Cultural relativism is one of the great pillars of anthropology. Human rights have become a major focus of attention in many parts of the world, and increasingly in anthropology.

Prima facie, it would appear that there is something of a contradiction between cultural relativism and human rights advocacy. Cultural relativism urges that each culture be judged in its own terms, while human rights tend to be defined as some kind of universal standard to be applied to all.

Can cultural relativism and human rights be reconciled?

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Easily. Provided, that is, that cultural relativism is redefined as an epistemological attitude that withholds judgment until the cultural particulars involved are understood. Policy guided by human-rights concerns may then require attempts to modify the behavior that violates human rights. To formulate or support such policy may demand a tough-mindedness foreign to those who believe reflexively (NOT reflectively) that to understand is necessarily to forgive.
The only way to escape making judgments is to be indifferent. Rwanda, Darfur, Nazi Germany, China during the Great Leap Forward — are you willing to say that we should simply stand by and let the natives do their own thing?

Think about it: For most of human history the predominant form of human social organization has been states based on agricultural economies. The typical family has lived in a strongly patriarchal household in which young women are subordinated to men and, if in-marrying daughters-in-law, frequently treated very badly, indeed. Taxes are heavy, corruption rampant, justice rare. Strangers, especially those of different ethnicity, are considered fair game. Elites are primarily concerned with increasing their own holdings. Feud, vendetta and war are common. Once again, I ask, are you willing to avert your eyes, indifferent to what you see? Or to treat the world like a horror movie, there for your entertainment but, ultimately, nothing to do with you?
But, John, isn't there a difference between saying that cultural relativism can be reconciled with human rights, and saying that cultural relativism doesn't really make sense, given the policies and practices of many folks in many places.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
But, John, isn't there a difference between saying that cultural relativism can be reconciled with human rights, and saying that cultural relativism doesn't really make sense, given the policies and practices of many folks in many places.

I am not saying that cultural relativism doesn't make sense; I am trying to indicate what sense it makes to me. My approach to the problem reflects the model that Geertz borrowed from Langer, in which an idea bursts onto the scene, seems briefly to be a panacea, then, if it is indeed a useful idea, becomes a part of the standard intellectual toolkit, used where and how it is useful.

Cultural relativism is useful as the sort of warning Mao Tse-tung had in mind in an essay about a young cadre who arrives in a village and starts throwing his weight around without first investigating the actual conditions on the ground. It makes a great deal of sense to reserve judgment and to remain open-minded while investigating the contexts of behavior that may seem alien, upsetting or even absolutely abhorrent. The realization that the behavior in question may be shaped by (to borrow C. Wright Mills' phrase) vocabularies of motive different from our own may lead to greater understanding.

Understanding, however, does not imply acceptance. Here I recall a professor from Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, who responded to my naive comment that "If only people would take the time to better understand each other" by noting that it is possible for people on opposite sides of a table to understand perfectly what each other want and also to recognize that their interests are utterly opposed. A fight may then be necessary to see who is the stronger.

As a believer in universal human rights, I can take the time to understand that headhunting in Borneo is associated with adult manhood and maintaining the fertility of the fields or that honor killings in Jordan may be seen as necessary to preserve family honor. I can at the same time remain perfectly happy to see both customs made illegal and punished as murder. I see no contradiction here.
But isn't your position, then, much the same as The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is attempting to gain recognition for the "human right" of not having Islam criticized? The OIC has examined the West ethnographically, and found "freedom of speech," when applied to their countries--the Sudan, Libya, Pakistan, etc.--and to Islam, violates their "human right" to respect, dignity, and peace of mind.

So one person's "right" is another person's "offense." What decides? Power? Doesn't this take us back to the war between civilizations? With the winner deciding which "human rights" to recognize?
But isn't your position, then, much the same as The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which is attempting to gain recognition for the "human right" of not having Islam criticized?

No, not at all. To me "human rights" applies to individuals, not to groups of any kind. I would, for example, extend the right of free speech to the Muslim skeptic or unbeliever living in Muslim countries, as well as the Muslim true believer. Also, we need, I believe, to draw a clear distinction between personal moral or political judgment and public policy, in which other considerations may also be relevant.

I think, for example, of William Jefferson Clinton explaining why the U.S. intervened in Kosovo but not in Rwanda. Clinton stated that the decision to intervene or not depended on three necessary considerations: (1) humanitarian cause; (2) feasibility; and (3) national interest. Kosovo and Rwanda both satisfied (1). Kosovo, within easy reach of NATO forces in Italy and the Mediterranean, satisfied (2) and, in Clinton's judgment, (3) as well, given the proximity of Yugoslavia to important allies in Europe and the chance to defend Muslims against Christian attackers —thus countering the view that the U.S. is reflexively anti-Muslim. Rwanda would have been a logistical nightmare and was not, during the genocide, of great importance to U.S. national interests.

Clinton's rationale can, of course, be debated on many grounds; but, overall, his three criteria seem sound to me. They are in no way justifications for knee-jerk reactions to either humanitarian crises or judgmental disapproval. In fact, if all three criteria are seen as necessary conditions, they absolutely preclude the realpolitik approach of acting in the national interest alone.
John said, "To me "human rights" applies to individuals, not to groups of any kind."

But if the Organization of the Islamic Conference wants to define "human rights" differently, on what basis do we say, "no, 'human rights' applies to individuals, not groups." Isn't "human rights" just a new label for our values? And if others want to pursue something different under that label, how can we show that they are wrong?

And it isn't just the OIC. Group and category rights are the focus of many Western human rights campaigns: gay rights, women's rights, native rights, ethnic group rights, people of colour rights, etc. etc.
Isn't "human rights" just a new label for our values?

What reason do you have to believe that "our values" are wrong? There are, to be sure, competing views, but the General Assembly of the United Nations that passed The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948 is as close to a parliament of humankind as we are likely to see in our lifetimes. And the values articulated in the Declaration have been embraced by reformers in virtually every corner of the globe.

We can say of human rights, as defined in the Declaration, what Bourdieu says of science. We can both recognize their origins in particular historical times and places and see them as worth defending — even fighting for.

The alternative, the view that societies, cultures or religions are, ipso facto, entitled to impose their views on those born or bred into them is, in my view, absurd. How many anthropologists do you know who passively accept the traditions into which they were born?
Would you not agree that the UN is a much more representative body today than it was in 1948? Today, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is advancing the view that it is a human right to have your religion immune from criticism, and this formulation may well have majority support in the UN. Does that make it valid, and acceptable? If today's UN does not get to decide what it "universal," who does?
I'm not sure this is simply a question of Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights. I think we're discussing the difference between science and activism. A scientist's job is to observe and understand; to hypothesize, experiment, and learn. Judging the people and situations we study is not science (i.e., not Anthropology).

Please understand that I am not judging the relative merits of science and activism/advocacy, but I think we need to be honest with ourselves: they are two different things.
My view is simple: The Islamic Conference is advocating nonsense. Religions have never been free from criticism, nor should they be. Ditto for other ideological claims, e.g., that "Asian values" make democracy unsuitable for Asia. As I have said before, my own ideological claim is that human rights are rights that belong to humans, i.e., human individuals. To assert them of groups is what A.N. Whitehead nicely labeled the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. And, as Martin Luther once said, in a rather different context, "Here I stand, I can do no other."

And, yes, that final question: Who gets to decide? I do. For me and me alone.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Would you not agree that the UN is a much more representative body today than it was in 1948? Today, the Organization of the Islamic Conference is advancing the view that it is a human right to have your religion immune from criticism, and this formulation may well have majority support in the UN. Does that make it valid, and acceptable? If today's UN does not get to decide what it "universal," who does?
Paul Wren said:
I'm not sure this is simply a question of Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights. I think we're discussing the difference between science and activism.

Paul, suppose, for the sake of argument, that Cultural Relativism vs. Human Rights and science versus activism are axes orthogonal to each other. We now have four quadrants: Cultural Relativism + Science, Cultural Relativism + Activism, Human Rights+Science, and Human Rights + Activism. What sorts of activities would you place in each of these boxes?

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