Truth can never be found in ideas and opinions. When a woman argues with a religious fundamentalist whether she has to put on certain clothes or not, there is no final judge who can decide who is right. The woman would probably base her arguments on a certain idea of political enlightenment while the fundamentalist will base his argument on a certain idea of God. Yet there is no final judge who can decide if the enlightenment or God is the right idea to base your arguments on. This is simply a matter of conviction.
Truth can be found in matter however. If the above mentioned argument is held in the Netherlands, the woman would be right by the mere fact that she doesn’t need to wear a dress or a scarf in this country. This conception of truth might seem to open a door for cultural relativism. In the Islamic State for example, the woman in question would be wrong because over there the law would state that she is obliged to wear a Burqa. This danger of relativism, where truths are decided by cultural habits, decreases when you look at the history of why current state of affairs are the way they are. In this example between “western” values versus “Islamic” values, the enlightened viewpoint which says that women can decide which clothes they wear was originally not a western viewpoint. The fact that we associate this viewpoint with western values today has to do with centuries of emancipatory struggle which finally resulted in some form of equal rights for the sexes in Europe and some other countries. It’s my opinion that this abstract concept of equality in which name this struggle was fought isn’t typically western but deserves the status of universality.
But it isn’t even always necessary to posit a concept of universality to defend the idea of the enlightenment. To see this, we need to go back to the first sentence of this essay: Truth can never be found in ideas and opinions. Let’s call this the dirty secret of society. Now, it’s my belief that different regimes of power can cope with this dirty secret in different ways. The totalitarian way to cope with it is to suppress this secret, denying the fact that there isn’t such a thing as an essentialist truth. For example: By stating that the Aryan race is in essence superior to other races, thereby denying that in reality races don’t have essences. The other, democratic, way to cope with this secret is to betray the idea of an essentialist truth. In contemporary democratic societies this is done by institutions as the free press and science. Both of these institutes owe their existence to the fact that we never know for certain if we are right about our believes or not. Scientific theories can always be disproven by new scientific research and popular opinion can always be changed by journalistic endeavours. This betrayal of the idea of an essentialist truth is the first step to a true democracy. Although contemporary democracies deserve to be criticized, the fact that uttering this critique is still possible means that these democracies deserve to be defended at the same time as well.