Shortly after the fall of the Shah in 1979 the French philosopher Michel Foucault visited Ayatollah Kohmeini’s new theocratic regime and was delighted with what he saw. On his return from Tehran, Foucault was asked about the violence there, and the fact that the so-called “Islamic Revolution” was viciously persecuting its political opponents. “They don’t have the same regime of truth as ours,” he explained. The same regime of truth? Here, in a microcosm, is the crux of the problem. Here, in one short sentence, is everything that is evasive, slippery, and non-committal about contemporary liberal thought. Despite the fact that Foucault styled himself a Marxist (as did most of the intellectuals commonly grouped under the aegis ‘post-modern’ or ‘post-structuralist’), he was unable to offer a single critical word about a regime that was mercilessly persecuting the leftists and secularists and feminists within its borders (many of whom had been betrayed after playing their part in the unseating of the Shah).
Anyone who believes that the that the obscurantist opinions of ivory tower academics and intellectual elites have no effect whatsoever outside of the academy has failed to notice how Foucault’s retreat from truth has become an orthodoxy of sorts. Since the explosion of (capital T) Theory in Paris in the 60s, relativistic ideas have become common currency among people who have never even heard of figures like Roland Barth, Jacques Lacan, Louis Althusser, and Jacques Derrida, let alone attempted to read them. The attack on the ‘grand narratives’ of Western thought pioneered by these nominally leftist intellectuals has been far more effective than they could possibly have envisaged. For in their assault on the biases and orthodoxies of the western Enlightenment tradition, they have simultaneously robbed us of what was valuable about that tradition, and left many people unable, or unwilling to defend it. To these thinkers such notions as ‘modernity’, ‘science’, ‘history’, ‘reason’, ‘morality’, and ‘progress’ were highly suspect symptoms of an unforgivably white, European, and male culture that had been unjustly ‘privileged’ (to use one of their favourite pet phrases) over other cultures. Politics and culture were reduced in their eyes to ‘texts’ whose principle purpose was to have their many layers of meaning ‘deconstructed’ in the opaque, convoluted, neologism-filled and psuedo-scientific prose that typifies this largely unreadable genre. They preached a world without any certainties; emphasising the fragmentary over the linear, the random over the ordered, surface over depth, and the playful over the serious. They displayed an unhealthy obsession with the symbols and signs they attempted to root out from among the dustbins and shadows of language. In its most extreme variant this produced an ‘anything goes’ mentality that eschewed value judgements in favour of a free-floating relativism that saw reality as a by-product of language, and in doing so they implicitly disengaged western liberal/left thought from both political commitment and moral judgement. After all, if there are “different regime[s] of truth” for different peoples, who are we in the ‘privileged’ west to say what is right or wrong?
In such a climate – where the morally corrosive implications of post-modernist relativism has seeped out into the wider culture as if by osmosis – the ability of liberal people to make sound and careful ethical judgements, particularly ethical judgements about other cultures, has been severely disrupted. This was bought home to me during the early years of the Iraq war, when I was repeatedly told by liberal-minded people that the coalition’s (admittedly pretty disastrous) attempt to bring democracy to that country was a clear case of western imperial arrogance. We can’t impose ‘our values’, they would say to me, on ‘their values’ – as if ‘their values’ naturally included fascism and dictatorship, a point of view that could only have been maintained by wilfully ignoring the fact that many of the loudest calls for Saddam’s removal were coming from Iraqi exiles and the Kurdish and Shia populations inside Iraq. This, it seemed to me then, as it seems to me now, is the language of those who have been trained to see truth as something totally obscured by culture and ideology; of those who shrink away in a Pavlovian response to any suggestion that certain aspects of western culture may be in any way preferable to other cultures. Such language is now deeply inculcated in western minds. The culture of counter-revolution and anti-Enlightenment; of anti-progressive scepticism; of defeatism, uncertainty, and irony, has radiated out from the humanities and infused the mainstream liberal intelligensia like an invasion of the moral snatchers.
I was having an interesting discussion with someone recently, during which they told me they were uncomfortable using words like ‘good’ and ‘evil’, because, they explained, such terms were “too black and white.” I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed many times in my adult life, and I fear for those who express them. Nothing has the capacity to set the liberal-minded on edge quite like the invocation of “evil”. After all, such moral absolutism is anathema in our times – nothing is so simple, people tell me, there are many shades of grey, everything is relative. In consequence people who cannot even begin to bring themselves to apply such moral categories imagine themselves to be – like our post-modern theorists – so much more sophisticated than those who do. Yet what is so sophisticated about a culture that has an inability to make judgements about what is right and wrong, or true and false? Doesn’t it suggest, rather, a culture that is at best morally ambiguous, and at worst dangerously amoral? I suggested to my friend that I would be worried about anyone who was incapable of offering such moral judgements, because it would suggest to me that they lacked a clear-sighted moral core. I then asked him if he didn’t think pushing someone into a gas-chamber could fitfully be described as ‘evil’, and he just screwed his face up. I found that terribly sad. He was so unsure of his own moral standing that he didn’t even have the confidence to condemn an obviously deplorable act. After all, we don’t want to be “too black and white” about the Holocaust do we?
My friend then pointed to the way certain figures on the American right-wing bandy about words like good and evil as the main reason why he was reluctant to use the terms, which is a bit like refusing to listen to Wagner or read Nietzsche because of their Hitlerian associations. While I too share his annoyance at the slip-shod way these categories are applied in many cases, it seems to me obvious that the way to combat such loose talk is not to refuse to take part in the debate, but to reclaim those terms and put them back in their proper context. In this sense I think he was mistaking the symptomatic for the causal: the fact that right-wingers are, on the whole, quite happy to apply distinct moral categories to persons and acts while the liberal/left are not, is hardly a sign of simple-mindedness on one side, and sophistication on the other. Rather, it is an indication of precisely what happens when one side abandons ethical precepts altogether, and allows the enemy to claim them, and run with them – they then define the terms, and set the parameters of the debate, completely unchallenged. I have no time for those who speak of evil in metaphysical terms as some impersonal free-floating force at work in the world, but it seems clear to me that there is an obvious need for a strong word, to be used seriously and sparingly, that captures the essence of the most wicked acts of human depravity, and what better candidate, I ask you, is there?
This reluctance to pass ethical judgement does not, therefore, speak to me of a nuanced and subtle approach to moral problems – it sounds more like the noise people make when they don’t really know, in the end, what they stand for. It sounds to me like a crisis of thought within liberal civilisation – one that is an inevitable consequence of an implicitly relativistic approach to truth. In such a mindset persecuting and murdering your political opponents is not ‘evil’ – no, no, much too “black and white” – it happens because they “don’t have the same regime of truth” as us. Interestingly, this ‘shades of grey’ approach only seems to apply when it comes to dealing with cultures other than our own. Most liberal-minded people have no problem at all condemning aspects of their own societies or their own leaders. (Indeed, I have heard my friend call Blair, Bush, Rumsfeld, et al, “pure evil” on many an occasion over the last decade.) It is when we travel outside of our own time or our own culture that such condemnation suddenly becomes ‘problematic’. Hence, we may condemn British and American foreign policy, but not Saddam’s dictatorship; we may chide America’s support for Israel, but we say nothing too harsh about suicide bombing; we see nothing “black and white” about criticising western power, but try to find “root causes” to excuse away the depravities of radical Islamism.
“There are no truths,” wrote Nietzsche, “only interpretations,” thereby laying the groundwork for the generations of relativists that followed. The kinds of people who read Nietzsche as a lifestyle guide have taken such maxims on board and left themselves without an epistemological or ethical leg to stand on. Yet such people are seemingly immunised against the paradoxes of such a position. (The whole point of Nietzsche, I’ve always thought, is these paradoxes). For in order for Nietzsche’s aphorism to be true, it also has to be an interpretation. Similarly, the French post-modernists were oblivious to the glaring contradictions of their own thought: if everything is relative, and reality is an endlessly interpretable ‘text’, then the same criteria applies to their own theories and their own work as well. In that case, why should we take anything they say seriously? (And, despite their emphasis on ‘playfulness’ and ‘irony’, these thinkers took themselves very seriously indeed.) Such an approach to the world betrays a kind of intellectual impotence – an impotence that is, in effect, a way of withholding how you truly feel. It is, in other words, a way of opting out of the political arena completely; a way of avoiding having to commit yourself to one position of another; a way of sidestepping the need to make difficult ethical statements or pass judgement upon any culture other than your own. It is a linguistic tic that thinly disguises an attempt to keep the difficult realities of the world at a safe, ironic distance. It is cowardice, indifference, and non-committal shallowness masquerading as sophistication and scepticism. A culture where ‘anything goes’ is a culture where nothing really matters, as all beliefs and phenomena are given the same weight.
So inculcated in western culture are such relativistic ideas that will take a generation – at least – to undo the damage done by those who would have us believe there’s no such thing as truth, good, or evil. Right now they own the academy, leading to an unhealthy disparity between the humanities and the far more rigorous – and truly sceptical – sciences, and they have left large sways of liberal civilisation unable, or unwilling, to stand up for the best aspects of the western enlightenment tradition. We must return to a world where a vigorous defence of reason, empiricism, progress, and political and ethical engagement is not axiomatically dismissed as a kind of cultural imperialism. We must soundly reject those who presume to tell us there is no such thing as truth, rights, or wrongs. I don’t wish to downplay the difficulties of an ethical life, but neither do I want to fall into the trap of assuming rights and wrongs are only rights and wrongs within our own borders and our own time, but up for endless prevarication outside of them.
Morality, it seems to me, is primarily a thing of emotion and instinct; something that you feel first and foremost in the guts. I do not find torture, rape, and murder distasteful simply because my culture tells me to. Nonetheless, morality is amenable to reason. The interaction of these two impulses define the moral personality, and inform the moral society, manifesting themselves in politics and law. Some things, it seems obvious to me, are black and white, and I am distrustful of the kinds of watered-down thinking that insists on telling me otherwise. A thing is either true, ultimately, or it is not. What does it say about our culture that we can look right into the face of evil, then prevaricate and obfuscate, and cannot bring ourselves to call it by its true name?