Varieties of relativism

From Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, page 114:

Until Kabul, the UN’s disastrous lack of a policy had been ignored but then it became a scandal and the UN came in for scathing criticism from feminist groups. Finally the UN agencies were forced to draw up a common position. A statement spoke of ‘maintaining and promoting the inherent equality and dignity of all people’ and ‘not discriminating between the sexes, races, ethnic groups or religions.’ But the same UN document also stated that ‘international agencies hold local customs and cultures in high respect.’ It was a classic UN compromise, which gave the Taliban the lever to continue stalling…

In the chapter ‘Women and Cultural Universals’ in Sex and Social Justice Martha Nussbaum tells ‘true stories’ of conversations at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, ‘in which the anti-universalist position seemed to have alarming implications for women’s lives.’ Pp 35-6.

At a conference on ‘Value and Technology’ the economist Stephen Marglin, a leftwing critic of classical economics, gives a paper urging the preservation of traditional ways of life in a rural part of Orissa, India, citing for example the fact that unlike in the West there is no split between values that prevail at work and those that prevail at home. His example of this: ‘Just as in the home a menstruating woman is thought to pollute the kitchen and therefore may not enter it, so too in the workplace a menstruating woman is taken to pollute the loom and may not enter the room where looms are kept.’ Some feminists object. Frédérique Apffel Marglin replies: ‘Don’t we realize that there is, in these matters, no privileged place to stand? This, after all, has been shown by both Derrida and Foucault.’ Those who object are neglecting the otherness of Indian ideas by bringing their Western essentialist ideas into the picture.

Then Frédérique Apffel Marglin gives her paper, which expresses regret that the British introduction of smallpox vaccines to India eradicated the cult of the goddess Sittala Devi. Another example of Western neglect of difference. Someone (‘it might have been me’ says Nussbaum) objects that surely it is better to be healthy than ill. But no: ‘Western essentialist medicine conceives of things in terms of binary oppositions: life is opposed to death, health to disease. But if we cast away this binary way of thinking, we will begin to comprehend the otherness of Indian traditions.’

This is where it gets really good. Eric Hobsbawm has been listening ‘in increasingly uneasy silence’; now he rises to deliver a ‘blistering indictment of the traditionalism and relativism’ on offer. He gives historical examples of ways appeals to tradition have been used to support oppression and violence. ‘In the confusion that ensues, most of the relativist social scientists – above all those from far away, who do not know who Hobsbawm is – demand that Hobsbawm be asked to leave the room.’ Stephen Marglin, disconcerted by the tension between his leftism and his relativism, manages to persuade them to let Hobsbawm stay.

That’s good, isn’t it? Feel for poor Stephen Marglin, confronted by outraged relativist social scientist colleagues who don’t know who this tiresome old geezer is and don’t like his blistering indictment, demanding that Eric Hobsbawm be thrown out! It would be funny if it weren’t, at bottom, so disgusting.

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