It is hard for me to imagine that so many people are so wrong. Sure, core beliefs go unexamined. Yes, we often unconsciously repeat taglines we have heard from those we respect instead of attempting to translate our true views. But I must admit I think of all people as essentially wanting to figure it out. Life, the universe, their meaning, how to make the world a better place. Some, who see the world as a competitive, dog-eat-dog place, want to figure it out because it will help them survive. Others, like me, who see the modern (Western — that is all I have direct experience with) world as an essentially benign place, just want to figure it out because of a innate curiosity (no doubt a result of past generations with the former motivation).
So when someone says something which strikes me as wrong, when I have the kneejerking impulse to correct them, this belief of mine kicks in and stops me. Oh my, it didn’t used to; I would happily correct the abundant wrongness in the world. After all, if people think the right way, they will do better for themselves and others. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have this belief, however, but it has taken a while to trickle its way into my choice of actions.
All through my youth, I was told that I was smart (a pedagogically questionable practice). I didn’t buy it (I’ve always had a rebellious streak). What makes me so special? I wasn’t just born with smartness, I thought. At first this manifested as an individualistic self-righteousness: I must be smart because of the intelligent ways I chose to spend my youth (what? Trampoline, video games, and Power Rangers?). More recently it has manifested as a skepticism of the views of those who tell me I am smart: you only say that because I am articulating things you agree with, so the compliment is a way of affirming your own worldview. Those both seem naive to me now. I don’t know what I currently think about it, I will probably only be able to articulate that once I move to some other view.
I am still skeptical of any innate superiority (however not enough so to avoid writing this post in a way that comes across as advice). So when I stop myself from correcting a wrongness, what do I do? This is the relativism I’ve been talking about.
Words don’t have meaning; in a conversation, the speaker translates meaning into words, and then the listener translates the words into meaning. We have a soft social agreement about how words are used, and that gives rise to trends in our patterns of thought. But the possibility remains — and I use the word possibility only because of a timidness, I really think of it more as a high probability — that the meanings that I have assigned to the words when I hear them are different from the meanings that were used to form them. Indeed, it is unclear what is even meant by two people having the same thought. My brain is not likely to have the ability to represent the thought that produced the words, especially if I disagree with them.
The exercise, then, is this: try to represent those thoughts anyway. How can I think of these words so that the sentence becomes true? Not just slightly less false, but really true. I might have to temporarily reorient my value system; I might have to imagine I grew up in a religious family; I might have to picture the scary possible worlds that might result if the statement were false (that is, beyond the proportion of the consequences I actually predict, already thinking the statement is false). When I remember to do this, I am brought to a calm, understanding level, with few fiery arguments in sight. My contributions to these conversations are transformed into questions instead of assertions — not Socratic “let me lead you to the right answer” questions, but genuine “I want to understand you” questions.
And that is the essence of relativism to me. What you mean by your words is not what I mean by your words. Sentences are uttered with the concept of their truth in mind, and before blasting forth a correction, I first have to understand how they are true. And more often than not, my planned correction is dismantled and replaced by a connected friendship.