Intellectual paralysis, brought on by cultural relativism

When Justin Trudeau rolled the new citizenship guide into a dunce cap and jammed it firmly onto his head he revealed a great deal about the sorry mess that is modern liberalism.

It is true that he has since apologized. But his contrived apology is of no interest. It is their unreflective words that reveal politicians' thoughts, not the paste squeezed out of the PR machine once it is switched on, from the opening "Perhaps" through a disingenuous reference to "semantic weeds" to blaming his partisan opponents' cynicism, to the "if they've been interpreted" ploy that apologizes for other people's taking offence not his giving it. Plus it only appeared after a series of Tweets defending his original comments.

What merits attention is his original remarks. And not because he's a deep or leading thinker. Rather, when a handsome and privileged but otherwise ordinary political celebrity talks without a script we get contemporary liberalism unfiltered. And unfiltered, it wrinkles its nose at a vigorous denunciation of "honour killings" and "female genital mutilation." Calling them "barbaric," he said, made him "uncomfortable" because it was "pejorative."

I should hope it was. That both practices are widespread in the Middle East and parts of Africa clearly indicates that too many people there are in the grip of a profound and evil hatred of women. If such things don't make you want to shout something indignant, you have a problem. The question is, what problem?

Modern liberals don't seem to hate women. You can take serious exception to their entire feminist agenda, from no-fault divorce to abortion on demand to universal daycare, without denying their genuine outrage at violence against, discrimination against or even demeaning language directed at women. But why, then, do they instinctively recoil from a robust denunciation of those who do hate and harm women?

The problem is that they are also committed to a mentally and politically paralyzing cultural relativism, driven more by sentiment and snobbery than serious thought, that renders their core beliefs unredeemably incoherent.

It was in that intellectual mess, not "semantic weeds," that the hapless Justin Trudeau so wretchedly entangled himself when he said, "There's nothing that the word 'barbaric' achieves that the words 'absolutely unacceptable' would not have achieved. We accept that these acts are absolutely unacceptable. That's not the debate. In casual conversation, I'd even use the word barbaric to describe female circumcision, for example, but in an official Government of Canada publication, there needs to be a little bit of an attempt at responsible neutrality."

Why? Why does there need to be a public attempt at "responsible neutrality" between those who think you should destroy women's genitals early so they won't enjoy sex and those who call this practice revolting and wicked and don't want it practised here? Clearly what "barbaric" achieves that "unacceptable" does not is to express indignation. The question is why someone would find such a thing shocking, especially when he'd said it himself privately.

It's quite simple. If we admit publicly that such things are barbaric and also that they are common in some other cultures but very rare in our own we cannot, even if we are not very smart, avoid the conclusion that our culture is better than many others. Say that aloud and, before you know it, you're looking in the mirror and seeing George W. Bush. You become patriotic and proud of Western civilization, and start reading Kipling and watching Chuck Norris films. But to deny it depends on cultural relativism which is, in the end, inseparable from moral relativism and a nihilistic attitude toward truth. Thus Michael Ignatieff, supposedly a clever man, got drawn into the issue in Montreal on Tuesday and plunged voluntarily into some extremely rank semantic weeds.

"Let's not play word games with this stuff. ... There's no such thing as an honour killing, there's only killing and it's a crime everywhere. We're based on equality here and any of these practices are simply unacceptable. If you want to use the word barbaric, use the word barbaric."

No. Not good enough. The question isn't whether I "want" to use the word barbaric. It's whether the word "barbaric" accurately describes the practice. If it does, it's moral and intellectual irresponsibility not to use it, or to deny that "honour killings" exist. But the only way to avoid speaking such truths is to snatch for the totally relativist card and say what you call things is just "word games."

What snared Justin Trudeau was not semantic weeds. It was intellectual ones, deep and deadly, and if you get caught in them they'll strangle your brain. By demonstrating that point, he did us all a favour with his remarks. Uh, except himself. Nice dunce cap, buddy.

[First appeared in The Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson