Re: SOC: cultural relativism

Date: Sun Jul 30 2000 - 07:17:41 MDT

In a message dated 7/29/00 9:37:48 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

> Greg Burch wrote:
> > Ultimately, this "paradox" is a false one, and arises from a mistaken
> > conflation of description and prescription. Post-modernist "
> sophistication"
> > is nothing more than the stubborn refusal to acknowledge this error.
> No, it's not just a category error on the part of the
> multi-culturalists. It's about making a commitment to the notion that
> it is very important for people to make decisions for themselves (that
> is, free from human coercion). That's a unique value, as far as I can
> tell, to our culture (though there are some important elements of it
> in Buddhism); I praise our culture for cherishing it. I believe that
> our culture is better than many others, even better than most, because
> it prioritizes this kind of autonomy.

Dan, I think you're in fact expressing the very mistake I was describing in
the rest of my post. The problem arises from mixing the VALUE of individual
autonomy with the OBSERVATION of cultural determinism. Let me return to the
example of the Taliban oppression of women. The "compost-modernist"
recognizes that there's oppression going on, but is paralyzed from acting to
do anything about it because 1) he can't step outside of the view that the
Taliban mullahs are oppressive because "that's what their culture dictates"
and 2) condemning the oppression is an act of "cultural imperialism" based on
Western values.

> The mistake, if any, is to move from multi-culturalism to relativism,
> when the correct move is from multi-culturalism to sollipsism or
> ethnocentricism. Multi-culturalism is not at odds with ethnocentrism (a
> sollipsism of "we" instead of "I") when our culture prioritizes
> autonomy.

I'm not sure I understand what you're saying here, but in fact I think you
correctly identify that post modernism leads to solipsism and ethnocentrism,
both of which I see as bad products of that mind-set. The solipsism
expresses itself in moral inaction; the unwillingness to express moral
judgments of any culturally determined behavior and the inability to act to
stop culturally determined oppression. The ethnocentrism expresses itself in
the growing ethnically defined cultural balkanization we see going on in the
world today. Thus human affairs are increasingly expressed in terms of
"Serbs vs. Croats" or "Fijians vs. Indians". The cultural relativist has no
solid ground to condemn ethnic warfare, since no culture is "privileged".
Here in the States we see it as an increasing trend toward "identity
politics", with all the divisiveness and victimization it breeds.

> Under this kind of ethnocentricism, we are morally obligated to
> respect the autonomy of others, because that's what our culture
> dictates; if we believed otherwise, we'd be wrong.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Taken out of the context of
this discussion, the above quote is unassailable: Of course we are "morally
obligated to respect the autonomy of others", but the object of that respect
is the individual, not a culture per se or an ethnicity. I have no respect
for oppressive Muslim fundamentalists or tribalists that perform female
genital mutilation, and I have no respect for the cultures that engender such
behavior. As Nadia points out, respect for the purely aesthetic traditions
of a culture is one thing -- one can't condemn people for preferring one set
of culturally pervasive tonalities in music over another, for instance. But
a cultural preference for brutality is quite another thing.

       Greg Burch <>----<>
      Attorney ::: Vice President, Extropy Institute ::: Wilderness Guide -or-
                                           ICQ # 61112550
        "We never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know
        enough to get by. Every question we answer leads on to another
       question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species."
                                          -- Desmond Morris

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