Keeping things in perspective: the rarity of relativism

Keeping things in perspective: the rarity of relativism

Danielle Zukowski

While walking around campus, you often hear dramatic phrases like “freezing” when it’s really just a little cold and “starving” when, come on, you know you just ate two hours ago. It’s common to see people shake their head when the extreme phrase “literally the worst day ever” slips out of someone’s mouth. These expressions, however, are clearly hyperbolic and the speaker does not literally mean literally. Yet some of us still sneer, “you mean figuratively.”

With circumstances such as those in which the speaker is being quite theatrical, people typically respond with laughter and don’t take them very seriously. Other times, people get kind of angry and defensive.

How can you say you’re freezing when there are homeless people who are sleeping under newspaper on the street during the winter? How can you say you’re starving when there are actually malnourished children in third world countries? You think you had a bad day? Well, if that’s the worst thing that ever happened to you, then you’re lucky.

These aggressive responses may be rooted in frustrated desire to make people appreciate their privileges, however, it fails to recognize the occasional validity of these statements. These expressions are clearly hyperbolic, but it also must be remembered that they are relative. The person is not intending to say that the events of their day were the absolute worst thing that ever happened to anybody on the planet. This person is most likely just saying that whatever happened was bad for them.

If we take a little lesson from sociology, there is a concept called cultural relativism. This is where, when studying another culture, you have to put yourself in the perspective of that culture. This means that you can’t look at another culture with your own views, values and so on because your research and observations will not spark insightful discussion in regard to that culture.

If we examine another culture with American ideals, we are likely to find some of their customs weird, but in order to gain an intuitive understanding we need to look at these customs with their culture’s values in mind.

In relation to this phenomenon, when someone experiences something that they feel brings them pain or sadness or any emotion, we might want to try thinking of that experience with their perspective in mind. We often disregard things as first world problems and sometimes that is funny. Sometimes we say completely ridiculous things and worry about such frivolous issues. But other times, I think we do lack the relativism that could provide us some insight.

Perhaps in this person’s life, whatever they are talking about really is the worst thing that has happened to them. Or for example, maybe it is only 40 degree weather and that’s really nice for a Grand Rapids winter, but if a person just moved here from Hawaii, they might say it’s freezing.

We can’t expect everyone to have the same experiences. Therefore, when bad experiences happen to different people, we should expect a huge range of responses. Some of us feel pain when others don’t, and that’s completely fine.

No, that doesn’t mean we have to tiptoe around others feelings all the time. I’m not discouraging a particular reaction to others statements of emotional expression. I’m just suggesting that maybe we should consider the context of someone’s life before we are so quick to judge how they should feel when things happen to them. When someone feels hurt, you can’t really just magically make that pain go away because you say someone else somewhere in the world has experienced a greater pain.