Tibor R. Machan
As an avid reader of Science News magazine I never miss anything offered up by the editors. I often purchase a book they recommend and peruse the letters of the editor routinely. (I’ve had several of my own published over the years.)
In the April 12, 2008, issue a letter appears that puzzled me quite a bit, both for its content and because it was published. Here is what it said:
“I feel that Rachel Ehrenberg was entirely too glib in ‘Digging that Maya blue” (SN:3/1/08, p. 134). The description of an ancient Mayan religious ritual as ‘plucking the hearts from humans and tossing the bodies into the sacred cenote’ is disrespectful. I am sure that Science News would never describe any contemporary religious ritual in this manner. Here is hoping that the editors and writers adopt a more dispassionate eye.”
So now human sacrifices are supposed to be dealt with respectfully! Give me a break. Next we will read from some multicultural fanatic that slavery, female circumcision and other atrocities from the past, and perhaps even the gassing of the Jews by the German authorities just a few decades ago, need to be handled respectfully. Or perhaps just because the Mayan atrocity was at the behest of a religious sect it deserves our respect. Why? Can religions not manifest gross evil just as ideologies often do?
Not all matters from the past can easily be evaluated, that is true. Sometimes the context and circumstances are complicated and the behavior being examined may not fit clearly within moral categories. But human sacrifice? Come on, surely here we can say, with sufficient confidence, that those folks back there did something utterly contemptible. If not, then I suppose the multicultural thesis would imply that we must not pass judgment on anything, including the practice of chattel slavery in the not so far off past of the United States of America.
The irrationality of this viewpoint is obvious just from the fact that advocates of the multicultural viewpoint endlessly moralize about those who refuse to accept their position. Just consider the Science News letter writer who freely chided the editors instead of regarding their stance, well, an alternative cultural stance, one that freely condemns various religious practices of the past. If these editors can be criticized for what they did, so can the Mayans, otherwise what is being done is actually insulting to the latter. Mayans and others in the past were human beings, ever bit as we are, and various moral standards are applicable to understanding how they conduct themselves, just as such standards apply to the editors and writers of Science News.
The intellectually fascinating feature of multiculturalism is just how incoherent it quickly becomes. If one fails to accept multiculturalism, well then one is acting badly; but if one accepts multiculturalism, then no one can be blamed for anything at all since from some, however obtuse, cultural standpoint any conduct can be “justified.”
It would be far more enlightened to figure out some basic standards of human morality and then apply them to any society and culture carefully. The nihilism of refusing to judge is simply unavoidable to us--even that refusal is a judgment and in need of rational support.
The multicultural stance exhibited by the Science News letter writer is not the only one that has the problem of incoherence, of course. All relativist positions face it, as do subjectivist ones. Implicit in all such purportedly tolerant and nonpartisan ethical positions is an intolerance of making moral judgments. Yet for some reason those who advocate these doctrines do not seem to realize it or hope that others won’t notice the problem.
I agree with one thing in the letter from Science News. Being glib can be dangerous when it comes to judging people. But it is also understandable that journalists would toy with glibness--after all they need to make their copy a good read, not simply accurate and relevant.