The Perils of Relativism?

A View of Children, digital drawing. © Gillian Holding 2011. One of a series of drawings in preparation for a book to be published this autumn.

I mentioned in a post the other week something about Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and how this theory explained for me a very particular way of seeing and experiencing the world which made a lot of sense; in essence, much of my surprises and foundering assumptions on a visit through the East could be explained as the consequence of having pictured and envisioned the East through a very particular Western cultural and historical prism.

I was interested to receive a comment on the post a few days later which set me thinking for days on this whole question of relativism: the idea that points of view have no absolute truth or validity, but have only relative, subjective value according to differences in perception. The commentator said in his view, Orientalism is based on a theory of cultural relativism which he described as rather ‘dodgy’ philosophy.

I think before going further, some definitions need to be sorted. Relativism is sometimes interpreted as saying all points of view are equally valid, in contrast to absolutism which argues there is but one true view. This extreme view of relativism is one which even in an age of political correctness starts to pose real dilemmas when it comes to moral questions; we all feel more comfortable believing there are certain unassailable absolute moral ‘truths’. So for now, I will distinguish that view of relativism, and take up the broader version which simply seeks to acknowledge that no one expression of view or culture or whatever is uniquely privileged. And I have certainly found in my own explorations of truth, reality and perception through my art that I am almost invariably on the side of the relativist camp than I am on that of the absolutist.

Then over the weekend, I received through the post a printed excerpt from Harold Pinter‘s acceptance speech on receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, 2005. The excerpt had been sent out in advance of an event being held at Pavilion on May 23 2011 with artist Beatrice Gibson. I quote a paragraph from it here:

In 1958, I wrote the following: 

“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, not between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false”

I believe that these assertions still make sense and do still apply to the exploration of reality through art. So as a writer I stand by them, but as a citizen I cannot. As a citizen I must ask: What is true? What is false?

This is interesting. Can one take a relativist stance as artist and an absolutist one as citizen? Does this allow for a postmodern idealistic evaluation of the world through art with the comfort of knowing that at the end of the day, at home,  there are still some unassailable truths? I have to take a fudgy view of it all. I want to retain my relativist stance because I believe firmly in listening to all sides, and acknowledging difference even if I don’t like it. I believe too that much harm has been done through absolutist Western hegemony. But I am also willing to concede that there there may be limits; that some absolute ‘truths’ may exist. When it comes to parenting, I have a fair few. On universal absolutes, though, it’s not that easy. I was going to suggest infanticide, but then I heard a story the other week from a Holocaust survivor of a mother hiding in a cellar in the Ukraine during WWII with her husband and children who suffocated her crying baby that the others might live.

Maybe the question isn’t one of relativism or absolutism, but one of simple open-mindedness and non-judgmental attitudes as much of the time as is possible. And so I stand by my view that in any discussion of Sharia law, a Middle-Eastern higher-education based academic may have had something worthwhile to contribute.


Respond to The Perils of Relativism?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s