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Old College Paper on Cultural Relativism

 “To be Relative or not to be Relative”            

When I think about all the suffering in the world, my heart tends feel sad.  From the unfortunate starving people in third world countries to the very friends and family I associate with every day, there is an abundance of pain and suffering.  This feeling of empathy with them is natural, because I too have suffered.  It is a very fine line that separates when I should take action on this empathy, and when I should let it be.  It is a line that cannot help but be drawn because when I start to care too much, I can do more harm than good.  I also don’t want to admit that my way of looking at the world has no value to anyone else, otherwise what is the point of talking.  The compromise is in realizing that all human interaction should be a mutual exchange, a conversation between the self and other.  The people we help and teach should be the same people we learn from by the simple process of self-actualization.Everybody and every culture has their own perspective on life, and no matter how wrong they may seem to an outsider, they all have value; but what the object is that their values are relative to is very vague.  There has to be an object, and we all know intuitively what it is.  Certain things do seem better than other things, but not relative to some western Judeo-Christian value system, or even to our notion of science and reason as “objective”.  The object can only be realized through an individual agent’s actualization of its own agency within a system, whatever they perceive that system to be.  The doctrine of cultural relativism can still be used as a framework for dealing with the other, without making the object unattainable.  This is accomplished only if one is the other.  By this I mean that even if I know my way to be right for me, it is only right for someone else to the extent that they are me.            

The debate over female circumcision is very important to Anthropology, because it brings to light some of the confusing and seemingly contradictory tenants that underlie the discipline.  This contradiction is at the heart of most of the Anthropological debates.  These debates bring to light what is really at stake, and what the goals are not just within the discipline of Anthropology but how we all deal with other people in the world.  It is so hard to put into words exactly what we should do, but I believe that the problem and the solution here and always have been in the words.  To say that one is the other and that words are the problem and solution may seem nonsensical, but this is because our entire reality is structured this way.  The object is apparent in everything intuitive and nothing particular.  Something intuitive drives us to search for unity and universal truth even though everything around us that we can conceptualize is separate and relative.  We have many clichés that sum this up perfectly, like “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, or “change is the only constant”.  If I start any conversation with the knowledge that the object is the subject, then I free myself and the other from the cycles of objective control.  The best thing I can do for anyone else is concern myself with myself.             

So much destruction has gone on in man’s history in the name of God and morality that a reverse of this contradiction shouldn’t seem too nonsensical.  If I think about all things that my mother did to me because she supposedly cared about me, it becomes more obvious.  What we do in the name of concern for others is usually a disguised form of our fear of ourselves.  No matter what my mother warned me about did not matter, and no matter how hard she tried to hide “evil” from me, I had to find out for myself.  Now after experiencing many things and learning them from myself, I want to pass on my knowledge to other people who haven’t learned what I have.  I know, however, that this is pointless, and only complicates and confuses things.  If I try to save the world, or commit myself to being the parental figure that lays down the objective truth, I ignore my own role as a student.  I am both an agent in a system and a system of agents myself.  I learn the system in the form of a conversation between my self and the other with the respect for the object that connects us and resides in me individually.  This absolute, universal, objective truth is by its nature undivided, and the very essence of autonomy.  Since my self thinks it is autonomous, it is that object, distorted by its placement within an endless system of agents.  Human agents think of themselves as individuals in a world of separate individuals, but they are all the same object in different relative positions in relation to the object that is the sum of all its agents.  This object is the structured immutable law of the cosmos, the order from which all come forth and back again.  It cannot be changed but in reality it works like relative objects in constant motion, or what is known as communication.             

Everything that happens is communication, but not necessarily successful communication.  When we confront the other we must do so with the intent of feeling where they are at the moment of the interaction in relation to you and the object that is both of you. If that object is communicated in any degree both parties are that much closer to it and success is achieved.  If one is simply trying to teach the point of view of their own view of the object, the conversation becomes indexical rather than relational and no progress toward objective truth can be made.             

Cultural relativism is based on the idea that no culture is superior but all are just different.  This theory is useful because it keeps us from making biased judgments about the other and puts down ethnocentrism.  As useful as this is, it leaves no room for the universal that give Anthropology its weight as a science, and its goal as a worthy endeavor.  If there were no underlying truth or knowledge to be gained from the other, trying to interpret it would be a waste of time.  The truth in relativism is in the comparison of the different cultural systems with each other.  One definitely is as good as another.  Immersed in either system, the values expressed are correct as long as they work within a system.  When cultures clash, as in the case of Western expansion and domination over native cultures, a new system that is the relational nucleus between all the agents in the resulting overlap is created.  It is crucial that value judgments are not made when foreign systems come together.  The reasons behind certain cultural practices are not always clear and definable, and if the practices are not beneficial for the new system, they will gradually die out by natural selection.  This process cannot by forced by the dominant culture on the basis of biased ideology. Take the Holocaust and WWII for example.  Even though people all over Europe were being taken over and a race was being wiped out, our country realized we had problems of our own, and we did not interfere.  As soon as our own system was threatened, we took action, not out of any sense of superiority, but out of the defense of our way of life.  The Holocaust wasn’t just some crazy man killing and conquering people.  The majority of the German country was behind him.  The problem was deeply seated not only in German ideology, but also in the relational nucleus of the whole capitalist world.  Germany was virtually ruined after WWI.  Hitler took Germany out of its ruin and put it back on top.  He perceived the Jews to be a threat to his culture’s way of life, and took steps to defend it.  

Whether you believe this was a reasonable action or not is not the point.  Much like mankind’s attitude toward his environment, Nazi Germany arose out of a need for defense against the onslaughts of the world at large and then took this aggressive attitude so far that it upset the balance again and forced other strong nations to defend themselves.  Western society has expanded well beyond its original domain and took it upon itself to force its beliefs and culture on weaker cultures out of a misguided sense of superiority.  Hitler thought that Germans were superior so he took it upon himself to “help out” other countries who were weaker by making them his own.  European nations thought they were helping out the inferior Native Americans by taking them over.  This is the same unbalanced monologue from the self to the other that characterizes this obsessive behavior. Women’s rights and human’s rights in general are both new concepts in Western culture, and they arose as a very natural extension of Western emphasis on individualism. Western culture is far from perfect.  While women here may not have to get their genitals cut in order to fit in, some may never find a husband and raise a family because their appearance doesn’t fit in with the cultural trend.  This kind of pain can be considerably more than any physical pain.  In every culture one has to do things they may not have to do in order to function within the society.  Some people feel that abortion is murder, but many people feel it is justified.  In the mess of all these examples of relativism one can’t help but feel that something is missing.  We tend to forget that we are still animals.  We use culture first and foremost as a defense mechanism.  

Culture is an adaptation, and a weapon against being naturally selected for extinction.  We are naturally predators, killing and attacking out of a necessity for survival.  This is the earthly paradigm from which we came. Western culture has taken this power of cultural adaptation and used it to attack for the sake of growth not subsistence.  Nations like China existed for thousand of years without change until the pressures of the Western Capitalist World Economy forced them to give up their traditional culture they valued so much.  I don’t see this as wrong either, just unbalanced.  Morality is different everywhere and to everyone, but there is a built in mechanism to nature that balances out aggressive species.  The population of the world has been naturally increasing and not just because of the aggressiveness of the West.  It was inevitable that a world culture evolve as population skyrockets, just like it is inevitable that African tribes will come under more and more influence from Western society.  The arrogance both of Western superiority in general and its manifestation in the minds of scholars and activists who try to abolish cultural practices such as female genital mutilation is comparable to a person who thinks that people that don’t agree with him are there just to learn from him.  It is a shame when this happens because something very important is missed by both parties: the opportunity to learn from each other.  And this happens all the time. People care too much and want to save everybody and save the world and forget to save themselves.  I only hope it is not to late for Western society to learn from other cultures before they are swallowed up.  If we enter into a global cultural completely unbalanced, with all our eggs in one basket, we might blow our chances for us to reach that transcendental object together as one.   


Ahmadu, Fuambai2000    “Rites and Wrongs” In Female Circumcision in Africa : Culture, Controversy, and Change. Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund ed. Pp. 309-311. Lynne Rienner Publishers Gruenbaum, Ellen2001    “Is Female Circumcision a Maladaptive Cultural Pattern?” In Female Circumcision in Africa : Culture, Controversy, and Change. Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund ed. Pp. 46-53. Lynne Rienner Publishers