Seems like almost every week I get into a conversation on relativism with my students.
It’s really not by my design; its because any time you talk about a heinous/shocking/evil event, the question arises, “how shall we evaluate this? What shall we make of it?” Hence, relativism. This is the point I made to my students last week as we discussed Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
In a nutshell: “The Lottery” is a short story in which a town engages in a ritual “lottery” each year in order to pick a towns person to stone to death. The story is chilling: the tone in the beginning is nonchalant, like the lottery about to happen is no big deal. When I first read it, I was under the impression that the chosen person would win something good. Then, at the end, all the townspeople–family members included!–turn on the chosen without hesitation. Even her toddler son engages in the stoning! Like I said, chilling. The theme is questioning tradition and culture–the stoning was a tradition and cultural more of the town that all accept blindly, yet it is obvious to us that someone needs to.
During the discussion, I asked my students, “can we judge this culture?” Again, like all other similar discussions, a select few said “yes,” while the rest emphatically said “no.” There was even one girl who brought up infanticide–not abortion, mind you–in China: “it’s an alien culture and doesn’t make sense to us, but that is their belief. Who are we to judge?” She said this with a straight face.
The most surprising part is that a Christian girl in the class–one whom I wrote a reference for last week on a staff application to a kids Christian summer camp–was the most ardent relativist in the class! No matter how hard I questioned them, they dug in. A select few (interestingly, an aggressive atheist student of the Christopher Hitchens brand was one of the ones who “got it,” while the aforementioned Christian girl couldn’t seem to get past her relativism.) only saw the errors of relativism.
The tide turned yesterday, though. I had just finished showing the documentary Invisible Children about a child abduction tragedy occuring in Uganda.
After the film, a student (ironically, the one who expressed ambivalence about the wrongness of infanticide in China) asked, “why isn’t our government getting involved?”
I couldn’t resist. I responded, “well, it’s another culture, and maybe we shouldn’t judge.”
Looonnng, awkward pause. Then the same relativistic students a week ago all said incredulously, “that’s horrible, Mr. B! That doesn’t even make sense. C’mon, you can’t say abducting children and brainwashing them to kill is wrong?” The sharper crayons in the box saw the point, though: “He’s playing ‘devil’s advocate, silly.” I think it slowly dawned on them that their thinking of a week ago is bunk.
If they didn’t get that yesterday, there ain’ no hope.