" Universal Community of Friends - Condemnation Without Absolutes BY STANLEY FISH

Condemnation Without Absolutes

BY STANLEY FISH


CHICAGO -- During the interval between the terrorist
attacks and the United States response, a reporter called
to ask me if the events of Sept. 11 meant the end of
postmodernist relativism. It seemed bizarre that events so
serious would be linked causally with a rarefied form of
academic talk. But in the days that followed, a growing
number of commentators played serious variations on the
same theme: that the ideas foisted upon us by postmodern
intellectuals have weakened the country's resolve. The
problem, according to the critics, is that since
postmodernists deny the possibility of describing matters
of fact objectively, they leave us with no firm basis for
either condemning the terrorist attacks or fighting back.

Not so. Postmodernism maintains only that there can be no
independent standard for determining which of many rival
interpretations of an event is the true one. The only thing
postmodern thought argues against is the hope of justifying
our response to the attacks in universal terms that would
be persuasive to everyone, including our enemies. Invoking
the abstract notions of justice and truth to support our
cause wouldn't be effective anyway because our adversaries
lay claim to the same language. (No one declares himself to
be an apostle of injustice.)

Instead, we can and should invoke the particular lived
values that unite us and inform the institutions we cherish
and wish to defend.

At times like these, the nation rightly falls back on the
record of aspiration and accomplishment that makes up our
collective understanding of what we live for. That
understanding is sufficient, and far from undermining its
sufficiency, postmodern thought tells us that we have
grounds enough for action and justified condemnation in the
democratic ideals we embrace, without grasping for the
empty rhetoric of universal absolutes to which all
subscribe but which all define differently.

But of course it's not really postmodernism that people are
bothered by. It's the idea that our adversaries have
emerged not from some primordial darkness, but from a
history that has equipped them with reasons and motives and
even with a perverted version of some virtues. Bill Maher,
Dinesh D'Souza and Susan Sontag have gotten into trouble by
pointing out that "cowardly" is not the word to describe
men who sacrifice themselves for a cause they believe in.

Ms. Sontag grants them courage, which she is careful to say
is a "morally neutral" term, a quality someone can display
in the performance of a bad act. (Milton's Satan is the
best literary example.) You don't condone that act because
you describe it accurately. In fact, you put yourself in a
better position to respond to it by taking its true
measure. Making the enemy smaller than he is blinds us to
the danger he presents and gives him the advantage that
comes along with having been underestimated.

That is why what Edward Said has called "false universals"
should be rejected: they stand in the way of useful
thinking. How many times have we heard these new mantras:
"We have seen the face of evil"; "these are irrational
madmen"; "we are at war against international terrorism."
Each is at once inaccurate and unhelpful. We have not seen
the face of evil; we have seen the face of an enemy who
comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals and
strategies. If we reduce that enemy to "evil," we conjure
up a shape- shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist
beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of
any counterstrategies.

The same reduction occurs when we imagine the enemy as
"irrational." Irrational actors are by definition without
rhyme or reason, and there's no point in reasoning about
them on the way to fighting them. The better course is to
think of these men as bearers of a rationality we reject
because its goal is our destruction. If we take the trouble
to understand that rationality, we might have a better
chance of figuring out what its adherents will do next and
preventing it.

And "international terrorism" does not adequately describe
what we are up against. Terrorism is the name of a style of
warfare in service of a cause. It is the cause, and the
passions informing it, that confront us. Focusing on
something called international terrorism - detached from
any specific purposeful agenda - only confuses matters.
This should have been evident when President Vladimir Putin
of Russia insisted that any war against international
terrorism must have as one of its objectives victory
against the rebels in Chechnya.

When Reuters decided to be careful about using the word
"terrorism" because, according to its news director, one
man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, Martin
Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for
Communication at the University of Southern California,
castigated what he saw as one more instance of cultural
relativism. But Reuters is simply recognizing how unhelpful
the word is, because it prevents us from making
distinctions that would allow us to get a better picture of
where we are and what we might do. If you think of yourself
as the target of terrorism with a capital T, your opponent
is everywhere and nowhere. But if you think of yourself as
the target of a terrorist who comes from somewhere, even if
he operates internationally, you can at least try to
anticipate his future assaults.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a
cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own
convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism
could hardly end because it never began. Our convictions
are by definition preferred; that's what makes them our
convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a
danger.

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting
yourself in your adversary's shoes, not in order to wear
them as your own but in order to have some understanding
(far short of approval) of why someone else might want to
wear them, then relativism will not and should not end,
because it is simply another name for serious thought.
Stanley Fish, dean of the college of liberal arts and
sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the
author, most recently, of "How Milton Works."

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