Monday, May 17, 2010

The "equally valid viewpoints" straw man

I am working my way through a book about the (political) life and times of Ronald Reagan. In the introduction, the author--whose name I won't disclose but whose last name rhymes roughly with the capitalized part of the sentence "WHY LEND Scott the money?"--states

I reject, however, the now fashionable claim that objectivity involves reporting all views or interpretations as equally valid.

This type of statement is common in my experience in academia, and I submit that it is a straw man. I know of very few people, even at the level of the "popular" trade-book audience to which Mr. Wilentz's this author's book is directed, who really believe that "all views or interpretations are equally valid." At least, I have not encountered any personally, and I have not read any who make such an extreme claim.

My claim may do little more than betray my own limited acquaintanceship and reading, and if so, maybe my charge that this is a "straw man" argument is itself a straw man. But in my experience, candidates for people who are accused of holding the view that "all views or interpretations are equally valid" generally are those who stress moral relativity or who engage in that pursuit/method/strategy known as "postmodernism" or some iteration thereof. In my experience, these folks tend to be of the following types:
  1. People who do believe that some "views or interpretations" are more valid than others but who see postmodernism and its siblings deconstructionism and poststructuralism simply as tools to decipher such phenomena as power relations or to discover the underlying motivations behind texts. (Yes, my understanding of these theories is just extensive enough to be annoying to someone who really knows about such stuff...a little learning is a dangerous thing!)
  2. People who believe that no "views or interpretations" are more valid than others, but who posit that each of the "views or interpretations" is bound in the "subject's" time, gender, sexuality, race, class (und so weiter....pile it on!) and present a unique perspective and cannot be contradicted by reified "truth" waiting in the wings to be uncovered. These people, as a rule, do not contend that all "views or interpretations" are equally valid, but that they are all limited and governed by perspective.
  3. People who really do claim that all "views or interpretations" are equally valid, but who, in practice or when pressed by reductio ad absurdum arguments, betray the fact that they act as if they believe some "views or interpretations" are more valid than others. One (non-academic) subset of this group are people who innocently enough opine a live-and-let-live philosophy and may indeed, at times, utter something to the effect of "all people are different and none are better than others." In my experience, such persons, if you ask further what they mean, are quite apt to claim that there are indeed certain things they value over others (they may think, for example, that toleration is better than bigotry, that peace is usually better than war, and that murder is wrong), lending credence to my belief that such assertions in today's society are not a confession of the equal validity of all "views or interpretations," but rather something approximating a figure of speech.
With the partial exception of the people in number 3 above--a group much less numerous than the author-whose-name-I-won't-disclose's courageous and defiant affirmation above might suggest--this list does not represent people who actually argue or believe that all "views or interpretations" are equally valid.

I recently, within the last year, attended a talk by a scholar who purported to have discovered THE TRUTH about Sophocles' play Antigone. In other words, scholars in the past 2,400 or so years had missed the boat, and she, in 2009, uncovered THE TRUE meaning of the play. Her argument, as I recall, was quite interesting and one I hadn't thought of before. It made sense in the context of her discussion of Athenian democracy. Desto gut, desto besser.

But someone in the audience--not an impecunious grad student like me, but a prominent legal scholar--suggested to this scholar that perhaps the other unfortunately mistaken scholars' "views or interpretations" over the past two millennia or so were bound in their time period and that the particular "views or interpretations" they espoused were right for their time. She responded (I paraphrase because I don't have an exact transcript, but I'm close to the mark): "I'm not arguing that all interpretations are valid. I think I have found the correct interpretation!"

Of course, who could answer an objection like that? The person who had asked the question was either nice enough or collegial enough or exasperated enough that he didn't take the time to remind her that he wasn't claiming all "views or interpretations" of Antigone were equally valid, but that they were bound by the time period in which they were made.

At least, that's my view of the whole matter. I suppose someone could come up with an interpretation that's just as good.

Update 5-18-10: I've edited to clean up some of tortuous grammar and writing. I've also added some clarifying language to illustrate what I meant.

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