Cultural Relativism

July 9, 2017

I want to talk about cultural relativism due to a conversation with a friend today. The idea of cultural relativism revolves around tolerating other cultures' practices, however "unusual" to our own culture they may seen. For example, in China, restaurants tend to be filled with loud conversations and blatant robustness in activity. In the United States, an American restaurant is expected to be somewhat quiet with dimmed lighting. An average white American who's traveling to China the first time may see the restaurant environment as rude and uncouth. However, one cannot immediately state that Chinese restaurant-goers are more mean and those in the United States. Cultural relativism claims that moral correctness lies upon an individual society's convention and usage. Even if another culture's practice may appear way out of the line for one culture (in an extreme case, infanticide in a nomadic group), one cannot deem the practice more inferior than his or her culture's practice. In the example above, the population of China greatly exceeds that of the United States; thus, restaurants are built to accommodate many more customers. Naturally, this causes restaurants to be loud and vivacious. Cultural relativism is subject to each individual culture.

 

Can one determine whether something is right or wrong objectively through cultural relativism? Through my reading adventures, I have learned that there are people who have agreed that there is indeed an objective way--taking cultural relativism in its basest definition. Whatever is right or wrong is dependent on a society's accepted terms. Thus, if one considers the meaning of cultural relativism to be solely applied to this judgment, then this is an objective view of right and wrong. It is objective because one is not using his or her own perceptions to impose a judgment, but rather using the idea of cultural relativism to give birth to individual meanings of right and wrong in different societal constructions. 

 

However, this is where I see as the flaws of this idea of cultural relativism. Can one agree that the Holocaust was morally correct because the entire country of Germany was under the hypnosis of a charismatic yet despicable leader? If one depends solely on cultural relativism to impose an objective perspective, then one may argue that, indeed, the Holocaust was justified because antisemitism was that particular society's accepted norm at that time. It follows that, if I see World War II Germany in that perspective, then I also cannot criticize my own culture (say United States), because whatever culture back then in the U.S. could also also be morally justified through cultural relativism (segregation, lynchings, etc.). My point is that if one uses cultural relativism objectively, then one must be also assuming that one's own culture is perfect since one cannot criticize his or her culture in return.

 

Under a more positive light, I think that cultural relativism doesn't necessarily serve as a comprehensive guide to tolerating other societies' cultures. After all, a culture is comprised of many things ranging from customs to moral values. In the Chinese restaurant example, an American may find Chinese restaurants to have worse services and environment management than those in the United States, but the establishment of a restaurant ensures the common value that both a Chinese restaurant and an American restaurant want to provide a customer with good food and a good time. It is merely customs that differ between the two. In fact, most societies hold similar values, such as adverse to lying (or else there will be no point to communicate with other people) and prevention of murder (or else there will be no society in the first place).

 

We cannot assume that our preferences are based on some absolute, morally rational standard. Our practices are merely peculiar to our own respective societies.

 

In relation to my experience in the United Kingdom (because I need to find an opportunity to remind everyone that I am in Europe), am I allowed to conclude that British white people are equally bad as many American white people depicted by media in terms of lack of recognition of their privileges, racism, and toxic patriotism? As much as I love bashing on the behaviors of my friend's Southern college student with her, I cannot connect the two groups together because I would be imposing my own culture's image upon another. Of course, one may argue that Great Britain has a history of white global imperialism, but one may accept progress as a factor. Social changes for the better replace bad customs and behaviors of the past. I firmly believe in progress, but that means I am forgoing cultural relativism. Cultural relativism objectively implies that the current existing cultural practices are already flawless. Thus, my point here is that cultural relativism should always be looked at with a grain of salt however important this idea is to understanding tolerance across cultures. Besides, I think British people are generally nicer, and that Americans have done many, many more stupid things.

 

Happy Monday!

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