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.
In my last original post, I had heard that water has memory, but I didn’t know enough to decide either way.
I did some digging, and it turns out that the water studies were not conducted in a scientific way, nor were they peer reviewed. There’s no way to substantiate any of the claims made. In other words, pseudoscientific mumbo jumbo. Good to know.
Now that that’s been cleared up, let me turn to my main point for this post. I want to reiterate a point I brought up in that previous post: it’s both extremely uncomfortable and incredibly rewarding to admit that we don’t know something.
I think we internalize this discomfort with not knowing from a young age. We learn to only speak when we know the answer.
Here’s a good time to enact what I’m advocating for: I don’t know how people feel about saying they don’t know something in other parts of the world. Or even here, really, so I’m speculating based on things I’ve read and my own observations in North America and Europe.
Within this realm, parents and older siblings often chide children for asking too many questions. It’s annoying and time-consuming, and probably the parents and siblings don’t know the answer half the time. This situation can make them uncomfortable, especially for parents, since they are socially responsible for their children’s education. If they don’t know what information to give their child, have they failed in their role?
While there are many outstanding teachers in the world, many are forced to silence curious children. The goal of public education is to get children to pass standardized tests and learn the required material laid out in a narrow curriculum based on memorization, rather than research and discovery.
This trend of consuming information instead of seeking and building knowledge continues into adulthood. At work, seeming unsure might lead clients, bosses, and coworkers to distrust your abilities. Saying you don’t know merits chastisement, even to the point of getting fired for “incompetence.” (I’m not saying there aren’t actually incompetent people, just that learning is a process that takes time and acceptance of errors.) Instead of providing training and allowing employees to grow into their positions, many companies – including those in the arts – want their new recruits to come fully formed with years of experience and lots of energy. When David Bowie put out his first album, no one expected a success, but they gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him explore his sound in the studio for multiple subsequent recordings. Nowadays, if you don’t sell enough copies right off the bat, you risk being cut from the label.
So we feel that it’s uncomfortable and inhibiting to admit we don’t know something. Yet in reality, no one can claim to know everything. If we can start accepting this condition in ourselves and others, we may build a more honest world.
We will also start to recognize our own strengths and to value those of others. If I can admit that I don’t know something about medicine or physics or politics, then I can find someone who does know. In this way, I can become smarter and more informed.
We will all become better at discerning good information from bad if we practice finding out what we don’t know. It’s not enough to click on the first Google hit. SEO, paid ads, and popularity play a huge role in what’s at the top; facticity and accuracy do not.
It’s also not enough to read a few lines or even a few paragraphs on a topic and call it “learning.” Most things that are “known” are way more complex than a simple explanation will suggest. It’s always good to examine opposing views, because someone can be very convincing without being right. It’s also important to look at the person’s claim to authority, which can mean many different things. Their positionality in the world (which social labels they fall under, where they live, and many other factors) will influence their perspective as well.
Learning through discovery is hard, much harder than reading a “fact” and then regurgitating it. But we don’t really know anything until we’ve looked at it closely from many angles and sat with it for some time. Otherwise, we’re just repeating words that someone else said. We can’t actually own the knowledge as a personal intellectual asset. We’ve accepted information as true without having any understanding of what makes it so.
Sometimes new information emerges and what we previously “knew” becomes obsolete, shown to be incorrect. Other things can change from moment to moment, place to place, person to person. Democracy doesn’t just mean one thing; neither does religion, or even a specific type or subtype of religious belief. Sufi Islam is very different from the Sunni persuasion. Pagans vary across the board. And of course individual circumstances affect interpretations and practices, so you can never come up with a timeless, immutable law of Sufi practice or any other human endeavour.
I don’t know a lot of things. When I write a post expressing an opinion, I often second-guess the validity of that statement. In other parts of my life, I try to present myself as knowledgeable as frequently as possible; obviously I’m not immune to the socialization process. I also tend to simply remain quiet when I don’t know something, hoping that someone else will fill in the blanks.
However, training in research methods has spilled over into my daily life. The first thing we all should know is how to find solid, valid information. Then we should know how to examine it, test it, shake it up, and see if it still stands.
Of course, we all have limited time and resources at hand, including life experience or education in various subject areas. To some, something might seem obviously untrue, while someone else might be convinced by its apparent value and what looks like supporting evidence. We also need to respect this type of difference (without being afraid to challenge another person’s viewpoint, of course).
We can’t all know the same things, no matter how hard we try. In this light, it seems worthwhile to question our own received knowledge and try to really understand why we think we know what we do. This approach just might help us all get smarter, while simultaneously producing the joy of discovery and the solace of mutual respect.
A few days ago, I heard about the idea that water has memory. Of course, when people say such things, I have to wonder what they mean by the word “memory:” does water have memory like humans have memory (e.g. being able to recall emotional experiences)? Or more like how bees have memory (e.g. knowing how to navigate to the same place they were before)? Or maybe like mud has memory (e.g. retaining a footprint)?
The point is that I don’t know. I know nothing about this science, if science it really is. My first inclination is to say it’s probably not true, at least not in the New Age-y sense in which it was implied.
Here’s one of the things that put me off the idea: apparently, if you play classical music to water, it takes on a beautiful shape at a very minute level, whereas heavy metal makes it all crooked and jagged. This sort of idea immediately makes me skeptical, since it fits too neatly into social snobbery about “good” vs. “bad” music. It seems more likely to me that the acoustic properties of the different types of music affected the shape of the water crystals, not that it had a negative emotional response to some quality of the music. Sound is a physical entity. (Also, what do they mean by “classical” music? Was it a nocturne? A slow piece for solo cello? A dance piece for piano quartet? Or a more dramatic orchestral piece? I’m sure each one would shape the water differently. The same applies to heavy metal, some of which is actually quite gentle.)
Here’s an example of how sound can do seemingly “magic” things with water:
But the fact that this connection doesn’t sit well with mean isn’t evidence.
I still don’t know. I can’t say with any kind of certainty that my hypothesis is correct. I haven’t examined the science and I’m not sure I’m properly qualified to understand and judge it all anyway.
And sometimes that’s okay. It’s okay to live with not knowing, at least for a while. In school and other areas of life, we often learn that not knowing is a crime. If your teacher asks you a question and you say you don’t know, you might be ridiculed or shamed for not having done the homework or not paying attention in class. Instead of teaching how to find out what you don’t know, the response is that you should just always know, or else you should shut up.
Not knowing is uncomfortable. Admitting it out loud is even less comfortable. But not knowing is what drives curiosity, discovery, creativity, and innovation. We need to recognize what we don’t know before we can move forward.
Without admitting that we don’t know something, we will never take the steps to learn about it or to invent a way of doing the thing we don’t know how to do.
So next time someone tells me something that sounds implausible to me, I’m going to try really hard to just say, “I don’t know.” It might be off-putting to them and uncomfortable for me. But the payoff will be worth it, because it will allow me to consider an idea more openly, instead of dismissing it on some emotional basis.
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.