment or real human connection.

The abandonment of the concept of objectivity also explains the extreme self-consciousness of many students here. For if the intellectual does not think that his life of the mind is actually engaged with real objects of knowledge but is basically a matter of opinion, the personal identity of the intellectual is left without any real content. He is an intellectual merely by his associations and manner of speaking, not because of any personal character trait. Therein arises the long-noted phenomenon of students here, in compensation, gratuitously asserting themselves as intellectuals, not based on any actual knowledge they think they have acquired, given that they deny the existence of actual knowledge itself, but on superficial comparison that merely define them against others, like the fact that they may enjoy reading where others enjoy parties. If unequivocally true knowledge is not the object of the intellectual’s work, he becomes one of many actors engaging in a sophisticated parlor game across several acres of ivy-strewn buildings, trying to synthesize a sense of power and control in a world he concedes to be unknowable.

Operating on the premise that all fundamental issues are matters of opinion is bound to make any intellectual effort seem like an exercise in drudgery and lead to an extreme sense of anxiety and isolation. While non-judgmental tolerance in all moral matters would seem to create a more inviting atmosphere at first glance, in abolishing judgment, such tolerance denies the real appreciation of any virtues a person might have, and creates an alienated world where all are equal by an entirely unnamed standard. Reality exists, you can have knowledge of it, and virtues and vices are as real as the air we breathe. A solemn recognition of this is the only hope for creating a flourishing culture of happy, well-rounded students confident in their ability to live life.

— George Saad is a second-year in the College majoring in classics.