It’s easy and fun to call people names. Slotting them into categories lets us guess what they think without them telling us. We can shut down intolerant babble before it begins. In promoting tolerance, why should we listen to perspectives that do the opposite?
Okay. Imagine refusing to hear people out because their opinions promote intolerance and even oppression. In so doing, we are gleefully engaging in the very behaviours we claim to condemn: silencing, excluding, and imposing our own subjective position as a morally objective standpoint.
Name-calling happens across any divide. At its core, the very notion of the divide lays the foundation for separation, even segregation. Can we build a world with no divide?
I think that world already exists, if we would just help it emerge. We construct and reproduce the divide ourselves. We talk and behave as if seven billion individual views can effectively be split into two or three camps: you’re either this or that or the other thing. Anyone who resents being pigeonholed knows that such a division hardly represents reality.
Collectively, we like to reinforce the notion of the divide. New Atheists talk about the “regressive left” as harmful because they promote cultural tolerance. Those who advocate cultural relativism point fingers at “evangelical” atheists who steamroll diversity in their push for rational solutions to social problems.
In the US, Republicans say Democrats are living in “la la land,” while Democrats call Republicans “racist” and “uninformed.” The same dynamic happens elsewhere, and not just in politics. We seem to think people who don’t agree with us are stupid or unaware. If only they knew what we know, they would inevitably come to the same conclusions we do.
In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College’s liberal arts graduates. He argued that the benefit of a liberal arts education lies in its ability to teach us to choose how we think and what we pay attention to. It pushes us beyond our default stance, the self-centered positionality we all grapple with.
Of course it’s hard to get out of our own heads when that’s where we live. Doing so requires coaching and effort. Sometimes, we’ll fail and that’s okay too.
The goal is to try and try again. Recognize our fallibility. Embrace uncertainty.
Hannah Arendt famously said, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” Once we establish a new way of doing things, we can get stuck in our ability to receive new ideas.
In sticking to our guns, we might even restrict the liberties of others. Yes, we have good intentions. We believe we are fighting to create or conserve a “better” society. But better for who?
The only good society is one that allows all members to speak and be heard, regardless of how much power they have or how little they toe the line. This applies to small groups as much as entire nations.
So whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, progressive or radical, anarchist or socialist, religious or humanist, or none of the above – whatever we call ourselves, we need to strive not to reduce others to something less than human. As if we’ve read their hearts and minds and distilled the contents down to tidy, facile labels.
Anyone can have a good idea. Find the common ground. Listen and learn. If we engage life assuming we don’t have all the answers, we’ll end up wiser in the long run. And nobody has to get hurt along the way.
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.
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict
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.
“Mansplaining” is an increasingly nebulous term used in some feminist circles to criticize men who condescend to women by relaying their apparently superior knowledge in self-important ways. From my understanding, the term is applied most commonly in situations where the woman already knows a lot about the topic at hand, but the man assumes that she doesn’t and that what he has to say is more pertinent.
In many cases, the topic is sexism or misogyny or, you know, feminism.
It seems obvious that women would know more about women’s rights or experiences of sexism than men, doesn’t it? How could a man possibly have anything to say about it that a woman wouldn’t already know?
I hope the rhetorical device is apparent in the above two questions. Asking how a man could possibly know more than a woman on a specific topic is essentializing to both genders. But the problem runs deeper than that. It may be the case that many people distrust experts in a number of realms, and rightly so! Science is a method, not a religion to be taken at face value, and questioning every claim is integral to its progress. (So is accepting solid evidence, but that’s for another day.)
But yes, there have been many scientists who failed at their projects because they refused to consider laypeople’s knowledge about their own lifeworlds. It’s a give and take. Other so-called experts from educators to politicians have intentionally deceived or accidentally misled those in their care.
It’s not a perfect world and experts aren’t immune to hubris or other human pitfalls.
Wait, so are the men who start telling women about so-called women’s issues exhibiting hubris and a false sense of expertise? Or are women who throw the mansplaining label around claiming absolute authority for themselves with a de facto rejection of anyone else’s perspective?
The old saying goes, “Everybody you meet knows something you don’t.” If we actually interacted with one another on that basis, communication would improve in all directions.
Formal experts have studied and trained, and they’ve often spent years researching issues by examining and deconstructing primary and secondary evidence of many kinds. They know something.
Laypeople have also gained years of experience, sometimes their own, sometimes an accumulation of social knowledge that has been passed down from one generation to the next. They also know something.
Both so-called experts and so-called laypeople have some knowledge that the other can’t immediately access.
Can a middle-class social theorist discover a fact about the systemic roots of poverty that someone living in the ghetto might not have known? Does a light-skinned person who suffered from genocidal attacks in Rhodesia have to kowtow to the opinion of someone whose ideas of racialized discrimination are based purely on North American definitions of being black?
Is a person with a penis incapable of knowing anything about women’s issues? Can a man not read a book or watch the news or talk to women or even other informed men and come to a reasonable, respectable conclusion about rights or sexism or feminism?
Does being a male feminist mean shutting up and listening while the women talk?
Before entering any discussion, let’s take a moment to acknowledge everyone’s unique positionality in the world. I know what I know and you know what you know. The goal is to question what we know, as much as possible, so that we can all get closer to some semblance of truth. Of course, like everyone, I might mistakenly wax polemical for a while, until someone more informed shuts it down or at least provides evidence that forces me to embrace more nuance in my stance.
Women’s experiences are crucial to understanding feminism and sexism and misogyny. Assuming women don’t know about economics or astrophysics is sexist and insulting. In addition to personal experiences, many female feminists have spent years studying social issues and engaging in empirical research on which they base their knowledge and arguments.
So have male feminists, like Michael Kimmel. I agree that being condescending and silencing others is reprehensible. But it’s not “mansplaining,” a trait somehow unique to men, nor is it shared by all men (although there are men who automatically assume their own superiority to women, of course).
And it’s not only about gender – some men speak that way to other men, as do some women to other women. Some queer and trans people do it to one another, and to cis people and vice versa. People with lighter skin do it to people with darker skin and the reverse is equally true. If you have differently shaped eyes, or a different accent, the condescending tones might come out. (And, by the way, so-called “white male Westerners” don’t have a monopoly on arrogance.)
Having a certain type of chromosome or physical appearance doesn’t make you an expert. And it certainly doesn’t give you the right to drown out another person’s voice.
Before we engage in a shouting match, let’s take some time to listen. Everyone’s positionality has taught them something we don’t know. And some people know a lot, while others know a little. Some people can spout statistics, while others can tell us how something feels.
So if we each know something, maybe we can let go of our egos and put the parts together. That way we can all become smarter.
The right to free speech has been invoked to defend all sorts of things, from promoting drugs for off-label uses to parodying trademarks. At the same time, people who make insulting or simply inaccurate statements sometimes expect that freedom of expression means that everyone must let those statements slide.
I’ve encountered this attitude many times. It goes something like this:
“You can’t tell me I shouldn’t say x because it’s offensive or untrue. I have my own truth and I’m allowed to say whatever I want.”
It’s a contradictory idea, of course: “I have freedom of speech, but you don’t have the freedom to say you disagree with me.” The whole point of free expression is to allow dissent. It was conceived as a legal protection to prohibit government crackdowns on citizens who protest or even just hold alternative views.
Not all speech is protected under these laws and the extent of them varies from country to country. For a number of reasons, religion seems to fall into a whole separate category – in many cases, the freedom to practice your religion has its own legislation.
Socially, too, criticizing someone’s religion raises more hackles than criticizing their political or lifestyle choices. A magazine can make fun of someone’s vegan diet or views on immigration, but that freedom seems to stop with religion.
Outside of a country’s laws, no one has the right to impose a religion on someone else. Some versions of secularism (the division of church and state) mean everyone can publicly practice their religion, while others lean more toward limiting religious expression to private occasions. Either way, it is illegal for the state to mandate individual religion in secular countries. This is what freedom of religion means.
In places with religious government, everyone has to respect and even appear to practice the national religion. To many, the most obvious examples are Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Myanmar also punishes citizens for even suggesting disrespect for Buddhism. Earlier this year, the country put three people in jail for an advertisement showing the Buddha wearing headphones.
According to the New York Times, the court convicted them because the advertisement “offended the majority religion in the country,” which violates the country’s religion act.
This incarceration shows that Buddhism is not just about a jolly fat guy who thinks everybody should live in peace. But more importantly, it reinforces a dangerous notion made apparent in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: people who hold religious beliefs have the right to not be offended. Not only that, but if they are offended and they take revenge, it is at least partly the fault of those who committed the offence.
Of course, ethically, people probably shouldn’t offend other people just because they can. Ideally, all criticism should be constructive and based on facts. However, and here’s the key to all this, people are allowed to offend other people, no matter what their motivation – even if they just want to be annoying. Yes, it’s childish and irritating and unproductive. But that’s not the point. Freedom of speech only works if we protect speech that we disagree with.
No matter what we might think of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ crude drawings, we have to recognize their right to publish them. Religious belief does not exempt us from human rights law, let alone from being offended. If it did, we would have to say that it’s okay for Myanmar Buddhists to imprison people for depicting the Buddha in a comical way, while extremist Christians are right to blow up abortion clinics (which, by the way, is the biggest terrorism threat in the United States).
For good reasons, secular nations and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights have made many religiously sanctioned acts illegal, from honor killings (murder) to spousal disciplining (abuse). Hate speech, or speech that incites people to violence, is also banned in many places, although its limits tend to be a bit fuzzy.
In the end, legislation is an attempt to stop people from harming other people. Freedom of expression protects us from fear of political retaliation, so that we can all contribute to a discussion on how to make the world a better place. Other laws forbid person-to-person violence, including as an act of revenge.
Free speech doesn’t justify structural, physical, or any other kind of violence. And it certainly doesn’t protect us from getting our feelings hurt.