The Oppression of Relativism

One of the attractions of relativism as a worldview for many is that it seems to promise emancipation, a voice to the previously voiceless and an escape from structures of power that dictate what is right and wrong. To allow everybody to have a voice on this for themselves. Its a very attrractive notion, seemingly very democratic.

The more I see relativism at work in the public square the less I believe it delivers on the promise to give voices to all. Today is a sad day in the UK with the passing of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill through Parliament. I am saddened by what will be allowed by the Bill and believe it has critical and horrendous consequences for a healthy concept of what it means to be human.

But I am also saddened by the process that has accompanied it. More than any other public issue I hve seen of late, the discussion around this Bill has been laden with arguments and strategies to try to ensure that opponents of the Bill are not given a voice. The TV news has been deeply guilty of reporting only one side of the arguments. Where opposing views have received airtime the discussion has often been set up as value-neutral, ethically-neutral caring science vs. dark-ages religious dogma. I heard one commentator say "if people oppose this on ideological grounds, let them have the decency to say so, so that everyone will know." In other words - ideology bad and biassed, science good, neutral and unbiassed. On this bill there are no positions that are not ideologically driven. But there is one position that has strongly marketed itself as neutral while doing its best to taint opposing views with the hint of unreasoning, fundamentalist dogmatism.

Here is the thing about relativism: it doesn't give a voice to all, it encourages a new type of silencing of the Other. In a relativist world the voice doesn't belong to those with the dogmatic or doctrinal reins of power, it belongs to those who can manipulate the media to make sure their views are heard and that opposing views are excluded or derided. And it masquerades as freedom and neutrality, therefore claiming immunity from criticism. After all, who would criticise freedom except for somebody who shouldn't be allowed to have a voice anyway?

We have a whole new dimension going on to the old argument that "religion should be kept out of the public square because it is only a private matter." In other words "what I believe is objective, important for public consumption and public opinion, but what you believe isn't. It doesn't matter how many people believe it, keep it to yourself. It is unworthy of the national discourse. Only what we think is allowed, because we define what is neutral."

If we believe that, we swap real democracy for a new tyranny.  We stand in real danger of swapping a suspicion of ideology for a relativist tyranny.