Last November, I came across an interesting article: “When Truth is Relative, Racism is OK.” “If each person is able to construct a personal reality…to determine personal right and wrong,” the post argues, “then everything becomes meaningless.” Life is then a series of power struggles where power is the only absolute, and whoever is in power sets the rules. Pretty straightforward – if we can’t agree on certain truths, society dissolves (society being “a group of humans broadly distinguished by mutual interests, participation in characteristic relationships, shared institutions, and a common culture”).
So, on November 10th, I shared the article. The following day, I received this:
“Hey Adam, i don’t know you (i assume you go to brown), but i just saw on my newsfeed this article you posted. Considering that people of color all across the country are receiving death threats at different universities, could you consider taking it down? This is not about “free speech” or me “repressing your freedom to express ideas”—this is about the fact that the thesis of this piece (i.e. that racism is ok), by arguing that racism is okay and acceptable, allows for and deems acceptable the white supremacist death threats happening all over the country on different campuses (Mizzou, Harvard, etc.). It’s also not about free speech because I’m not a governing body/have no ability to actually censor what you post—I’m just using my “free speech” in response to yours. But yeah—the article is kinda a lot, given what’s going on right now in the real world. if you’d like to talk about it with me, feel free to message me back.”
Let me get a few things out of the way first:
1) Have I been spelling free speech wrong my entire life by dropping the air quotes that make it a sarcastic fantasy?
2) It’s a good thing this person identified themselves as a non-governing body with no ability to actually censor what I post! I would never have known otherwise.
3) Well, I guess I would have known these things had I been following “what’s going on right now in the real world”.
But once I made sure that the Thought Police weren’t tracking me, I saw a deeper problem in this already concerning message. The mistaken perspective held by the message’s author was not a misunderstanding: it was a response of wholehearted statism, which accepted relativism and, by extension, racism.
Let’s break this down. The initial article was written in response to the racial tensions of late 2015 and addressed a growing feeling of outrage. It identified two possible reasons for this outrage: “1) social constructs are pressuring us to feel a certain way or 2) there is a transcendent truth to which our sense of justice appeals.” In other words, our sense of justice is either a product of our immediate environment, or it is guided by a universal compass.
Now, back to the message. Did anyone else think it was strange that the author stated that they were “not a governing body/have no ability to actually censor what you post”? There’s something more than a “duh, Captain Obvious” message here. The line seems almost plaintive – “I know I have no power to censor you, but I’m here to ask you if you could please censor yourself for me? I’d really appreciate it!”.
What’s more concerning is that the “power” desired is the power of a governing body with the ability to censor individuals. The ideal state in this individual’s mind – or at least the state this individual has been most exposed to – would be capable of selectively censoring speech to protect against possible offense. A state with the power to protect some forms of speech and destroy others. Should I have asked the message’s author to remove his message because I’m Catholic, Catholics believe in absolute truth, and Catholics are being persecuted all over the world? Should I have invoked the power of their state for my own, similarly relative benefit?
And there’s the catch: in refuting my post with an appeal to (hollow) relativist power, the author of the message made a relativist argument and thus reinforced the very thing they set out to fight against: that if truth is relative, then racism is ok.
See, every time the government makes a partial decision (one outside the bounds of its constitutional jurisdiction), it embraces a relativistic perspective of justice. If the state prohibits the sale of raw milk, it creates an environment in which the property rights of pasteurized milk salesmen are upheld more strongly than those of unpasteurized milk salesmen. If the government were to determine that I should take down my post because it inflames already sensitive passions, it would be elevating the expression of the aggrieved above my own. If the government were to decide that people of color could only qualify for certain sections of housing, use certain water fountains, ride on certain buses, sit at certain counters, marry certain people, hold certain jobs, live certain ways and do certain things – it would undoubtedly be one of the most corrupt governments known to man.
Do you see now, dearest author, how your statism breeds relativism, and your relativism breeds the racism you so despise? The article I shared suggested moral absolutism as an antidote to your brand of insidious, power-hungry partiality. You see specters of racism in my actions because you are blinded by your own, relativistic fantasies – fantasies encouraged by your reflexive submission to an increasingly invasive state.
So let me ask the author of the message: what is so much nobler about your cause that you would invoke the same relativism that you condemn to limit my rights? How do you justify your hypocrisy?