Thursday, December 09, 2010

It's safe to cross against a red light if everyone does it together

The following is an excerpt from D.A. Carson's article, "Contrarian Reflections on Individualism":
[W]e need to reflect a little more on the bearing of truth on [individualism]. Begin with an essay by Phil Myles, "Of Truth, Tolerance and Tyranny." Miles begins by outlining one of the central myths of our time. According to this myth, a society is likely to be most tolerant if it holds to flexible, non-dogmatic, even multivalent notions of truth; conversely, a society is likely to be most intolerant where it holds to absolute truths, truths that are inflexible, unbending. In other words, tyranny and tolerance find themselves in a perennial battle, and which pole triumphs is largely tied to the conception of truth that we sustain.

But does this myth capture reality? Is the myth true? Miles sets forth his thesis:
The reality of the situation is just the opposite of what we have been led to believe. Put simply, tyranny is not the inevitable outcome of an absolutist view of truth, but is, rather, the direct product of relativism. Likewise, tolerance arises not from relativism but from the very thing that our society anathematizes—the belief in absolutes.
It would take too long to lay out the details of Miles’s argument. Suffice it to say that he holds that many of our categories for thinking about these things are inappropriate. In part, he argues by case study. He begins with Japan, a country where he lived for many years. In most Western cultures, we live in the shadow of the Enlightenment, which taught us to classify our experience into two categories: the one, full of non-absolutes, is characterized by emotion, aesthetics, the arts; the other is characterized by absolutes, objectivity, science, logical thought, and truth. These two categories are mutually exclusive. The second category is the domain of both tyranny and objective truth. By contrast, Japan brings the two categories together in ways that would be judged incompatible in most of the Western world: on the one hand, haiku poetry and delicate paintings of enchanting cherry blossoms, and on the other, ruthless business corporations and political machinations. The fact that these two categories co-exist and interpenetrate each other in Japan is part of what makes Japan seem so "mysterious" to the Western observer. In reality, Miles argues, what is often called the “iron triangle"—"the triad of elected government, big business and the bureaucracy"—exerts enormous power in a frankly oppressive manner. "There is no need to picture this in terms of dictators and jack-boots. Things are done a lot more subtly in Japan, but the salient fact is that those who hold power use it to control the lives of those beneath them.” There is little tradition of elected officials being “servants of the people"; in fact, the people exist to serve the state and culture, not to mention the company to which a person belongs. In Japanese culture, there is little notion of "right" and "wrong" in absolute terms; it is well known that there is no Japanese word for "sin." In this sense, Japanese society is relativisitic—i.e., what is "right" depends on the situation in which you find yourself, determined by the social expectations of your position in the power structure. Miles writes,
Japanese are very adept at assessing what is required in a situation and acting accordingly. This is often misunderstood by Westerners as duplicity, but it is simply the way life must be lived where all is relative. Truth itself becomes merely a social construct. If everybody believes something to be true, or if the powers that be say that it is, then for the practical purposes of daily life, it is true. As the Japanese say, it’s safe to cross against a red light if everyone does it together.
In other words, Japan is a case study in which a kind of relativism opens up the door to a kind of social tyranny that massively discounts the significance of the individual and therefore squashes individualism. Miles argues that in this sort of culture, if there were, say, unambiguous and objective moral law to which individuals could appeal, there could be a critique of the unfettered deployment of social and political power. It is the absence of such objective standards that make the oppressiveness of the culture possible.

Though it is not part of Miles's argument, one might observe that in the twentieth century the greatest political crushing of individualism occurred under Marxism and Fascism. Both deployed not only brute force but massive propaganda machines to keep people safely in line with the party dogma. Truth was what Joseph Goebbels (for instance) said it was.

In the light of such case studies, one becomes aware that individualism that can become personally tyrannical (everyone does what is right in their own eyes) may, in this broken world, alternatively serve as a bulwark standing athwart massive social and political tyrannies crying, "Enough!" But it is hard to see whence the moral fortitude for such a stance will come if we systemically lose the category of objective truth. Martyrs are not made of sponge.


  1. BTW, Christopher Hitchens is an advocate for democratic governments, particularly counter to tyrannical, totalitarian, and similar governments.

    He's also a convinced atheist without good arguments for objective truth and morality. Not only a convinced atheist but, infamously, a militant atheist who disdains God and religion, often placing various religions in the same category as the totalitarian political systems he opposes.

    Yet, if the above analysis from Carson based on Myles' argument is correct, then perhaps Hitchens should consider theism if for no other reason than to support democracy and democratic governments contra tyranny and the like.

  2. Wow! Those insights on Japan from Miles are priceless.

    Thanks for posting Patrick!