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.

4 comments on “The Intellectual Fad of Cultural Relativism
  • Without even addressing your thoughts on Iran, people will take you more seriously if you bother to get your facts right; Iran is not an Arab country. Likewise if you’re going to be so lofty as to use a phrase like “comman man”, quotes yours, you should spell it correctly.

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    Someone finally with the guts to say that universal tolerance is wrong. There is good, there is evil, and good people of good conscience must take a stand. Arab, Jewish, Christian, whatever; no society should brutally abuse their people. Not all cultures are equal. Well said, and thanks for saying it.

  • I think that cultural relativism is so pervasive because it is an easy and consistent way to respond to the myriad of international problems that overwhelm us. The argument for cultural relativism is immune to criticism because it has tied together ideas of tolerance and pluralism- basically political correctness. When I argue with someone over cultural relativism I find myself choosing my words too carefully. I am scared to step into an offensive or inappropriate zone that would undermine my opinion in the eyes of the people I am making my argument to. When I reach this point with someone, my ideas become less interesting and more beige (for lack of a better adj). Cultural relativism is the argument of choice for those who are uninformed or overwhelmed by a problem and are scared to make a comment to a peer or worse, a classroom full of people that might anger or incite others. It ends more discussions that it starts.

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