Source: The Atlantic. Mobile devices as artifacts. A collection of cellphones and communication devices discovered in the rubble from the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center are displayed as part of a new exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the attacks, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., as seen on August 31, 2011. # Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.

That is why what Edward Said has called “false universals” should be rejected: they stand in the way of useful thinking. How many times have we heard these new mantras: “We have seen the face of evil”; “these are irrational madmen”; “we are at war against international terrorism.” Each is at once inaccurate and unhelpful. We have not seen the face of evil; we have seen the face of an enemy who comes at us with a full roster of grievances, goals and strategies. If we reduce that enemy to “evil,” we conjure up a shape-shifting demon, a wild-card moral anarchist beyond our comprehension and therefore beyond the reach of any counterstrategies.

The same reduction occurs when we imagine the enemy as “irrational.” Irrational actors are by definition without rhyme or reason, and there’s no point in reasoning about them on the way to fighting them. The better course is to think of these men as bearers of a rationality we reject because its goal is our destruction. If we take the trouble to understand that rationality, we might have a better chance of figuring out what its adherents will do next and preventing it.

Is this the end of relativism? If by relativism one means a cast of mind that renders you unable to prefer your own convictions to those of your adversary, then relativism could hardly end because it never began.  Our convictions are by definition preferred; that’s what makes them our convictions. Relativizing them is neither an option nor a danger.

But if by relativism one means the practice of putting yourself in your adversary’s shoes, not in order to wear them as your own but in order to have some understanding (far short of approval) of why someone else might want to wear them, then relativism will not and should not end, because it is simply another name for serious thought.