Cultural Relativism

There are times when, do what we will, we are confronted with goals, values, moral preferences, that are in flat contradiction. We have to choose one and reject the other. Much as we would like to, we can’t blend or compromise or harmonise or take a little from this pot and a dab from that and come up with a nice mix. Doing one thing simply rules out doing the other and that’s all there is to it. Digital not analog, yes or no.

So for instance reasonable and desirable goals of tolerance, understanding, cosmopolitanism, and cultural relativism can clash with equally reasonable and desirable goals of preventing harm to others, criticising unjust laws and customs and traditions, exposing exploitation and oppression, and advocating an end to asymmetrical, unfair, cruel, punitive and destructive instituitions. Sometimes those institutions and practices and customs are in Third World countries, and then attempts of First World people to reform or abolish them will conflict with the laudable goal of not being a cultural imperialist or Eurocentric or self-righteous or intolerant. And then one has to choose.

One obvious (yet strangely easily overlooked) way to deal with this problem is to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘culture’. If we think and say that women shouldn’t be murdered by their fathers and brothers for, e.g., resisting an arranged marriage, only to be told that that’s their culture and it’s arrogant and Eurocentric to judge other cultures by Western standards, then surely the thought is available: what do you mean ‘their culture’? Whose culture? And what follows from that? Is it the culture of the women who are murdered? Or is it only the culture of the men doing the murdering. If the latter, why should their culture be privileged?

In fact it’s quite strange the way a line of thought that’s intended to side with the oppressed often sides with oppressors in the name of multiculturalism. A great many practices could be put in the box ‘their culture’. Dowry murders, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, slavery, child labour, drafting children into armies, the caste system, beating and sexually abusing and witholding wages from domestic servants especially immigrants, Shariah, fatwas, suttee. These are all part of someone’s ‘culture’, as murder is a murderer’s culture and rape is a rapist’s. But why validate only the perpetrators? Have the women, servants, slaves, child soldiers, Dalits, ten-year-old carpet weavers in these cultures ever even had the opportunity to decide what their culture might be?

And this is where the hard choice comes in, where the competing goods have to be sorted out. One can decide that tolerance and cultural pluralism trump all other values, and so turn a blind eye to suffering and oppression that have tradition as their underpinning, or one can decide that murder, torture, mutilation, systematic sexual or caste or racial discrimination, slavery, child exploitation, are wrong, wrong everywhere, universally wrong, and not to be tolerated.

So in this In Focus we provide links to arguments in favor of moral realism and universalism, including this one by Simon Blackburn here on Butterflies and Wheels, and also to information about areas where it is needed.


Internal Resources

The Politics Behind Cultural Relativism: an interview by Maryam Namazie

Azam Kamguian on why Sharia should be opposed by everyone who believes in human rights.

Azam Kamguian points out that human rights and the Sharia are irreconcilable and antagonistic.

Azam Kamguian on what the hijab does to young girls.

Homa Arjomand reports on meeting with Ontario official regarding Shari’a Court

Apposite Quotations

One thing I want to say to all who would dismiss my feminist criticisms of my culture, using my ‘Westernization’ as a lash, is that my mother’s pain too has rustled among the pages of all those books I have read that partly constitute my ‘Westernization,’ and has crept into all the suitcases I have ever packed for my several exiles.
Uma Narayan: Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third World Feminism

In general, people seek not the way of their ancestors, but the good.
Aristotle: Politics

[W]e must ask how far cultural diversity really is like linguistic diversity. The trouble with the analogy is that languages, as such, do not harm people, and cultural practices frequently do. We could think that Cornish or Breton should be preserved, without thinking the same about domestic violence, or absolute monarchy, or genital mutilation.
Martha Nussbaum: Women and Human Development: the Capabilities Approach

Cultures and religions are not harmless concepts. They are institutions; a part of the organisation of society. Usually, people who advocate those views, reduce it to an individual level and individual choice. But in reality, culture is part of the institution of the ruling class. Religion is an establishment that practises and advocates a certain way of life.
Fariborz Pooya: ‘The Politics Behind Cultural Relativism’

When you talk about the West, it is accepted that there are political differentiations, that people have different value systems, that there are political parties. You don’t talk about one uniform, homogeneous culture. But why is it that when it comes to the rest of the world, suddenly the standards change?
Bahram Soroush: ‘The Politics Behind Cultural Relativism’

Sadly and unfortunately, the setting up of the Sharia tribunals in Canada will be given validity, due to the reactionary politics of multi-culturalism. This is yet another fruit of a policy that causes fragmentation; apartheid based legal system and racism.

Azam Kamguian: Islamism & Multi-culturalism: A United Camp against Universal Human Rights in Canada

External Resources

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