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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It is difficult to reply to this except to say that the political phenomenon — enthusiastic reformers going over the top — is common throughout history. Cold comfort to those in their path, but it might also be worth noting that attempts to purify language and culture have historically never achieved more than local victories.

Philip Carl SALZMAN said:
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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