I have a Bachelor‘s in Anthropology from Penn State University (WE ARE...) and a Master’s in Anthropology from the University of Alabama (ROLL TIDE!). As a young anthropology student the concept of cultural relativism was drilled into my head. You know, by the godless heathen making machine called ‘higher education and the university system.’ Relativism is, after all, the only proper way to observe and academically discuss other cultures. I wholeheartedly endorsed this concept, and still do, as necessary for a fair and dispassionate study of people and cultures that are very different than the observer’s. There will always be bias in human to human relations and observations, but the attempt to minimalize it worthy. The problem is that anthropologists, social scientists and many people who have been exposed to this thinking (i.e. usually liberals) take that concept out of the realm of research and apply it to their personal lives as a moral (meta-ethical) relativism. I now think this is a big mistake. The use of relativism, outside of academia, allows all sorts of heinous and barbaric practices to continue uncriticized and unimpeded. I have struggled with my own rejection of this concept as it is actually more ingrained in me than I thought. Not only within my profession, but it became ingrained in my politics and for a long time in my ideas about religion. Who has the right to criticize another culture, political viewpoint, or religion? As a straight, white male that had self-identified as a “liberal” since my early teens until recently; it was rather unconscionable for me to say anything that would have been critical of another’s culture, politics, or religion. I was an agnostic/apatheist from my mid-teens through my early 30s and though I found religion absurd, lazy, and potentially dangerous; I stopped very short of serious criticism. Then, as I have written before, I watched ‘Jesus Camp.’
While watching Jesus Camp I really was disturbed by what I had seen and it created a tipping point for me. There can be no other descriptions of what these adults were doing to those kids other than brainwashing and emotional abuse. They were setting them up for a life of ignorance or a hard climb out of it. I was sickened and saddened. Much like I was when I first learned of female circumcision. Much like I was when I first read about honor killings. Much like I was when I first learned of anything that any rational, moral human should be ashamed to condone by silence or false equivalency.
This relativism that I held so tightly to, that I thought was necessary to live a moral life, began to crack and peel until I was finally able to squeeze out and shed it. I no longer find it acceptable to ‘tsk tsk’ someone under my breath, shrug and walk away; for better or for worse. Of course there are situations where there has to be a line. If I see someone spanking their kid it isn’t my business. If I see someone severely beating their kid I’m stopping it by any means necessary. Fuck the law. My point is that shedding this relativism is a greater moral stance since it doesn’t silence and impede my internal morality which is the only morality I can attempt. I fully realize that this is slippery slope and open to criticism, but I am thinking out loud and trying to hash this out. I still understand the ideal under which people think relativism is correct since it really is impossible to know what is ultimately moral (whether religious or not), but I can no longer accept it. It is practical in academia in order to even attempt the study of culture without tainting observations with your own biases. This is a big difference than applying it universally, however.
If the practice of another person or culture is abhorrent, you have every right to say so. I realize this will make many people, especially liberals cringe; but how else do we end horrid practices that affect those that cannot defend themselves? I reject a purely isolationist, noninterventionist stance in all things. Politeness and political correctness are tools to silence criticism and they retard critical thought. Very often they become thought terminating clichés. If someone hates me due to my rejection of their god then I want to know it. If I think that child brides and honor killings are sick then I am going to say it. What does holding your tongue get us? Silence gets us the ease of not having to think too hard, not having to formulate an adequate reason why something creates a knot in your stomach, and most importantly, silence ensures that the offense will carry on. Unimpeded. Forever. Or at least until thousands of more girls are married off at thirteen years old and raped by some fucking pig thinking he has his god’s permission. Or until more gay kids kill themselves because we allow religion free reign to harass them and minimize their worth and existence.
Predictably, some will balk at this since it opens the flood doors to allow anyone to criticize anyone. The homophobes will openly criticize and demonize the LGBT community. The religious will openly discriminate against other religions, the LGBT community and atheists. Conservatives will feel they will have free reign to make any accusation against the Progressives.
But they already do! The Left is too muted, as a whole, to fight back against these groups and their archaic beliefs; because of relativism.
There is another downside to this as well. It opens the door for claims that I have no morals or I have no morals based on an authority. They’ll say that I think I am that authority. No, I reject authority-based arguments so I would not assume I am always correct; however, I will not silence myself out of some fear of offense or having to think too hard. That is the difference. Not only to do I reject the false concepts of sin and Original Sin, but I find most people to be good. They want to do the right thing. Get enough people together that feel that way and allow them to discuss what is good and bad in an environment that does not adhere to any doctrine or dogma and morality will show itself. This is the beauty of Freethought. There is no baggage.
Cultural relativism applied as moral relativism allows the most heinous aspects of human indecency, misogyny, mutilation, rape, murder, etc., to continue and thrive. It allows falsehoods and ridiculous beliefs to persist. Relativism allows ridiculous and harmful beliefs to persist and in many cases, especially with the religious, they must be propagated. Religious belief, even the liberal kind, has to spread. I cannot claim that a universal morality exists and yet I am unable to accept a relativistic morality where female circumcision is bad in my culture and acceptable in others. I can’t square that. I am left to figure it out for myself. This does not make me an authority or arrogant. I can make the attempt at doing the “right thing” based on my experiences, logic, reason and philosophy; which is ever evolving and adapting. Anything static in this regard runs the risk of absolutism and authoritarianism. Anything relativistic in this regard is weak and craven.
*the random video brought to you by my brain which fires off random associations sometimes. When I typed “That was the night everything changed…” it triggered the intro to Liquid Swords. One of THE greatest rap albums ever. And I’m a metalhead. High praise!