Another Approach to Relativism from Nightmare Academy
A both/and that is really an either/or
Awhile ago, I wrote an essay about Frank Peretti’s latest book, Nightmare Academy. While I pointed out an obvious flaw of the teacher in the book about the relativity of morality (favoring sharing over selfishness), I said I would later post about what the character in the book pointed out was another problem with the teacher’s speech. Well, here is that post.
As you will recall, one student (Charlene) had taken another student’s (Melissa’s) Walkman without permission. Ordinarily, one would say that Charlene had stolen Melissa’s Walkman, and Melissa was upset. The professor at the Knight-Moore Academy (Mr. Easley) was a thorough-going relativist who was intent upon showing the students that the situation was not an “either-or” situation (where one student was right and another wrong), but a “both/and” situation (where both are right). His take was not that Charlene was wrong to take Melissa’s Walkman without permission, but rather that Melissa was being selfish in trying to claim exclusive ownership of the Walkman. Mr. Easley argued: "You could look at it this way: You're actually sharing; you just don't know it. I think that's the whole point here: If nobody owns anything, then how can anyone steal it?"
Melissa wasn’t impressed, but not knowing how to respond stated: “Well if that's the way you want to say it, then whoever's sharing my Walkman, I'd like it if you'd share it back again."
"All right," said Mr. Easley. "See? Both Melinda and Charlene are right."
I pointed out that valuing sharing over selfishness is simply a value choice that a person who is a relativist has no reason to accept. Mr. Peretti, however, took a different tact. He had one of his main characters, Elijah (who was under disguise as “Jerry”), respond as follows:
Elijah chuckled and muttered to himself, “ Either/or.”
Easley heard him. “What was that, Jerry?”
Elijah was on the spot. He could feel every eye on him. “Oh, nothing. That was just an either/or, that’s all.”
Elijah wasn’t the kind to shrink from a direct question. “Well, you’re trying to tell us that both Melinda and Charlene are right, but that was never the case. All you did was argue with Melinda to get her to change her mind, so that means, either she saw stealing as sharing or she was selfish. It wasn’t a both/and; it wasn’t either/or.”
Note that Peretti (through Elijah) did not directly attack the inconsistency in being a relativist who says that one person was selfish, but rather he attacked it on the point that he was attempting to make her aware that she was wrong in being selfish. It isn’t much different than my argument, but it is sufficiently different that I thought it was valuable to pass it along.
By the way, I should mention that Nightmare Academy is a book for young adults, but I would recommend it as an enjoyable story for anyone who likes Peretti's other books. It isn't quite as good as some of his earlier works, but it is an easy read, raises good points, and has the usual Peretti frantic ending.