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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Beck writes,

Epistemological relativism though seems a big jump - thats like saying that Japanese people not simply conceive of the world in distinct "Japanese" (ideal category only) way but that they also perceive - perhaps sense the world in a completely different way.

Speaking as someone who has lived in Japan for almost thirty years and makes a substantial part of his living by translating Japanese art speak and ad talk into English, I would say that the notion that the Japanese sense (see or perceive) the world in a totally different way is mistaken. There are differences to be sure, but these are mostly in nuance. I recall, for example, a TV commercial made in the mid-80s. The product is a cosmetic, a foundation said to leave the skin especially soft and silky. The scene is a young couple, standing on the deck of a ferry boat. The girl says to the boy, Chuu-shite, "Kiss me." The word is pronounced with a pout that the resembles, to Western eyes at least, the sort of kiss an adult expects from a child, a peck on the cheek sort of kiss. The boy blushes. The language is Japanese, but the awkwardness is one I remember, an erotic shyness/stage fright common, I expect, in adolescents who grow up in conservative families or places where public displays of affection are still uncommon. Now, twenty or so years later, the same commercial would not have the same effect; making out in public has become commonplace among young Japanese. The boy would not be embarrassed. There might be those for whom the association of soft, silky skin with awkward innocence would evoke nostalgia. But we are getting old and no longer in the target segment.

What my experience has taught me is that "culture" becomes an issue when what people take for granted is sufficiently different to cause a problem: embarrassment, upset, frustration, more rarely violence. Mostly, however, humans are humans: we are all featherless bipeds who walk upright, eat, excrete, socialize and reproduce in a limited number of ways. There is always common ground to be found — and, indeed, there must be. How else would ethnography, advertising or statecraft be possible?

The epistemological panic induced by the thought that the others might be so utterly alien as to be incomprehensible is, in my view, much overdone.
John McCreery said:
I believe that the idea that cultures are closed system isn't just an anthropological postulate on which some researchers base their work. It actually determines most of nowadays thinking about culture, whether the term refers to a nation, a sub-national group, a so-called "ethnic" group, a religion, etc. Basically, all the ranting against globalization and how it endangers "minority traditional" ways of life stems from this conception of culture.

Once again, I find myself in close agreement with Ariane. That said, the question remains: How to counter this view? Academically speaking, the best antidote is a strong dose of history, focused on issues of transmission and influence. For those who lack the time or inclination, I offer a thought that I have used successfully in my teaching.

Culture is like a wedding dress

Something old
Something new
Something borrowed
Something blue


When I'm teaching in Japan, I ask my students to look at what they see.
Something old may include sushi, tatami mats, kimono, hot springs, Mt. Fuji, temples and shrines, samurai and geisha.
But the streets are also filled with something new: late model Toyotas, cell phones, the latest manga and anime, fashion trends started by Japanese designers.
Much of both old and new is borrowed: tempura (originally Portuguese), blue jeans, Big Macs, Coca-Cola, KFC, music, newspapers, TV, PCs and Macintosh, tennis, rugby, soccer, golf....
And something blue? Here I refer to inequities or contradictions that leave many people feeling blue. The treatment of women, the disabled, or young people frozen out of a stagnant job market, for example.

All are elements of what Japanese culture is today.
The same exercise should work just as well, with somewhat different local content, in most parts of the world.

Well, I'm too in quite total agreement with John here! ;-) I think a very good dose of history, and I mean serious history, not hagiography or historiography, but history based on a scientific, balanced, transparent (if not objective) method, is, in my view, the best antidote to these often simplistic, if not paternalistic or chauvinistic views of culture. I have recently started to get interested in what some call "global history", that is, not just history that looks at the whole world for specific period of time, instead of only focusing on one territory or group and its relationships with their neighbors over time, but also takes into account the full range of sociotechnical, economic, political, religious and artistic factors that combine make society move on, no matter the direction. I know it looks like it complicates a lot our view of humanity and its developments, but I see it as one of the few ways to put things in perspective (but not in total relativism either). And mostly, it shows that cultures, societies, groups, communities, aren't entities that just sprung from the ground as they are, but evolved through movements of import/export of human, technological, economic and symbolic elements.
It seems to me that we have wandered back onto topics that were discussed at length on the thread "Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another?" Many of the comments there bear on the issues in recent comments here.

However, I will respond briefly. Certainly a number of good points have been made about the elusive "culture" as content and unit of analysis. Notwithstanding those, I would add that the contemporary anthropological concept of culture, promulgated by Clifford Geertz, in no way rests on ideas of homogeneity, stasis, or boundedness: Geertz sees culture as public symbols of meaning providing understanding of existence and the world ("models of") and guidelines for future goal and action ("models for").

As for continuity ('tradition") and boundedness, I suppose we cannot rule these out a priori; shouldn't these be "empirical" matters (as we used to say), that is, matters to be discovered from research, rather than declared or ruled out on general principle. Whether we like it or not, some people will fight ferociously to maintain their values and beliefs, and put to the fire heretics and apostates who think otherwise. Catholics burned you at the stake if you were thought not a true believer; Muslims cut your head off if the thought you were a heretic or apostate; your fellow academics will chuck you out into the cold to freeze, if you are not sufficiently politically correct. Is it really up to anthropologists to say, you are wrong, don't do that, just "go with the flow"? Anthropologists do the same themselves.

So too with boundedness. In all kinds of contexts, boundaries are thrown up and closely guarded. Universities have definite rules to decide who is and who is not a staff member or a student. So do academic disciplines and professional bodies. Countries establish borders and enforce rights to pass and no rights to pass. Political parties, social cliques, churches, etc. etc. are very keen are boundaries, and work to distinguish those inside and those outside. Like it or not, this is a basic social process.

Sometimes, well, often, the two--cultural continuity and social boundaries--come together. Take the case of Turkey's desire to join the European Union. There is a lot of resistence from Europe because of the potentially culture-changing impact of millions and millions of Muslim Turks in European, hitherto Christian countries. And the sense that Oriental despotism does not really have a place in Democratic Europe. Whether we like it or not, this is the way things often work. In Iran, there is a marked boundary between Shia subjects of the Islamic Republic and Sunni subjects, as well as between ethnic Persians and others. The Sunni Baluch have been sufficiently irritated by the IR that they have generated an insurgency, called the Jundallah, which last week blew up five senior commanders of the IR Revolutionary Guard as well as a bunch of other members of the IR security forces. So we can deconstruct "culture" and object to the idea of "boundaries," but out in the real world, serious people are acting on these in decisive ways.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
It seems to me that we have wandered back onto topics that were discussed at length on the thread "Do anthropologists now doubt that peoples and cultures are different from one another?" Many of the comments there bear on the issues in recent comments here.

However, I will respond briefly. Certainly a number of good points have been made about the elusive "culture" as content and unit of analysis. Notwithstanding those, I would add that the contemporary anthropological concept of culture, promulgated by Clifford Geertz, in no way rests on ideas of homogeneity, stasis, or boundedness: Geertz sees culture as public symbols of meaning providing understanding of existence and the world ("models of") and guidelines for future goal and action ("models for").

As for continuity ('tradition") and boundedness, I suppose we cannot rule these out a priori; shouldn't these be "empirical" matters (as we used to say), that is, matters to be discovered from research, rather than declared or ruled out on general principle. Whether we like it or not, some people will fight ferociously to maintain their values and beliefs, and put to the fire heretics and apostates who think otherwise. Catholics burned you at the stake if you were thought not a true believer; Muslims cut your head off if the thought you were a heretic or apostate; your fellow academics will chuck you out into the cold to freeze, if you are not sufficiently politically correct. Is it really up to anthropologists to say, you are wrong, don't do that, just "go with the flow"? Anthropologists do the same themselves.

So too with boundedness. In all kinds of contexts, boundaries are thrown up and closely guarded. Universities have definite rules to decide who is and who is not a staff member or a student. So do academic disciplines and professional bodies. Countries establish borders and enforce rights to pass and no rights to pass. Political parties, social cliques, churches, etc. etc. are very keen are boundaries, and work to distinguish those inside and those outside. Like it or not, this is a basic social process.

Sometimes, well, often, the two--cultural continuity and social boundaries--come together. Take the case of Turkey's desire to join the European Union. There is a lot of resistence from Europe because of the potentially culture-changing impact of millions and millions of Muslim Turks in European, hitherto Christian countries. And the sense that Oriental despotism does not really have a place in Democratic Europe. Whether we like it or not, this is the way things often work. In Iran, there is a marked boundary between Shia subjects of the Islamic Republic and Sunni subjects, as well as between ethnic Persians and others. The Sunni Baluch have been sufficiently irritated by the IR that they have generated an insurgency, called the Jundallah, which last week blew up five senior commanders of the IR Revolutionary Guard as well as a bunch of other members of the IR security forces. So we can deconstruct "culture" and object to the idea of "boundaries," but out in the real world, serious people are acting on these in decisive ways.

It is possible that some of the stuff addressed here might have been talked about in other threads already, but that doesn't mean that one should reverse to these threads to discuss them. In the context of the present discussion, these topics are addressed from a different angle and take on a different meaning.

I think we all agree that there is a gap between the way anthropologists and non-anthropologists conceive of culture, and that it isn't up to anthropologists to say who's wrong or right, nor is it up to anybody, as a matter of fact, at least, not in a democratic system. However, as for any academic researchers, dedicating years of their lives trying to understand and interpret the world (nature + universe + human beings), it seems perfectly normal to me for anthropologists to try to be part of the debates in the public sphere. It isn't because creationism is garnering more and more momentum in many places of the world that biologists should shut up and lock themselves in their ivory tower, continuing their work in the margin of society. After all, some of these researches are also founded by public money and it is therefore perfectly legitimate for the results not only to be published but also taken into account when policies are decided and implemented. It is true that people have been (and often continue to be) persecuted, sometimes massively, for stepping out of the path marked out by the rest of their societies, but that doesn't mean we just have to take it as granted as a human flaw, against which there is nothing to do, and sit back, keeping our knowledge to ourselves.

For decades now, anthropologists have been able to empirically verify that cultures aren't made of eternally fixed set of values, symbols, practices, know-hows and worldviews that absolutely shouldn't change because of the risk for a society to simply fall apart if questioned. I don't see why we shouldn't defend more actively and vigorously this conception of culture in the public sphere, especially if it can help reduce the occurences of some of the nastiest conflicts of human history. Moreover, in the present contexte of worldwide resurging extreme nationalism and chauvinistic reflexes that would have everyone of us locked up in ready-made cultural identities, rewrite history in the advantage of the writer, and deny everyone else merits in the positive accomplishments of human beings, I believe that a bit more anthropology (alongside some serious history, art history, physics and biology) wouldn't do any harm to our societies.
Ariane, there is a big difference between studying and understanding the world, on the one hand, and advocating that people do or not do certain things. "...ology" means "the study of," so I understand anthropology to mean the study of mankind.

Certainly we all have a duty as citizens to try to influence society in constructive ways. One technique of such influence would be to adduce information from anthropology, biology, political science, chemistry, etc. etc. to make our case. Others, with different views, might invoke different information from anthropology, etc. But I don't see how you can make an effective case by saying to people who resist some change, that culture always changes, first, because there is equally continuity in culture, and, secondly, because the fact that culture sometimes changes doesn't mean that it should change in any particular case. It is always tricky to go from "is" to "ought." Of course, you can try, but I am not sure it is legitimate to call that "anthropology."
Salzman writes,

Notwithstanding those, I would add that the contemporary anthropological concept of culture, promulgated by Clifford Geertz, in no way rests on ideas of homogeneity, stasis, or boundedness

Which is precisely why appeals to "culture" are insufficient as justifications of violations of human rights. The days of "I did it because I was a good German and only obeying tradition" are over.
And yet our public policies are based on the distinctness of cultures: Multiculturalism is the established, legal policy of Canada, and is institutionalized in various European countries. The manners of culturalism, "political correctness," are enforced by legal sanctions, as in the legally sactioned curtailing of criticism of customs and practices of other cultures.

Furthermore, "human rights" is increasing defined, by both philosophers and lawmakers, as including "group rights," including cultural group rights. Public policy is today often debated in these terms, e.g. whether it is justified for public entities, e.g. governments, to exhibit Christmas trees, or whether this violates the cultures of non-Christian citizens and immigrants. So maybe culture can't justify violations of human rights, except in that culture becomes a human right in itself.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Ariane, there is a big difference between studying and understanding the world, on the one hand, and advocating that people do or not do certain things. "...ology" means "the study of," so I understand anthropology to mean the study of mankind.

Certainly we all have a duty as citizens to try to influence society in constructive ways. One technique of such influence would be to adduce information from anthropology, biology, political science, chemistry, etc. etc. to make our case. Others, with different views, might invoke different information from anthropology, etc. But I don't see how you can make an effective case by saying to people who resist some change, that culture always changes, first, because there is equally continuity in culture, and, secondly, because the fact that culture sometimes changes doesn't mean that it should change in any particular case. It is always tricky to go from "is" to "ought." Of course, you can try, but I am not sure it is legitimate to call that "anthropology."

Studying doesn't mean remaining in one's ivory tower and away from public debates. And there are many ways to make a case that culture changes, even to people who resist cultural changes. I'm not confusing "ought" with "is". In debates, there are usually disagreements on both what "is" (that is, the definition of reality) and what "ought to be" (that is, the desired evolution of reality). A scholar participating in a public debate will have to make his/her point essentially on the first level, as it is best equipped to offer arguments based on both empirical and conceptual grounds. It can of course offer his/her views on the second level, but it will then step out of his position as a mere scholar to become an activist.

And yes, if I have decided to make my path in the field of anthropology, it is because I sincerely hope that some of the stuff I'll come up with during my researches will not only feed academic debates, but also find its way into a wider public sphere as an element for reflections on such issues as culture or identity. I might sound a bit naive, here, but I can also see that some of the theories and methods developed in anthropology did find their way in the general public, so I still have some hope here.
Phil,

Could you spell out in a bit more detail what it means in practical terms that "Our public policies are based on the distinctness of cultures" and "Multiculturalism is the established, legal policy of Canada"? What is there here that cannot be reduced to respect for the rights of individuals to equal opportunity and equal protection under the law?

It strikes me that there are several issues at stake.

*A prohibition on discrimination based on self-affirmed identity is well within the scope of universal human rights.

*A ban on gross stereotyping, libel and slander based on cultural stereotypes is more problematic, given the inherent contradiction with freedom of speech.

*Broad tolerance of and respect for cultural differences is, I believe, a good thing. But extending it to Dayaks, Comanches, Jihadists or Nazis who assert a cultural right to murder those outside their groups? I would favor drawing a line against that.

*Perhaps the most difficult issues are those that involve parents and children and the transmission of cultural values. Here the parents may, as members of some particular group, desire to raise their children as good members of the group. The children may, if exposed to other options, choose them instead. Does multiculturalism extend to the use of imprisonment, physical violence or killing as punishment for deviation from cultural norms?

I am interested in discovering the facts behind what you are saying. How do they relate to these possibilities?







Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
And yet our public policies are based on the distinctness of cultures: Multiculturalism is the established, legal policy of Canada, and is institutionalized in various European countries. The manners of culturalism, "political correctness," are enforced by legal sanctions, as in the legally sactioned curtailing of criticism of customs and practices of other cultures.

Furthermore, "human rights" is increasing defined, by both philosophers and lawmakers, as including "group rights," including cultural group rights. Public policy is today often debated in these terms, e.g. whether it is justified for public entities, e.g. governments, to exhibit Christmas trees, or whether this violates the cultures of non-Christian citizens and immigrants. So maybe culture can't justify violations of human rights, except in that culture becomes a human right in itself.
Ariane said: "In debates, there are usually disagreements on both what "is" (that is, the definition of reality) and what "ought to be" (that is, the desired evolution of reality). A scholar participating in a public debate will have to make his/her point essentially on the first level, as it is best equipped to offer arguments based on both empirical and conceptual grounds. It can of course offer his/her views on the second level, but it will then step out of his position as a mere scholar to become an activist."

That sounds about right to me. I guess I have been in a few of these myself--level one mainly.
Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
Ariane said: "In debates, there are usually disagreements on both what "is" (that is, the definition of reality) and what "ought to be" (that is, the desired evolution of reality). A scholar participating in a public debate will have to make his/her point essentially on the first level, as it is best equipped to offer arguments based on both empirical and conceptual grounds. It can of course offer his/her views on the second level, but it will then step out of his position as a mere scholar to become an activist."

That sounds about right to me. I guess I have been in a few of these myself--level one mainly.

One of the reasons why this discussion appealed to me, besides the fact that cultural relativism and Human Rights are ongoing issues of debates, both in academic and wider public circles, is that some of the arguments laid out here reasonated with concerns that have cropped up lately more acutely than usual in my environment. To be more precise, a bunch of extreme-right wing politicians and activists have come up with the dumbest and potentially most dangerous initiatve in the recent Swiss political history: basically, we are going to vote on a text that would introduce, in the Swiss constitution, a complete ban on minarets. Not mosques, but just the minaret. Not bell towers or domes, but just minarets! That is, in short, if accepted, this text would add a discriminatory article against Muslims in the Swiss constitution, thus, making Switzerland, the de facto first officially and overtly anti-Muslim country in Europe. The arguments of the promoters of this initiative is that minarets are a symbol of Islamic conquest and that allowing minarets to be built would encourage radical Islam to take foot in Switzerland. Another argument is that minarets aren't a traditional Western pieces of architecture and that, therefore, they have nothing to do in a Swiss landscape. Church bell towers, on the other hand, are ok, because they are "traditional". And towers attached to buildings for other cults (i.e. boudhist temples, synagogues domes, etc.) are ok too, because they aren't as threatening as Islam. My main reason to oppose this initiative, besides the fact that it contradicts one of the pillars of our democracy, that is equal treatment for all and rejection of discrimination, is that we aren't, as many proponents of this initiative claim, a Christian country. Neither by the present practice of Christianity by the majority of Swiss people (churches are empty), nor by traditions (the people living on what is nowadays Swiss territory haven't always been Christians). Moreover, if Switzerland, which is only 200 years old, has indeed been a predominantly Christian country for a long time, it doesn't have to be so for ever.

So, my arguments in the previous message can also be understood in the light of this context. We are in the middle of a political campaign (vote on 29 Novembre 2009) and I have been debating (actually, I could say, battling) with people all around me! So, I apologize if my political side did slip in there momentarily....it will be better after the vote, if this initiative is rejected. If it is accepted, I'll just hide under my bed in disappointment (it can't be! it can't be! No, it can't be truuuuueee!) for a while until I accept this reality!
John asked about "A ban on gross stereotyping, libel and slander based on cultural stereotypes [which] is more problematic, given the inherent contradiction with freedom of speech."

In recent times particularly, advocates of human rights and equality of groups have argued that speech that demeans any human group or category of people--such as women, gays, people of color, Jews, Poles, Scots, et cetera--undermines equality and must be banned. Criticisms, condemnations, and even jokes about groups and categories should, say advocates of collective equality, be banned. Some countries, such as Canada, have indeed passed so-called “hate speech” laws that ban statements that would be deemed offensive and have imposed severe penalties upon those convicted.

As well, the Government of Canada and the governments of a number of the provinces have established Human Rights Commissions to hear complaints, give judgements, and assess penalties for human rights abuses, such as discrimination in hiring for jobs, renting housing, etc., on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Many of these commissions are charged with clauses against discriminatory opinion (O’Neill 2008:A12):
Section 7 of B.C.’s [British Columbia’s] human rights act makes it an offence for any person to publish “an statement, publication, notice, sign, symbol, emblem or other representation” that so much as “indicates discrimination or an an intention to discriminate” against a protected group, or “is likely to expose a person or group or a class of persons to hatred or contempt.” No actual discrimination or hatred has to occur for an offence to occur. And...truth is not a defence.

The Canadian Human Rights act says, in section 12, much the same, but adds a neat specification:
Furthermore, Section 13 makes it an offence for anyone “to communicate telephonically [a definition that includes the internet]...any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt.”

Once again, “freedom of speech,” “freedom of opinion,” “freedom of the press,” “fair comment,” and “true information” are not allowable defences. Furthermore, the Human Rights Commissions are notoriously lacking in due process, for there are no strict rules of evidence, the accused cannot face his accuser, and the investigators and commissioners make no claim to neutrality, for they are committed activists on behalf of the “victims” of discrimination. If all that is not dire enough, complaints can be submitted cost free, while defendants must pay their costs, often for years of adjudication.


John McCreery said:
Phil,

Could you spell out in a bit more detail what it means in practical terms that "Our public policies are based on the distinctness of cultures" and "Multiculturalism is the established, legal policy of Canada"? What is there here that cannot be reduced to respect for the rights of individuals to equal opportunity and equal protection under the law?

It strikes me that there are several issues at stake.

*A prohibition on discrimination based on self-affirmed identity is well within the scope of universal human rights.

*A ban on gross stereotyping, libel and slander based on cultural stereotypes is more problematic, given the inherent contradiction with freedom of speech.

*Broad tolerance of and respect for cultural differences is, I believe, a good thing. But extending it to Dayaks, Comanches, Jihadists or Nazis who assert a cultural right to murder those outside their groups? I would favor drawing a line against that.

*Perhaps the most difficult issues are those that involve parents and children and the transmission of cultural values. Here the parents may, as members of some particular group, desire to raise their children as good members of the group. The children may, if exposed to other options, choose them instead. Does multiculturalism extend to the use of imprisonment, physical violence or killing as punishment for deviation from cultural norms?

I am interested in discovering the facts behind what you are saying. How do they relate to these possibilities?







Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
And yet our public policies are based on the distinctness of cultures: Multiculturalism is the established, legal policy of Canada, and is institutionalized in various European countries. The manners of culturalism, "political correctness," are enforced by legal sanctions, as in the legally sactioned curtailing of criticism of customs and practices of other cultures.

Furthermore, "human rights" is increasing defined, by both philosophers and lawmakers, as including "group rights," including cultural group rights. Public policy is today often debated in these terms, e.g. whether it is justified for public entities, e.g. governments, to exhibit Christmas trees, or whether this violates the cultures of non-Christian citizens and immigrants. So maybe culture can't justify violations of human rights, except in that culture becomes a human right in itself.

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