relativity and legitimacy


Listening to the news yesterday, I heard the story of a secretary of an infamous local scoundrel, who agreed to serve as a witness for the state at his trial. At first, I was frustrated and disappointed that the secretary, who was his partner in crime, would be able to avoid punishment. But then, I realized that this was part of the game, and what had to be done to successfully prosecute the senior criminal. This brought to mind thoughts I’ve been having lately, about the values of our society. It seems everything is relative these days.


I often wonder about the character of this age of ours… what it is that characterizes our particular period of history. Historians and philosophers refer to this period as ‘post modern’, but I see that name more as a place keeper, until historians looking back, will give it a name worthy of our time. Certainly, the great leap forward of present day technology… the move from analogue to digital instruments and memory has influenced our world to such a degree that it is the first thing anyone thinks of, when contemplating the unique qualities of our time. But there are other characteristics too, that are worthy of consideration.


Pluralism is the hallmark of the politically correct attitude in the west. After ideological wars, and the cold war of the previous century, we are trying to exercise tolerance and understanding in our meetings with different cultures, traditions and languages. We’ve learned that there are an infinite number of grays between black and white… and in fact, have embraced color too, in an attempt to reach a higher level of awareness. We acknowledge the possibility of many variations on any theme. It seems somewhat ironic that this philosophical attitude has become popular at the same time that our world is being restructured through the use of digital technology based on the binary code, a series of two letters, 0 and 1. On the one hand we have a language which is rather black and white, and on the other a culture that reflects an infinite spectrum.


The same can be said regarding our social mores. In principle, we are tolerant of deviations from what was once the standard of social behavior. We are willing to accept differences between people. But at the same time, because of our desire to legitimize every sort of behavior, we have begun to categorize almost every deviation from the norm, often as a syndrome which hints at some sort of genetic accident. For some time now, a child having difficulty reading is categorized as dyslexic. With the passage of time, we’ve learned of the growing ranks of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), bipolar disorders, ADD (attention deficit disorder), and ADHD (attention deficit hyper activity disorder). Why the need to label every departure from the norm?


As it happens, the proponents of democracy tend to embrace the idea that all people are virtually the same. The belief in this thesis promotes empathy towards our fellow man. And if someone just happens to suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, he can’t be judged for his inability to keep up with the class at school, or to produce as much at work as his fellow employees. Yet at the same time, the very classification of the syndromes makes society more aware of a growing variant citizenry. Like the apocryphal family that has two and a half children, we may eventually realize that there are very few normal people around. And then we may finally find our salvation in the recognition that it is normal to be different… maybe even different without a label. But let us leave such thoughts for tomorrow.


72 responses to “relativity and legitimacy

  1. I don’t think that theft and dishonesty were ever highly regarded in any society at any time. The disappearance of absolutes in morality, the sociologist’s relativism, has condoned and even welcomed different lifestyles. However, political corruption looks about the same as ever – with more power higher up and the kings doing what they like.

    • No, the theft and dishonesty are never praised. But often people point out the positive things… how clever the fellow is… how good he is to his mother, his dog… he gives to charity… Or he built a football stadium, or had flowers planted down mainstreet. But you’re right, Bumba. Nothing new about political corruption.

      • There’s a saying in Latin: something like “Gold has no smell”. The source of the wealth doesn’t matter once it’s acquired. True. But today’s worship of wealth and power seems to excuse theft and deceit – which is different from the relativism you talk about.

      • Regarding thieves: I have it from my teacher Sholom Brodt in the name of Reb Shlomo who said it in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, that thieves are good role models because when they’re breaking into a house they’re praying like hell that they don’t get caught….if we all prayed with such kavanna, it would certainly bring Maschiach…….LOL……..

        • I have a great regard for the sources you brought to support this point of view attributed to the great Ba’al Shem Tov. However, coming from a different theological tradition within Judaism, I have to say that I would never consider a thief as a good role model because despite his great faith in our creator to deliver him from punishment, he continuously ignores one of the ten commandments as a part of his work. In doing so, he is continuously unfaithful. I can imagine much better role models. But it is a nice joke.

  2. I don’t think there is much progress in the way of our society seeing and accepting differences between people, at least here in the United States. It is easy to label and categorize everyone maybe so that we know which labels are acceptable to us, and those we don’t want to be around because they are different and fall outside of the norm we are comfortable with.
    You’ve written an excellent post to ponder, Shimon.

    • I think that when we look at the long run, it does seem as if people’s lives are a lot better than they were a few hundred years ago. People are living longer. They have more free time. Less illness. Women are allowed to vote. But of course, it is always harder for those at the edge of society… on the margin. And we always see what should be improved. Thanks for your comment, Angeline.

  3. A very thought-provoking post. Thank you. It seems we are just moving the same pieces of the jigsaw around, while having lost the picture on the lid. Time will tell.

    • I like the way you describe it, Gill. Every generation seems to have a new plan on how to make the world a better place. Yet there are those, that actually contribute (sometimes in very little but meaningful steps) to the general happiness. Thanks.

  4. Excellent post….and I love the concept of being different without a bloody label. I hope you enjoy a lovely weekend in your new home with the beautiful Nechame…who could teach us all a thing or two. x

    • Thanks, Janet. Yes, respect for human beings (and humming birds) would be enough without the labels. As for Nechama, I don’t know how broadminded she is, but at least she never fakes it. She’s watching the street now, as I write to you… my best for a very beautiful day. xxx

  5. Normal to be different. I like that phrase very much Shimon. It is so very important that we recognise differences between people in their abilities and character. I think where the liberal elite, that tend to dictate that we’re all the same, go wrong is assuming that if we’re different we somehow have a different value as a human being and they therefore avoid the idea like the plague. This is so wrong of course and it just doesn’t make sense. As a teacher I recognised so many different classes of ability in the children I taught. Now all children it seems are pushed into some kind of academic pursuit at university, despite ability, because this is where the liberal elite believes value in the individual lies. I can only assume therefore that they look down on the people that ensure their toilets remain functional, the roads useable, and the electric lights working etc etc. This is where the idea is so seriously flawed and why I just can’t understand why the idea is so prevalent other than the fact that the liberal elite do look down on these people whilst suggesting they are, oh so liberal.
    Who will do these jobs thend when all our youngsters have been pushed through a throughly dumbed down university education, all graduating with high expectations of what they will do, many sadly finding that if only they’d studied to be a plumber, a more suitable route for someone with practical as opposed to academic skills, they’d have a job and would be earning good money. Instead they have a degree of dubious value and nowhere to go. The government of Tony Blair was largely instrumental in imposing this idea upon us and the damage to our education system is irrevocable. It’s normal to be different but being different does not mean we have any less value.
    An excellent post as always Shimon!

    • In the United States we used to have vocational schools so that students either not cut out for or not interested in college could learn a trade and make a decent living. Beginning in the late 1960s, however, people in control of education increasingly pushed the notion that everyone must go to college, and the vocational schools were done away with. After more than four decades of folly, amazingly, there’s some talk about bringing back vocational schools, but from long experience I’ve become too cynical to expect anything so logical and useful to happen.

      • Very glad to hear there’s interest in bring back vocational schools, Steve. Here in our country, we adopted this vanity from America, and it’s really a crying shame.

      • Australia tends to be a service-oriented society and, hence, ‘vocational schools’ which over here are called TAFEs (technical and further education), which provides trades-oriented vocational training and hands-on experience as part of the schooling, have been a fixture for some decades. Indeed, I have attended a number of courses at these TAFEs and they provide a good experience and knowledge. Often these courses come with an element of workplace experience as well, which really gives you an idea of whether or not you’d want to continue down that path and can result in obtaining paid work.

        • I’m glad to hear Australia has more common sense about this than the United States.

          • ‘Common sense’, well, now, I’m not too sure about that as an overall Australian character trait (we can be a bit childish sometimes, the laidback philosophy), but I guess I’d put our practicality in learning down to the fact we are a very large and isolated country and, therefore, try to be reasonably self-sufficient in the things we need, including trade education. Part of the ‘desert island mentality’. 🙂

        • I’m very happy to hear that some developed countries have continued to teach crafts and professions to young people. Here in Israel we have been too influenced by the American attitude towards academic studies… and now everyone is expected to become an academician… which makes it that much harder to find a plumber when you need him…

          • Well, maybe you could have an academician who is also a qualified and experienced plumber; someone who has realised that there are many leaves to turn in the book of life and learning! 😉

            • Actually, Janina, we have had that experience here in Israel, at many different times. When Jews were coming back in larger numbers, about a hundred years ago, many of the pioneers at that time were highly educated academicians who chose to till the earth and work at manual jobs. Then in the 90s, there was a great influx of Russian Jews who were finally given freedom of choice in the country where they had been born and raised. I remember seeing many highly educated people working at simple crafts. But it didn’t last too long. Now we have foreign laborers here, and it saddens me. I am all for giving manual labor a higher wage to encourage young people to learn a craft.

              • I believe that the more skills you have under your belt, the more useful you will be to your society. Unfortunately, governments of countries like ours often make it very difficult for highly skilled people, eg doctors, lawyers, etc, to work in their professions without first having to go through some Australian training in that field — how ridiculous! But, I guess, in some instances it is necessary to make sure that person isn’t doing anything they shouldn’t, as can happen. Shimon, maybe you need to speak to your local Council/Shire people to create an encouraging program for your local youth to learn some skills, much like they would have within a kibbutz. 🙂

              • Yes, I do try… but it seems like there are a lot of Jewish mothers who want their children to be academicians.

    • Yes, I have the same feeling about the emphasis on academic achievement these days. We have too many academics and a dearth of fine craftsmen. I’ve always felt that the true education is the encouragement and support for the individual’s natural inclinations. But sadly, we seem bent on turning out more clerks. Thank you very much for your comment, Chillbrook, and here’s hoping that society will learn to respect the individual, and that we’ll be able to get past our over-enthusiasm with the assembly line.

  6. If we are all sick in some way we can take the drugs kindly provided by big companies.If they profit,why,they can invent more drugs!
    About 50 per cent of students in the UK proceed to University but no doubt those at the bottom of society will remain there..The increase in numbers began in the early sixties under a Conservative government.
    The point about zero and one is an interesting one, Shimon.
    I like those decorated trees.. was it for Purim?I ate two Purim biscuits last week with poppy seeds inside.They were good.

  7. “And then we may finally find our salvation in the recognition that it is normal to be different … maybe even different without a label.”

    As someone who has experienced quite a few labels being applied to who I have been in the past, or who I have become today, I find the above statement very refreshing. As explorers in the internet community, we do seem to be discovering that those things that once set us apart from “normal society” are actually much more common than previously advertised, and that everyone seems to have their own particular brand or flavor of applicable label, if for no other reason than to call attention to what some would like to perceive as abnormal. If it is normal to be different, then we are all, collectively, quite normal.

    Speaking specifically for myself, I’ve been recently wondering if ever there will come a day that “abuse survivor” or any of the other labels that have been applied to me will cease to carry meaning. We have all survived something or another, and we all have wide-ranging experiences through which we filter information. In other words, as you said, even in our differences, we are the same.

    Very interesting perspective, Shimon. As always, beautifully illustrated with your choice of photographic images.

    • I agree with you completely, N. We have all survived something, and we’re always being tested anew, as we go through life. There are those who like to paint by the number, and some folks see all of life by the number… but the most wonderful experience of life is coming face to face with the creation… and little does it matter if it’s just a wee bit of this world, or wide never ending fields. That true face to face relationship is what gives it depth. And then the labels can be thrown in the trash.

  8. I do agree with you, if you scratch beneath the surface, very few people are normal, as you say….each is unique with a individual personality, same as animals.This was very interesting reading…it has me thinking. I’m not at all fond of labels either, maybe because I have always been considered eccentric….
    This age, to me, will I think be defined as the disposable age, and also the one were we first became addicted to technology, it does make you wonder where it’s all going.
    I love the knitted articles on the trees, they do that in the Lakes too, I must take some pics when we go in April and show you them.

    • ‘Same as animals’ is the key to our present insensitivity. When we’re close to animals, we learn to appreciate their unique gifts and their individual personalities. What folly it is to measure everyone by the same yardstick, instead of reaching out to appreciate and learn the individual beauty of that person. But of course, the pendulum swings this way and that. We just have to have the patience to wait for our turn again. It does seem that we’re in the disposable age. But I would like for this time to be remembered for better things. Doesn’t surprise me at all that you’re considered an eccentric… now you’ve got me smiling, Dina. xxx

  9. Such a great post, with so many ideas close to my heart, Shimon, but stated in your unique voice and accompanied by such perfect photos…(They “yarn-bomb” trees here, too…interesting development in our species. 🙂 )

    I will say that I never learned that in democracy “we’re all the same,” but that we have the same rights, an ideal worth protecting. Alas, reminding our politicians of this is challenging, because they can’t hear us due to the crowd of wealthy lobbyists and corporate CEO’s surrounding them…you know, the people with more rights than the rest of us.

    I do sometimes fret about our cultural, perhaps global, lack of circumspection regarding people’s seeming desire to be left to their own (digital) devices rather than engaging in communal, in-person connections and interactions, but I feel that at this point in my life I need to look for joy and hope more than look for ways “it’s not working.”

    I love your juxtaposition of the binary code and what it’s wrought alongside the multi-everything we laud…amusing to ponder. Thank you, Shimon, and a blessed Shabbat to you!

    • The principle that we all have the same rights is very precious and liberating. And I don’t really mind when some people prefer to read the classics in the comics version… and it can be amusing too. But sometimes, when too many people have only read the comics, we go on from being light hearted to being light headed… and get lost in the superficiality. I agree with you completely, Kitty. What’s important is the in-person connections, and looking for the joy and the good. But you know, being the old gramps I am, sometimes I feel I’ve got to mumble a warning for the young… Thank you for your good wishes. May you have a beautiful week.

  10. EVERYbody is abnormal except thee and I, and I’m not too sure about thee. Loved your photos too Shimon.

    • love your comment, DrBob, And that’s what we have friends for… to watch us and warn us, when we start running with the herd. I’m counting on you…

  11. Normal is relative, relative is normal. Or what?

  12. Pingback: Is there such a thing as truth? | maryrosenwrites

  13. Lots to ponder here, Shimon. It’s impossible to actually say what normal is; it’s a range and as we move to the outer edges we cross an imaginary line into abnormal. I think it has more to do with socially acceptable behavior, an ever-changing concept.

    • When I think about it, yearstricken, it seems to me that it’s all a matter of proportions. As long as we enjoy a modest meal, have a few drinks… enjoy a bit of love… and have a laugh now and then… all is well. It’s when we go after something ‘whole hog’; that’s when we get into trouble. Even too much normality can drive us crazy. I once read that in the city of Sodom, they were too insistent on normality.

  14. My dad use to say “vivi e lascia vivere” and “come semini raccogli”…
    You know that with my familiy I try to follow the buddhist path… for this reason it matters first of all my behavior since everybody’s karma is their own responsability. And more: yes I deeply think that differences are given to permit us to see that there isn’t an unique choice to take. We need to be more tolerant with ourselves in order to feel compassion towards every living creature… and this is a very life-long exercise!
    Have a lovely sunday dear Shimon. 🙂 claudine

    • Like your dear father, I too am a great believer in ‘live and let live’. How sweet it is to be reminded of the Buddhist path, of patience and tolerance, and most of all, of compassion towards every living creature. I do believe that this compassion is the key to our own health and happiness. Thank you, Claudine.

  15. I love the sentiment in this post, Shimon. And I hope one day we can accept each other without labels – they naturally make other people “other”.

    • As Claudine wrote above, it’s a life long exercise. But I see it in your street portraits, Richard, and the more we work at it, the richer our own lives. Learning to accept one another and ourselves without labels sounds good enough for me. Thanks for your comment.

  16. Thought provoking as always, Shimon. You’re right – our current society in principle embraces diversity and yet we come up with labels for everything.

    • Our intentions are good, Cathy. But often in our impatience, we get carried away by one aspect of the work, and lose sight of the whole picture. But I do believe that those good intentions will help us find our way eventually.

  17. A most absorbing post, Shimon. I hadn’t really thought about this obsession with labelling every little deviation from the perceived ‘norm’, but you’re absolutely correct. Very disturbing indeed. i love the sculpture and the decorated tree. 🙂

  18. Shimon, my first language is English, second is Hebrew. I made Aliya in 2007 but had to return to the States to help care for my ailing father. My longing for Jerusalem sometimes overwhelms me. Where are these photos taken? I have never seen the trees dressed up like this. Tu bi’Shvat?

    Shavua Tov,

    Liebe (Laura is my loazi name)

    • Dear Liebe, I am pleased to make your acquaintance. I am sorry that you had to return to the galut, but if it was to care for a parent, that is certainly a good reason. I can well understand your longing for Jerusalem. The dressing up of the trees was in Jerusalem and in Tzur Hadassah, a small village just outside of Jerusalem. It wasn’t connected to tu b’shvat. I think it’s a foreign custom or fashion that has been adopted here. As you probably saw when you were living here, we often adopt foreign ideas with great enthusiasm. Thank you for your comment, and my best wishes for a very beautiful week.

  19. It’s good to return to your deep insight that stimulates the mind. Tolerance and acceptance of we are all the same while having all the labels seems to be counter intuitive. Meanwhile, that bar looks like a wonderful gathering space! …. Thanks for visiting me during my absence!

    • Always a pleasure hearing from you, Frank. Hoping that all is going well on a personal level, and according to plan and time schedule. Yes, very often during times of social changes, there are contradictory movements. It reminds me a bit of a dancer on the floor, who might throw out an arm in one direction, and a leg in the opposite direction. However, when we are part of the organism, we can’t enjoy the sight from a distance, no matter how graceful.

  20. Here’s another label, Shimon -span sexual. The others you named were at least understandable, but Norrie May-Welby, born a man and changed his gender to a woman would now like to distance himself even further from humanity. He refuses to identify himself from either gender. Most recently the Australian courts allowed his birth certificate to state ‘sex not specified” (a previously overturned ruling.) Not sure what history is going to say about us, but I doubt it will be complimentary.

    • Yes, it seems that many of this generation have completely lost their sense of proportion when it comes to sex, and the story is a very sad note regarding the misery that some suffer as a result. I can only praise the compassion of the Australian courts, and hope that this person will find consolation and happiness in his life. Thank you for your comment, Mary.

  21. While I prefer to not be tardy under most circumstances, there is more than a little bit of pleasure in coming to your posts late, Shimon. The commentary from and with your friends is most compelling, such a fine complement to the post. Thank you for yet another thought-provoking post.

    • Yes, I thoroughly enjoy the give and take, the conversation… that develops as a result of the interactive nature of blogging. It wasn’t so long ago that a writer had a rather lonely role. But communication is much better when it’s a two way street. Thanks very much for your comment, Scott, and you are appreciated whenever you drop in. I love to hear from you, as well as to visit your own beautiful and moving blog.

  22. I enjoyed this post, Shimon. And I hope we will come to think that it is normal to be different, but I rather doubt it. It’s amusing to consider the ways in which society struggles to identify “normal”. Or rather, to identify ‘abnormal’. I oppose labeling and always have. I don’t like putting people into boxes. You raise some interesting questions here. Thanks for a fine post and a few chuckle-producing comments too. I have thought many times over the years that our technical evolution has far outstripped our spiritual evolution. For whatever that’s worth.

    • Labeling is usually a way of dealing with something that is a little too complicated for us. But once we get to know any living being, we learn to appreciate him or her… and even more so, with human beings. People who have strong opinions about Negroes or Republicans are just trying to get through life via shortcuts… and I for one, prefer the long way. Always good to trade ideas with you, George.

  23. A deep topic, shimon! I’m not sure that I want to comment as sometimes it is very hard to express in words what one has learned over the years. I don’t have your gift in that regard.

    As a world-watcher and keen people-observer over my entire life here in Australia, some things about this ‘modern’ life have become quite obvious. Change is happening too fast for most people to grasp. This, in turn, causes much anxiety and instability within the soul that often can manifest in violence towards others who seem to have grasped this change. It is like a standing still whilst the world whizzes by you at a great rate that you feel you will never catch up. This is an isolating experience and unhealthy. Along with the worldwide casualization of employment, results in creating a new underclass and poverty which I sometimes think has been deliberate, as part of an oppressing force by those who have against those who do not. Certainly not community-minded. After all, people are the greatest asset a country has; make use of all their talents, gifts, skills, knowledge in a collaborative/co-operative manner, and you will succeed much further, to everyone’s benefit. There! I’ve got on my high-horse, but find it very easy to get off it!

    • You’re certainly right about the ever increasing speed of change, Janina. It saddens me too, to see that the frameworks within which society operates, are becoming stiffer and less sensitive to individuality. I don’t know if we’ve learned to appreciate people yet. Since the invention of the assembly line at the beginning of the industrial revolution, there has been a disregard for the unique qualities of each individual. But I do believe that eventually we’ll realize (collectively) just what you said in your comment, ‘people are the greatest asset’.

      • Well, Shimon, I hope the realization comes before we all get blown up in some worldwide nuclear bombardment! (I’m being rather fatalistic here, just ignore it…)

        • I do hope with all my heart, that as we human beings learn more and become more sophisticated, we will also become more peaceful and more tolerant of one another…

  24. I love your thought, that really we are all normally different and we don’t need labels to say so. Sometimes labels help, as when a teacher needs reminding to be gentle with the child who can’t keep up. Sometimes they harm, as when they become an excuse to demonize.
    What a relief acceptance and peace would be. Here in the US, I hear people screaming about people immigrating. They forget that this is one planet. They forget that there is enough for all, if we are willing to share. They forget that different doesn’t mean dangerous, (except for when it does, I guess), and mostly, they forget not to be afraid.

    With you, I am hoping for peace…

    • It’s a complicated world, Melissa… always asking different things from us… sometimes, we fear when we don’t have to, and it gets us in trouble… and other times it’s just the reverse. We’re not cautious when we should be. We try what we can, and so often what worked the last time won’t work this time. But having good friends around, helps. And a bit of luck. We all need a bit of luck. My best wishes to you. It’s been a while since you made this comment. And it’s amazing I finally caught up to it…

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