I’ve never been a relativist. I have never thought that all truths were relative and that it was all just a matter of perspective.
I was often (and still am) quite prickly about it:
Someone else: Everything is relative.
Me: What does that mean? Relative to what? And really,
Someone else: All truths are relative to a person’s perspective.
Me: Even that one — that all truths are relative to a person’s perspective? Well, then in my perspective, all truths are not relative.
Someone else: Then that’s your perspective. And only true from your perspective.
Me: Why are you disagreeing with me? You accept that I can have a different perspective, and that is my perspective. You cannot disagree with me; you must support my perspective. After all, according to you, all perspectives should be supported. I can, however, disagree with you, because I don’t think that. I think, “you’re wrong about all truths being relative.”
And so on….
I do not relish in consensus. I do not feel the loving urge to support another’s opinion just because it belongs to a fellow human being. I’m not good at agreeing or finding consensus. I’m much better at disagreeing.
But disagreement, in actual conversations over coffees and dinner tables, can often stultify a conversation and hamper a relationship. There is something very private and alone about disagreement. Xavier Le Pichon, a geophysicist influential in our understanding of plate tectonics, said that,
We have to be educated by the other. My heart cannot be educated by myself. It can only come out of a relationship with others. And if we accept being educated by others, to let them explain to us what happens to them, and to let yourself be immersed in their world so that they can get into our world, then you begin to share something very deep. You will never be the person in front of you, but you will have created what we call communion.1
And Anthony Appiah, a philosopher who’s no relativist, believes that
the way to set moral change in motion… is not to go for the jugular, or even for dialogue—straight to the things that divide you. Talk about sports. Talk about the weather. Talk about your children. Make a human connection. Change comes about in part… by way of ‘conversation in the old-fashioned sense’ — simple association, habits of coexistence, seeking familiarity around the mundane human qualities of who we are.2
We all share a common humanity, but often our differences come more readily to mind. We have to find and affirm and re-affirm our commonality. That is the wisdom in the oft-repeated falsehood “that all truths are relative”: we have to listen to and understand each other first. We need to feel like we belong.
And the thing is we do; we belong to each other. For whatever reason, we consistently forget that.