Relativism, and criticisms of it — “Oh, you’re a relativist!” — strike me as similar to claims of reductionism: the problem isn’t (as critics of reductionism claim) that one reduces one’s object of study to something other than what it already is, but that someone else reduces it to something different than what you want to boil it down to. That not a lot of so-called religious people are walking around spontaneously reporting that they’ve experienced a hierophany of a structure of human consciousness called the sacred (as one well known arch-nemisis of reductionists everywhere might have once phrased it) suggests that no matter what a scholar thinks lies at the base of religion, inasmuch as they think there’s a universal base they are all deeply invested in reducing complexity and difference to unity and simplicity.
That’s likely another way of saying that they’re thinking human actors trying to make sense of the world.
Debates over reductionism, then, might simply be evidence of turf wars and status — contests over which of the many possible bases gets to be The Base (I know that I have a dog in some of those fights). I think it’s much the same for criticisms of relativism. For we all know how to act with parents and that it’s different from how we act with friends and that the rules we follow while playing ping pong are never confused with the rules we follow while driving down a highway — which means that we all understand perfectly well that actions, personae, claims, styles of dress, modes of discourse, etc., are all relative to (i.e., conform to, are determined by) the needs and limits of specific settings and the specific expectations of the other actors in that situation. The problem, of course, is when social actors seemingly occupying the same situation not only bring with them sets of standards that are at odds but then try to represent their standards and actions as the only ones suitable for that setting. Thus, much as representing a base as The Base, claims of relativism strike me as a rhetorical, even agonistic (thinking back to the opening comic, above), move to de-legitimize and thereby displace one set of rules/actions in favor of another that’s more conducive to ones own interests– which, of course, are portrayed as natural, inevitable, and coextensive with reality itself.
So it seems to me that we’re all relativists, smoothly navigating our way through a variety of competing, sometimes even conflicting, systems and meeting the expectations thereof — until, that is, we’re so invested in some particular set of rules that we arm wrestle with others over which side of the road to drive on — failing to see that it’s all relative to where we are and the particular rules of the game we happen to be playing.