Cultural Relativism as a Political Stance
Cultural relativism is nonsense — at least outside of academic fields such as anthropology or sociology. I will concede: to objectively study another culture as an academic, one needs to employ cultural relativism to avoid individual feelings getting in the way of conducting honest research. A friend of mine once made a very convincing case in a discussion about cultural relativism in academia and I think it’s safe to say that he’s convinced me — we must be relative for the sake of research in the humanities. As a world view, however, cultural relativism is dangerous, morally corrupt and ultimately racist.
I wrote an article on moral relativism in which I made the case that Christian values were of more worth to us than moral relativism and hedonistic attitudes. My opinion on culture is somewhat similar to the opinions I expressed on morality — some moralities are better and more constructive than others, and they can be measured by their fruits. And so it is with culture — however, cultures cannot be measured by the whims of a subjective observer or their stomach for norms that seems abnormal to them. Rather, a culture must be measured by its morality. If we don’t measure it by morality, then what would we be measuring it by? Perhaps personal taste for aesthetics, norms or how much spice one likes in their food?
By rejecting the idea of moral relativism, we then enter in to a world in which cultures and societies can be held to the same scrutiny as individuals. Some cultures, morally speaking, must be better than others if morality can indeed be measured objectively.
For example, we can all agree upon the idea that the most moral action is the one that ends in the most amount of people being happy and the less amount of people suffering; likewise, the least moral action is the one that ends in the most suffering and less happiness. If we accept this premise, we might look at two different cultures to explore the hypothesis that cultural relativism is a reckless way of viewing the world. We’ll use the United States of America and Saudi Arabia as our two subjects and I’ll make the argument to you that the USA is a morally superior country to Saudi Arabia, due to cultural norms that ultimately inform their respective politics. Before continuing, I must stress: this is not to be misunderstood as playing Islam and Christianity off against each other. Though religion can and usually does inform culture, it is often culture that injects itself in to religion — Christianity often takes a violent twist in societies where violence is a norm, for example; it became a colonising and tremendously violent religion in the West before the enlightenment period; before becoming what we know it as today. Islam has gone under several similar changes — so, to be absolutely clear, do not mistake this as a Christianity vs Islam/West vs Muslims discussion. It is not and there is no such thing as a unified ‘Islamic’ society — Islam is, contrary to the opinions of ISIS and the extreme right, extremely fluid in how it translates in to culture and has been for about a thousand years.
I digress. In the USA, you have a right to be gay; to free speech; to have sex before you’re married; to drive or dress however you want if you’re a woman and the right to leave your religion if you decide that you no longer believe in it. In Saudi Arabia, most of these things are punishable under the law. Being gay can have you killed, being raped can have you flogged, several areas of Saudi Arabia enforce the hijab, women can’t drive and religion is kept in place with violence and oppression. Saudi Arabia’s laws, therefore, end in less freedom, liberty, right to life and equality and therefore more suffering than happiness. The laws of the USA, however, are largely skewed towards personal happiness and freedom of the individual. To my mind, this makes American culture better, morally speaking, than Saudi Arabian culture — not to suggest that Arabian culture has always been lagging behind, in fact it seems to be a rather new development, much like Iran’s spiral in to theocratic mad house. Just because a culture revolutionises and downgrades, this is no reason to believe that it is a permanent feature. There is no reason to believe that theocratic, ludicrously oppressive cultures are inherent to the Arab people and there is no reason to believe that the USA will never one day become one either. It is important to understand that human beings are the same everywhere and if a culture can lessen in one part of the world, it can lessen everywhere — this is why it is so important to hold culture to the same moral standards as we would each other.
Naturally, one might like the aesthetics, fashion or food of Arabian culture more than they like the same things from there own, but this isn’t part of the equation — to open this dialogue up to something like that could allow some very unfriendly ideas to flourish. These parts of a culture have no bearing on the moral worth of it — I enjoy smoking tobacco for example, particularly American brands, and eating burgers and fries, however this does not make America a good culture. We must only judge on morality.
We might look to the capitalist nations of the western world and every communist nation that has ever existed. Ever. Capitalist nations tend to be more free; have better freedom of speech laws; unmatched freedom of the press; prosperity; the right to choose varied products in a store; no breadlines and happier populations. Some examples might be the United Kingdom, France, Germany, USA, Canada, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Communist nations, on the other hand, are exact opposites. Freedom of the press is a myth; freedom of speech is a distant ideal never to be obtained; people are poorer in communist nations than anywhere else in the civilised world; everything is state-owned and state sanctioned. Communist countries are not fun places to be, and there’s no exception (China long ceased to be a communist country and is one of the only “bad” countries to practice capitalism, as perverted as its version might be). North Korea, the USSR, Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba — not one of these so-called “left Utopias” are good places to live, regardless of what socialists might tell you — I’m certainly willing to bet money that none of these western socialists will give up their prosperous lives here to go and live over there. These countries are fantastically poor and their citizens are treated like utter dirt by the state. Capitalist nations are therefore better, morally speaking, than communist nations.
In the opening paragraph I made the statement that cultural relativism is racist. I’m now going to defend that. The idea that we must be accepting or even tolerant of other cultures because ‘it’s their ‘ways’ is a monstrous one. I do not care if another culture thinks it is okay to throw homosexuals from a roof. I do not care if another culture thinks forcing families to have one child is acceptable. I do not care if another culture thinks rape victims should be punished. And I don’t care that some countries oppresses citizens becuase of their race, religion of ethnicity. If these things are what some cultures believe are correct codes of conduct, then (in the words of Richard Dawkins) to hell with those cultures. And how dreadfully racist it is to say that we, western people, should insist that those from different areas of the world should be given a different standard of morality. Cultural relativists are saying, ‘Oh, we don’t rape, kill gays, make people poor, oppress women and crush free speech and neither will we accept it in out countries— but if you brown people wish to do it, well then it’s just your culture!’ How utterly perverted.
If you, like me, reject moral relativism and by extension cultural relativism, you’ll be accused of racism at some point in your life. Defend yourself. Remind the cultural relativist that it is them, not you, who’s advocating for different moral standards based on race and geographical location. It is them, not you, who are saying that oppressive cultures ought to be given the right to exist without being insulted for their oppressive natures. They are the ones justifying evil, not us. We are defending morality and decency.