How sure are you of what you preach? Even as I make this grand pronouncement, I feel ambivalent. Maybe I am sure of what I preach. Then again, I may have doubts.
Now what’s wrong with that? If you think about it carefully, you’ll find that we are all thoroughly ambivalent. There is always a tinge of doubt in anything you say. Your professor is ambivalent when he claims (I am going for a somewhat generic example) that the French Revolution means this. Your girlfriend/boyfriend might be ambivalent when she/he says I love you. What is love? Am I sure what love means? Your partner must surely 1) feel besotted by other people every now and then and 2) get the hots for other people. But then, how do we distinguish love from lust and love from infatuation? Every time you try to arrive at a position, you become embroiled in maddening semantics.
So this makes me a sceptic. Good, then. We should really revive the type of scepticism practiced by the Ancient Greeks, not the scientific community. I can, say, go to Canterbury cathedral, have a lovely experience and admire the sacredness of it all. I can go to a scientific conference and agree that science is useful in some regards. That still doesn’t mean that 1) I believe in God or that 2) I believe that science is the most enlightened field of study. I can look into these two fields, absorb what I like from them and emerge with a wholly wishy-washy synthesis. This is true scepticism. When a lot of scientific thinkers claim that they are sceptics, they are being completely disingenuous. How can they claim to doubt everything and often make ludicrous assertions claiming (for instance) that science can solve anything, we need to follow science to have an enlightened society, etc.?
But we want absolutes; we don’t want callow relativism! Still, my ambivalent tendency would ascertain that some things are absolute and others are relative. That in itself is (callow?) relativism! There is a type of intransigent relativism peddled by thinkers foisted upon frustrated undergrads/postgrads the world over. (I have in mind the Holy Trinity of French post-modernism: Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze.) If you were to claim that everything is relative, that in itself is a absolutist statement! Surely, if you were truly ambivalent, you’d say – look at I’m not sure, I think that morality is absolute but knowledge is relative. This stuff over yes, the other stuff over there no.
Ultimately, we are all ambivalent about everything. The real reason we say we aren’t is down to politics. It’s that simple. When it comes to party politics, I for example might be a synthesis of a conservative, a socialist and a liberal but I will support party X because I believe that it will have positive outcomes (a practical conclusion) or that they may match my own political beliefs (a more theoretical one). If I am an academic, I might assert that knowledge is relative despite having many reservations. If I suppress these reservations, politically I will rise in the echelons of academia. As an academic making claims to be a relativist, the more absolutist I am about my relativism the more I will prosper. If we act in certain ways, concretely define why we support X policy, we become less ‘embroiled in all these maddening semantic definitions.’ We also present a clear and cogent debate, although we repeatedly have reservations about our arguments.
If this weren’t the case, how come do people change their political affiliation all of a sudden? How is it possible to have a complete 180 degree turn? Are you really capable of believing stolidly in Marx and then being a fervid believed of ‘neo-liberalism’ the next? All thanks to an epiphany? Surely, as a Marxist, one would have seen elements of truth in a certain amount of market freedom and entrepreneurialism. (I think that most people feel happy for someone when they open their own niche business and make a living off it.) Upon becoming a right-wing ideologue, you might see elements of truth in Marx’s analysis of capitalism. You might recognise that widening inequality isn’t good and that some measures, albeit non-Marxist ones, must be taken to curb it. A statement of a political affiliation is largely a pose, albeit a useful one. As stated above, it contributes to a cause and it can be helpful in offering the most clearest possible label for your type of thinking. This is even the case if you claim to see the world in black and white terms. You might claim to believe that 1) capitalism is rotten to the core and we must foster a class war to overthrow it, or 2) if we let the upper crust get as rich as possible that wealth will trickle down without any kind of state intervention. But, even if you claim to think in these binary terms, you will realise that, upon introspection, there are a lot of shade of grey in your thinking. Tell all that to an ideologue.