Cultural Relativism: n.
Cultural relativism can be understood as a three-step intellectual process:
1. Values, customs, ways of life (that is, culture) evolve and take form in particular historical and material conditions.
2. Since the above assumption includes our way of life too, we cannot look upon another’s culture and evaluate it critically without our view being influenced (some might say ‘tainted’) by our own culture.
3. This means we cannot fairly/judiciously/rightly interpret another culture. Our being embedded in our own culture compromises any semblance of objectivity.
Cultural relativism is then used as a rebuttal against so-called “cultural imperialism”—the foisting of external values on another’s way of life. What is at root a ‘universality vs. particularity’ debate has spiraled wildly out of control into a ‘native vs. imperialism’ argument. But all this hot air and bluster that is cultural relativism revolves upon limited and, I would say, harmful and deleterious perspectives of ‘culture.’ The relativists make frightening assumptions about culture:
• Culture is monolithic, unanimous in its practice, strictly bounded, and known by all adherents.
• It is assumed that ‘cultures’, much like Huntington’s laughable perception of ‘civilizations’, are stark in their dividing lines—that there is clear, unmistakable differentiation between one and the other culture like different colored states on a map. However, to use the ideas of Terry Eagleton, cultures are not bounded by electric fences but are instead like horizons. They are porous and constantly assuming new cultural practices from outside and molding them to various degrees to accommodate differing material and historical conditions (2003, 62).
• The relativists provide no explanations as to how cultures go about changing (as they do constantly and fluidly) as well as how it is possible that criticism is constantly being leveled at culture by their supposed adherents! The relativists claim that, in order to formulate a critical opinion, one must assume a vantage point outside of the criticized environment, but doesn’t this indicate that intra-culture multi-positionality is very real?
What’s most frustrating is the absolute poverty of theory in relativism—that is, what happens when we approach the limits of relativism (ie. follow relativism to its extreme conclusion)? According to the relativist, we in the United States happen to live in a social and political environment that is reluctant to torture individuals (though this reluctance was certainly challenged by Jonathan Alter, Alan Dershowitz, etc.). We believe that torture is morally abhorrent and we are incapable of reconciling our social consciousness with waterboarding a “suspected” terrorist with the intent to glean information. According to the relativist, “cultures” that have torture firmly embedded in their “ways of life” ought to be immune from censure, criticism. Eagleton explains the conundrum created by cultural relativism and torture:
“Not many thinkers are bold-faced enough to go entirely relativist on such issues and claim that if torture happens to be in your tradition, then more power to your elbow. Most of them would claim, with varying degrees of reluctance and liberal guilt, that torture is wrong for such people, too. Most people, if they had to choose, would rather be seen as cultural imperialists than champions of cruelty. It is just that for the anti-theorists, reality itself has no views about whether torture is admirable or repulsive. In fact, reality has no views about anything. Moral values, like everything else, are a matter of random, free-floating cultural traditions” (2003, 57).
Yes, we are informed by our positioning in this world; and, yes, this positioning involves being immersed in socially-defined modes of life (culture). But the cultural relativist’s condemnation that we cannot judge the Other because we lack “objectivity” or “neutrality” is absolutely absurd. Eagleton again:
“There is no need to struggle out of your skin in order to make fundamental criticisms of your situation. You do not have to be standing in metaphysical outer space to recognize the injustice of racial discrimination. This is exactly where you would not recognize it” (2003, 61-62)
The assumption is then that cultures are as individual entities, total in their definition and unanimous among constituents. But this simply isn’t the case! There are so many cross currents running throughout what is portrayed as stand-alone “Culture.” As members of these multifaceted cultures, we can draw on strands of our own familiarity in order to comprehend a foreign situation. “There is a good deal within our culture which we can draw on to do so. Anti-theorists make the mistake of seeing cultures as more or less coherent. So criticism of them comes either from the outside, in which case it is irrelevant or unintelligible, or from the inside, in which case it is not really radical. But there are many different, contradictory strands to a culture, some of which allow us to be critical of others. To act according to the Western way of life may mean to throw up barricades in Piccadilly just as much as to tear them down. If scones and cream represent one English cultural tradition, the suffragettes represent another. It is good news that we cannot entirely escape our culture—for if we could, we would not be able to submit it to critical judgment” (2003, 62).
Of course, we must familiarize ourselves with the situations that we are criticizing! The choice is not between being a cultural relativist and an ignoramus. Understanding the local on-the-ground particularities of the exterior cultural phenomenon should be seen as a way of informing our critique, not explaining why we should not enter into discourse! Relativism is as much a washing of one’s hands as it is an anti-theory.
Feminist theory runs up against the wall of cultural relativism when it addresses international issues. Lata Mani, in her struggle to identify a platform to criticize sati (Hindu widow burning), writes of walking a fine line between relativism and imperialism: “how to argue for women’s rights in ways that were not complicit in any way with patriarchal, racist or ethnocentric formulations of the issues” (p. 368). She resolves this conundrum by analyzing sati in contradiction to the critiques leveled by “imperial” sources such as the British colonial outrage at sati—by centering her critique on women, not culture. It is for women, woman as subject, that her criticism is situated.