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 people perceive women to be inferior to men and sexually available to whoever wants to have a go at them. They then behave as if this were true. Women’s inferiority is a “lived reality” to those people. Yet nobody says, “We need to acknowledge women’s inferiority and sexual availability because we need to talk about rape.” To get at the root of the problem, we need to understand that some people believe that women are inferior and/or sexually available, not that this is factually true. It might even be useful to question the meaning of a category like “women” (which many people have done more or less successfully).
On a related note, the divine right of kings used to be a “lived reality,” meaning that people (including the kings) experienced it as real and lived their lives accordingly. Yet nobody today would argue that we have to acknowledge the divine right of kings in order to understand historical political systems or even how people experienced them. No, we would simply agree that people believed in the divine right of kings and behaved as if it were real, thereby contributing to their own oppression and that of others.
Thus far, we can agree.
Many people perceive arbitrarily divided groups of people to be different based on physical characteristics. Somehow, our logic changes in this case and we come to the conclusion that, “We have to acknowledge race.” We don’t. We have to acknowledge racism.
By acknowledging race as a useful ontological category, we are telling the racists they are right, that there are concrete, observable differences that indelibly separate groups of humans from one another in insurmountable ways. We are saying that lines can be drawn to distinguish these groups in clear-cut ways. We are saying there is an objective reality to the perception of race. We are saying “Race is real, but we shouldn’t treat people differently because of it.” With good intentions, we are trying to make racist views less damaging, instead of rejecting them altogether. In short, we are accepting racism as a valid worldview, just one that needs to be tweaked.
If we acknowledge that some people believe in race and that it creates problems without accepting the premise of race, then we are refusing to give any credence to the underlying assumption of racists. We already have useful concepts that work much better than “race.” As a starting point, I suggest “genetic ancestry,” “historical community,” or “shared cultural experience.”
Can we really assert that a right-leaning politician in India has much in common with a retired performance artist in the United States just because they have the same skin tone? Does a social worker in Ireland readily relate to a Zimbabwean farmer who fled to Zambia during the civil war? My guess is no. “Race” has become shorthand for too many conflicting ideas. If we want to talk about oppression and lived realities, we need a better, more precise vocabulary to say what we really mean.
It’s normal to get upset when we see someone being treated unfairly, even more so when an entire group of people is oppressed by a system founded on prejudice. The right thing is to speak up and try to make the world a better place.
Social media can be an echo chamber, but it can also be a space for encountering alternative views. Unless we unfriend or unfollow everyone who disagrees with us, we can open ourselves up to a greater awareness of how others think.
I know as well as anyone that some people’s views are unpalatable and hard to deal with day after day. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, fundamentalism, and a million other things can catch us off guard. Sometimes we’re tired and really just want to look at some cute animals or read the news about our favorite show. Some days, we just want it to go away. We can choose to ignore it or hide it. That’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, silence doesn’t always mean acceptance.
On other occasions, we may be fired up enough to challenge the view with reasoned arguments and solid evidence. We won’t stop until the person admits their view is wrong.
Unfortunately, in the midst of our activist zeal, we sometimes forget about compassion.
Despite what absolute relativists say (if such people really exist, which is doubtful), some views are more valid than others, because they are based on evidence and analysis and experience. I’m not saying that we should respect all views equally, regardless of who they might harm. But I do think that we should respect all people – if not equally, at least to a minimum degree.
There’s a difference between saying “Your view is wrong” and “You’re a dumb person.” It’s also unfair to assume we know how a person feels on an issue (“You shouldn’t be so angry about this”) if they haven’t told you (maybe they’re not angry at all). Also, telling people that how they feel is wrong and that they should feel some other way is about as unhelpful and unproductive as we can get.
Additionally, we should avoid slotting people into categories because of a single aspect of their opinion. The thought process goes something like this: “This person doesn’t like homosexuality, and in my experience homophobic people are generally on the right. Therefore this person is on the right and must also be a creationist Christian, fiscally conservative and more concerned with security than equality.” Wrong. In the Netherlands, for example, the right is not necessarily religious and they openly support homosexuality.
Our biases are just as biased as anyone else’s biases.
Any view must undergo a lot of scrutiny for it to prove its worth and staying power. Our own views are vulnerable to logical fallacies and misinformation, just like other people’s. We need to recognize this before jumping on our high horse. Questioning our own position will help reign in any tendency to arrogance we might have.
At the same time, we need to remember that not everyone has had access to intellectual training or positive mentors or accurate information. Many of our opinions come from emotional experiences, not facts, and those experiences and emotions need to be acknowledged, even if the conclusions are problematic.
Finally, though, the most important thing is that we remember that very few people are bad. At some point, Hitler was an aspiring artist who was kind to dogs. Instead of always focusing on what divides us, we might get further by trying to figure out what connects us. By finding common ground, we will be able to see our shared humanity and trigger empathy.
We can’t expect other people to behave more empathetically toward people they don’t agree with if we can’t do it ourselves. Let’s practice compassion whenever we can. After all, at its root, social justice is about people being nicer to each other. Maybe we can start by being nicer ourselves.
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.
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.
In a scene from the movie Freedom Writers (2007), a character named Victoria is the only dark-skinned student in her high-school English class. The teacher starts a discussion of the The Color Purple by asking Victoria to share “the black perspective” on the book.
This episode was inspired by the real Freedom Writers’ Diary (1999), in particular one entry by Joyce Roberts.
When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people… “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”
How the hell should I know what the black perspective is on Affirmative Action or The Color Purple? What is it, magic? Black people read, and poof, we miraculously come to the same conclusion? The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own.
Let’s go over that last sentence again: The only opinion I can give with some degree of certainty is my own. Unless they’ve done some solid, long-term, in-depth research, no one can claim to express other people’s views (and even then, it’s limited to the topic at hand).
You know that politician or activist who you never agree with but who relentlessly claims to speak for “the people?” You know that they don’t, because they don’t speak for you. Or what about celebrities? Someone like Pamela Anderson might make a valid point here and there, but that doesn’t mean she represents a consensus among all animal activists or Vancouver Islanders or 48-year-olds or people with breasts or Russian ancestry.
So why is it that we sometimes think a shared “racial” status confers legitimacy on a spokesperson? No matter how appealing their ideas are, they only speak for themselves and maybe a few of their direct supporters.
The notion that shared skin colour equals a shared perspective is ludicrous. An elderly, urban, wealthy Jamaican woman with a doctorate in physics and a transgender child will not have the same worldview as a single male Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with a hefty student loan debt and a love of physics.
Yes, they both like physics and they both have dark skin, maybe even exactly the same shade. But they can’t speak for each other and everyone else with those characteristics, as if their minds and experiences are interchangeable. Also, who’s to say that their shared skin colour – or even their similar (or dissimilar?) experiences of discrimination – are the key elements that form their identity and relationship to the world?
A black (white/Latino/Asian/aboriginal/etc.) person is a social type, much like a politician, an entrepreneur, a public intellectual, a feminist, or an activist. There is no essential quality of “blackness” that is shared among all people with dark skin, just like there is no essential quality of “politician-ness” or “activist-ness” that lets us know right away what that person is like and how they see things.
What’s the exact shade variation that determines when a person is no longer “black” but “brown” or “red” or “white” or something else? Or maybe ancestry determines your race. How many ancestors do you need to belong to a certain category? What if you have five different ancestral lines (or even two)? How do you choose which one is your race, let alone someone else’s? How far back can you go to justify your inclusion in a racial category? How far back do you need to go to justify your ancestors’ inclusion? Have we encountered the infinite regress fallacy again?
“Whiteness” is generally the unmarked racial category, meaning that when we think of race, we often think of “non-whiteness.” This difference means that most people don’t assume that a person with light skin speaks on behalf of all other people with light skin. But as soon as someone with dark skin speaks up, we have Joyce Roberts’ situation above, where they have become the spokesperson that “hold[s] the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans [or whatever] are.”
There’s so much wrong with this notion that I can’t elaborate on it all here. But the crux of the matter is that we need to challenge “the conventional presumption … that any black individual’s participation in public life always strives to express the will of the racial collectivity” (political scientist Adolph Reed, Class Notes, p.81) – as if a “racial collectivity” could even be delineated in any kind of concrete way.
And of course this applies to all groups, not just racialized ones. A male and a female Canadian oil sands heavy machinery operator with student loans and a love of physics probably have a lot in common with each other, even though their gender doesn’t match up. Class lines, experiences of inequality, personal interests, family relationships, type and level of education and many other factors intersect to shape a person’s identity and outlook.
So instead of assuming that we know (or don’t know!) something about a person or group based on one thing, let’s stop prejudging, whether the judgement is ostensibly positive or negative. In either case, it’s probably off base.
As an extension of this stance, let’s stop supposing that a “First Nations leader” or a “black intellectual” speaks on behalf of everyone who gets lumped into the same racialized category or labelled as the same social type. Their view is no more or less representative than that politician you dislike. Let’s examine their merits on a case-by-case basis.
In other words, let’s just get to know people on a human level and see what we have in common and what we can learn from one another. Surely it’ll be more rewarding than the divisive essentialism that “race-ists” would have us believe in.