Almost every week, I keep having this very troubling conversation with my students. Note I said troubling, not surprising. It is definitely the former, but not so much the latter.
We were discussing Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” The piece is interesting, if for no other reason than it brings up several good questions, starting with, “what is a good citizen?” Does he always obey the law? What if you’re in Germany in the 1940′s and you have Jews in your basement? Does a good citizen obey if the law is unjust? What makes a law unjust, anyway? What standard do you use to measure what is just/unjust?
We were discussing those questions, somewhat awkwardly, and I was making the point that to Thoreau, saying a law is unjust is more than just saying “I don’t like this law” or “it doesn’t fancy my desires and wants.” It has to do with conviction, not mere whims or desires. A student suddenly blurted out, “well, that’s just your opinion.”
And the frustrating, recurring conversation commenced.
I try not to let comments like that slide by without being challenged in some respect, so I asked her, “what do you mean by that?” She said, “well, opinions can’t be right or wrong. You just have them, that’s all.”
Like usual, I applied a reductio question: “so what if my opinion is that blacks and Latinos (this was said to a class that was about 1/3 Latino) are inferior to whites?”
A decent number of students maintained their relativism: “well, I don’t agree with you, but that’s just your opinion.”
“So it’s not right or wrong?”
Many people just brush it off: “they don’t really believe that. They are just saying that to save face and admit they are wrong.”
Perhaps, but this happens with waaaay to much frequency to think that’s all there is to it. Plus, they maintain their relativism without a blink, as if I was asking them to question breathing. Their face doesn’t register any balking whatsoever.
At the end of class, I took a bit of a stand. I usually don’t do this, but I’ve had this conversation too many times: “really think about what you are saying. What if everyone really believed that opinions can’t be right or wrong, true or false? What kind of society would we be living in? It would be quite an anarchic society, and that should give you pause.”
I was reflecting afterward on the situation. People like Brian McClaren say that relativism is pretty much dead, but I beg to differ. The reason why students spout out this nonsense is because, quite frankly, that’s what they’ve been taught by the adults in their lives and the media. Sometimes it is unintentional, but there’s no question we give it to em hard.
One way in which we do this, perhaps unconsciously, is this funky fact/value distinction we have going. We teach that facts are facts–they are cold, hard, empirical, and they apply to reality. They count. They are true and false. Everything else, on the other hand, especially opinions, is amorphous and ambiguous. Two people can have two contradictory opinions about a certain issue–which one is right and which one is false? Neither. When it comes to evaluating opinions, we back off and get real queazy real quick. The prevailing attitude is that as long as the person can live with their opinion, it is not subject to critique in the same way that empirical facts are.
Students take that lesson and run with it. They connect the dots. They see that the only way that can be true is if opinions are neither true nor false. Moral beliefs and religious/spiritual beliefs, for instance, are most often not empirical in sense usually defined, so they get put in the realm of “opinion.”
The thing is, these students graduate and become our neighbors and co-workers. Do we really want neighbors that really hold that there’s nothing really wrong with the belief “rape is good” or “all homosexuals deserve a physical beating”?
You might not think that relativistic attitude is a big deal…until you are the one getting beat and your neighbor is just standing there doing nothing, because he thinks, “hey, that’s his perogative. I shouldn’t get involved.”
It is time that adults become more aware of what they are advocating and reject the horrible fact/value distinction that’s so popular today.