In both my teaching and writing I simultaneously hold two entirely contradictory ideological beliefs. I am equally a moral relativist and a moral absolutist. As a moral relativist, I believe that the only way to truly understand anything is to not stand in judgment of it, but to judge it on its own merits. This is how I try to understand other people, other cultures, and works of art and popular culture.
On the other hand, I am also a moral absolutist. I believe that there is indeed evil in the world, and that qualitative judgments are both inescapable and made countless times a day.
While some people might accuse me of being at best confused, or at worst a hypocrite, I am able to reconcile my incompatible beliefs by acknowledging the fact that, at different points in my life, I have believed many things, and I have loved many kinds of intellectual and artistic works. For the bulk of my formative years, I was a very superstitious person, saw the world in staunch black-and-white terms, and adored adventure narratives presented in comic books, fairy tales, and pulp novels. During my college years at SUNY Geneseo, I was religiously and politically adrift, but I decided to hold off on joining any ideological association until I’d finished reading most of the “Great Works of the Western Canon.” As a graduate student at Drew University, I read sociology books and multicultural American literature, watched foreign films, and became a much more tolerant, open-minded person.
I’ve changed a lot over the years; partly because I lived life. I saw the world as a reporter, I fell in love, I made friends. But it was by reading books that I was able to put my life experiences in a broader context, test my worldview against the greatest thinkers in history, and grew to become a better, wiser, person.
Therefore, if I have one goal as a college professor, it is this: get my students to read. I care not if they begin their lifelong careers as readers as I did, by devouring comic books or silly bestsellers. I just want them to have the patience to read, the ability to understand what they read, and the fortitude to tune out televisions and iPods and cell phones long enough to be immersed in another world and another perspective. Those who know how to read also know how to write and how to think.
Some of my students will change a lot thanks to what they have read, and some will change very little. But I will have the satisfaction of knowing that I nudged at least a percentage of my students in what I believe to be the right direction – intellectual autonomy in the face of a mass media that is only interested in turning people into mindless consumers who have exactly the same taste and who all think and feel the same way about every topic.
That’s my goal as a moral relativist/absolutist professor.