Monday, May 23, 2011

Culture Quote of the Day - the limits of cultural relativism

"Anthropologists continue to express strong support for cultural relativism. One of the most contentious issues arises from the fundamental question: What authority do we Westerners have to impose our own concept of universal rights on the rest of humanity... [But] the cultural relativists' argument is often used by repressive governments to deflect international criticism of their abuse of their citizens.... I believe that we should not let the concept of relativism stop us from using national and international forums to examine ways to protect the lives and dignity of people in every culture.... When there is a choice between defending human rights and defending cultural relativism, anthropologists should choose to protect and promote human rights. We cannot just be bystanders."
Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

"If you believe human rights are a reality, then it makes much more sense that God exists than that he does not. If you insist on a secular view of the world and yet you continue to pronounce some things right and some things wrong, then I hope you see the deep disharmony between the world your intellect has devised and the real world (and God) that your heart knows exists. This leads us to a crucial question. If a premise ('There is no God') leads to a conclusion you know isn't true ('Napalming babies is culturally relative') then why not change the premise?"
Timothy Keller, The Reason for God

The challenge of the interface between the "relative" and the "absolute." It is heartening to see an Anthropologist wrestle with this issue.

On the one hand, there is the issue of ethnocentrism, seeing things (only) from our point of view, not realizing that there may in fact be different visions of good and right, at work in different cultural contexts. The role of women in society, for example, is a challenging one. What one group considers "repressive," another group finds rooted in their understanding of God and His ways for them. And I'm not talking (only) about Muslims, from a Western perspective. Even in the West, Christian groups differ on issues about the role of women (e.g., whether women should be allowed to be in positives of church leadership or not), not to mention the difference in perspective between Christians and secularists. We can argue over whose perspective, whose interpretation, is "right," but the problem is, we can't agree...

This relates, too, to the area of law, because ultimately, laws are passed based on an idea of what people should not be allowed to do (e.g., rape women, murder people, steal others' belongings, produce child pornography, go nude in public, etc.). There is no society without a code of ethics and morality, without law. But societies do differ in what is prohibited (and prescribed). Western societies prohibit a man from having more than one wife; Islam allows up to four. Many societies ban homosexual marriage; some societies it. There is no end of the examples we can come up with, where what is morally wrong for one group or society, is considered fine by another.

The question arises, when societies differ, what do you do about it? Does one nation or group have a "right" to intervene and enforce their moral code or view of law or right? Who decides? Where is the "line"? (And note that this may look different if you are on the "giving" or the "receiving" end - no group or society likes another group or society stepping in and enforcing their morality.)

And then another dimension of the issue raised in the above quotes: in the U.S., law used to be based on the Bible, which gave it an "absolute" foundation (allowing for the differences in interpretation and application of the Bible). A change eventually took place, and law was "cut loose" from its biblical foundations, and now rests on what the society (majority, or Supreme Court) determines to be the guidelines. Keller points out that in a secular worldview, with no absolute (God, or the Bible), there is really no firm basis for believing in rights. And Fluehr-Lobban's quote shows that even Anthropologists (I'm not sure if she's "secular" or not) struggle with understanding what is "true" or "right." 

I wouldn't say that people who believe in God or in Scripture have the right to impose their understanding on others (add in the question of whose God or vision of God, and whose Scripture); God himself does not impose His will on people, but gives us choice (for which he will one day hold us accountable). But the question of who does have the right to intervene, in what circumstances, by what guiding principles, is a critical one.

Should we seek to prevent child pornography, sexual slavery and other forms of abuse of women and children (and others), ethnic cleansing, etc.? Absolutely. But when we move away from the extremes (which most people will probably agree upon), it becomes harder to navigate the boundary between what is culturally relative and what is not. As a person of faith, I need to admit that the cultural dimension needs to be taken into consideration; and Anthropologists need to admit (as Fluehr-Lobban does) that it's not so simple as to say that everything is culturally relative - it's fairly easy to show that everyone has a core of what they believe to be "true" or "right," and a sense that some of those values at least have reality outside of (across) cultural boundaries.

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