Cultural Relativism

I’ve been watching the fight that has erupted between Sam Harris and Bill Maher and various pundits who consider their remarks on Islam to be bigotry.  I can see points on both sides.  To arbitrarily damn all members of a faith for what is written in their particular holy book is unfair.  On the other hand there is an awful lot of very ugly stuff that’s written in virtually every holy book whether it be The Bible or The Koran.  The question is whether the people who subscribe to a particular faith follow all of these vicious recommendations laid down by our ancient ancestors or whether they wink and ignore the problematic verses.

The problem in this spat is that it has devolved down to just religion.  As if it is religion alone that is causing these horrific behaviors.  But there are culture pressures at work as well.  As a liberal I have this knee jerk reaction to not judge other cultures because we’re all supposed to display cultural sensitivity.  We’re never supposed to say one culture is superior to another, and I agree with that in the broad outline, but I do think it’s important for us to comment and criticize individual practices whether those practices are dictated by religion or not.

I remember one night a number of years ago listening to a couple of friends of mine engage in an argument over female circumcision.  Ironically the man was saying it was a hideous and barbaric practice and the woman (who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa) state that his position was cultural imperialism, and an implicit argument that Western attitudes toward the practice were being posited as superior to the culture and customs of societies that engaged in genital mutilation.  I found myself in the camp saying, “Yeah, a culture that doesn’t mutilate young girls is superior — at least in this one area.  There are other practices that should also be condemned.  Honor killing, not allowing girls to attend school, child brides (I’m seeing a rather sad pattern here that so many of these practices are visited on women and girls).  Not that men don’t come in for brutal treatment as well.

Let’s consider the actions of General Sir Charles James Napier, the Commander-in-Chief in India (1859-1861).  In 1829 the British Raj banned the practice of suttee in India which was certainly interfering with a cultural practice.  When he was petitioned to allow suttee to begin anew he responded  “Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

The statement is undoubtably condescending, and made by a person who had unmatched power over this particular nation by virtue of conquest, but isn’t it a good thing that widows are no longer burned?  The problem is how these judgments are delivered.  As our experiences over the past twelve years has indicated the power provided by the barrel of a gun probably isn’t the best approach.  Education, conversation, and economic pressures may offer a solution though these methods aren’t quick.   As I indicated in an another post it took the west 800 years to develop representative democracy.  Let us hope on this day when a very brave young woman, Malala Yousafzai, just won the Nobel Peace Prize that it doesn’t take centuries before girls can attend school without being shot in the head, or have acid thrown in their faces.

Bottom line, I think the point Maher was trying in-artfully to make was that if we support liberal values we have to be willing to speak out against illiberal practices and not give such practices as pass in an effort to show sensitivity. The trick is doing that in a way that doesn’t tar an entire people, culture, religion, etc., and always to be careful to be aware of the mote in our own eye, and be willing to remove said mote.

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