Review of Cultural Relativism


The Times (of London) Literary Supplement (don't know how long the link will survive) gives us an impressive review of a book that looks into some of the more appalling crimes of cultural relativism.

Sandall focuses on the worst aspects of cultural relativism, in particular its non-relativist use of sentimentalized assessments of primitive cultures as a stick with which to beat civilization. He begins with a cameo: Lauren Hutton, the actress and ex-model, forcing her two young sons to watch red-robed Masai warriors drinking warm blood from the carcass of a slaughtered cow. Their reaction -- tears in contrast to her own delighted yelps of "wow" -- disappointed her. Perhaps, Sandall wonders, they understood better than she did the necessary violence of the warrior life behind the tourist-anthropology cabaret. As the mother of two boys, one might have expected her to reflect on the appalling initiation ceremonies to which warrior societies sometimes subject young males. In some highland Papua New Guinea societies, boys "were beaten with stinging nettles. . ."[read the remainder of this passage on the site, if interested]

The initiation rituals undergone by Papuan boys are somewhat at odds with the "communal basket-weaving, accompanied by traditional dance and song", that, Sandall argues, dominates the image of indigenous cultures in the minds of "boutique" multiculturalists. Multiculturalist thinking tends to exaggerate the place of art in past communities. Writers enchanted by Aztec art, architecture and poetry often ignore the unspeakable despotism of this warrior and priest-ridden society and their continual wars, waged in pursuit of the 20,000 prisoners needed annually for purposes of human sacrifice. For their neighbours, the arrival of the conquistadors was liberating.

Now, while I cannot but agree with the major assessment, I do have to caution that not all agrarian societies are brutal, awful, or have rituals such as those described. To assume that technological societies are a priori better for being technological is one of my pet peeves. As an example look at the Amish who eschew much of modern technology.

On the flip side, it is equally wrong to assume that an agrarian culture is "close to nature" and more "respectful" or "in-tune" with the environment. In point of fact all cultures have their problems, and on the whole the standard of life within a techonological soceity tends to be better. (I wouldn't argue that this is the way it must be--I suppose I have a romantic notion that would argue we can have the best of both worlds with a bit of work--but that may not be realistic; moreover, it is certainly not the present reality in any culture I'm aware of.)

But more to the point, in the example sited above, the Masai ritual may be unjustly maligned (I haven't seen it). The real problem with the scenario is exposing two young children who have not been exposed to the realities of where their own food comes from to something that is this graphic. I don't know that drinking the blood of a slaughtered cow is necessarily any worse than what happens in modern abattoirs to prepare food for our own tables. The difficulty is some parents appear not to have a clue about what to expose children to.

Okay, all my caveats aside, we must be willing to say straight out that atrocities cannot be justified by cultural differences. Girls who die as a result of "female circumcision," the phenomenon of the "reste-avec" and the child slaves typified by the tragedy of Victoria Climbié and others in Great Britain and elsewhere, and any other atrocity you can think of needs to be identified as an atrocity and not argued into nonexistence by cultural relativism. Likewise, those things that enrich the treasury of humanity through their exemplary exposition of all the good that is possible should be acknowledged as well. For example, communal care of children in many societies, is, in fact, often a good thing.

Not being an ethnologist, I am not in the place to make sweeping comments regarding any societal practices, but I do think we tend either to sweepingly condemn cultures for some of these kinds of things or to discretely sweep real atrocities under the carpet in the name of solidarity.

The best solution to all of these extremes is to love the people who make up a society, to see within them the image of Jesus Christ. If we focus on a person rather than on some of the less savory aspects of the culture from which the person derives, we will be far better off. If we were to be completely objective, there are undoubtedly a great many things about our own culture that would appear both barbaric and appalling. Fortunately, we are called simply to be brothers and sister to one another in Jesus Christ, our Brother, our Head, and our Lord.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 17, 2002 9:32 AM.

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