Sometimes people say certain words to me. These words should not be said because they will make me angry. Some of these words include:
The movie was better
I just don’t like dogs
Men’s Rights Activists have a legitimate case to make
But two of the worst sentences you can say are:
Well John, that’s just their culture. You have to respect that.
No, I don’t.
Why do people keep insisting that we have to respect all aspects of someone else’s culture? When did the liberal world get such a hard on for cultural relativism?
What’s cultural relativism?
So, cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs and activities should be understood based on the person’s own culture. We shouldn’t judge other cultures for having ideas that are different than ours. It was first put forward as an idea by anthropologist Franz Boas and was in direct conflict with the idea of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the practice of judging the actions or values of another culture based on the values that your own culture has.
Well, ethnocentrism sounds like a bad thing.
Hey, it is. Or it can be. We’re always going to judge things based on our own views of right and wrong. Cultural relativism goes right along with the idea of moral relativism. Moral relativism is the idea that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.
This can become a huge problem as we become unable to judge or condemn problematic aspects of another culture because, say it with me, cultural relativism doesn’t let us. Because it insists that you can only judge the morality of a culture from inside that culture’s own perspective. There are many examples of problematic aspects of culture.
In Saudi Arabia, women are not allowed to drive a car*. There’s no specific law which bans them from driving, but deeply held religious beliefs don’t allow it and many Saudi clerics argue that female drivers undermine social values.
*Edit: As of September 27, 2017 this is no longer the case and Saudi Arabia has lifted its long standing ban on female drivers. This has in no way ended Saudi Arabia’s abuse of the rights of women as they are still need the permission of a man to:
- Apply for a passport
- Travel abroad
- Get married
- Open a bank account
- Start certain businesses
- Get elective surgery
- Leave prison
In many parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) happens on a regular basis. This includes such procedures as removing the clitoris from girl aged infancy to 15 years. There are no potential health benefits and lifelong harm that comes from all FGM procedures.
Many Middle Eastern communities still practice stonings. Muslim women who are accused of adultery are stoned to death for their punishment. In case you can’t figure out the definition of stoning, it involves having rocks hurled at you until you die. Such events are especially prevalent in fundamentalist Islamic nations, like Syria under ISIS.
Turkey actively denies the Armenian Genocide and has a law on the books (called Penal Code 301) that makes it illegal to embarrass Turkey. This law is most often cited in cases where Turkish citizens or Turkish-Armenian citizens call upon Turkey to recognize the Armenian Genocide. Hrant Dink was a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was arrested multiple times under Code 301 and was eventually assassinated by a Turkish nationalist.
Turkey also allows, in some cases at least, honor killings. These are murders committed for the purpose of restoring a family’s honor. One case, involving a murder in Germany in 2005 recently concluded.
And there are dozens of other examples that I could list if I wanted to go more into this. Many of those unfortunate cultural practices even happen in the US. (anti-Vaxxers, the alt-right, police murders of PoC, tax exempt churches, most of the GOPs policies)
Wow. Those all sounds like awful things.
They are! Cultural relativism can be used to cover up human rights abuses and to hide people from the consequences of crimes. All because “it’s allowed in their culture”. So here’s a quick study guide for you kids.
Does any aspect of your culture call for the death of another group?
GET RID OF IT.
Does any aspect of your culture treat another group as a lesser person for any reason at all?
GET RID OF IT.
Does any aspect of your culture discriminate against anyone in any way at all?
GET RID OF IT.
I am all for cultural differences. They make the world a richer and broader place. However, some aspects of cultures are just plain wrong and they should never be entertained. I’m looking at you, Southern States with Confederate War Memorials. I’m looking at you, “Heritage Not Hate” proponents. I’m looking at you, the Alt-Right.
Well John, it sounds like you want to just push your own cultural values on other people. That’s imperialistic.
Wow, I don’t want to be mean, but just please stop talking.
So, you’re partially correct, I do want to take some key aspects of my own values and enforce them around the world. Just one part though. All people are people who deserve equal treatment and consideration under the law. As long as your cultural practices don’t get in the way of that simple fact, I don’t really care what you do. Do you want to go to Church on Sunday? Fine. Do you want to abstain from eating certain foods? Fine. Do you want to pray five times a day? Fine.
There’s nothing wrong with those cultural practices. There’s nothing wrong with like… 90% of all cultures. I don’t expect everyone to live a life like I do. I don’t expect everyone to share my values and to believe what I believe. I do expect you to treat every single living person with dignity and respect and to accord them all rights and privileges that you would want for yourself. If any part of your culture doesn’t mesh with that idea, then it’s not a valid cultural practice and I will fight it until it dies or I do. Some parts of your culture just suck. Police your values. Police your ideas. Hold people accountable to an objective morality. All people are people and deserve equal treatment under the law.