[Previous] [Main Index] [Next]

Monday, March 10, 2003

The Absurdities of Cultural Relativism If That Means "No Useful Standards of Comparison" for Specific Purposes: For Instance, Which Cultures Encourage or Hinder Economic Development or Political Democracy, and Why?

We've talked a fair amount about cultural relativism in our commentaries, especially in its pc-versions that draw on various post-modernist epistemological theories, all claiming that there is no such thing as objective truths or even universal values that pertain to all of human-kind. It follows for cultural relativists --- meaning almost all the politically correct radical Academic Left these days, except when it comes to US democracy and capitalism, themselves somehow cleary and incontestably evil--- that nothing "truthful" or "objective" or "better here than there (or vice versa)" can exist meaningfully beyond the consensus of a particular group and hence its shared beliefs and values and normative standards about the world and the "correct" blueprints for living your life.

Which groups?

Well, some might refer to scientific professions; never mind, all reality is "socially constructed," it's said, with scientists of any sort no more in bracing contact with any reality than your average Jack of Jill. Some might refer to philosophers in the analytical school that covers all the English-speaking countries, Scandinavia, and more and more the European continent; others might refer to so-called Continental philosophy heavily influenced by Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and French post-modernists like Foucault and Derrida. And, lest we forget, such groups might mean the pc-radicals themselves, organized into feminist or ethnic or political movements or what have you. But note. Somehow, in mysterious ways never clarified, their politicized members forget that, if relativism is sound, they're not supposed to pass judgment on the culture of other groups. Somehow, the mystery deepening, ever darker, the radical avant-garde --- tenured, comfy professors for the most part (oh, those daredevil revolutionaries!) --- have convinced themselves that they have been able to transcend the limits of relativist thought, carving out for themselves a privileged position of wondrous insight and understanding of other groups. At any rate, if the groups in question happen to be middle-class Americans, meaning all Republicans, slimy sell-out Democratic politicians, all the duped women and minorities (victims of false consciousness who admire American life), and --- the scum of the earth, the most dreadful monster in all evolutionary history --- white male Americans . . . imperialists, racists, and sexists to the core.
Faced with such cocksure judgments of the most startling arbitrariness, we ordinary mortals, locked in our relativist mental prisons, can only marvel how --- no standards being objective, no beliefs either ---these Heroic, living-High-on-the-Hog academics (very high) have managed to overcome ordinary human limits and attain their lofty epistemological Mount Olympus, hitherto the unique preserve of Zeus, Poseidon, Ares, Athenian, and the other bugged-out gods and goddesses of ancient Greece and Rome; but now, apparently, in its post-modern phase, swarming with the likes of Dr. Jacques Derrida of UC Irvine and Dr. Judith Butler of UC Berkeley (the first and greatest recipient of Arts&Letters Daily annual award for the worst academic writing of the previous 12 months) and Dr. Michel Foucault of UC Berkeley and the College de France (literally among the gods since his death in the mid-1980s), Dr. Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Gilles Deleuze, not to forget all those other great French-Thinkers-of-the-Month in the post-modernist Parthenon. Plus, of course, the pioneer forerunners here, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Theodore Adorno and the other beloved members of the Frankfurt-School-in-Exile-in-New York. Critical Theory, the Frankfurt School's legacy, even more important these days for some radical academics --- Richard Rorty's School of Resentment [and Grudge] --- and now in a Parthenon of its own, somewhere floating even higher in the murky clouds than Zeus and Dr. Foucault themselves.

No matter. Forget the self-contradictions, inherent in all relativist arguments that require those making them to have achieved a privileged epistemological viewpoint.

For political purposes, to return to our concern here, the groups that cultural relativism ordinarily refers to are territorial groups ---clans, tribes, city states, empires, monarchical states, nation-states --- that have a distinct identity, a distinctive system of political rule and laws, and a unique way of life all summed up by what we call "culture" plain and simple, or maybe these days "national culture". Viewed from this angle, a national culture is a network of beliefs, values, and norms for guiding behavior. It persists over generations or centuries among the members of the nation, and is transmitted from one generation to another through socialization processes. This socialization, first studied by anthropologists in the 19th century (and called enculturation) starts in infancy within the family, then is reinforced over time as children grow up by schools, their friends, universities, churches, professional associations, business organizations, trade unions, volunteer groups and other distinctive social agencies. The outcome? The inherited beliefs, norms, and values of past generations are internalized in the present generations, creating a a distinctive mental blueprint for living our lives . . . first as individuals, then as members of various groups and association that, somehow, through similar socialization processes, all cohere to one degree or another --- obviously something that does vary across the 190 nation-states (oh oh, a judgment) --- and hence create a shared and yet unqiue way-of-national life, full of unique national symbols, myths, rituals, and holidays.

At any rate in principle. A qualification, we'll see later, that is of more than passing importance.


Part Two: What All National Cultures Have in Common

Such learned blueprints, transmitted from one generation to another through various socialization agencies, always spell out standards of individual and group-living that deal, it can be said, with 7 overarching questions:

1. what is understood to be efficacious or not in the national society: for instance magic scientific analysis, double-blind testing of medicines vs. folk theories; again, free markets with various degrees of regulation vs. planned statist societies in sustaining long-term development?

2. what is understood to be right or wrong, good or bad: eating your hostages or treating them properly; slavery or not; beating women who have no legal recourse or furthering women's rights?

3) what do people sharing the culture learn are the ways to advance socially and economically: by education and hard-work and accomplishment or by means of clientelism and family-tribal-clan networking, where positions of authority and rewards in a society are divvied out in return for services rendered your superiors up through lines of hierarchy to Dons, Sheiks, Kings, Presidents-for-Life, or through family contacts or both?

4) what do people internalizing the culture's beliefs and values regard as mysterious and transcendental and aesthetically beautiful and stirring?

5) what is regarded as ultimately true and incontestable?

6) how are political authority and various hierachies justified; ditto differential wealth and prestige?

7) Do the members of the wider national society trust one another usually and hence cooperate across family, clan, tribal, ethnic, regional, and class lines easily, or are they mistrustful and even fearful and are always on their guard ('faut se mefier' as the French say)

The diverse anwers to these 7 questions create distinctive ways of life that mix beliefs about the nature of the world and humankind, values, and normative rules for guiding behavior that divide the six billion people of the world into 190 nation-states today . . . with many of these nation-states new and multi-ethnic and not effectively integrated. Which means that what was a third that number of recognized nation-states in 1939 might split into hundreds more, usually violently, as the decades unwind in the future; all depending.


Part Three: The Big Fallacy of Post-Modernist Relativism Here

So far, so good. The chief problems arise from taking the world's diversity and asserting epistemological claims that deny you can rank and evaluate groups' cultures and the performances they encourage or inhibit.

On this relativist view, any national group's cultural standards --- epistemological or normative --- are specific to the nation. They don't reflect any universal or transcendent values or beliefs; what's more, no such universals exist except as propaganda used by Western imperialists to rationalize their power over others' and no one group's standards and ways of life, therefore, can be said to be "better or worse." Except, recall, for the politically correct left (and its hostile judgments about the US . . . as opposed, say, to cultural anthropologists who were, along with Nietzsche and the pioneer American pragmatists, the first to stress that no objective truths or values can be discerned, only diverse ways of life --- and (in the case of Pierce, James, and Dewey, now joined by Richard Rorty) the free exchange of views in a democratic society like the US's for dealing with collective problems as they appear, one after another; action for dealing with the problems what matters, not endless yakking or philosophical discourse. (Actually, something we can't go into here, Pierce looked forward to some scientific consensus in the future that actually would make bracing contact with some ultimate reality through cumulative scientific knowledge, itself self-corrective.)

Where pc-types want to have it both ways --- harshly critical of the US while claiming all other cultures are insulated from criticism --- is by plundering traditions in cultural anthropology that stretch back to the late-19th and early 20th century, and the work of Franz Boas at Columbia and his pupils, the most famous of whom was Margaret Mead. That enables them to argue that all cultures serve fundamental human needs from an evolutionary viewpoint, and hence all cultures must be adaptive and equal in their ability to let human territorial groups thrive and reproduce. On this view, then, all cultures are equal: equally adaptive, equally functional in serving human needs, and hence equally worthy of respect . . . otherwise they wouldn't have survived. With, of course, in the harsh writings and pronouncements of the radical left --- the Academic School of Grudge and Resentment --- the US uniquely exempted from this standard of mutual respect.

The general fallacy here?

The refusal to apply any evaluative standard and make informed empirical comparisons between cultures.

Consider. As soon as analysts agree that, say, economic development is something desirable, the different answers given above to the 7 sides of all cultures underscore clearly that not all national cultures are equally effective here. Economic development requires sound institutions, good policies, limited corruption in high places, and social capital in the form of widespread trust among the members and groups comprising the nation . . . the basis of all spontaneous cooperation among large numbers of people in local communities, corporations, and across ethnic, tribal-clan, family, and class lines of demarcation. No wide radius of trust in a national society, no spontaneous cooperation on a large scale . . . only fragmented and mutually suspicious clientele groups, each vying in a kind of Hobbesian world for money, power, and prestige. (The best book on this recently is Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington eds (Harvard, 2000), especially the introductory and concluding chapters by Harrison, and the one by Francis Fukuyama.) Agreed: if someone says economic development is not something "good" or "desirable", that say a primitive way of life embodied by hunting-gathering bands is better, that's another matter. Ditto ultra-greens with their utopian romanticism in Europe.

Again, national or regional cultures vary in terms of their ability to innovate technologically and scientifically, to generate different degrees of trust or mistrust across wide swathes of citizens within a large nation (tens or hundreds of millions), to subject political leadership to accountability and a rule of law to foster military power, to sustain wider degrees of rights and obligations (women's subjugation in Arab societies, say, vs. West Europe and the English-speaking countries; or slavery or not).

  Part Four: Further Problems with the Overuse of Culture as an Explanatory Concept

Culture as a concept entails further problems of making comparative sense of different societies, above all because:

* Outside fairly primitive small societies --- certainly not in complex urban societies --- socialization is never "perfect" or fool-proof, and sub-cultures exist to an extent (without common citizenship and common culture, such societies will likely be unable to sustain anything but authoritarian gangsterism in politics). For that matter, even brothers and sisters may grow up with different personality structures and outlooks and behavior: one a criminal, the other a priest, the other a libertarian, the other a socialist.

* What's more, our shared biological evolutionary heritage--- for individuals, maybe groups--- poses clear restraints on the range of human diversity. All humans have to eat, have shelter and clothing, find energy systems, develop tools, learn social positions that involve some specialization (hunting for men in clans, rearing children in clans by women), and reproduce and raise children.

*Oppositely --- and here we need to await more knowledge about the interaction between biology and environment, evolution and culture --- human diversity and different performance-levels may also be a product of biology in large part (say, shaping individual IQ -- 40-70%; or the success of Europeans and Asians in swimming sports vs.. the success of Africans or their descendants in other sports like basketball, even though such success, as in any endeavor in life, requires training, hard-work, and dedication.)

*No culture is immune to change these days, especially thanks to the revolutions in transportation and communication technologies, globalizing capitalism, globalizing media, and widespread immigration. By now, too, we know that such globalizing forces are not always benign or enthusiastically embraced: they cause turbulence and psychological dislocations and confusion and, as in much of the Middle East, big backlashes in the form of militant fundamentalisms and the xenophobia and vitriol and paranoid-like hostilities that are easy to document. On the good side, a country, say, like Mexico -- with its Hispanic-Indian traditions --- has shown a remarkable ability to change in some basic ways essential to economic development, technological progress, changes in political authority etc . . . even though the harmful legacies of several hundred years can't or won't be altered drastically overnight.

From that viewpoint, it's easy to ask which cultures are more flexible and adaptive compared to others?

*And finally, as the article below also notes, the cult of "primitiveness" that cultural relativism has tended to engender produces a romanticized view of small clan and tribal or traditional national societies that are starkly at odds with historical and anthropological knowledge these days.


Part Five: Back to Relativism: George Orwell's 1984 as the Ultimate Relativist Nightmare

On a strictly epistemological level, theories of relativism that deny any objective standards or values --- or non-culturally based truth --- lead their proponents, even a highly gifted and innovative philosopher like Richard Rorty, to the reductio absurdum of Orwell's 1984, and the inability of Winston to believe any longer that Big Brother and Newspeak constantly lie and fabricate new "truths" -- including historical ones about who they allied with or fought a decade or two ago --- because he is isolated and eventually is won over to Big Brother's embrace. That is the key to Obrien's power. He tries to convince Winston that all his memories --- beliefs that he knows are true, not least about historical events --- are wrong, because they are idiosyncratic . . . not supported by the rest of Big Brother's population. Isolated, Winston continues to resist --- at first anyway. Over time, the isolation works on his mind, and he begins to doubt the truths of his memories: even simple historical facts, such as the alliance in the past of Oceana (which the Party rules) with the current enemy. Eventually, his resistance collapses. He no longer knows what's what, he betrays Julia, and he finds himself in love with Big Brother . . . the only way he now has at his disposal for establishing contact with other humans.

It isn't a fable, Orwell's nitghtmarish novel. It captures the spirit of totalitarian-worship that was widespread among western intellectuals in Europe and elsewhere regarding horrendous and monstrous systems like Stalinism, Maoism, Hitlerianism, and the like . . . along with some of the more fatuous views that thrive in pc-circles in our universities these days. (The challenge to Rorty that Orwell creates --- a reply to Rorty's own writings on Orwell by James Conant, an unusually talented philosopher who roams widely over all sorts of political, literary, and moral issues with skill --- appears in Rorty and His Critics, edited by Robert Brandom (Blackwell, 2000).

Conant's challenge and then Rorty's clearly strained efforts to deal with it aren't available except if you buy or get hold of the book. Instead, as an excellent substitute that deals with all the matters raised in our commentary here, consider the following review article of Raymond Tallis from the Times Literary Supplement should be read in the light of these comments. A gifted professor of medicine in Britain, Tallis often writes on the fallacies and falsehoods of pc-stuff in the social sciences and philosophy.


Part Six: Two Reading Selections

The first here is by Daniel Dennett, a prominent and unusually talented philosopher, a specialist in evolutionary theory and cognitive science, which dissects the absurdities of post-modernist views about truth from both a philosophical and evolutionary viewpoint. It is telling and persuasive in all senses of the word. His latest book, Freedom Evolves --- just out, something of a best seller (I just got hold of my copy this weekend) --- is highly recommended: very crisply and clearly written, but demanding.

The second is by a gifted writer, the British physician Raymond Tallis, who frequently engages in demolition-jobs of post-modernist hokum in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement (London)

Dennett"Post-Modernism and Truth"

Postmodernism and truth

" . . . My little fable is also inspired by a wonderful remark of E. O. Wilson, in Atlantic Monthly a few months ago: "Scientists, being held responsible for what they say, have not found postmodernism useful." Actually, of course, we are all held responsible for what we say. The laws of libel and slander, for instance, exempt none of us, but most of us--including scientists in many or even most fields--do not typically make assertions that, independently of libel and slander considerations, might bring harm to others, even indirectly. A handy measure of this fact is the evident ridiculousness we discover in the idea of malpractice insurance for . . . . literary critics, philosophers, mathematicians, historians, cosmologists. What on earth could a mathematician or literary critic do, in the course of executing her profession duties, that might need the security blanket of malpractice insurance? She might inadvertently trip a student in the corridor, or drop a book on somebody's head, but aside from such outré side-effects, our activities are paradigmatically innocuous. One would think. But in those fields where the stakes are higher--and more direct--there is a longstanding tradition of being especially cautious, and of taking particular responsibility for ensuring that no harm results (as explicitly honored in the Hippocratic Oath).

Engineers, knowing that thousands of people's safety may depend on the bridge they design, engage in focussed exercises with specified constraints designed to determine that, according to all current knowledge, their designs are safe and sound. Even economists--often derided for the risks they take with other people's livelihoods--when they find themselves in positions to endorse specific economic measures considered by government bodies or by their private clients, are known to attempt to put a salutary strain on their underlying assumptions, just to be safe. They are used to asking themselves, and to being expected to ask themselves: "What if I'm wrong?" We others seldom ask ourselves this question, since we have spent our student and professional lives working on topics that are, according both to tradition and common sense, incapable of affecting any lives in ways worth worrying about. If my topic is whether or not Vlastos had the best interpretation of Plato's Parmenides or how the wool trade affected imagery in Tudor poetry, or what the best version of string theory says about time, or how to recast proofs in topology in some new formalism, if I am wrong, dead wrong, in what I say, the only damage I am likely to do is to my own scholarly reputation. But when we aspire to have a greater impact on the "real" (as opposed to "academic") world-- and many philosophers do aspire to this today--we need to adopt the attitudes and habits of these more applied disciplines. We need to hold ourselves responsible for what we say, recognizing that our words, if believed, can have profound effects for good or ill.

When I was a young untenured professor of philosophy, I once received a visit from a colleague from the Comparative Literature Department, an eminent and fashionable literary theorist, who wanted some help from me. I was flattered to be asked, and did my best to oblige, but the drift of his questions about various philosophical topics was strangely perplexing to me. For quite a while we were getting nowhere, until finally he managed to make clear to me what he had come for. He wanted "an epistemology," he said. An epistemology. Every self-respecting literary theorist had to sport an epistemology that season, it seems, and without one he felt naked, so he had come to me for an epistemology to wear--it was the very next fashion, he was sure, and he wanted the dernier cri in epistemologies. It didn't matter to him that it be sound, or defensible, or (as one might as well say) true; it just had to be new and different and stylish. Accessorize, my good fellow, or be overlooked at the party.

At that moment I perceived a gulf between us that I had only dimly seen before. It struck me at first as simply the gulf between being serious and being frivolous. But that initial surge of self-righteousness on my part was, in fact, a naive reaction. My sense of outrage, my sense that my time had been wasted by this man's bizarre project, was in its own way as unsophisticated as the reaction of the first-time theater-goer who leaps on the stage to protect the heroine from the villain. "Don't you understand?" we ask incredulously. "It's make believe. It's art. It isn't supposed to be taken literally!" Put in that context, perhaps this man's quest was not so disreputable after all. I would not have been offended, would I, if a colleague in the Drama Department had come by and asked if he could borrow a few yards of my books to put on the shelves of the set for his production of Tom Stoppard's play, Jumpers. What if anything would be wrong in outfitting this fellow with a snazzy set of outrageous epistemological doctrines with which he could titillate or confound his colleagues?

What would be wrong would be that since this man didn't acknowledge the gulf, didn't even recognize that it existed, my acquiescence in his shopping spree would have contributed to the debasement of a precious commodity, the erosion of a valuable distinction. Many people, including both onlookers and participants, don't see this gulf, or actively deny its existence, and therein lies the problem. The sad fact is that in some intellectual circles, inhabited by some of our more advanced thinkers in the arts and humanities, this attitude passes as a sophisticated appreciation of the futility of proof and the relativity of all knowledge claims. In fact this opinion, far from being sophisticated, is the height of sheltered naiveté, made possible only by flatfooted ignorance of the proven methods of scientific truth-seeking and their power. Like many another naif, these thinkers, reflecting on the manifest inability of their methods of truth-seeking to achieve stable and valuable results, innocently generalize from their own cases and conclude that nobody else knows how to discover the truth either.

Among those who contribute to this problem, I am sorry to say, is, my good friend Dick Rorty. Richard Rorty and I have been constructively disagreeing with each other for over a quarter of a century now. Each of us has taught the other a great deal, I believe, in the reciprocal process of chipping away at our residual points of disagreement. I can't name a living philosopher from whom I have learned more. Rorty has opened up the horizons of contemporary philosophy, shrewdly showing us philosophers many things about how our own projects have grown out of the philosophical projects of the distant and recent past, while boldly describing and prescribing future paths for us to take. But there is one point over which he and I do not agree at all--not yet--and that concerns his attempt over the years to show that philosophers' debates about Truth and Reality really do erase the gulf, really do license a slide into some form of relativism. In the end, Rorty tells us, it is all just "conversations," and there are only political or historical or aesthetic grounds for taking one role or another in an ongoing conversation.

Rorty has often tried to enlist me in his campaign, declaring that he could find in my own work one explosive insight or another that would help him with his project of destroying the illusory edifice of objectivity. One of his favorite passages is the one with which I ended my book Consciousness Explained (1991):

It's just a war of metaphors, you say--but metaphors are not "just" metaphors; metaphors are the tools of thought. No one can think about consciousness without them, so it is important to equip yourself with the best set of tools available. Look what we have built with our tools. Could you have imagined it without them? [p.455]

"I wish," Rorty says, "he had taken one step further, and had added that such tools are all that inquiry can ever provide, because inquiry is never 'pure' in the sense of [Bernard] Williams' 'project of pure inquiry.' It is always a matter of getting us something we want." ("Holism, Intrinsicality, Transcendence," in Dahlbom, ed., Dennett and his Critics. 1993.) But I would never take that step, for although metaphors are indeed irreplaceable tools of thought, they are not the only such tools. Microscopes and mathematics and MRI scanners are among the others. Yes, any inquiry is a matter of getting us something we want: the truth about something that matters to us, if all goes as it should.

When philosophers argue about truth, they are arguing about how not to inflate the truth about truth into the Truth about Truth, some absolutistic doctrine that makes indefensible demands on our systems of thought. It is in this regard similar to debates about, say, the reality of time, or the reality of the past. There are some deep, sophisticated, worthy philosophical investigations into whether, properly speaking, the past is real. Opinion is divided, but you entirely misunderstand the point of these disagreements if you suppose that they undercut claims such as the following:

Life first emerged on this planet more than three thousand million years ago. The Holocaust happened during World War II. Jack Ruby shot and killed Lee Harvey Oswald at 11:21 am, Dallas time, November 24, 1963.

These are truths about events that really happened. Their denials are falsehoods. No sane philosopher has ever thought otherwise, though in the heat of battle, they have sometimes made claims that could be so interpreted.

Richard Rorty deserves his large and enthralled readership in the arts and humanities, and in the "humanistic" social sciences, but when his readers enthusiastically interpret him as encouraging their postmodernist skepticism about truth, they trundle down paths he himself has refrained from traveling. When I press him on these points, he concedes that there is indeed a useful concept of truth that survives intact after all the corrosive philosophical objections have been duly entered. This serviceable, modest concept of truth, Rorty acknowledges, has its uses: when we want to compare two maps of the countryside for reliability, for instance, or when the issue is whether the accused did or did not commit the crime as charged.

Even Richard Rorty, then, acknowledges the gap, and the importance of the gap, between appearance and reality, between those theatrical exercises that may entertain us without pretence of truth-telling, and those that aim for, and often hit, the truth. He calls it a "vegetarian" concept of truth. Very well, then, let's all be vegetarians about the truth. Scientists never wanted to go the whole hog anyway.

So now, let's ask about the sources or foundations of this mild, uncontroversial, vegetarian concept of truth . . .

We alone can be wracked with doubt, and we alone have been provoked by that epistemic itch to seek a remedy: better truth-seeking methods. Wanting to keep better track of our food supplies, our territories, our families, our enemies, we discovered the benefits of talking it over with others, asking questions, passing on lore. We invented culture. Then we invented measuring, and arithmetic, and maps, and writing. These communicative and recording innovations come with a built-in ideal: truth. The point of asking questions is to find true answers; the point of measuring is to measure accurately; the point of making maps is to find your way to your destination. There may be an Island of the Colour-blind (allowing Oliver Sacks his usual large dose of poetic license), but no Island of the People Who Do Not Recognize Their Own Children. The Land of the Liars could exist only in philosophers' puzzles; there are no traditions of False Calendar Systems for mis-recording the passage of time. In short, the goal of truth goes without saying, in every human culture.

We human beings use our communicative skills not just for truth-telling, but also for promise-making, threatening, bargaining, story-telling, entertaining, mystifying, inducing hypnotic trances, and just plain kidding around, but prince of these activities is truth-telling, and for this activity we have invented ever better tools. Alongside our tools for agriculture, building, warfare, and transportation, we have created a technology of truth: science. Try to draw a straight line, or a circle, "freehand." Unless you have considerable artistic talent, the result will not be impressive. With a straight edge and a compass, on the other hand, you can practically eliminate the sources of human variability and get a nice clean, objective result, the same every time . . .

"The methods of science aren't foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible. Just as important: there is a tradition of criticism that enforces improvement whenever and wherever flaws are discovered. The methods of science, like everything else under the sun, are themselves objects of scientific scrutiny, as method becomes methodology, the analysis of methods. Methodology in turn falls under the gaze of epistemology, the investigation of investigation itself--nothing is off limits to scientific questioning. The irony is that these fruits of scientific reflection, showing us the ineliminable smudges of imperfection, are sometimes used by those who are suspicious of science as their grounds for denying it a privileged status in the truth-seeking department--as if the institutions and practices they see competing with it were no worse off in these regards. But where are the examples of religious orthodoxy being simply abandoned in the face of irresistible evidence? Again and again in science, yesterday's heresies have become today's new orthodoxies. No religion exhibits that pattern in its history.

1. Portions of this paper are derived from "Faith in the Truth," my Amnesty Lecture, Oxford, February 17, 1997. 2. Value-Free Science?, Harvard Univ. Press, 1991.

This is the final draft of a paper given at the 1998 World Congress of Philosophy. Daniel Dennett's most recent book, Freedom Evolves, has just been published by Viking Press."

"Dreamers of paradise" Raymond Tallis 8/14/02 "The failures of cultural relativism"

Roger Sandall THE CULTURE CULT Designer tribalism and other essays 214pp. Westview, 12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ. Paperback, £15.50. 0 8133 3863 8

In April last year, the Etireno , with a cargo of slave children en route from Benin to Gabon, briefly became the most infamous ship in the world. Rumour had it that approximately 250 children, found to be surplus to requirements, had been thrown overboard. When this could not be substantiated, the world's press lost interest, thereby missing the bigger – and yet more terrible – picture: the orphans of the Etireno were only a small part of an estimated 200,000 children sold annually into Africa's modern slave trade. The authorities in Benin tried to explain the episode away as a West African custom in which children are sent abroad to live as household servants with wealthy relatives. Benin's Foreign Minister, Idji Kolawole, remarked, "In our culture, we think that it's always good for a child to go from his parents' house, to an uncle's or to a friend abroad."

Another incident, a few months later, gave the lie to this relaxed attitude. The prolonged torture and death of Victoria Climbié, sent to London to improve her life chances – not to speak of widespread evidence of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of other children sent away to live as unprotected mendicants with wealthier families – leads one to question the use of "always" in the Foreign Minister's statement. His other phrase, "in our culture", was striking too. Here and elsewhere these seemingly unexceptionable words have a strong intent: they are intended to immunize the practice being discussed against criticism.

Roger Sandall's brilliant, impassioned and sardonic The Culture Cult explains among other things how the phrase "in our culture" has come to be used to defend behaviour that would otherwise be seen as quite abhorrent. Until recently Sandall was a Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at the University of Sydney. His career coincided with the high tide of an intellectual fashion which held three dogmas to be unquestionable. In his words:

1. each culture is a semi-sacred creation, 2. all cultures are equally valuable and must never be compared, and 3. the assimilation of cultures (especially the assimilation of primitive culture by a secular civilisation coldly indifferent to spiritual things) is supremely wicked.

For adherents of what Sandall calls the culture cult, primitive culture is not inferior to modern civilization – it is different and quite likely better. Some commentators of this persuasion call for a radical simplification of modern life based on their notion of the condition of the primitive. Nothwithstanding their own doctrine of incommensurability, they take "a sour view of modernity", forgetting, Sandall argues, that modern civilization not infrequently "allows changes of government without bloodshed", as well as "civil rights, economic benefits, religious toleration, and political and artistic freedom"; whereas most traditional cultures "feature domestic repression, economic backwardness, endemic disease, religious fanaticism and severe artistic constraints".

The notion of the incommensurability of cultures was first put forward by Herder in the eighteenth century. In the twentieth it was particularly associated with the American anthropologist Franz Boas and his many disciples (and, outside anthropology, with Isaiah Berlin). It has, in many instances, been motivated by an honourable and humane rejection of pseudo-scientific biological notions of race and culture, which justified the iniquitous exploitation of "lesser breeds without the law" and provided a Darwinian rationale for ideologies which culminated in genocide. At its best, the doctrine of incommensurability is rooted in a passionate loathing of things that should be loathed passionately, such as ignorant scorn for peoples who do not happen to have the same habits of thought and ways of life as oneself. It is informed by tolerance, self-questioning and wonder at the variety of the ways in which humans may make their way through the world. But at its worst, sacralization of cultural difference serves as a hypocritical denial, by people who are comfortably remote from its consequences, of the fact that there are cultures that have deeply undesirable aspects. The veneration of closed, tribal, warrior cultures involves a failure to acknowledge the absence in such societies of, among other things, individual rights and freedom of thought, rights that these same romantic primitivists demand for themselves.

Sandall focuses on the worst aspects of cultural relativism, in particular its non-relativist use of sentimentalized assessments of primitive cultures as a stick with which to beat civilization. He begins with a cameo: Lauren Hutton, the actress and ex-model, forcing her two young sons to watch red-robed Masai warriors drinking warm blood from the carcass of a slaughtered cow. Their reaction – tears in contrast to her own delighted yelps of "wow" – disappointed her. Perhaps, Sandall wonders, they understood better than she did the necessary violence of the warrior life behind the tourist-anthropology cabaret. As the mother of two boys, one might have have expected her to reflect on the appalling initiation ceremonies to which warrior societies sometimes subject young males. In some highland Papua New Guinea societies, boys "were beaten with stinging nettles, had barbed grass pushed up their urethras to cause bleeding, were compelled to swallow bent lengths of cane until vomiting was induced and were required to fellate older men, who also had anal intercourse with them".

The initiation rituals undergone by Papuan boys are somewhat at odds with the "communal basket-weaving, accompanied by traditional dance and song", that, Sandall argues, dominates the image of indigenous cultures in the minds of " boutique" multiculturalists. Multiculturalist thinking tends to exaggerate the place of art in past communities. Writers enchanted by Aztec art, architecture and poetry often ignore the unspeakable despotism of this warrior and priest-ridden society and their continual wars, waged in pursuit of the 20,000 prisoners needed annually for purposes of human sacrifice. For their neighbours, the arrival of the conquistadors was liberating.

The image of a lost world of wise, peace-loving artists in harmony with the natural world is the invention of Western intellectuals disgruntled with the civilization that makes their lives so easy. In reality, many primitive societies were not only homicidal but also impressively eco-cidal. The Maoris, for example, managed, despite their relatively small numbers, to wipe out about 30 per cent of the indigenous species, including all twelve kinds of Moa, within a century of their arrival in an edenic New Zealand. This took place against the usual background of incessant tribal warfare, and a brutally unfair legal system which was reformed only when, as a result of a series of deals with the white settlers, which benefited the chiefs but not their people, the Maoris were marginalized in their own land and came under European law.

Such facts cut little ice with those who have the strength to dream. The career of Margaret Mead is illustrative. Her journalistic transformations of scanty field notes into a Polynesian idyll supported her fantasies of how human life would be if unshackled by the constraints of civic society. Coming of Age in Samoa , Sandall argues, was particularly persuasive in the Greenwich Village community where Mead had first hoped to make her name as a writer: it "resonated" with this avant-garde culture, where living for the moment, sexual liberation and the sovereignty of self-expression were the dominant ideas. No wonder she by-passed awkward truths about Samoa; such as the practice of enslavement, human sacrifice and eating prisoners, all routine before they were stamped out in the nineteenth century by governments working in close alliance with Christian missionaries.

A mong the many who believed the answer to the problems of the twentieth century were to be found in tribal societies of the past, the palm for lunacy must be awarded to the highly respected economic historian Karl Polanyi. He was so impressed by the control and command economy imposed by the rulers of eighteenth-century Dahomey (now called Benin) that he commended this barbaric autocracy as a model for the twentieth century. He did not worry too much about the rights of the king's 2,000 wives, or of the large numbers of women appointed by the king to provide sexual services for the public at large, the elaborate system of state spies, or the systematic slaughter of prisoners of war.

A cornerstone of the excessive valuation put on cultural difference is the conviction that the arrival of Europeans invariably signalled disaster for native peoples. It is this belief that has clamped inverted commas on the phrase "European civilization" and buried its achievements under sneers. The assumption is that imperialism was always synonymous with exploitation that tended naturally to mass enslavement and genocide. In some cases – for example the Belgian occupation of the Congo – this was true, though even then the bloodbath would not have been possible without extensive native collaboration rooted in the priority given to tribal, family and class loyalties over any sense of abstract justice or universal rights. As Hugh Thomas points out in his history of the Atlantic slave trade, "most slaves carried from Africa between 1440 and 1870 were procured as a result of the Africans' interest in selling their neighbours. There were few instances of Africans' opposing the nature of the traffic desired by the Europeans." Romantic primitivists forget that many – perhaps most – tribal societies from prehistoric times have been slave-owning. In a number of cases it took Europeans to make this moral outrage visible, so that it could be challenged. Slavery in India was little documented until the British identified 10,000,000 slaves in a census of 1841 and outlawed slave owning in 1862.

In the absence of advanced technology, life is hard; and when life is hard, unsurprisingly, the primary concern is the survival of oneself and one's family; the exercise of power is unlikely to be directed by a passion for Universal Human Rights. Equally unsurprising is that attempts to establish ideal communities modelled on the virtues attributed to primitive societies – rejecting modern technology and the institutions of civilization – have always proved disastrous. Sandall's accounts of a few utopian experiments in the United States – New Harmony, Oneida and Cold Mountain Farm – should be enough to persuade doubters that tribal collectivism, expressed in the common ownership of property, women and children, sooner or later leads to recrimination and destitution. What was it that prompted Rousseau, Herder and their modern successors to idealize primitive communities? Injured pride, says Sandall, and a sense of being under-appreciated by their peers. Hence the happy "state of Nature" in which everyone is equal, and equally at home, where invidious comparison is unknown and no one's pride is wounded. As Rousseau admitted, "such a state perhaps never existed and probably never will exist"; but it is a sufficient basis from which he and subsequent writers were able to berate civilization.

Romantic primitivism and what Sandall calls Designer Tribalism are irritating and wrong, but do they actually matter? They do if they result in bien pensants helping exotic autocrats to get away with murder. (The most shocking is Raymond Williams, whose dislike of capitalism led him, according to his biographer Fred Inglis, to sympathize with Pol Pot for having "to impose the harshest discipline .. .. . over relatively innocent people" in order that his revolution should not "be broken down and defeated".) These fantasies matter, also, if they promote the idea that the benefits of civilization – low infant mortality, long life-expectancy, adequate nourishment, effective treatments for illnesses, accountable government and individual rights – came from nowhere. They matter most of all when they translate into real-world policy.

Some of the passion in Sandall's writing comes from a local issue: his horror at the betrayal of the Australian Aboriginal people by practitioners of romantic primitivism, the intellectuals who rewrote Aboriginal history, enforced bilingual instruction, encouraged a cultural apartheid of "self-determination" and prioritized the preservation of traditional culture over the skills of modern life. This has resulted in vocational disability among Aboriginal people, due in part to a catastrophic decline in literacy, and (to use Ernest Gellner's words) in "frozen, visible, and offensive inequality". The result is a diminution of life chances, and condemnation to a marginalized existence of a kind that boutique multiculturalists would not accept for themselves and their own children. Anyone reading this book will ever after hear the exculpatory phrase "in our culture" with the terror that Bakunin (and after him Chomsky) said should attend the phrase "for reasons of state". The ideology of culture has, one could add, replaced patriotism as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

michael gordon gordonm40@cox.net