There is indeed a hierarchy in cultures.
And much worse, the idea that other cultures are off-limits with regard to criticism ends up siding with whoever is most powerful within a culture, whoever has managed to write the official version of the culture. It does this because it assumes that there is such a thing as what any one culture is, what its rules and practices are; it does this because it tacitly assumes that there is no criticism from within a culture; that there are no practices within a culture that are not acceptable to all.
Just think “Islam” after reading that paragraph and you’ll realize just how pernicious the idea of cultural relativism actually is.
The regressive nature of cultural relativism.
February 20, 2016 Harriet Taylor
There’s a popular but simplistic idea of cultural relativism which is taken to imply that all cultures are equal, and that we should not criticise other cultures – even that to do so betrays ‘hatred’ or ‘something-ophobia’. Those who hold this view usually consider themselves in the vanguard of social thought. In my previous article, I suggested that this version of cultural relativism is actually hostile to social progress.
Furthermore, in fact this version of cultural relativism actually rests upon attitudes towards ‘other’ cultures that are more fitting to colonialism. How? Because, tacitly, it assumes that cultures are hermetically sealed off from each other – that each culture is a static, sealed unit existing ‘over there’ away from ‘us’.
Why do I say this? Because the idea that ‘all cultures are equal’ and that we therefore should not criticise other cultures, tacitly rests on the assumption that there is no interface between cultures, and that we can draw a boundary around where one culture starts and where another begins. Because without such boundaries, we can’t know where we can criticise and where we can’t. We can’t know what’s our culture and what’s our friend and neighbour’s culture.
Take a simple example. One of my best friends at school was Hindu from India, who was vegetarian. We discussed vegetarianism a lot, and influenced by her, I became vegetarian too. Likewise, after moving away from India, her parents lessened their adherence to the caste system, and she eventually married someone from a caste that her parents would formerly have considered unsuitable.
But are we to say then, that my friend could criticise the Indian caste system, but that I, as an outsider to the culture, can form no thoughts upon it? That when she confided to me that she wished to marry an ‘unsuitable boy’, I should have encouraged her to give him up, because the Indian caste system belongs to her culture and so is a good thing? Don’t be daft. Of course, I would never have been rude to her parents about this – they were kind, decent people whom I came to love, and what’s more, they changed their minds quite quickly.
In other words, in this as in a myriad cases, what we have is communication between two cultures and development and change within cultures, as well as individual differences; cultures have fluid boundaries around them and channels running between them which provide fertile ground for mutual and two-way critical reflection. The ‘other cultures must not be criticised’ viewpoint implicitly rely upon assuming that there are no such paths of meeting and communication. In other words, it’s regressive.
And much worse, the idea that other cultures are off-limits with regard to criticism ends up siding with whoever is most powerful within a culture, whoever has managed to write the official version the culture. It does this because it assumes that there is such a thing as what any one culture is, what its rules and practices are; it does this because it tacitly assumes that there is no criticism from within a culture; that there are no practices within a culture that are not acceptable to all.
Because, if a culture ever endorses practices which divide its members, or which benefit some of its members at the expense of others, then the cultural relativist is just going to have to leave it all be, because picking a side is taking a stance against some aspect of that culture. Which the cultural relativist won’t do, because it’s inherently critical. But note: if you don’t pick a side, it means that you are happy to leave the powerless to rot. Unless you have some view that, magically, the operation of social, economic, and cultural power is equal for all members of all other cultures, so that leaving them to fight it out is fair and proper.