Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Discarding Relativism

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! 


Steve M. said...


This post was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. Will be re-posting in on our "Optimal Human Movement" Facebook page.

At one point, you put forth something along the lines that science can't dictate morals, or something of that gist.

I'd highly, highly recommend reading Sam Harris' "The Moral Landscape." He puts forth that just as say, economics, isn't an exact science, there is still a science to it. Same can be said for morality. Rather than looking at morality in absolutes, one can look at it on a spectrum, with abject suffering on one end and total bliss on the other. Somewhere on that scale is a minimum level of acceptable and expected environmental factors that every culture needs to allow, simply based on the fact of being human. To be honest, that book was one of the catalysts for starting Optimal Human Movement.

Look up Sam Harris' talk from TED on Youtube about the topic of cultural relativism. About 20 minutes long, and worth every minute.

OpHum also has a blog on Blogger, but does not get updated quite as often as your page. May want to check it out. Not so much as "atheist" as "intent on reason." I know...two sides of the same coin...yet one focuses on the absence of something, the other on "what is."

In anycase, I check your page out regularly, and truly appreciate it. Thanks for doing what you do, and keep up the good fight.

(from another) Steve

Steve said...


Thanks for the comment and the kudos. I think I was either unclear or you misunderstood me regarding science and morality. I never stated that science cannot dictate morals. I think the confusion originated in my discussion of relativism as still useful for the observer in social sciences as well as later in the post where I wrote:

“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 didn’t mean to imply that science cannot help determine a spectrum of morality that is acceptable to all. I do think it can useful in that regard. I am simply trying to illustrate that my morality, while not relativistic, is still opposed to the dualist worldview of religious “morality” which claims universality. I think, for the most part, you and I agree.

Also, I did read Harris’ “The Moral Landscape” right after it was released. My opinion of it is mixed, but not for the message. My big gripe with Harris’s writing is that sometimes he overextends his examples to drive his point into the ground. However, considering that I still held a relativists idea of morality and culture when I read it, maybe I should re-read it. Now I have to find who I lent it to…

Thanks again for the comment and I’ll check out your site and page!

Anonymous said...

Steve the common universal morality does exist and it is not Religious or even cultural, it is Biological. We act out of genetic self interest, and morality evolved to preserve our genes. For example, why is murder wrong? Because we share 98% of the genes with other humans and would be killing ourselves. Start by reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins then study evolutionary psychology for answers.

Andy said...

What's the justification for a society ethos based on Enlightenment values? You just have to look at how countries behave when they have the rule of law, a political system based on human rights and a relatively flexiible economy. Those countries have a much higher quality of life.

Katherine Wilkins said...

Steve, I read this post this morning and it really hit a nerve with me. Chris and I watched Jesus Camp as well and were equally horrified. I've never been that great at forming arguments and therefore have shied away from speaking my mind, but lately I've been shocked and horrified at the things I've heard the (far) right say. I find myself in a quandry because, while I tend to step back from confrontation, I am beginning to feel that it is important and even necessary to respond to the things I disagree with. I see the value in letting my voice be heard, if only it's to let others know that they do not hold the absolute truth in their words. Your post comes at a good time and has helped remind me that it is important to share opinions even if they differ from those who speak the loudest. Thanks, man!

Steve said...

Hi Katherine, Thanks for the nice comment! I really think it might be slightly more difficult for people with our backgrounds in social sciences to shake off that feeling that we don't have a right to speak up against others. Obviously I now reject that, but it wasn't that long ago I felt exactly like you do. I found that writing helps formulate and structure arguments. Obviously... :)

Steve said...

Anon, Thanks for the comment, although I do not agree that it is 100% biological determinism. It *may* have been true at some point in our evolutionary history, but culture greatly affects decision making which can be squarely against a beneficial biological drive.