Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Theories of relativity

I live in a relative world. I do. So do you, even though you’d rather you didn’t.
So does a student of mine who, years ago, told me he’d pray for me. Why? Because I said that ‘legitimate’ government is peculiar to its time and place. It has always been so and our beloved modern, territorial nation-state is not the final destination of humanity’s political evolution.
I didn’t think I was being particularly clever with that one.
Religious fundamentalism, racism, eugenics (to name but a few now-distasteful sets of beliefs) have been at the core of government legitimacy across both time and space. Yes, in Enlightened Europe too.
In fact, today’s western liberal ‘standards’ are very new. But we like them – our new-found liberty, equality, fair-mindedness. We like them and we want to share them with the rest of the world, because we believe they are fundamentally good, esentially valid and universally desirable. Not to mention objectively cool.
Yet attempts at exporting said values have exposed the fact that universalism still eludes the human race. My truth and your truth can be worlds apart.

So the student was shocked and would pray. I am not joking and neither was he. And I don’t mind. You never know when a prayer may come in handy with the ‘whatever from high atop the thing’. The sad truth, however, is that I’d love to have a few absolutes to hold onto. Even more so than the student who, all else failing, still has prayer. But universality eludes me.

First of all there is the practical side of things.
Our shared humanity should make us all equal. But in reality, this equality is crushed by those who don’t believe in it – states, groups, people. And if some of us agree this should not be the case, those who go off and do it anyway, obviously disagree. So universality is shot to pieces.

Then there is the theoretical side of things.
Could universality exist in the first place?
I’d say yes and use Rawl’s veil of ignorance as exhibit A. If you could de-contextualise yourself, you could build a value-neutral system that respects human fundamentals. So what are they?
Well, since you cannot de-contextualise yourself you can’t determine this. You can only create a wish list.
Life. Freedom of thought, worship and opinion. Dignity.
I like this list. It’s not my ideal-world list. My ideal-world list is much longer, excruciatingly detailed and set to music. It’s my ‘let’s keep this real’ list, but real it ain’t. Because many disagree with me. Others would quite rightly want to know how I define freedom (freedom from? freedom to?) and what exactly dignity means before they commit. But leaving others out of it for a moment, the problem is I disagree with it myself some of the time.
I believe in freedom of expression. I do.
I believe in your right to believe in things I don’t and reject the things I believe in. I believe in your right to reject my life and lead a life I don’t want for myself.
But there is a type of belief that I am not comfortable with. It’s the sort of belief that doesn’t simply reject an opinion or way of life in favour of another, but rejects it as wrong, non-viable, misguided and evil.

I believe in freedom of expression.
But what about the bad guys? What about racist, homophobic, religiously-blinkered, morally superior beliefs that see their truth as the only truth and according to which everyone disagreeing should repent, reform or die?
What about the people whose opinions fundamentally entail a rejection of mine? Not a criticism but a fundamental rejection of both the validity of my opinions and my right to hold them?

Well, in principle they have a right to think what they think. In practice, I want to shake them really, really hard. So universality dies in my own head a million times over as, obviously, I believe in what I believe in and I believe in it strongly. Apart from when I don’t.
But I will prevail over my own tastes. Because I’m sure my opinions are distasteful to many, some of whom would still defend my right to hold them. Even if many others wouldn’t. Maybe that’s the main difference between those of us who wish for universality and those who couldn’t care less.

Still, it all boils down to the same thing sadly. Because even though you wish life was sacred no matter what and some freedoms were guaranteed irrespective of context, there is no place on earth where that is the case.
Cultural relativity, power differentials, religion, family, tribal justice, court justice or a chance encounter with individual violence and the sanctity of life and freedom are shattered in one blow.

And of course there is the argument of cultural imperialism. At the end of the day, how is saying ‘this is right because it’s how I do it’ different to my friend’s assessment of his tastes as ‘objectively cool’.
Whose right is bigger and whose truth is better?

Relativity reigns supreme. But you do draw the line somewhere. Or you should.
Because even if I grudgingly acknowledge your right to deny the holocaust, I will not acknowledge your right to act on this belief. Life, surely, is where universal values converge.
Of course that is not the case. Because there are murderers out there, capital punishment, honour killings, wars. People and states the world over fail to respect the inalienability of human life. Without that, discussing fundamental rights and freedoms may well be putting the cart before the horse.

So I live in a relative world.
Not of my choosing. Nor of my making.
I’d like to live in a world where human life is inalienable. Where freedom of thought, expression, movement and access were unfettered. Where dignity – however you understand it – is a fundamental. I’d like to live in a world where rights don’t collide. There's no end to the things I'd like.
But seriously.
I’d settle for a world where life is sacred. Always and unconditionally. Even if you are a bad guy.

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