What follows when we're talking about culture and cultural relativism unfolds mainly on the "macro-level" --- roughly what we mean by American culture or Chinese or Mexican culture. Later, as the argument moves on, we'll return to the complexities that have to be introduced by noting the impact in modern fluid societies of a large diversity of sub-cultures and professions and other groups within any organized modern society. We also have to distinguish between the facts of cultural relativism --- cultures do differ --- and the epistemological claims that lead, in the extreme, to asserting that physics and chemistry are themselves socially constructed, just like our social realities. If these claims are sound, then essentially nothing in the natural world actually constrains our concepts and linguistic practices. They are all contingent and arbitrary, and the world could be constructed differently.
Remember, our aim here is to find what's sound in the claims made about cultural relativism and epistemology --- and there is some pivotal soundness here, essential to democratic pluralism and tolerance --- and what's excessive and even absurd in the post-modernist, politically correct versions of culture and relativism.
[Sidebar clarification, the reason for italicizing symbols earlier. In cases you're having trouble making sense of them, think of Uncle Sam, the bald eagle, the 4th of July and fireworks, the Star-Spangled Banner, the American flag, Memorial Day, apple pie, hot dogs, the use of Mr. President in discourse, the NFL, the NBA, Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, and so on. Obviously, understood this way, symbols are emotionally expressive and unique to cultures, just as they merge with actual social practices. They help forge a sense of shared destiny among tens and hundreds of millions of people: past, present, and future.]
The Alleged Social Construction of Reality
As the links to the earlier buggy articles set out earlier indicate, there's been a fair amount of buggy chat already about cultural relativism, and 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, values, normative standards, and symbols about the world and the "correct" blueprints for living your life.
Well, some might refer to scientific professions: for post-modernist relatives, all reality is "socially constructed," and scientists are 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 emotion-charged 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 most famous 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. Focus instead on what the concept of culture means and how it's applied.
(i.) For Political and Economic Purposes, National Societies Are The Groups That Count
Start by noting what all meanings of culture have in common: a group's shared beliefs, values (and related normative judgments), and symbols, plus the practices that they encourage in concrete daily existence. In the case of nation-states, we're talking about tens or hundreds of millions of people who share a particular way of life established by these shared understandings and practices. In the case of China, we're talking about 1.3 billion people --- a fifth the world's existing population. That said, the actual mental and symbolic dimensions of any culture are controversial. Probably most informed specialists would nonetheless agree that the following seven sets of shared beliefs, values, and symbols characterize almost all societies . . . specifically, a widely shared consensus on:
- What is efficacious or not: for instance magic or scientific analysis, or 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;
- What is right or wrong, good or bad: eating your hostages or treating them properly; slavery or not; beating women who have no legal recourse vs. women's rights;
- How do individuals and families advance socially and economically: through education and hard-work and accomplishments, say, or by means of clientelism and family-tribal-clan networking.
If by the latter, then most or all positions of authority and rewards in a society will be 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. Any connection with actual talent, hard-work, and accomplishment will be accidental, nothing more.
Essentially, to illustrate, this is the prevalent set of practices in the 22 Arab countries --- and a major reason for the illiteracy, economic backwardness, and huge deficits in knowledge. In the last 1000 years, according to the UN Arab Human Development Report 2002, the 300 million Arab peoples have translated fewer books from other languages than Spain --- 40 million people in all --- does each year.
- What is mysterious, spiritual, and transcendental, and what is aesthetically beautiful and stirring? What, oppositely, are taboos?
- What is true or not? Are truths only what can be scientifically validated; are there transcendent and religious or spiritual truths not evident to our senses; are truths really only a tag for what a particular group --- even a large national society --- happens to have a consensus on, with no objective standing apart from the group's agreement.
To clarify, is there tolerance of of minorities and diverse views in a society, whether cultural or religious or political, along with legal and other guarantees for the right to dissent . . . provided the dissenters they obey the criminal and civil laws like other citizens? Or, oppositely --- the case in Communist or Fascist societies ruled by dictators and their elite parties --- will minorities be coerced and forced to conform to the majority or ruling cabal or the totalitarian party's directives? And not just in Communist or Fascist totalitarian societies. Ruled by cock-of-the-walk zealous mullahs and imams who enforce Islamic law, the Sharia, rigidly and with vengeance, Islamist societies like Iran or Saudi Arabia or Taliban Afghanistan are no different. In all these societies, whatever theor ideological or religious rationalizations, the ruling clique's claim to have a monopoly of truth reduces, ultimately, to intimidation and force . . . with the secret police, death squads, and concentration camps the basic prop of their rule.
- How, then --- particularly in light with this example of totalitarian rule --- are political authority and hierarchy justified in a society? Similar, how are differential wealth and prestige justified or challenged? No less important is something else: are the justifications believed by the vast majority of the society's members, or do they regard them as mere rationalizations used by power- and wealth-holders to exploit them?
- What are the prevailing views of human nature and social life: in particular, do widely shared beliefs and social norms encourage trust and spontaneous cooperation across large swathes of a national society . . . or are trust and cooperation heavily fragmented along family-clan, tribal, ethnic, or class-based lines.
If the latter, then mistrust --- even fear of others --- plus rife corruption, nepotism, and the reliance on client-patron networks for economic and political advancement, will very likely mark the national society and its political life. It will make democracy hard, if not impossible, to establish; and even if it's established --- as, say, in Mexico since 2000 --- corruption and nepotism will still be rampant and difficult to reverse.
In such societies, small crony networks of clients-and-patrons --- especially those in power for a long time --- will monopolize most positions of authority, make economic development harder, and encourage cynicism, tax evasion, and corruption everywhere. One good measure of such pervasive economic problems: the size of the underground economy, which means all forms of tax-evading actions, including outright crime and gangsterism. Little wonder that even dynamic countries like Brazil and Mexico are shown in comparative studies to have underground economies that are over 50% of official GDP. In the EU, with its high tax rates, the average is 15-20%. In the US, with long traditions of social trust and cooperation and low tax rates, the underground economy is about 7.5%. For the best study of all this, put out by an Austrian team of economists, see the comments and links in gordon-newspost.
(ii.) National Cultures Further Clarified:
These seven standards are found in all organized societies, back no doubt to the start of organized city-states and tribal-federations that emerged 6000 years or so ago, thanks to the agricultural revolution --- harnessing animal power to plows for agricultural use --- that allowed at least 20% or so of any society to become kings, clerics, scribes, professional soldiers, merchants, and skilled workmen. They mark all contemporary nation-states, some a few hundred thousand in number --- the small island countries in the Pacific --- others hundreds of millions or more. Such shared standards that characterize national life mix
- cognitive beliefs about the nature of the world and human nature, including social life and who to trust or not . . . and for that matter who to fear at times, such as other clans, tribes, ethnic minorities, or social classes;
- values and other normative judgments about the world and the good society, as well as what constitutes the spiritual and aesthetic;
- and legitimizing formula or rationalizations for differential power, wealth, and prestige.
(iii.) How Do National Societies And Nation-States Arise? Long Histories and Violence
Simply said in terse manner, distinctive cultures tend to emerge over long periods of time among groups that occupy distinctive territories --- clans, tribe, city states, national societies, and sub-groups living there. Shared language is almost always involved as a precipitating factor, though as Switzerland shows, a common national identity can transcend linguistic divisions . . . rare as that might be. Distinctive religious practices also are generating influences in shaping a common group identity over lengthy generations. Struggles with outsiders --- or subjugation and rule by others who are more powerful --- are almost always present in forging closer cultural bonds and group identities as well. What happens when distinctly different groups with specific cultures emerge, making for a diversity and plural societies? Occasionally, over time, a common transcending national identity may emerge. Historically, such identities don't usually evolve peacefully: that's true of almost all national societies in West Europe today, including Britain, France, Ireland, and Spain . . . the countries with the oldest national identities, which emerged out of the struggles in and after the Middle Ages and the creation of nationalizing central states ruled by one monarch. War --- internal and external --- marks such emergence. It was no different really in the US, despite a shorter history: armed conflicts between European colonials and Native Americans; conflicts between European settlers --- for instance, the English, the Dutch, the French, and the Spanish or Hispanic Mexicans. In the American revolution, it's been estimated that 30-40% of the English-speaking colonials --- loyal to the crown --- either exiled themselves to Canada or returned to Britain.
The violence, historically, does vary across even major democratic societies.
In France, since 1789 alone, revolutions and counter-revolutions or coups have caused 14 or 15 major changes in political systems; the US has enjoyed the same political system, broken only during the four years of the civil war, 1861-65. Germany, by contrast, wasn't united until 1871 --- Italy about the same time --- and it then experienced an imperial, semi-democratic system until 1918; then a heavily contested Weimar Republic marked by ideological extremism on both the left and right until 1933; then 12 years of Nazi totalitarianism; then from 1945 until 1989 fragmentation into a democratic Federal Republic and a Communist East Germany. In the 17th century, Britain was one of the two or three most violent-ridden nationalizing socities; the fragmented German states, where the Thirty Years War ravaged, was even worse. Spain, joined with Portugal in the 17th century --- also united with the Austrian Hapsburg Monarchy in that period --- then was hived off in the second decade from its neighbor, then emerged despite regional conflicts as a unified state again, eventually in the 19th and early 20th century with a highly corrupt and inefficient elitist democracy, only to experience brutal civil war in the days of the new Republic in the 1930s, followed by almost four decades of Francoist rule. It has emerged as a stable democratic state only since 1975, and even then faced a military coup soon after Franco's death and still confronts Basque terrorism.
Note that in the power-laden, usually violent struggles to forge modern nation-states, dissenting groups are exiled, ethnically cleansed, or exterminated. Oppositely, cultures can expand through conquest and a long period of alien rule: think of the Roman Empire or for that matter the impact of Greek culture in it or the spread of Christianity and Islam both by means of voluntary conversion or by the sword.
(iv.) How Are Cultures Transmitted Generationally? Can They Change?
In a word, the transmission is by means of socialization --- a form of sustained reinforced learning over time from childhood on. More specifically, the shared beliefs, practices, values, and judgments are learned initially in the family and among childhood peers; then in schools and churches, and increasingly now through the media; and --- later in life --- in universities, the professions, at work, and in political parties or organized cause- and pressure-groups. In some traditional societies --- even huge ones like China --- families are the basic unit, and peer influence is limited. In fluid individualistic societies like the US and the EU where the family is a nuclear unit and both parents tend to work, recent studies show that peer-groups --- even in early childhood, never mind adolescence --- seem to have greater influence than even families themselves.
As we'll see, socialization is never perfect --- just the contrary. Even within families, brothers and sisters may have noticeably different personalities and behavioral traits. As we'll also see, there may be distinct ethnic minorities that continue to have separate cultures at odds with the dominant one. The growing Muslim communities in the EU --- despite decades there --- are a case in point: Islamist fundamentalism is a powerful trend, especially among the young, and a form of clear rejection of the secular, large postmodern cultures around them.
All this on the one hand. On the other hand, without socialization as a set of transmitting mechanisms, cultures would never persist across generations. They obviously do. In fact, though they're not anchored in cement and can change, any major changes aren't easy to accomplish. If they were, then we wouldn't be talking about culture --- a set of internalized, widely shared sets of beliefs, values, symbols, and practices that create "meaning-communities" that facilitate social and political communication and are essentially ethnocentric in nature. If you want, regard cultures as something --- amid even the flux of globalizing pressures or even civil wars and revolutions that succeed --- what still largely persists. Within a decade after the Russian revolution of 1918, the Stalinist system was --- for all its totalitarian horrors --- recognizably Russian. Similarly, a decade after the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and its fragmentation into 15 nation-states, democratizing Russia looked in many ways like the Gorbachev system, only with more formal freedom. Agreed: no small matter. Recognizably similar all the same.
Will Russia be far more different in two or three decades? Possibly; it can't be ruled out. The Federal Republic of Germany was far different from not only Nazi Germany but the more tradition-bound Imperial Germany that emerged after 1871. That it took 12 years of devastating Nazi totalitarianism --- which destroyed the power base of much of the land-owning and militarized aristocratic elites and big industrialists --- and then total defeat at the hands of the allies and the reconstruction by the Anglo-Americans in the west of a democratic Federal Republic, itself then integrated into the emerging European Union and NATO in the 1950s, only underscores out main point here: the shocks of traumas are probably necessary to force big changes in national cultures, plus often outside forces that push through the changes that the members of the national societies themselves can't forge . . . even with revolution.
Or take our neighbor to the south, Mexico. Governed by PAN and President Fox in the democratic era since 2000, it still looks very much like Mexico in the 42 year rule of PRI, the triumphant revolutionary party in a semi-dictatorial system, well disguised. The decisive social networks of client-patrons, centered on PRI, have been disrupted, it's true --- and possibly in mortal ways. It's too early to tell. But corruption, nepotism, and fraud still characterize Mexican economics and especially politics and social advancement; and it will likely take decades of more democratic rule before the cultural underpinnings of these social pathologies --- an accurate term, anchored in several hundred years of Hispanic rule, family-clan and ethnic-based elitism, rife social mistrust, and class conflicts --- before Mexico emerges, assuming it does, as a modern knowledge-based economy . . . fluid, open, resting on meritocratic advancement in all areas of life, with corruption and nepotism rigorously punished by predictable legal means.
PART III. CULTURAL RELATIVISM AND THE SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION OF REALITY
So far, so good. Nothing particularly startling here --- despite the need, as we'll see, for further refinements to make sense of contemporary nation-states, including their fluidity and social plurality as well as openness to globalizing pressures everywhere. For the time being, put these considerations aside. Focus instead on the epistemological claims of post-modernist relativism and some cultural anthropologists. In particular, the objections to the extreme versions of these relativists arise here. Rightly noting that the world is divided into distinctive national cultures --- and as we'll see, sub-cultures --- each with different sets of shared beliefs, values, symbols, and practices that set them off from other national societies, relativists go on to deny that you can rank and evaluate groups' cultures and the political, economic, and scientific performances they either encourage or inhibit.
The Impact of Cultural Anthropology: Mainly Benign and Desirable
The origins of these claims extend back to the creation of academic studies of cultural anthropology in the late-19th and early 20th century --- especially in the US with Franz Boas at Columbia and his most famous student, Margaret Mead. On the whole, they had a benign impact. Not least, they were influential in combating the rife Western racism of the day that had a pseudo-Darwinian base to it: you could organize the world's diverse peoples along a racial hierarchy with the North Europeans and Britain at the top --- and its WASP elites here in the US --- followed by Southern and Eastern Europeans, then various non-European, all the way down, it was claimed, to Africans and African-Americans. Such views were charged with prejudice and racial animosity and contempt. They underpinned the discrimination against African-Americans, Mexican Americans, and Native Americans in the US in the late 19th and much of the 20th centuries, and led in different, far more vicious manner to Nazism, the Holocaust, and genocide . . . with almost all national authorities under Nazi rule everywhere in Europe collaborating in the extermination of local Jewish minorities (less than 1.0% everywhere save in Poland).
To that extent, all the more glory to cultural anthropologists.
They showed that cultures serve fundamental human needs from an evolutionary viewpoint; and hence all must be adaptive and equal in their ability to let human territorial groups thrive and reproduce. Happiness and human-fulfillment couldn't be ranked across cultures. All were equal in serving human needs, and all are deserving of equal respect.
Still, for all that, there's a problem that rears up here. In particular . . .
. . . Extremist Epistemological Relativism: Its Main Fallacy
Unfortunately, despite its remarkably praiseworthy fight against racism and prejudice, even cultural anthropology incorporates a fallacy. It refuses to apply any evaluative standard.
Ditto all post-modern relativism --- whatever its variants: deconstruction, Foucault-like discourse (all power-laden), extreme feminism, ethnic studies, cultural studies of the most slack sort in universities (which must leave disciplined, trained cultural anthropologists who do systematic field work gasping with disbelief), and the followers of Heidegger and Nietzsche (big influences on French relativists), not to forget the French-postmodernist-thinker-of-the-month. For all their differences, the various groups here share a core claim: there are no objective standards, you can't evaluate cultures comparatively, and for that matter all reality is socially constructed. Note: all reality, not just social life. To say that social life is socially constructed is a truism: humans, including the unintended consequences of our actions, obviously create human societies . . . including contemporary national ones. Any effort to judge one as better or worse is ethnocentric and chauvinist, not just an epistemological error, but a power-laden one to defend, it's said, the social status and to enshrine it with unjustified prestige.
Note something else immediately: few of these relativists actually adhere to their own epistemological theories. Almost all are left-wing activists. Their aim is to use cultural studies and relativist epistemology for their own political ends: especially to condemn White European or European-descended males as the source of the world's woes. And so condemnations abound, in fact are de rigueur, a form of revolutionary assault with no rank-and-file revolutionaries: the proletariat no longer available in an era of mass affluence for that role, most African-Americans or Mexican-Americans socially conservative even if liberal in economic matters --- most overwhelmingly patriotic too as survey evidence shows --- and Asian-Americans mainly among the best educated and affluent in American life. As for brutal crackpot third-world dictators, they no longer serve as a good surrogate for Western revolutionaries hankering after revolutionary followers for their intended upheavals. Hence cultural attacks are about all they have, doubly attractive for two other reasons: almost all the intellectual work is slipshod and little more than strings of assertions and biases --- usually decked out in unfathomable language full of contorted syntax and neologisms to disguise the emptiness --- and most of these cultural advocates, American, French, or what have you, seem simultaneously to be working out their own personal identity problems in politically charged ideological ways.
[A sidebar note, take it for what it's worth: Our cultural heroes here might not be able to take revenge against mommy or daddy or the Minister or Priest or Rabbi they first encountered or even against the headmaster and the bullies in school. But boy, they now have captive students galore, and those who they can't browbeat into submission can always be charged with racism, sexism, gay-bashing or what have you, then hauled, preferably, before secret tribunals within universities that make a mockery of the US Constitution and due process of law --- one reason that almost all hate-speech codes are thrown out by the courts whenever they reach the courts' purview, just as almost all the professors dismissed, say, on sexual charges have been vindicated when they appeal to the courts too. Not to worry. If the secret tribunals and kangaroo-court justice don't do the trick, there are always Red-Guard and Shock-Troops among student activists or street people who can be counted on to rally and drive off campus any speakers to the right of Al Gore. And if that doesn't work, they can then be turned loose on dissident professors who dare to challenge the prevailing politically correct pieties in their classes . . . yours truly, the buggy prof, a recipient over the decades of such infantile efforts at intimidation.]
Agreed: they're a digression, these last few lines. So leave them aside. Ignore too the self-contradictions in the behavior of cultural relativists who use their relativism for assaulting the alleged cultural props of the status quo they detest. Concentrate your mind elsewhere --- on the shaky epistemological foundations of any such claims that cultures can't and shouldn't be evaluated.
The Fallacy Exposed
As soon as analysts agree that, say, economic development is something desirable, the different answers given above to the 6 sides of culture underscore clearly that not all national or regional or trans-national cultures are equal here. 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, or 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).
True, if someone claims that economic development isn't a desirable goal, evaluation becomes more complex and challengeable. That's because saying it's desirable or not is normative, not just descriptive: it reflects norm-based judgments, moral or not. It doesn't follow that all intellectual, evidence-based arguments have to end abruptly there. You can look at the consequences of not developing economically, such as the large number of children who die in peasant societies before the age of 10 --- usually half or more until recently --- or what will happen as demographical explosions continue in largely illiterate, semi-developed societies without adequate job-creation and a decent safety-network based on the ability of a government to raise taxes. You can look at rates of adult longevity in developed vs. underdeveloped countries, or literacy rates, or what happens to family size as urbanization, development, and education proceed. You can also probe politically, and find a clear correlation between affluence and stable democracy. All that is possible. If, in the end though, someone still says industrial society isn't worth these improvements --- it's destroying the environment (highly disputable), or it doesn't make people happier (which may be the case, as comparative studies show), or it leads to detestable commercialism and so on --- then you're stuck in the realm of value judgments, and at some point empirical evidence and logic won't resolve the dispute.
Still, short of that, the point here is made. Raise an evaluative standard --- which national cultures are best suited to promote economic development, or democracy, or women's and minorities' rights, or scientific and scholarly progress --- and cultures just aren't equal. No one culture may be superior in all respects. Some, though, are much better suited to develop institutions and policies and legal and constitutional frameworks to enhance economic progress, solid democracy, human rights, and scientific and scholarly advancement. Those who don't like these things have a right to disagree. They ought, however, to tell us what they think are better societies with better cultural lives, and why.
PART IV: CULTURE AS A CONCEPT FURTHER ANALYZED
Cultures --- a term that emerged only in the late 19th century as a conceptual category, particularly as used by anthropologists and sociologists and later by journalists and travelers --- tend to be far more complex in our modern industrial or post-industrial societies than in traditional, far more homogenous small-based clan- and tribal societies. In the industrial world, national societies are large, fluid, urbanized, open to constant change, and usually tolerant in the democratic countries of a diversity of views and practices (read: sub-cultures if you want) as long as all citizens are under a rule of law and obey the criminal and civil codes. The complexity needs to be understood. In particular,
* 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, biological inheritance --- 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, 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).
*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.
*And finally, as the article below also notes, the cult of "primitiveness" that cultural relativism has tended to engender produces romanticized view of small clan and tribal or traditional national societies that are starkly at odds with historical and anthropological knowledge these days.
Cultural Diversity vs. Shared National Culture
In practice, then, complex modern societies like the US or those in the EU reveal a remarkable diversity of views and practices ---- with a great deal of tolerance for it. From that angle, relativism as a practice is highly desirable --- an underpinning of tolerance and open-mindedness, part of a decent democratic society's life. Epistemologically, it's a much different matter when relativist theories --- anthropological or in the extreme post-modern sorts --- then generalize from such diversity in social life to all beliefs about the world: especially the natural world, or for that matter certain aspects of social and political life --- and deny that there are any objective standards or value: in short, anything but non-culturally based truths that, in the end, reduce to a group's particular consensus.
Such extreme theories of relativism that deny any objective standards or values --- or non-culturally based truths ---lead their proponents, even a highly gifted and innovative philosopher like Richard Rorty, to the reductio absurdum of Orwell's 1984, and the dismal inability at the end of brainwashed 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 totally isolated and eventually won over to Big Brother's embrace. It isn't a fable, Orwell's 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.
Shared Biology Too As A Contrary-Working Constraint
One more point briefly sketched in, which will need another article for clarification. Namely? Even as complex modern industrial societies show more cultural plurality than they once did, there is a contrary pressure at work across all societies and groups: shared human biology. And if anything, it shows up in the receptivity shown by the masses of people around the world --- much to the distress of left-wing relativists --- to globalizing forces, and especially American popular culture: sports, movies, TV, music, styles, literature, and food, all of which, despite the excessive and commercialism, have a point in common that resonates with billions of people: the promise of constantly remaking yourself, irrespective of family, ethnic, cultural, or religious background.
We all have to find ways to cooperate in order to nourish, clothe, and house ourselves; reproduce and educate children; make sense of the world and apply knowledge to it; and --- beyond small hunter-gather groups or tribes --- agree or not to accept political and economic hierarchies as well as the judgments of experts like doctors or medicine men or priests or writers or soldiers or teachers. And maybe, lurking somewhere deep in the human spirit of lots of individuals --- wherever they are found --- there is a longing for freedom and fluidity and change, not least in tradition-bound societies. Admittedly, this is only a speculation. It does explain the backlashes of cultural guardians: mullahs, imams, Islamist terrorists, French elitists who fume at the most recently opened MacDonald's, right-wing dictators who fear rights-based challenges to their rule, Communist Party hierarchs in China or North Korea or Cuba, and so on.
More to the point, it's the similarity of shared human nature that transcends organized societies based on distinctive cultures and hierarchies that allows us to see all human beings these days as entitled to similar basic rights and respect. Our enemies aren't others; it is those among "others" who would seek to destroy our lives or rights or impose their own narrow ideology or religious fervor on us.
By now, for instance, it's clear that Islamist extremists like Al Qaeda or the Taliban or the diehard mullahs in Iran or Wahhabi zealots in Saudi Arabia will kill moderate or dissenting Muslims with as much fervor as they will Jews, Christians, Hindus, secularists, gays, or feminists struggling for women's rights. These mass-murdering bigots claim to know the one truth, which all must subscribe to or else. Our basic truths reside in a respect for diversity and open exchange of different views, and procedures --- legal and constitutional for political life, scientific and professional for intellectual life, artistic and aesthetic for that realm --- that, ideally at least and to an extent in practice, enshrine the right to challenge orthodoxies and show why they are wrong or in need of change.
PART V: AN IMPRESSIVE BRITISH ASSAULT ON EXTREMIST RELATIVISM
The following review article of Raymond Tallis from The Times Literary
should be read in the light of these comments. Tallis
himself is a gifted professor of medicine in Britain who often writes on
the fallacies and falsehoods of pc-stuff in the social sciences and
Dreamers of paradise Raymond Tallis,/02
A Review of Roger Sandall THE CULTURE CULT: Designer tribalism and other essays
214pp. (Westview, 12 Hid's Copse Road, Cumnor Hill, Oxford OX2 9JJ.
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
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 be substantiated, the world's press lost interest, thereby missing the
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 Climbiι, 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
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
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
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.
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