Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Relativism: The Stupidest Thing That Smart People Believe

Throughout history, otherwise intelligent people have held incredibly stupid ideas. In America, the worst of these ideas - like the validity of racism, sexism, and homophobia - are for the most part dying out among the aforementioned intelligent and educated people. While they may continue to exist more or less unchecked among the more ignorant vestiges of our society, someone espousing the idea that women should submit to their husbands, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites, that race mixing is a crime against nature, and increasingly, that two people of the same sex should not be allowed to marry one another would be shouted down in most graduate school classrooms. This is good, wholesome, and as it should be.

However there is one self-evidently stupid idea that many otherwise bright people seem to hold. I noticed it among professors and students at Florida State University and I notice it now as a graduate student at American University. This is approval of the dangerous nonsense that is cultural relativism.

Now many people use the terms "cultural relativism" and "multiculturalism" interchangeably. I do not believe that they are the same thing and I will not use them here as such. Many people claim to be opposed to "multiculturalism" and I do not necessarily share their views. There are certainly problematic aspects of multiculturalism (which I may explore in a later blog post) but right now I want to distinguish myself from many thinkers, especially philosophers on the right, who are opposed to multiculturalism.

First of all, there is no inherent value in assimilation for its own sake. I am a bisexual woman and am intensely involved in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. While I feel that it is important for LGBT individuals who choose to do so to be accepted into mainstream society, there are unique aspects of LGBT identity that I think have value and ought to be preserved despite not being acknowledged to the same extent by mainstream heterosexual American culture. This includes healthier attitudes towards sexuality, a sense of significance attached to the concept of a chosen family (as opposed to a strictly biological family), and a comfort with subverting traditional gender roles. However, these things are not valuable because they are shared by a minority community. They are valuable because they lead to positive outcomes and perhaps ought be adopted by society as a whole. And there are other aspects of LGBT culture such as rampant promiscuity among many gay and bisexual men (more common historically than today) that are not positive and lead to negative outcomes for all involved. Again, this is not because we are a minority community but because these things tend to be bad ideas no matter who puts them into practice.

However, despite my lack of support for assimilation for assimilation's sake, I am not a cultural relativist. The fact is that some societies are much better than others at maximizing the welfare of those in that society. Some cultures engage more often in more practices that are objectively bad than other cultures do. These practices include:
-killing people for supposedly dishonoring you,
-forcing or coercing people into marriage against their will,
-aborting children on the basis of sex,
-child genital mutilation,
-locking people up in prison for exercising free speech rights,
-forcing individuals to have abortions against their will,
-devaluation of the rights of persons with disabilities,
-killing people because they engage in relationships with members of the same sex,
-teaching hatred based on caste, class, or ethnic differences,
-severely physically punishing people based on their defiance of traditional gender roles, and
-killing people based upon religious beliefs or identification.
This is by no means an exhaustive list but it should give you an idea of what I am talking about. While these things are not unheard of in any society, they are more common in some than in others. And no amount of wishing that we were all equal in terms of our adherence to values based on human rights, reason, science, and the worth of all persons makes it so. These values - the values of violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and denial of agency - are more common in India than in the United States, in Somalia than in France, in China than in the Netherlands, and in Yemen than in Sweden. And if you are not a racist and at your core acknowledge that human beings are essentially similar in what they find intolerable out of life, you must reject cultural relativism wholeheartedly.

Now, any actual education concerning non-Western cultures tends to make one less of a relativist and not more unless a.) one has not thought deeply about the issue, b.) one is largely unintelligent, c.) one is reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways, or d.) one is intellectually dishonest. Because many people I have heard defend cultural relativism are relatively intelligent people who I do not think are fundamentally dishonest I prefer to think that they are either not thinking deeply enough about the issue (which we all do sometimes with some issues) or that they are reconciling cognitive dissonance in nonsensical ways (another practice we all engage in at times). This may mean they're not bad or stupid but it does not make them correct.

Interestingly, the thinkers that cultural relativists seem to dislike the most in my experience are Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Irshad Manji. I am more familiar with Ali's writings than those of Manji but I am somewhat familiar with the ideas of both. I will state that both women sometimes espouse ideas that I disagree with. (For instance, I think what Ali tends to characterize as a Muslim problem is a more general non-Western problem.) That said, for the longest time I did not understand why these two women drummed up such rage in those opposing cultural relativism, especially when Euro-American thinkers espousing similar ideas did not seem to outrage them to the same degree. However, I realized that these two women put the lie to the relativists' worldview in a way that equally eloquent thinkers like Sam Harris, Michelle Goldberg, or Martha Nussbaum never could. Here are two women - one of them gay - from non-Western backgrounds that did not like all of the aspects of their cultures that non-Western people are supposed to cherish the most according to the relativists. At least some individuals in these other societies find the same things intolerable that most of us would find intolerable were they foisted upon us. This infuriates relativists in the same way that perhaps slave owners in the antebellum South were angry when their slaves refused to know their place. And while this is an interesting observation it does not explain why any otherwise bright and good people hold this belief system.

I think that part of it lies in a fallacy termed polylogism which asserts that logical rules apply differently for different groups of people. Since these differences are not biological givens but instead are social constructions this is a patently false idea. It could also be due to the fallacy that since all human ethnic groups are more or less equal in human capacity, then all human groups are more or less equal in terms of the current state of their cultural development. This is a tragic misreading of the situation, no more so than for individuals in underdeveloped cultures themselves.

So what does my understanding of the situation prescribe for public policy in the United States? First of all, the viewpoint I have outlined here is often co-opted by those seeking to turn, for example, American Muslims into straw men. By and large, American Muslims are a relatively well integrated group of individuals. Our nation is in no current danger of being forced into practicing sharia law. Honor killing is not rampant in America. However I do think that in Europe, societies that have wholeheartedly embraced multiculturalism, are more secular than America is, where Muslims are less well integrated, and where larger numbers of immigrants have poured in may face some serious problems. Furthermore, the problems outlined above are not unique to Muslims and are more unique to contemporary non-Western cultures in general.

For the average American, the evil of cultural relativism is not its threat to us but its threat to others. It is not evil for what it encourages us to do but for what it encourages us not to do. It prevents us from standing in solidarity with and from providing material and moral support to human rights defenders, feminists, LGBT persons, children, and political dissidents in societies that need our support the most. It encourages us to turn a blind eye and even support situations for others which we would find intolerable for ourselves. My favorite example of this is the time I listened to an American lesbian defend the practice of arranged marriages (in practice as often coerced or forced as merely arranged) in India. When I later explained this amusing (if sad) anecdote to a young Indian-American lesbian she could not grasp the logic involved in this statement. It only makes sense if you realize that for whatever reason, this individual has so thoroughly "othered" Indians that she could not understand them being unenthusiastic about a practice she would no doubt have not want tried on her.

We need to stand up to the evil that is cultural relativism not for the selfish and sometimes quite silly reasons we are often given (impending jihad now!) but for the less selfish and not at all silly reasons that are often ignored - we care about the welfare of individuals fundamentally similar to ourselves who deserve the same opportunities in life to exercise their human capabilities that we all do.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I'd be a libertarian cultural relatavist. While I agree that what makes sense in other people's cultures is perfectly fine for them, even if I don't understand or agree with it, when a person's freedom is infringed or they don't have a choice in whether they participate in the cultural practice, then I don't think it's OK.