Culture – Part 2 (Cultural Relativism)

Culture – Part 2  (Cultural Relativism)

Cultural relativism is the idea that we must understand the behaviors or beliefs found in another culture or society by its own standards of right and wrong. It suggests that we must understand and assess the cultural beliefs, behaviors, customs, or other cultural practices of a society by its own criteria for what is acceptable and what is not. For example, when we see a woman in burqa, we must understand that the religious and cultural beliefs and teachings of the society she lives in require women to wear it and that it is generally a sign of modesty in that society. But what gives cultural relativism its true meaning in real life is the idea that we shouldn’t judge the behaviors or beliefs of the people in another society, as they may well be acceptable in that particular culture.

Cultural relativism is interestingly both positive and negative, but not equally so. Cultural relativism is a positive influence in that it convinces people not to look down on the people of other cultures and not to find other people as wicked for engaging in behaviors that we may find objectionable. Cultural beliefs are sometimes so powerful that they can drive a person toward behaviors that may be objectionable or condemnable. The hold of culture in our lives can be truly powerful. If we realize that what we find wrong or abhorrent in a society may well be viewed as normal in that society, then we would not hastily find other people to be immoral. If a person is born into a society where certain beliefs and practices are considered natural, that person may come to accept those beliefs and practices as natural or normal. Someone may be a wonderful person, but he may come to accept beliefs and practices that, from a human perspective, are objectionable or wrong. Knowing this would help us not to hastily judge a person as immoral or evil. Such a realization helps us avoid feelings of condescension or hostility toward other people.

Cultural relativism is also a positive thing in that it enlightens us to the fact that many customs and beliefs are just innocuously different and that we should not view those customs as wrong. Not eating pork or stopping traffic for a crossing cow on a street in India, are just different customs, which must just be left at that. Some of our own habits and customs may be quite disturbing to others. Calling the police when there is too much noise coming from a neighbor’s house because a couple is having an argument may be viewed as unkind by some other cultures. In some cultures, the neighbors, instead of calling the police, would go to the neighbor’s house and try to make the couple reconcile. Such an intervention is considered a neighborly and human thing to do in some other cultures. So, a positive aspect of cultural relativism is its promotion of tolerance and its avoidance of unfair demonization of the people of other cultures. Cultural relativism allows us to avoid developing feelings of condescension or hostility towards the people of a different culture. Discussing the concept of cultural relativism, a student of mine wrote, “It gives the freedom to go beyond the realms of this society and customs.” This is a beautiful statement, as it refers to that aspect of cultural relativism that is positive and lofty. Going beyond the realms of this society and customs is simultaneously being freed from the constraints of the mind that narrow our perceptual vista and our ability to understand things beyond what is immediately familiar to us.

In a discussion post, a student of mine, Vivian Ma, wrote “Diversity is created through the idea of cultural relativism since it promotes the feelings of accepting, understanding, and respecting.” This is an interesting statement, as it suggests that cultural relativism can potentially promote diversity. Diversity does not mean just the co-existence of different people of different backgrounds. True diversity exists only when there is acceptance of, respect for, and substantial interaction with people of various backgrounds. That’s what gives diversity its true meaning; otherwise, claims of diversity are just hollow statements. The mere existence of people of different backgrounds in a community or society does not constitute diversity.

While the above material discusses some positive aspects of cultural relativism, the remainder of this chapter will discuss some of the negative aspects of it. As suggested above, the more characteristic and important aspect of cultural relativism is the belief that we shouldn’t judge the customs and practices of another culture if they are accepted practices in that particular culture. The popular expression, “Who are we to judge?” nicely reflects this mindset. But how can one not judge oppression or violence? How can one not judge the practice of female genital mutilation as cruel and inhuman, no matter in what society it happens? We shouldn’t judge customs in another society if they are simply different and insignificant such as eating or not eating pork, but when a custom or a practice violates human rights, denies people their freedom, is degrading or violent, or is inhuman, then we can and should judge them as wrong. The human in us transcends all cultures. Just because a culture condones an unjust and cruel act, should we refrain from judging that act as cruel? Let’s take slavery in our history. Probably, most people at the time saw nothing wrong with it, but was it not a cruel denial of freedom and human rights? We cannot simply say we shouldn’t judge slavery in the past because it was acceptable in society at that time. The important thing in cultural relativism is whether or not we can judge certain practices and behaviors in another society. The ultimate basis on which we can accept or reject the cultural relativism argument is what those certain practices and behaviors in another culture really mean for humans. Anything that denies people freedom and their other human rights, and anything that causes pain and suffering, or anything that subjects people to violence and humiliation must be judged and condemned as wrong and inhuman.

Cultural relativism condones cruelty and anti-human practices if they are acceptable in other cultures. Human rights, human freedom and dignity, and humanness should be universally cherished things. Their violation is universally condemnable. The universal human in us should cry out loud and protest and act against inhuman practices wherever they happen.

Cultural relativism confuses and fools our sense of judgment and justice. More correctly, it makes us disengage our sense of judgment and justice. This must be viewed as a dynamic of alienation. And in a more subtle and unobvious way, cultural relativism undermines our connectedness with and empathy for fellow humans. Instead of arousing our feelings of indignation and empathy when we see inhuman acts elsewhere, we coldly dismiss them as things that need not be judged, as they are acceptable practices in that particular culture. This sense of disconnection from fellow humans beyond our borders reflects another dimension of alienation. The sense of indifference created by cultural relativism must also be seen as alienation, as we fail to engage and experience the kindness in us. It is, in a sense, a betrayal of our self. The idea of or belief in cultural relativism discourages us from engaging our humanview when confronted with information about inhuman practices elsewhere. Consequently, it also discourages people from taking action against barbaric practices. It dampens the enthusiasm for joining efforts to end oppressive practices elsewhere. Cultural relativism dampens the spirit of internationalism. It works against the solidarity of all the people in the world.

The people in another society are just humans like us; why would we not judge an oppressive practice against the people of that society? One reason is because geopolitical lines or borders create a false reality; they paint people as “them” and “us.” But “them” and “us” exist in part because of borders and concepts of nationality and nationhood. Once we define people as just “human” and ignore definitions that separate us, then the pain of those “other” humans becomes “our pain.”

Perhaps, one of the reasons why it is easy for us to believe in cultural relativism despite the existence of some clearly anti-human practices in another society is that we are estranged or alienated from the universal human, from the realization that people in other parts of the world are just like us – human, that is. That’s perhaps because so many things divide us into “us” and “them.” As mentioned in the previous paragraph, a series of false realities help reify the concept of “us and them.” Nationalism, religious affiliation, race and ethnicity, etc., are examples of such false images of humans beyond geopolitical boundaries, even though that is also at least partially true about people within those boundaries. Interestingly, if we mentally erase geopolitical boundaries, the cultural relativism argument may, in a sense, collapse. Somehow, we fail to feel the “us” in “them” because of the divisiveness that concepts such as nationality, religion, and race create. On that note, I once read this beautiful statement somewhere: “If I see myself in others, how can I hurt someone?” What makes this worse is the fact that we have too much respect for the law, authority, and culture (specifically traditions and customs). So, if a certain practice is legal and culturally accepted in a different society, we feel that we simply need to ignore it. Connecting with the people in other societies requires that we feel our universal humanness as more precious than a body of laws and traditions of that society. Our general willingness to question the law and culture will help us denounce anti-human practices wherever they happen.                      

 Cultural relativism betrays our alienation from fellow humans living beyond our borders. We say we can’t make a judgment about the values, behaviors, and practices of the people of other societies. This detachment from the ways of life of another culture, however, is sometimes rooted in our indifference and apathy—largely, translations of alienation—toward humanity. Just as we see a thousand ants eating a cockroach on the pavement but keep on going thinking we should not interfere with nature, we likewise witness cruelty to humans in other societies, but we keep walking away. When we say we can’t make a judgment—perhaps a more dangerous form of apathy than inaction—that means we walk away. We walk away from girls whose genitals are being mutilated, from child marriage, from …

 Another reason why cultural relativism enjoys the popularity that it has is that there are just too many forces that divide us as humans, which result in our apathy and indifference toward the people of other cultures. Negative perceptions about the people of other societies that are based on religion, race, and ethnicity are divisive forces that prevent our feelings of sympathy and empathy from being awakened. Our feelings of hostility or hatred towards the people of certain societies also prevent us from feeling empathy towards victimized people living in those societies. Sometimes, the anti-human practices that we see in other cultures just serve as affirmations of our feelings of unfriendliness or hostility rather than evoking feelings of sympathy and indignation.

Because of its positive and negative aspects, the notion of cultural relativism is beast and beauty at the same time. We must simultaneously engage and disengage the notion of cultural relativism. However, having the example of female genital mutilation in mind, we must remind ourselves that even when cultural relativism teaches us tolerance and helps us avoid hostile or condescending sentiments toward other cultures, it often disengages the natural human perspective; it prevents us from feeling indignation about such cruel practices as child marriage and from trying to join movements to stop the practice.

We must remind ourselves how culture has historically been an instrument of unfreedom and oppression, even though this might be slightly overstated. Cultural relativism unintentionally heightens our apathy toward human unfreedom. But once we realize how culture has unconsciously been an instrument of unfreedom and oppression, perhaps it would be easy to reassess the notion of cultural relativism.

Instructions for the discussion board

Please explain what cultural relativism is. Share your ideas and opinions.  Do you agree or disagree with cultural relativism?

Please offer an example of something in a different society that is substantially relevant to our discussion of cultural relativism (E.g., a practice, custom, tradition, beliefs, etc.). Don’t offer an example that involves simple, unimportant cultural differences such as differences in eating habits, etc. Find an example that is substantiallyimportant in terms of human freedom and dignity, and in terms of human rights.