One of the stranger responses I get whenever I profess my own shrugging relativism is a snickering, “Oh, but that can’t possibly be true. You like things!” I think I’m meant to realize that literally liking anything precludes relativism. And recently, I have been introduced to this claim’s cousin: meaningful criticism is not possible within a relativist framework.
So then this will be briefly about being a relativist, then about allowing for preferences, and then about embracing criticism.
A Relativist Who Likes Things
First things first: I do like things. I also dislike things. Where I stop short is believing that my likes and dislikes are reflective of factual truths about whatever it is that is being discussed. In other words, I continue to remain confused about those who would argue that relativism precludes preferences, not because I don’t understand the argument being attempted, but because my own relativist outlook is specifically underpinned by the acknowledgement of individualized human preference. Because I believe that all human beings have preferences specific to themselves and their own experiences, I do not believe that any one human is necessarily correct in any evaluative statements made about any particular thing.
Perhaps that is general and unclear. Instead, I want to use olives as a more concrete stand-in. But before doing that, another concession – there are factual truths about the olives that we are going to discuss: what they weigh, how many calories they have, where they are from, etc. Those are their measurable truths. This is not a discussion about those facts; people don’t (often) argue about aspects of a thing. This is a discussion about the subjective things that people do argue about. This is a discussion about aesthetics.
Back to the olives.
And to really make this experiment work, we need not only our olives, but also three people: somebody who likes olives, somebody who does not like olives, and somebody who is indifferent to olives. Imagine these three people sitting around a table with a jar of olives at its center. The person who likes olives may be excited. “Wow! A jar of olives! Do we get to eat that?” The person who dislikes olives may be less enthusiastic. “I would rather eat roofing tar than eat a single one of those.” The person who could take or leave olives is understandably nonplussed, “Yep. That’s a jar of olives.”
For those that believe that there are truly objective valuations of things, one of these three must be factually true about olives. Those same people must believe that olives are something more than just olives: they’re tasty, they’re disgusting, they’re ho-hum, they’re something. Presumably, there is a correct answer about olives, in the same way that people insist that there are correct aesthetic evaluations of all sorts of things: music, movies, paintings, sculpture, whatever.
A brief sojourn: I think I am quite likely to be told that olives are very unlike music, movies, paintings, sculpture, whatever. Perhaps. But olives, like all of those, are just another thing. I am sure that there are people in the world as passionate about their olives as an art collector is about what is on the walls. And I am sure that the people who produce olives are just as invested in their work as is an artist. The distinction being drawn between a food and anything else is awfully convenient if only because it is obvious that some of us like things that others do not. I fail to see how music, movies, paintings, sculpture, or whatever else are any different in producing a variety of responses from their consumers.
But how can we possibly figure out which of the critical views among these three is correct? The person who loves arrived at the table predisposed to enjoy what was presented. The person who hates arrived at the table predisposed to hate what was presented. The person who is indifferent arrived at the table unsure of what to expect. To declare that any of the three of them is necessarily wrong in their post-olive evaluative conclusion is indicate a belief in the rightness and wrongness of the valuation, all the while also judging their own reaction to olives. Forget for a moment how condescending that latter part is (although really, it is unbelievably condescending), and focus instead on how exactly we arrive at that allegedly correct answer.
That answer is never entirely clear. One explanation is that some among us – for various reasons, be it their own expertise or something else – are capable of providing the sort of objective analysis that gets us closer to the truth about our jar of olives. A olive enthusiast who has somehow tried all the world’s olives might tell us that the olives from our jar are the best he has ever tasted, but there is no reason to assume the universal truth of his claim. He is speaking from his own experiences, a history specific to him and all of the things that have ever influenced him. He can claim that he somehow disconnected from the entirety of his own experiences when evaluating this most recent olive, but is that believable? Another, more cynical explanation might point toward the odd overlap of the things that the critic claims are objectively true and the things that the critic himself most prefers. Whatever the case, the the perception obviously exists that there are correct answers in the world. Or, at least, answers that some people claim are correct.
A relativist is free from even trying to answer these questions. Instead, all three of the people at our table can be correct if we assume that each is outwardly reflecting their own tastes. The olives themselves? They’re just olives, easily capable of withstanding a world in which numerous individuals have competing opinions about them. They possess no greater truth than their own particular, and previously mentioned, facts. And that, for reasons we are going to get into, is okay.
A world in which some questions do not have objectively correct answers terrifies/angers/frustrates some people. Whether this is because they genuinely believe that there are correct answers or because they enjoy associating themselves with the allegedly correct answers or perhaps because they know for certain what the wrong answers are, I cannot say. Whatever the case, some of the people who want there to be right answers seem to think that a world without them precludes the possibility of substantive, meaningful critique. I see no reason for this to be true.
Let’s revisit our tasters and the jar of olives. Now imagine three critics sitting with our three tasters. Each of the critics happens to share the opinion of the taster he is sitting with. The critic who loves olives is sitting with the taster who loves olives. The critic who hates olives is sitting with the taster who loves olives. The critic who is indifferent to olives is sitting with the taster who is indifferent to olives. We have created a larger problem with their introduction, because now, each of those critics is going to be light-shining-down-from-the-heavens right in the mind of one person sitting at that table, and wrong in the mind of the other four. That scenario will repeat itself around the table, as each critic holds forth on the quality of the jar of olives, one will celebrate his pronouncement and four will roll their eyes. What then?
Among the fears of relativism is the idea that nobody is right. That is wrong though. It is not that everybody is wrong; it is that everybody is right. Each off the three critics are correct, just as each of the three tasters are correct. So that this becomes the critical opportunity. Critics cannot effectively speak to everybody; there are simply too many perspectives to account for. But the critic can speak to those whose own preferences align reasonably well.
This will not go over well. Critics benefit from trading in the idea that their own evaluations are somehow closer to the truth. Relativism obviously rejects the claim. What those critics are claiming is simply the marketing of their work. It is an attempt to assert a superiority of taste where none actually exists. Why? Mostly because critics are not dumb. People like the validation; criticism bolsters that approval among those concerned with such things. Critics also obviously believe their own preferences to be the correct ones. Relativism allows for a critic’s preferences. All it does is ask the critic to stop short of declaring that a preferential position is in actually a factual reality. Simply having personally liked (or disliked) a thing is criticism enough. A critique does not have to be universally true (because no such thing exists) to be valuable.
Our critics at the table? The critic who loves olives might be useless to the two tasters whose feel different about the olives (or at least, his critical enthusiasm may be an efficient shorthand for the two tasters, rightly or wrongly), but for the taster who loves olives, this critic’s perspective is validating in a way that might encourage further exploration. If the critic loves these olives, after all, perhaps his love of those tomatoes and that pasta brand and this bakery are also worth pursuing. And for the other tasters at the table, the critics sitting with them whose views overlap? Those shared opinions of the overall quality of olives (either indifferent or negative) would serve as the same sort of useful shorthand.
Thus, it isn’t an issue of criticism not mattering in a relativist world. It’s a matter of finding the critics that make the most sense to us personally. Arguably, we all do this anyway, whether we want to admit it or not.
One Final Thought
I know how conversations about relativism go. They are endured and then ignored. Such is the situation of someone who really believes that all things have null values. I do not begrudge anyone for their disagreement. I would not be staying true to my cause if I made a point of insisting that other people who believed differently were necessarily wrong. I do not need their approval to believe that their own opinions are no closer than my own to a truth that I do not believe exists in the world.
But if I did, I might point out that of the three tasters sitting at that table, I am the one who hates olives (you know, in case the title had not given it away), so much so that I will not go near food with olives in them. I find their taste repulsive and boggle at how anyone could think to themselves that their inclusion in a dish – any dish, even the dog’s dish – makes any sort off sense at all. If their is an objective measure of something like olives beyond their own basic facts, I am potentially correct in my boiling hatred of these tiny little taste terrorists. If there is no objective measure though, I can seethe at their un-oiled existence and you can continue to enjoy them upon your pizza. You monster.
(Image courtesy of Deas Olives, a website that is literally my waking nightmare.)