How Relativism Leads to Intolerance and Rage

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Author Amy Hall Published on 10/31/2019

Writing about LGBT activists’ recent campaign against a church, Nathanael Blake comments on why we’ve been seeing a decrease in tolerance and an increase in rage. The culprit, he says, is the subjective nature of gender identity claims coupled with our culture’s relativism—a relativism that makes it impossible to adjudicate rationally between two competing claims.

[M]oral disagreements over claims of transgender identity appear intractable, which is why, upon learning of a sermon with which they disagreed, local LGBT activists and their allies responded by trying to coerce and shame the pastor and his church, rather than by attempting to demonstrate why he was wrong. These activists sought not to persuade but to purge.

This is in large part because our culture lacks a common philosophy or theology that these activists can appeal to in making their case, and many would explicitly disavow the possibility of any such standard of truth or goodness. But this acceptance of moral relativism does not make our sense of moral imperatives disappear or seen less urgent. Rather, it has made moral arguments more emotive and irreconcilable.

Differing moral viewpoints seem as arbitrary and irreconcilable as sports fandoms, where we support teams based on locality, ancestral loyalties, or personal whimsy. Thus, when emotional appeals or demonstrations fail, pressure replaces persuasion, and shunning takes the place of reasoning. [Emphasis added.]

Without a shared objective standard (or even belief that one exists), there is nothing to appeal to and therefore no way to rationally persuade someone who disagrees with you:

Without a common ground of reason or revelation, moral discourse becomes a matter of emotive performance and intimidation. This is why, in practice, the sort of ironic liberal relativism promoted by Richard Rorty and similar philosophers has produced people who deny the possibility of real moral truth but nonetheless indulge in, and even seek out, perpetual moral outrage.

Intellectually denying the existence of moral truth outside of human creation does not eliminate our moral sensibilities. We will still feel angry at perceived injustice, but relativism reduces the attempt to demonstrate the wrongness of injustice to an expression of subjective sentiment….

This dismaying situation is the source of much of our cultural crisis. Not only do we disagree about what is good, true, and beautiful, we disagree about how we might come to agreement, with many insisting that nothing is really good, true, or beautiful—our views on goodness, truth, and beauty being only the products of cultural conditioning and personal idiosyncrasies. Conflicting claims of morality and identity therefore appear irreconcilable. [Emphasis added.]

Read the rest here (especially his thoughts on why Christianity is the antidote to this). Blake is exactly right, and I predicted this over a decade ago when I said postmodernism would lead to violence (see “When You Denigrate Objective Truth, This Is What You Get”). Relativism was embraced by our culture as a way to put an end to conflicts, but its result has been the exact opposite.

It’s an old saying but a true one: Ideas have consequences.