Observations on the leftist intellectual divide

Tuesday, October 18th, 2005 @ 1:26 am | Current Events

A recent article in the Observer illustrates the irreconcilable gap between the impulses of ‘cultural relativism’ and ‘universal human rights’ in today’s liberalism.

(Cultural relativism) “promotes tolerance and respect for so-called minority opinions and beliefs, rather than respect for human beings. Human beings are worthy of the highest respect, but not all opinions and beliefs are worthy of respect and tolerance. There are some who believe in fascism, white supremacy, the inferiority of women. Must they be respected?”

…(Cultural relativism) follows the fine and necessary principle of tolerance, but ends up having to tolerate the oppression of women, say, or gays in foreign cultures while opposing misogyny and homophobia in its own… The alternative is to support universal human rights and believe that if the oppression of women is wrong, it is wrong everywhere.

That’s a lot to think about. Many people complain about liberal relativist attitudes, especially towards the Muslim world. On one hand, their cultural traditions deserve as much respect as ours. On the other hand, some of their practices include the oppression of women, supression of free speech and advocating the murder of non-Muslims. But does the existence of the latter necessarily invalidate positive attitudes toward the former?

And the problem with the alternative “universal” approach is that it can be applied towards any cause or idea, even when it’s not practical or desirable. Replace “the oppression of women” with “abortion,” for example.

Trade union leaders stormed out of the anti-war movement when they discovered its leadership had nothing to say about the trade unionists who were demanding workers’ rights in Iraq and being tortured and murdered by the ‘insurgents’ for their presumption.

Another problem with the left is the wide array of causes that often fall under the umbrella of liberalism. And everybody wants their cause to be important. It’s practically become a cliche that whenever the left gets together for a big anti-war protest (replace “anti-war” with any other big cause) the speakers on the podium shout slogans for every leftist cause under the sun. (See this recent Daily Show clip for an example)

“No more war!” (Thunderous applause)
“Energy independence!” (More applause)
“Pro choice!” (Modest applause)
“Israel out of Palestine!” (Weak applause)
“Fur is murder!” (Crowd mills about looking for the gyro cart)

This is why I’m not an idealist. Even though many leftist/liberal causes are admirable, the fact is that it takes popular support for them to become a reality. And that can’t be done as long as these causes remain the exclusive domain of secular leftists.

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