The Chronicle Review

It's Not All Relative

Can a devotion to cultural tolerance lead to the triumph of alternative facts?

March 05, 2017

Boris Séméniako for The Chronicle Review
In my upper-level course on religion and medicine, I often ask students to pronounce on the veracity of beliefs about human physiology and the origin of sickness. Do we have four humors? Are chakras real? Is illness caused by demonic possession?

These questions come in the context of studying different cultures’ healing traditions, from Hausa medicine in West Africa to traditional Chinese medicine, and students are clearly wary of judging cultural practices that aren’t their own. The solution, almost always, is to soften their answer with "for me" or "for them." For me it’s not true that we have four humors, but for them it is.

Their position, however well-intentioned, is perilously similar to the one now being weaponized by dark political forces. In an extraordinary New Yorker profile, the alt-right media celebrity Mike Cernovich, whose work has been closely associated with white nationalism, explains his approach to truth: "Look, I read postmodernist theory in college. If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative. I don’t seem like a guy who reads Lacan, do I?"

In Cernovich’s world, facts exist as a function of ideological narratives. Depending on the narrative, you end up with different facts, or, to adopt Kellyanne Conway’s coinage, "alternative facts," which are not "objectively" wrong.

America’s new president, of course, is fond of alternative facts — about climate change, the safety of vaccines, the size of his inauguration crowd — and so are many of his surrogates. In July, Newt Gingrich asserted in a television interview that violent crime was up. Confronted by statistics to the contrary, he appealed to populist epistemology: "The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think that crime is down, does not think that we are safer. ... People feel more threatened. ... As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel."

“We point out that one culture's science is not another's, then expect people to trust elites telling us that vaccines are safe.”
More recently, Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House science committee, called Trump "the only way to get the unvarnished truth" — in contrast to members of the media and climate scientists who produce "fake news." And in an interview on Super Bowl Sunday, Bill O’Reilly pressed President Trump on his claim that "three million illegal aliens" voted in the election. O’Reilly asked for "data to back it up." The president replied, "Many people have come out and said I’m right."

What’s happening may look like the latest instance of right-wing ideologues’ surprising fondness for postmodernism. But it actually owes more to cultural relativism than the so-called science wars of the 1980s and ’90s. Although definitions vary, cultural relativism is characterized by a reluctance to take one culture’s norms as authoritative, not only because there may be no such standard (the postmodern position), but also, and perhaps more importantly, because asserting such normative authority demeans other cultures. It’s not that objective facts don’t exist — it’s that asserting their existence is rude, oppressive, biased. The primary justification of relativism shifts from epistemology to ethics.

Cultural relativism is itself bound up with the larger project of multiculturalism. In her response to Susan Moller Okin’s 1997 essay, "Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?" Martha Nussbaum bristled at Okin’s apparent "contempt" for religion, pointing out that she used the phrase "founding myths" to refer to what many believers would consider factual accounts — indeed, factual accounts of the highest order, since they have been certified by divine authority. Nussbaum’s resistance to pronounce those beliefs mythological — read: false — was grounded in the position that so-called Western liberalism and its associated secular epistemology shouldn’t pretend to be objective adjudicators of other cultures’ truth claims, because doing so is "disrespectful." As Homi Bhabha put it in another response to Okin, what’s problematic was "the way in which the norms of Western liberalism become at once the measure and mentor of minority cultures."

The notion of "truth as disrespect" powers the current assault on facts. Trump and much of his base reject the truth-making mechanisms of academic culture by appealing to anti-elitism, and sow uncertainty via indignation and cultural pride. Why should pompous experts get the last word on the truth when working-class folk have their own ideas about it?

Just as many advocates of multiculturalism see the imposition of "Western norms" as patronizing, colonial, and unjust, many Americans see the privileging of expert advice in much the same way, especially because it leaves voiceless those who do not have access to information and analytic tools that experts deem essential to the responsible pursuit of truth. Vox’s David Roberts describes this as "tribal epistemology," a key component of which involves leveraging the dignity of one’s culture to preserve beliefs against criticism.

Tribal epistemology has met with severe resistance from journalists, who have shifted away from a hands-off approach to truth and started reporting explicitly on the facticity (or lack thereof) of claims. "Trump Repeats Lie About Popular Vote," read a recent New York Times headline. "Understanding the false link between vaccines and autism begins with learning how vaccine panic started," tweeted Wired magazine.

Yet this approach to truth — sorely needed right now — is difficult to square with an imperative to refrain from privileging one culture’s epistemology. It would be highly controversial if I were to state that Hmong people "mistakenly believe demons cause illness," or that Mormons "falsely claim ancient Israelites came to the New World on the basis of a mythological text."

Instead, we in the humanities offer nonpartisan descriptions of "sacred history" and "secular history," "Eastern healing" and "Western healing," and routinely invoke respect for other cultures to problematize precisely those categories — rationality, reliability, objectivity — upon which the rejection of alternative facts depends. As the anthropologist Judith Farquhar writes, "The standards of argument by which we judge our own most rigorous explanations cannot be applied to Chinese medicine," a sentiment reflected in Nussbaum’s reluctance to label religious myths as myths.

Multiculturalism asserts that "the" truth is intolerant. In a sense, this is correct: The truth is intolerant. But the truth’s intolerance is a virtue, not a vice. Indeed, one could make the case that intolerance of falsehood is the defining virtue of liberal education, not diversity or tolerance. As Jeffrey Stackert of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School argued recently, "the academy does not value an unqualified diversity." We stand as the inheritors, in Stackert’s words, of "Enlightenment principles of empiricism and rational thought." Are certain confessional or apologetic approaches to religious texts unwelcome in an institution devoted to truth? So be it. "Some may choose not to engage," he writes, "preferring, for example, creed over critical inquiry. The academy need not exhibit hostility toward such individuals, but neither must it include their perspectives in its discourse."

Multiculturalism, pluralism, cultural relativism: These are all indispensable as tools of inquiry that promote empathy and serve as a corrective to myopia and bias. One could even argue that academic culture’s willingness to consider a wide range of viewpoints is a key part of what makes our method of pursuing knowledge better and more authoritative than those of cultures that do not.

But confusing the consideration of diverse cultural perspectives with an imperative to assert the equal validity of each culture’s claims is disastrous. With regard to truth, multiculturalism should be understood as a means to an end, not an end in itself. The Rev. Franklin Graham may state that the rain on Trump’s Inauguration Day was "a sign of God’s blessing," but the multiculturalist can offer no critique beyond the lukewarm "it’s false for me, but it’s true for the Reverend Graham." Anything stronger — claiming, for instance, that Graham’s understanding of the relationship between God and the weather is false for everyone — involves self-contradiction.

Clarity about this tension is essential: Often, the very people who cheer journalists calling out Trump’s falsehoods are unwilling to do the same when falsehoods are the product of cultures they find more sympathetic or less dangerous. We point out that one culture’s science is not another’s, that elites wrongly force standards of truth on the less powerful — and then expect people to trust a culture of elites telling us that vaccines are safe, that man-made global warming is real. We argue, as Homi Bhabha does, that Western liberalism should not presume to act as measure or mentor — and then get nailed for hypocrisy if we deny that God blessed Trump with rain.

The solution to this problem, at least in the classroom, is simple. We must emphasize to students that tools of inquiry are not philosophical positions. Attempting to understand, describe, even occupy another’s point of view does not mean that all points of view are equally valid. More importantly, you are not unjust or oppressive if you judge another culture’s conclusions false. Sometimes it’s easier and kinder to refrain from judgment — it feels more respectful, less confrontational. To me. To you. But if we allow students — and ourselves — the luxury of abstaining from judgment, if we trade hard truths for the ease of cultural relativism, then myths are indistinguishable from history, and the war against alternative facts is already lost.

Clarification (3/6/2017): This article originally referred to Mike Cernovich as a “white nationalist.” Although his work has been associated with white nationalism, he disavows that term. The article has been updated to reflect that.


Alan Jay Levinovitz is an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. He is the author, most recently, of The Limits of Religious Tolerance, and writes frequently on the intersection of religion and culture. Follow him on Twitter @alanlevinovitz.