Friday, September 4, 2009

History of Cultural Relativism; Somethings are wrong with the West?

The Historical Exploration of Cultural Relativism and Its Consequences for Human Rights
Here is an intense article that is around 7400 words; so in no way do I expect you to read the entire article.(unless you want to it is interesting). The author actually presented this as an unpublished paper at a conference entitled "exploring the past anticipating the future." I was particularly impressed with his presentation, but overall the theme seemed to escape me as it appeared to be re-occurring with the same arguments I have already been exploring within the general scope of human rights vs. cultural relativism with a few minor twists and turns. I will quote the most intriguing portions from his paper and make my two cents worth of course.

His first quote: "Cultural relativism is essentially a moral theory, even when it is used for an immoral
purpose. It rejects the worldwide application of human rights because it rejects the imposition of
the culture and norms of the West on other cultures. Universal human rights are said to imply the immoral
destruction of other cultures, which in turn diminishes the well-being of the people of those cultures identity,especially cultural identity, and a feeling of belonging are important for everyone’s well-being. This is the moral basis of cultural relativism. The underlying hypothesis of this theory is that human rights are part of the culture of the West,
typical of this culture and compatible only with this culture. They are therefore western rights rather
than universal norms. Without this hypothesis, their worldwide promotion could not be called the
imposition of the culture of the West. "

Right away I am not completely"on board" with this notion of being strictly a "western" theory. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights may have been developed in the "west" but does that mean humans do not live any where except for in the "west"? Here is the confusion right away. As soon as cultural relativism is factored into the equation, the notion of human rights by default becomes a western ideology. I happen to disagree with this statement and many more of the others to come.
Furthermore he goes on to say:
According to cultural relativism and its many overt and covert adherents, human rights have a right to
exist in the West, where they are part of the culture and in accordance with cultural norms and values
(such as individualism, conflict etc.), but not in the rest of the world where they are at best
inappropriate and at worst damaging to cultural identities and therefore also to people who depend
on culture for their personal identity and feeling of belonging."
This may in part be true, but do they (humans, people everywhere)not also have a basic entitlement to basic protection of there physical and mental human rights as well as to practice there cultures? Those that can not protect themselves from there own cultural practices do not deserve protection then because that's how they gain there identity right?

And again he disses on the west even more: "The “underdeveloped” or “backward” cultures had to accept the western values, norms, religion
and practices, for their own good. Imperialism and colonialism were considered the best means to achieve this.
The territorial occupation of other countries or regions and their inclusion into the Western Empire
were believed to be necessary for the universalism
of western culture. The declared purpose was to improve other cultures by making them more like the West,to introduce progress and to eliminate “barbarism”. However, the introduction of the culture of the
West only resulted in catastrophes. People; were alienated from their cultures and uprooted, and a wonderful world of diversity was destroyed."
It seems difficult and unnecessary to argue against this. The crimes of the West are uncontested, even in the West."

OK, so we in the west are all underhandedly responsible for the fall of cultural diversity because of imperialism and colonialism then? I suppose that we destroyed culturally diverse cultures then in the name of western values and democracy as well? It appears he is headed for the distinction that the west ruined cultural civilization!

You will have to peruse this lengthy article and pay particular attention to how he closes the paper. I am going to quote his closing argument here and see if you can make sense of where or how he wound up with this.

"The culture of the West can be an example of change. It has changed dramatically throughout the centuries and

it is still changing today. Many of its supposedly ancient traditions have been adapted or abolished and this has

often been very beneficial from

(2 Halliday in Beetham, D. 1995, Politics and Human Rights, Oxford: Blackwell, p. 160.) the point of view of human rights. Very few westerners wish to return to the practice of slavery, for example, a

practice once considered as traditional. Most of them see this change as progress. However,

one can only see this as progress and achieve this progress when there is a norm independent of the
existing culture. This norm is used to judge existing cultural norms. Because cultural relativism denies
the existence of such independent norms, it inhibits progress. It can only see what is, not what should or can be.

Somehow he mixes a citation within his text but I did not want to change his citation so I cited it as it was but hopefully you can still read it.He lost me completely. Almost anyways, I think that he is trying to say that since America finally decided to abolish slavery that we feel "guilty" about it so now we impose our own "western" human rights upon other civilizations because it is within "our" own cultural norms? Did you understand it to be something like this maybe? I know he he is trying to say something about slavery and relating it to cultural relativism but he cant quite make the connection with his words. Somehow he means "something" but exactly "what" is a mystery, at least to me, anyways. I hope you enjoy this post.



Gilson said...

Cultural relativism should be a human right. The problem is that some cultures are based on a "us-them" segregation frame... that flames up wars and violence. Respecting diversity an each other should be universal and mutual, no matter what we believe. Great post Will!

William said...

Gilson sir, why thanks!