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Cultural relativism leaves some blind to evil

October 15, 2001

The House of Bishops of the Episcopal Church put out a disgraceful statement on the terrorist attacks. After urging believers to “wage reconciliation” (i.e., not war), the bishops said: “The affluence of nations such as our own stands in stark contrast to other parts of the world wracked by crushing poverty which causes the death of 6,000 children in the course of a morning.” The number 6,000 and the reference to a single morning, of course, are meant to evoke Sept. 11 in a spirit of moral equivalence.In plain English, the bishops seem to think that Americans are in no position to complain about the Manhattan massacre since 6,000 children around the world can die in a single day. The good bishops are apparently willing to tolerate 6,000 murders in New York because the West has failed to eliminate world poverty, and perhaps should be blamed for causing it. But the terrorist attack has nothing to do with world hunger or disease. And the bishops’ statement is a moral mess. How many murders can Episcopalians now overlook because of the existence of crushing poverty? If 6,000, why not 60,000?

This is a minor example of what could be a major problem over the long haul. A large number of our cultural and moral leaders are unable to say plainly that evil exists in the world and that it must be confronted. Instead they are content to babble about “cycles of violence” and how “an eye for an eye makes the world blind,” as if the cop who stops the violent criminal is somehow guilty of crime, too.

Part of this philosophy arises from the therapeutic culture: Accusing someone of being evil is bad thinking. There is no evil, no right and wrong, only misunderstandings that can fade if we withhold judgment and reach out emotionally to others. Everything can be mediated and talked out.

More of it comes from the moral relativism at the heart of the multicultural philosophy that has dominated our schools for a generation. Multiculturalism goes way beyond tolerance and appreciation of other cultures and nations. It teaches that all cultures and all cultural expressions are equally valid. This sweeps away moral standards. Every culture (except America, of course) is correct by its own standards and unjudgeable by others.

Teachers at all levels have been warning us for years about where this is headed. We are seeing large numbers of the young unable or unwilling to make the simplest distinctions between right and wrong. Even horrific acts — mass human sacrifice by the Aztecs and genocide by the Nazis — are declared to be unjudgeable. “Of course I dislike the Nazis,” one upstate New York student told his professor. “But who is to say they are morally wrong?” The same argument, or non-argument, can apply to the terrorists of September as well.

Only a minority of students think this way, but multiculturalism, with its radical cultural relativism, is becoming a serious problem. It leaves a great many students dubious about traditional American values and cynical about any sense of common purpose or solidarity. This is particularly so when the mantra of the cultural left that America is “racist-sexist-homophobic” is added to the mix.

This hybrid philosophy — no judgment of other cultures, but severe judgment of our own — is already beginning to color many responses to the terrorist attacks. It peeks out from the behind the “root causes” argument and the need to “understand” the terrorists and to see their acts “in context.” Often what is really meant by the root-cause people is that reckless and imperial America brought the attacks on itself.

The philosophy also shines through many statements of concern about bias against Muslim Americans. Of course Muslims must not be singled out for attack or scorn. But a good many official statements about Sept. 11 made only brief reference to the horror of the attacks before launching long and lopsided attention to the possibility of anti-Muslim bias.

Terrorism is the worst threat the nation has ever faced, and at the moment, Americans are solidly united to confront it. The multicultural-therapeutic left is small but concentrated in businesses that do most of the preaching to America: the universities, the press, the mainline churches and the entertainment industry. They will have to be pushed to move away from sloppy multiculturalism and all-purpose relativism. Let the pushing begin.

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