Cultural Relativism — I'm Torn

I’m torn.  As a white western male I look out at three far away cultures.

The first is a small African village. They eat different food than me. They perform strange dances. They have weird daily rituals. But even though their cultural customs differ from my own, I respect them, and feel no need to impose the "right" way — read: the western way — onto their lives.

The second is a Middle Eastern country. They too have different cultural customs. For example, women are not allowed to speak to men unless spoken to. They must cover themselves head to toe. They are not allowed to partake in any political debate.

The third is another African village. Here, they too have a different culture. They require women to have their clitoris removed.

Why is it that I feel OK imposing what I think is right on the second and third examples, but not on the first?

What if, in the second example, the Middle Eastern country, the women are happy? If happiness is the ultimate pursuit, and they are happy, who am I to say their culture needs to change? Can I say, "Believe me, you’ll be happier after this change"? Can I say, "Be a martyr. All women after you will thank you"?

6 Responses to Cultural Relativism — I'm Torn

  1. Tony says:

    Playing off the third example, is it reasonable for a European woman to look at the United States and impose her view on America for our cultural practice of routine male circumcision? I say yes, since it comes down to principles. Are we pushing our view because our belief in individual rights and liberty should be universal or is it just a shallow thought like the NFL is better than soccer?

    Your first example shows a group with all members participating in their own way. In two and three, that’s not true. So, as long as there’s a consistent principle underlying your revulsion at some cultural practices and not others, you have no reason to be torn.

  2. John says:

    Hi Ben –

    You ask the right question, but you already know the answer. Sure, maybe I’m buying a bit of liberal media bias, but I do believe that women prefer to not be disfigured once they are in a position to actually make the choice. Same for having rights as a women in a muslim country.

    It’s perfectly fine to have a philosophical bent towards self-determination and actualization and to “impose” that view on other societies. If a woman chooses to not exercise her rights, she should not be criticized – to do so is cultural bigotry. But if a culture denies her the choice, it is proper (or maybe even a responsibility) to condemn those aspects of the culture and those who propogate them.

  3. Eric Olson says:

    Hi Ben,

    Interesting thought for sure. I spent a good amount of time in Cairo, Egypt during my senior year of college. Egypt is an interesting place to study as they are a bit more progressive than the middle east as a whole so you can see, through Egypt, where the other countries may be heading.

    In Cairo it is not imperitive that women cover themselves fully. In fact, a lot of the local college women did not. However, some did and it was completely their choice to do so. I found this to be true with other women in the city as well. So, interstingly enough, they wanted to remain covered to be in touch with their culture and religion (and other various reasons) but it didn’t make them any less strong. These were intelligent women (professors, college students, etc.) who had made a choice through their own will.

    It just goes to show you that what is right for one person may not be right for another. It’s all a matter of personal choice. So I think the real issue is just getting to the point where everyone can have a choice.

  4. Scott Young says:

    My only recommendation to you is not to look for the answer too quickly. Our society is ruled by people who can’t handle a question they don’t have the answer to. If you are torn about something it means you are open minded and intelligent.

    Thoughts on issues such as abortion, religion, life and death, human liberty and cultural issues rarely have a clear cut answer. Try to see the shades of grey.

  5. JK says:

    “Why is it that I feel OK imposing what I think is right on the second and third examples, but not on the first?”

    To answer this question: because you believe that absolute values exist. You have a moral standard of what’s right and wrong over any culture and geographic location, and some would even stretch this idea out over time (like saying this kind of discrimination/mutilation was wrong hundreds of years ago too). Interestingly enough, I’ve run into a lot of people here in college that have a completely different view. While they’re quick to say that they don’t approve of discrimination and mutilation, they’re not prepared to tell someone that it is wrong.
    Most of us have had the concepts of tolerance and diversity drilled into us since we were able to talk; your torn values are a result of this. While we think (or know) it’s best to have gender equality and refrain from mutilation, we are reluctant to dismiss other people’s values. In my experiences, it’s rare for someone our age to have strong enough convictions to say that they are ok imposing anything on anyone. While I struggle to reconcile and defend my beliefs, I argee with you: certain things are wrong based on what I think are universal morals.

  6. Evan says:

    Good questions. What a complicated issue. Here’s an incoherent ridiculous and convoluted stab at an answer…

    who am I to say their culture needs to change? Can I say, “Believe me, you’ll be happier after this change”? Can I say, “Be a martyr. All women after you will thank you”?

    Absolutely, you can say that every day of the week and twice on Sundays. Let’s pretend part of YOUR culture is to say these things to anyone who’ll listen? Who is anyone else to say you can’t perpetuate your own cultural values? That would be awfully hypocritical of them. You don’t have to “condemn” the other culture either. You can simply make sure they have a more complete menu of options to choose from. And if, somehow, you think having a limited choice makes people happier… uhhh… prove it.

    And no, that line of thought doesn’t validate evangelism (in the fundamentalist crazy religious sense) because there’s a difference between giving options and giving an ultimatum.

    If happiness is the ultimate pursuit, and they are happy, who am I to say their culture needs to change?

    On the surface one might want to say, “If happiness is the ultimate pursuit, everyone would be shooting morphine into their eyeballs, watching porn, and eating french fries in a hedonistic eden.” Well, no not really. That would quickly become a source of regret and double bypass surgery. The problem with happiness is that it must be contrasted with something that is unhappy or at least not happy. Vacation gets old. “Happy” marriages go stale. Too much ice cream gives you a headache (and eventually a quadruple-bypass). And, maybe you’ve not gotten this far, but that 8th shot of tequila will sound happy but–you will be very unhappy on the morrow. (read: Stumbling on Happiness). Ok, so, happiness is just a subjective rollercoaster of contrasting stimuli. The ultimate pursuit? Probably not, but let’s just take the traditional Amero-centric stance, assume it is, and move on.

    Ice cream and tequila are not perfect analogs for female genital mutilation or oppression; they are however easier to relate to for the sake of argument (in our Western culture). The essential difference and salient point is that you are free to choose to get married or divorced or eat ice cream or imbibe an inordinate number of tequila shots. Hell, I may even buy you that 8th shot in 3 years (that’s called sadism) but, hypothetically, you don’t have to drink it. John hit the nail on the head with, “if a culture denies her the choice, it is proper (or maybe even a responsibility) to condemn those aspects of the culture and those who propogate them.”

    So choice *can* be an integral part in that rollercoaster of contrasting stimuli. I other words, you may (at best) choose from or (at least) serendipidously stumble onto hapiness.

    A woman sans-clitoris is deprived of one of the most exciting stimuli rollercoasters that our species has available. And the middle eastern woman is deprived of several avenues of self expression. And being “deprived” necessarily means that “choice” was removed as well. “who am I to say their culture needs to change?” You shouldn’t say it “needs” to change but you certainly may “suggest” it and give them a choice :)

    And they can’t logically say that they’re happier without fully-functioning genitals or no voice in a political discussion; they’ve never experienced either one.

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