Some of my otherwise favorite people scoff at the notion of cultural relativism. Usually, they are pointing out that we can’t tolerate human rights abuses just because “it’s their culture.”
I agree. We can’t tolerate abuse or violence or oppression based on some notion of culture as sacred and inviolable. But that’s not what cultural relativism means. In fact, cultural relativism is vital to combating the very things some people suggest it supports.
Let me explain. Cultural relativism comes from anthropology, which just happens to be something I have a clue about.
I’m a social or cultural anthropologist, depending on where in the world you live. Personally, I prefer “social anthropologist,” because many people seem to think “culture” is a bounded, predetermining, static force. I think of it more like an ongoing process.
Culture is what we do, not what we have. Culture exists through the interactions of people, the ways we think about things, and how we express ourselves, individually, collectively, and systemically.
Culture shapes us even as we shape culture. As a group, we engage in cultural innovation through creativity and agency as much as we reinforce conventions through ritual or conformity.
So what is cultural relativism and what is it good for? The notion of cultural relativism came into the spotlight largely through the work of anthropologist Franz Boas and his students, particularly Ruth Benedict. For example, in her book Patterns of Culture (1934), Benedict argued that we can’t understand – and shouldn’t judge – a particular kind of human behaviour based on our own norms and, especially, without understanding the cultural context.
While many have since separated moral relativism from cultural relativism, Benedict’s general definition still stands – and the concept remains key to building a better world.
Here are the two key errors in rejecting cultural relativism:
Cultural relativism is more of a tool than an attitude.
Cultural relativism allows us to understand what’s really going on, so that we can respond to the situation appropriately.
Let’s start with the first one. In contrast to cultural relativism, moral relativism is an attitude. It means not judging things by your own learned sense of right and wrong. It’s important to distinguish between moderate moral relativism and absolute moral relativism. In their common hyperbolic style, politicians and xenophobes usually mean the most extreme version of whatever it is they’re talking about, and many of those who reject cultural relativism are really talking about absolute moral relativism.
Absolute moral relativism means anything goes. If this were the case, life would be terrible. Just about everybody agrees on this point, because humans seem to have at least a basic sense of right and wrong that would be offended by the idea of true amorality.
Moderate moral relativism means finding out how people involved in the situation perceive what is going on. Do they think it’s wrong? Are they being harmed in some way?
For example, among the Solinké of Mali, sleeping and waking alone are considered negative and even harmful experiences that should be avoided at all costs (see Sleep Around the World: Anthropological Perspectives). Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail recently reported that as many as 40 percent of Canadian couples prefer to sleep in separate bedrooms to improve their ability to sleep when and how they want as individuals.
The Solinké would be appalled. Maybe they would even want to start educational programs to teach those poor Canadians how to fix their bad habits, so that they no longer have to suffer.
Of course, sharing a bed is a sign of romantic intimacy in Canada, which speaks to another moral code that overlaps or even clashes with the idea of individual comfort. That’s one reason why the Globe called the article “The Night Divorce,” as if these separate sleepers are breaking a social contract by defying the norms of monogamous relationships. Morality is complex and even conflicted in any cultural milieu.
Approaching these sleeping situations from a culturally relativistic point of view enables us to see that no version is inherently right or wrong. Different moral codes are in play and all are equally valid. Just because I might be offended or hurt by something doesn’t mean everyone will be. We know that on an individual level. We just need to start applying it to cultural practices as well.
It should be easy for us to understand how cultural relativism works in this example. But what about something like honour killings or spousal rape or crucifixion for apostasy? Am I saying that if the general community thinks it’s okay, we should just accept it?
This is the place where moral and cultural relativism diverge. We can still use cultural relativism to understand a situation without thereby saying that the situation is morally acceptable.
So, if cultural relativism is a method or a tool, as I claimed above, what is it a tool for? And, following my second claim, how can it teach us to respond to a situation appropriately?
Let’s use an extreme example that’s on everybody’s lips (or screen) these days: ISIS. How can we use cultural relativism to understand and even solve this situation?
First, we need to understand something about ISIS, Islam, and Syria. That means we need to allow ISIS supporters to speak for themselves. Yes, I know that’s a scary thought, but how else are we supposed to know why they do what they do?
I read an insightful article in the Atlantic called “What ISIS Really Wants.” I suggest reading it for yourself. It’s a bit lengthy, but that’s usually a sign thorough research and representational complexity that far surpasses the average daily newsbite. You’ll come away with a more solid foundation for thinking about ISIS, as well as those who are fleeing them.
For example, I now know that ISIS members are not trying to get to other countries. Quite the opposite. Based on their interpretation of Islamic scripture, they have a spiritual and moral obligation to live inside the caliphate (Islamic state). In other words, everyone who supports ISIS is trying to get to Syria – not Canada or Australia or Greece or France. The majority of Muslim Syrians are the prime target of ISIS, who deems them apostates worthy of death. That’s why so many Muslims have become refugees.
Using cultural relativism to understand motivations and behaviours will allow us to engage with people who commit heinous acts in a more appropriate way. Doing so will teach us what to expect and how worried we should be about refugees coming to our own country. With stringent screening methods already in place in Canada, I personally have little concern that an ISIS supporter will pass the gates. That concern has now been almost entirely squashed by my new understanding of ISIS culture.
The only way to combat violence and extremism and terrorism is to learn something about the culture behind perpetrators’ motivations and behaviours. And the only solid way to learn these things is through cultural relativism as a tool for understanding.
We need to be willing to suspend our own cultural value judgments long enough to wrap our heads around totally different ways of thinking. We can’t assume that “they” must think like “us,” because we will never be able to grasp how they can be so evil.
Nobody thinks of themselves as evil. Only when we know how people justify their own violence can we tackle the broader cultural values that promote and allow it. Cultural relativism is the antithesis of extremism. By learning to understand other cultures, no matter how unpalatable, we will empower ourselves with the necessary knowledge to root out hatred and intolerance at the source.