cultural relativism

Cultural relativism is that preferred meta-ethical philosophy of left-wing apologists for barbarities committed by Islamists and other violent fanatics, both at home and abroad. When some old-school liberal like Bill Maher condemns some Middle Eastern theocracy for preventing women from driving, executing apostates, or refusing to prosecute honor killings—for being, in a word, illiberal—he’s barraged by his far-left comrades for being intolerant. ‘You can’t judge another culture,’ they say. ‘It’s ignorant, patronizing, etc.’

The more sophisticated rendering of cultural relativism goes something like this: (1) the truth of a moral judgement is a function of one’s culture, and (2) one should not make intercultural judgments.

Mature cultural relativists generally acknowledge that the second premise doesn’t follow necessarily from the first, but they’re loathe to entertain a cultural relativism that doesn’t prohibit intercultural judgement. Cultural relativism itself is intimately bound up with the twilight of empire and the ascendency of postcolonial guilt. Anti-imperialists in Europe and the United States argued that the paternalism of Western countries led to their suppressing the traditions of native populations, including their most inhumane practices. (Postcolonialist Gayatri Spivak frequently refers to sati, the Hindu practice whereby widows ‘voluntarily’ self-immolate on the funeral pyres of their husbands, though in truth these women are given little choice in the matter.)

But it didn’t really do the trick. Indignant moral objectivists pointed out that, while it may be true that moral judgments are culturally determined, a culture that insists widows set themselves on fire or beheads people for every perceived blasphemy is evidently very much in the wrong, and ought to be considerably altered. So, in order to justify not troubling themselves with these atrocities that frequently resumed after imperialism subsided, the cultural relativists whipped up the second clause: we can’t, in fact, make an objective judgement about a culture that isn’t our own.

For weal or for woe, this has become our default position in the twenty-first-century West. No one seriously proposes we do anything about brutalities committed overseas against minorities, women, or religious and political dissidents. That’s their culture. And we might not like it, but it would be racist, Islamophobic, and so on, to force them to change who they are.

Many of us aren’t happy about this defeatism, though we’ve come to live with it. But if we have to be complacent with the rhetoric of cultural relativism, we should at least ask the question, ‘Why doesn’t it apply to us?’

The West is the land that cultural relativism forgot. Not a day passes when our left-wing commentariat and so-called public intellectuals do not abhor our supposedly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic culture. They insist that it’s a plague, not only on Western peoples and immigrant populations, but on the whole world. They believe it’s responsible for the rampant sexual assaults, mistreatment of racial minorities, discrimination against immigrants, and every manner of evil that plagues our society.

But hold on. Conservatives share these concerns. Only we see them, not only as a failure of the individual perpetrators, but as a symptom of the decline of our culture: the culture that made virtues such as human dignity, compassion for the stranger, and blind justice tenable in political and legal spheres. Without Christian civilization, and particularly the Anglo-American variety, bodies like Amnesty International and the United Nations that promote just labor laws, gender equality, freedom of speech, and all those ideals of international justice, would be an absurd fantasy. We don’t believe in the values our culture brought into the world simply because they’re ‘ours’, though we no doubt feel a strong obligation to them because they’re our inheritance.

We should expect the cultural relativists to be the partisans of Western culture merely because it’s Western, shouldn’t we? Why do they feel themselves so exceptional that they can make culturally-undetermined judgements about their culture? It seems to me like a contradiction in terms.

We should see the tragi-comedy of the cultural relativist Left decrying the ‘homophobic’ concept of traditional marriage. Right or wrong, there can be no doubt that the unique union of one man and one woman in holy matrimony is a deeply-felt and fundamental pillar of our culture. Cultural relativists should therefore feel especially determined to defend it… shouldn’t they?

400px-Toronto-SlutwalkAnd what about the so-called ‘slut walks’ occurring across the United States, Canada, and Europe? Chastity is one of the seven heavenly virtues of Christianity, which have informed Western culture since the Roman Empire. Oughtn’t the cultural relativists be casting aspersions on these brazen displays of immodesty?

The short answer, of course, is ‘yes’. The long answer—preferred by cultural relativists—is, ‘We don’t care.’

Regardless of the validity of cultural relativism, its proponents aren’t really concerned with placing moral judgements in the correct philosophical perspective. Their more interested in sniffing out their next ‘fix’ of self-righteous indignation, and we’re the only ones that promise not to retaliate. Christianity is the only de-militarized major religion; the West is the only part of the world that’s adopted multiculturalism. And now that Mossad has taken a far less interventionist role overseas, the rising tide of Left-wing anti-Semitism is almost certain not to face reprisal. Cultural relativism in its modern incarnation is little more than a convenient, though increasingly transparent, means of deflecting progressives’ holier-than-thou-ism onto a more benign target.

We’re not likely to shake ourselves free from this gratifying lie anytime soon, but we may yet hope it doesn’t take too many more Lee Rigbys or Muath al-Kasasbehs before we realize that there is true evil in the world, and that culture can’t excuse it.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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