Cultural Relativism, Again

Here is an interesting item. At least I think so. A blogger commenting on our In Focus article ‘Cultural Relativism’ and how the subject has exercised him since he arrived in China (where he lives and works, he’s not just visiting). Then he updates the entry with a link to an article in which the subject is absolutely central. A Norwegian journalist spent some months living with a middle-class family in Kabul and has written a book (now a best-seller) on what she learned there. What she learned, among other things, is that the nice urbane bookseller treats the women in his houshold ‘like dirt’. Now the furious bookseller himself has come to Europe determined to ‘drag Seierstad through the courts and campaign for the destruction of her book’.

The difficulties in cultural relativism show up in for instance the reaction of

Norwegian anthropologist and Middle East specialist Professor Unni Wikan, who doubts the authenticity of much of the book – ‘especially some of those bits she gives in quotation marks’. He said: ‘There is no way she could have possibly had such access to people’s hearts and minds. The moment I saw it in Norwegian, I thought it would be a catastrophe when it came out in English. She has revealed the secrets of the women, which is shameful and dishonourable. It will be regarded as an affront for its lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims.’

Lack of respect for Afghans and Muslims? Really? Is Professor Wikan not perhaps just conflating ‘Afghans and Muslims’ with ‘adult male Afghans and Muslims’? Ishtiaq Ahmed addressed this very issue in a column in the Daily Times of Pakistan a few weeks ago:

The problem is that the cultural relativists exaggerate the supposed consensus prevalent in a culture. Differences of class, sect, caste, gender, ethnic origin and so on are present in all cultures. What is usually defined as the culture of a people is in reality the interpretation and discourse put forth by the ruling class and its allied intellectual elite.

So there is the familiar difficulty. Tim Judah remarks in the Guardian article that ‘The case has opened serious questions about the ethics of journalists and authors from rich countries writing about people from poor countries with very different cultures,’ which may be so, but then what about the ethics of anthropologists from rich countries taking the side of men from poor countries who treat women and children badly? Is that so obviously morally preferable? If so, why, exactly? One has to wonder.

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