I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past couple days, and it’s quite the doozy.
Does cultural relativism undermine the rights and freedoms of people in the world?
Cultural relativism has always been heralded by me as a student of anthropology. When I find people who claim that the Middle East is backwards or evil I tell myself that they are misguided and misinformed. When racist remarks are made in my hometown (Milwaukee), talking about how the poor in my city are poor because they don’t have a work ethic I engage in a unique understanding that I got from one of my professors. (They didn’t say this exactly, but meditating on their words I came to this conclusion)
Those in the inner city grow up with a different mentality and live in a completely different world than myself or those who live in the suburbs. I don’t see what their lives are like on a daily basis and I don’t know what it takes to live in the conditions that they live in. As well just because they sag their pants, or they speak in African American English doesn’t mean they don’t have work ethic (which seems to be the understanding of those who spout the racist remarks that I come upon). The inner city has it’s own culture and they survive through that culture. I tell myself that those living in the impoverished, and highly segregated, parts of Milwaukee are just part of a different culture. More importantly (and this is the heart of how my professor’s words affected me), if the African Americans that live in the impoverished parts of Milwaukee want to live a good life then what they have to do is conform to the white suburban culture. (This is obvious in some of the remarks made by politicians like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum).
I have always heralded cultural relativism above, almost, all things in studying anthropology and even philosophy. But recently my thoughts were turned upside down.
[TRIGGER WARNING: The links below contain hate speech and direct threats of violence against women]
This link goes to an article I read about Anita Sarkeesian. She is the creative and intellectual mind behind Feminist Frequency. After reading through the article I went to her page, then I watched some of her videos, and I read some more on her page. (I don’t plan to recount the entire story to you, for it isn’t necessary to my overall point, but here is a link to her page)
The most important part is that I watched through her videos on tropes of women in movies, comic books, and other popular media that are detrimental to women. The series is called Tropes vs. Women. I watched through all of them in a single sitting and fell straight into the trap of male thinking which is “I understand what you’re saying, but in telling stories characters are meant to further story lines, and if tropes are used it is because they are useful.” So after meditating on this four a couple of days I realized that I was just contributing to the problem. In understanding the writing community as a culture the tropes that they use are used to convey overall messages in their story, and if the tropes work than they work. But I found myself in a dilemma which lead me to my question above:
Does cultural relativism undermine the rights and freedoms of people in the world?
If I used cultural relativism to try and justify the the tropes used by writers of comics, books, T.V. shows, and movies then couldn’t it be used by others to justify the abuse that runs rampant in certain cultures? And the answer is indeed yes and it often is. In the video game community, where the uproar against Sarkeesian came from, many people used the cultural relativism argument (although I doubt they were thinking of it as a culturally relative argument) saying things akin to “That’s just how it is and if you want to be a part of that community than you have to deal with how things are.” Or in culturally relative terms: We are a culture that has been built up over time and this is how things have always been. If you want to be a part of this community than you must be a part of everything within that community, even if you disagree with it.
My answer to the above question is thus, obviously: yes, yes it can. (Those of your familiar with cultural relativism probably think it’s an obvious answer, but for me I heralded this ideal. It was the sacred law for me in studying anthropology). But this leads me to a more crucial question: At what point does cultural relativism cross the line from protecting culture, to accepting, and possibly protecting, those who spread hate and fear throughout communities. Where do we draw the line between being culturally accepting and protecting those who abuse and instill fear?
I read an article called The Primacy of the Ethical by Nancy Scheper-Hughes in my anthropological theory class. The article heralded, in the same way I herald cultural relativism, the ideas of Western Enlightenment Political Philosophy (my major area of study in Philosophy as an undergraduate). I read the article and then wrote a paper on it. The paper lambasted Nancy Scheper-Hughes for throwing away the idea of cultural relativism for the idea of fighting an “ethical” battle under the guise of anthropology. She made the point that we must fight for the rights of people in all countries that anthropologists study in, and that to not work for the protection of rights of the populations that anthropologists study they are having a moral and ethical shortcoming. But to me this is an imposition of Western Enlightenment ideals upon nations that aren’t necessarily built upon the same ideals of rights and liberties that we have taken as objectively true in the Western world. It is not our job to tell them how to build their country, how to police it, or what ideals (if ideals at all) it should be founded on.
But now Anita Sarkeesian has turned my thinking on its head. Sarkeesian’s videos series Women vs. Tropes, the fact that she has been the target of rape and death threats, and the fact that I fell straight into the thinking of men who’s ideas of the world are challenged have shown me that if I try and bring cultural relativism to everything, the only thing I am doing is protecting those who are threatening her and reinforcing the behavior which forces women to live in fear their entire lives.
At what point do we protect the rights of people to have their own culture? There is definitely a culture that surrounds video games, and it might as well have a big, muscly lumberjack for its mascot because video games are for men, not women (just like Dr. Pepper Ten).
If I continue to herald cultural relativism all I do is reinforce the tyrannical behavior of men who are threatened by Sarkeesian. But do I throw the baby out with the bath water then? No, I do not. But separating out these ideas is much harder than determining the difference between a baby and water.
A preliminary idea that I have come to is this: it all depends on where the change is coming from. A group which works to create change within its own community/culture should be (usually) helped. But when the change is imposed upon the community by external forces (such as the government forcing the Catholic Church to provide birth control to their employees*) then we see that there are issues that arise. When an imposition of ideals happens we have to understand both sides, because the side that we are on CAN be wrong.
So I guess one could say that all that I have determined is that context is necessary for understanding a situation. But isn’t science, even social science, about creating results that either reaffirm or help to prove wrong theories we have about the world? Even with this possibly “Duh!” result, I think it’s extremely important to reflect and understand the things going on around us and how they fit into the ideas that we have and break them down.
Your Resident (not really) Anthropologist
*Note: I am not saying that the government is right or wrong in this case and am not taking a stance on this issue in this post, but am merely exemplifying my point.
**Cultural Relativism: The belief that culture should be understood in its own rights and in its own terms. It is the opposite of ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior or the best of all possible cultures. Cultural relativism was in part an aim to understand cultures as products of the people who live within the culture. The relationship between culture and people is dialogical, with people creating changes in the culture while simultaneously understanding their world through cultural definitions and symbols.