The Intellectual Fad of Cultural Relativism

When I was considering attending the University of Chicago (more on that whole process later), one of the things which appealed to me about the school was its emphasis on the “knowledge most worth knowing.” In other words, some knowledge is more important than others.

I believe some ideas are better than others. I believe harmful ideas deserve to be destroyed.

I believe some cultural customs are better than others. Customs which promote harsh sexual and physical abuse of women, for example, are not as good as customs which allow a person to be free from brutal oppression. In Culture Matters, various essayists argue the reason some societies succeed more than others is in part due to their culture (the values, protocols, habits, and so forth) and not simply economic incentives.

But cultural relativism seems stronger then ever, especially in the minds of young people. “Who are you to judge someone else’s religion?” one of many commenters charged on my post about the Iranian girl hanged after being raped by an older man. Who am I? I am a rational person who believes the abuse of women in some Arab countries should be stopped.

In After the Neocons Francis Fukuyama explains the evolution of this thinking:

Cultural relativism — the belief that reason was incapable of rising above the cultural horizons that people inherited — had in fact become ensconced in contemporary intellectual life. In was legitimated at a high level by serious thinkers like Nietzsche and Heidegger, transmitted through intellectual fads like postmodernism and deconstructionism, and translated into practice by cultural anthropology and other parts of the contemporary academy. These ideas found fertile ground in the egalitarianism of American political culture, whose participants objected to having their “lifestyle” choices criticized.

What I worry about is a young person who’s been drilled for 20 years to be “tolerant” of anyone and everything. Can that person hold strong convictions? Can he criticize someone’s ideas while still loving the person?

I don’t believe in any single Truth nor in any single Answer to tough questions. And life’s beauty comes from a rainbow of perspectives and choices. But must we deny the existence of universally good things and the existence of unquestionably evil practices?

The final interesting issue is the question of whether a free person from the West, for example, should try to involve him/herself in the matter. One commenter said we shouldn’t, unless a country’s insanity is forced on other countries like in the case of Hitler. This argument usually says that countries will evolve naturally toward the universally good things, and we shouldn’t interfere with that process. I agree modernization is a natural process, but we can’t be totally passive esp. if you’re like me and belive in the “tragic” view of human nature. If a person and a country has a moral conscious, it must engage. Matters such as the abuse of young women in Arab countries seems like a no-brainer. A censored internet and repressed free speech rights in China is more complicated, though I still think those in a open society can and should help others be aware of alternative ways of life.

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