Cultural Relativism- how far should you take it?

It’s been a while since Humanities I and II, but I am pretty sure that cultural relativism was the term used to describe withholding judgements about another person’s culture based on your culture’s ideas, and instead evaluating each culture from that culture’s point of view. It’s a fancy way of saying “put yourself in their shoes.” It’s also the opposite of ethnocentrism, or thinking that your culture is superior and mocking cultures that aren’t the same as yours.

I agree this is an attitude we all should have, because it’s important to understand each others’ point of view in today’s society. But how far should it go?

Example: Muslim women and the wearing of the various headscarves- can’t remember the different names and what they refer to, so I’m going to default to hijab (and I apologize for my ignorance). From a Western perspective this may seem silly or unnecessary, and appear to be an example of women’s second class status or whatever. From what I’ve heard (or read, rather) most Muslim women feel “liberated” in a way, because they can go about their daily lives and be judged on their actions and thoughts and accomplishments, instead of how they look. It’s also a sign of modesty, much like a devout Christian woman wouldn’t want to walk around dressed like a floozy.

I am OK with the above example. It may seem unusual to non-Muslims, but a thoughtful person can look at it from another perspective and agree with it, even if they would never want to wear the hijab themselves.

But take that to the next level- the burkha. This garment completely covers every inch of the woman, and seems like it would be unnecessarily uncomfortable and cumbersome. I would also say that these women seem to be second-class citizens, because they’re basically reduced to faceless, unidentifiable, blobs of fabric. Now, that’s me speaking from a Western perspective. Should I try my damnedest to understand and accept that as a part of someone else’s culture, or is it OK to disagree with something that seems to fundamentally oppose one of my dearest beliefs- i.e. equality for all?

Please don’t take this as Muslim-bashing in any way. I respect Islam as a religion, and understand that Muslims are not automatically women-oppressing terrorists. It’s just an easy example that everyone should be fairly familiar with. Other examples could include the Chinese practice of binding women’s feet, or… trying desperately to think of a custom that applies to men and/or both genders, don’t want this to be mistaken for a feminist rant… Um, the Indian caste system would work.

What do you think?

(Mods, I understand that this has the possibility of becoming a Great Debate, feel free to move if you see fit)

For your example, I’d personally look at it this way…

If a Muslim woman wanted to go out in public wearing a burkha, then fine, whatever she feels like doing. She could go out in a bikini, or a fish costume, or dressed like klingon, for all I care. It’s no skin off my nose. Whatever makes you happy.

In my book, as long as they’re doing it out of their own free will, they’re not trying to force anyone else to do it, and they’re not becoming a burden or a liability to me or society at whole because they’re doing it, I don’t really care what nonsensical shit people do with themselves. “Whatever helps you through the day, fellow hominid. Just don’t expect me to have to take you seriously. Or pay your way.”

I’ve settled on an odd sort of middle ground. Individuals should be judged by the standards of their culture; after all they are a product of their society and upbringing. Whole cultures, however, can be judged on a utilitarian, rational basis, while avoiding an ethnocentric view (so far as is possible).

The example I usually go to as a thought experiment is usually some well-regarded historical figure that has nonetheless done bad things by modern standards. Say, Thomas Jefferson. Undeniably, he is an enormously influential figure in American history. It’s not too hard to argue that he had a positive effect on the nation as a whole (and if you don’t buy that, then substitute your own favorite historical figure). However, he was a slave owner. From a (or at least my) utilitarian perspective, slavery is a very bad thing, since it causes great suffering in a large group of people, to the material advantage of the few. How, then, to judge Jefferson? Within his culture, he should be judged mostly as history traditionally has - a great founding figure, with many impressive personal achievements. We can hardly expect him to completely reject an institution that was then so prevalent and rarely challenged. However, I then feel free to judge his culture for supporting slavery.

Of course, I also realize that it’s impossible to perform the entire utilitarian calculus for a given culture. So I tend to avoid such absolutist judgments in ambiguous situations, and when I have an opinion or intuition I’ll qualify it as such.

For your examples, I tend to agree with your judgments. The hijab, on balance, doesn’t seem to have a significantly negative effect on the women who wear them, or the society as a whole. Its effect might even be positive once all effects are considered. One could argue that Muslim women in societies where the hijab is common are simply trading one set of sexist restrictions for another: they are not judged on their appearance as western women are, but they have their own sexist restrictions. And if the women are happy to wear it, that can be considered as a positive thing from a utilitarian perspective.

The burkha (and all of the accompanying cultural restrictions), on the other hand, seems to have a concretely negative effect on the women in that society. They are unable to act independently to improve their own situation. Undeniably, the burkha is physically uncomfortable. Violent crimes against women who don’t cover up properly are automatically justified. Overall, it seems to be part of a system of control through fear. So I would judge the burkha as a bad thing, since it contributes to material harm and suffering in individual people. Now, does that mean that every individual in that society is automatically judged as evil, for implicitly supporting this cultural institution? No. People can still have a positive effect within their society, and should be judged accordingly. For example, consider a wealthy but generous and enormously charitable man, who still insists that his wife and daughters conform to restrictive cultural standards. It makes no sense to judge his actions from another cultural norm, since we are all so strongly influenced by the culture we were raised in. What else can we reasonably expect of him?

To summarize, I’ll apply cultural relativism within the perspective of a given culture. At the same time, on a larger perspective, a more absolute view can apply. Individuals could be judged on a utilitarian basis, but it would be pretty useless to categorically decide that every individual in a given culture is evil.

Well, I guess I chose the example of the burkha because when carried to that extreme, it’s usually compulsory. Like the caste system. Foot binding wasn’t strictly compulsory, but a woman who didn’t bind her feet was treated in much the same way as a woman with a facial hair problem that she didn’t take care of- i.e. a freak.

I agree that if a woman truly wanted to wear a burkha or bind her feet, or a man who was completely OK with his Untouchable status, I wouldn’t have a problem with it. It’s when a person is forced to against his or her will, either by law or by strict cultural norms, that I begin to have a problem.

I suppose I feel much the same as lazybratsche about it.

I agree, but I don’t think that we can use “against their will” as a moral rubric. The problem is that horrors are being done, willingly, by women to women and by men to men, and the young women look forward to their first burqua, because that’s what grown-up ladies wear. My daughter is 2 and loves to toddle around in heels already, 'cause they’re “grown-up” shoes. When you’re raised in that culture, you see that cultures norms as…well…normal.

For me, the day I had to break with total cultural relativism was when I learned about the form of Female Genital Mutilation called infibulation. This is the most extreme version, and it’s performed on women by women. Little girls DO look forward to (very disturbing TMI ahead: )

the day between the ages of 2 and 6 when, without anesthetic, her external genitals are completely removed with a shard of glass, she’s laced back together with thorns and her legs strapped together for a month and a half so she heals completely smooth from the pubis to the anus except for a 1/4 inch hole for urine and menstrual blood to escape. This hole is forcibly enlarged by her husband’s knife on their wedding night so that the blood provides lubrication for his first penetration. When she gives birth, she is cut open to allow the baby vaginal passage and again her legs are strapped together for healing.

Gah. I mean. I’m sorry, I don’t care what the cultural relativism says, or how much young girls look forward to the procedure because their aunties lived through it and grandma is wielding the glass and they’re excited because this makes them look “just like Mama”. Yes, grown women giving birth in hospitals insist that the infibulation be repeated after childbirth so their husband will find them attractive again. I just don’t care. It’s sick and it’s wrong, and I’ll go on record as a judgmental xenophobe for saying so.

I haven’t articulated my thought process around where to draw the line, but I like lazybratsche’s ideas.

Excellent example, Whynot. Cultural relativism or not, there are some things that are just wrong. My usual example is the Aztecs. I don’t care what the rest of their culture was, or how their religious beliefs carried over into anything else. They practiced human sacrifice, and therefore anything that Cortez did to destroy them was A Good Thing. Note that I am not saying Cortez was a good person, or that he was acting out of good motives, only that his actions, however motivated, were a good in that they destroyed a truly abhorrant culture.

I’ve heard of infibulation before, never knew that’s what is was called. I didn’t realize that little girls looked forward to it, that scares me even more.

I’ll also go down as an ethnocentric bigot who opposes such practices, particularly on such young children.

Of course, some people probably think I’m strange for getting as many tattoos as I have, but with my pain tolerance it’s only mildly uncomfortable, if that, and it was something I chose, not foisted upon me by my culture.

Now, just for fun, does the motivation behind the action have any bearing on whether or not it can be judged universally Wrong[sup]TM[/sup]? In the cases of genital mutilation, my understanding is that it’s done to control women, so that they won’t enjoy sex and so will stay a virgin until marriage and then never stray. With something purely aesthetic, though, is there a difference? Like foot binding? It results in horrible, painful deformities, but AFAIK it isn’t done as a means of control or oppression, it’s just part of a culture that has a different opinion of what’s beautiful. I still think it’s unusual, but I don’t know if I can oppose foot binding as wrong in the same way I do genital mutilation.


I don’t think any Chinese do this anymore, which helps. But, from this site:

Sounds kind of awful, to me.

I have some moral absolutes. Not harming, not stealing, not lying, not indulging in sexually impropriety. Four of the five Buddhist precepts for laypeople (I don’t have a big problem with intoxication, as long as one doesn’t make a habit of it). Obviously, parsing out what all this means can be involve a lot of subtleties, but at least it’s not hard to see gross violations. I don’t think any culture should be exempted. If one is in a position to stop egregious practices, without perpetrating others of your own devising, I think it should be done.

I don’t think we can ever know for sure why anything as arbitrary as fashion is done, and that includes FGM and footbinding and wearing bras. If you ask the women of those cultures, they’ll tell you they do it because it’s beautiful and feminine and men like it. Or they may tell you that it’s an expression of female power and sacredness or simple comfort (yes, there are women who can’t understand why we allow our daughters to “suffer” from orgasms!) or status or to prove one’s strength and pain endurance to gain acceptance or status in the community (usually the explanation for painful puberty rights). Outsiders may say it’s to attract men sexually, or to control women’s sexuality, or to remove women’s sexuality. I think true understanding can only come from a middle ground - an outsider can never really “get” how embarrassing it is to have labia if none of your sisters do, and an insider can never really “get” that what her people do is unusual.

Do **you **think it’s strange that women shave, wax or pluck off their body hair? Most of the people in the world think it’s bizarre and a little gross. Only we 'Mericans and the Muslims did it for the longest time. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s spread since, just due to the popularity of American fashions, but for a long time it was a *very *odd custom. I’m not equating it to infibulation or footbinding - I don’t think it causes harm, so it’s on my “let cultural relativism deal with it” side of the fence - but I bring it up as an example of “weird” things *we *do that seem perfectly normal because we’ve grown up with it. Tipping in restaurants and eating peanut butter and jelly or maple syrup with bacon would be others!

“Why” is the hardest question to answer - anyone with a four year old can tell you that. I’d wager that 95% of the time, we don’t know why, or we have one public reason and one private reason, or that we all have different reasons. So I don’t think “why” should be as important a factor as “what is the result - more good or more pain?”

And foot binding in particular is painful not only while the binding is being done, but excruciating for the rest of a woman’s life. It is literally giving the woman two club feet. The most active and self-sufficient “lotus feet women” could hobble slowly with the aid of walking sticks. The majority could not walk at all and needed to be carried. One of the "why"s for foot binding was to show that you were so affluent and loved your daughter so much that you could afford to keep a women around who could do no work.

I withhold judgement to the extent that the culture I am looking at upholds basic human rights. When it violates those rights, I condemn it.

I understand that certain Western customs, like high heels and body hair removal, are weird to outsiders and totally useless. I’m annoyed by it, actually, yet I still do it because I don’t want to be embarassed or humiliated.

I heard that women didn’t shave their legs until the flapper days, with the shorter dresses, but that it was all a marketing ploy by men’s razor companies to market their product to women. So they started making ads directed at women that advised the removal of “unsightly and unwanted” body hair on the legs and armpits. Bastards.

I try to conform to these cultural standards as little as possible- I rarely wear heels, I never shave my armpits, and I only shave my legs once a week. It’s a sort of compromise for me.


Thanks for the OP. This is something I have never been able to make sense of. It seems that some things are OK (head scarves) while others (infibulation) is not. (FWIW, I agree with those.)

OTOH, it would seem that any line a person draws would be somewhat arbitrary as well as being determined by their own culture, not the one under discussion. After all, in those cultures where infibulation takes place they believe the practice to be just dandy.

If this is the case, it would seem that to believe in cultural relativism, anything must be OK. Of course, that has its own problems. You inevitably wind up defending human sacrifice, cannibalism, and other abhorrent practices.
I guess my point would be: How do you draw any line at all that has zero reference to your own culture?

What do you think?


Beadalin, I would agree with that for the most part, but have 2 questions to throw out there-

  1. These basic human rights were agreed upon by those of the Western persuasion (or industrialized or developed countries if you prefer) more or less, right? So, how do we know that we’re right? (I’m just playing the Devil’s advocate here, but it is an issue that comes up when I think about these things) And that list includes execution, which is still practiced in America, so it seems that there isn’t a consensus about that particular topic even in the West.

  2. Where does genital mutilation fit on that list? The closest I can come is “Men and women are not treated equally” but if women do it of their own free will because they think it’s feminine, how is that any different than women wearing high heels? (FTR, I don’t agree with FGM nor think it is really comparable to wearing high heels, I’m just throwing this out there for the sake of argument)

Basically, this is something that I think about a lot, particularly with what I’m studying in school. I’m trying to remove all my personal bias when I look at different cultures, but I have a very hard time defining personal bias. I guess this is getting into a very philosophical realm, sorry.

And European culture was that much better? The Aztecs ripped peoples hearts out to appease their gods. The Europeans tortured and burned people alive to appease their god.

While most americans can pretty much agree that burquas are rather odd in that they completely remove any distinguishing characteristic of an individual woman and that that can be repressive, we can also pretty much agree that the recent trend of skin baring of young girls (extreme low rise pants, tramp stamps, too small tees) is disturbing for pretty much the opposite reason, it shows every distinguishing characteristic of a woman so much that anything internal is secondary.

What are tramp stamps? My first thought would be tattoos on the lower back. ???

If we can agree that it’s disturbing, then why has it happened? Presumably the girls doing it don’t agree that its disturbing, and they’re part of our culture as well.

Well, one way to answer that is by simple counting. How many refugees/boat people/etc risk their lives to try to sneak into “our” countries. And how many of us move the other direction?

why remove all your personal bias? There’s nothing wrong with having your own opinions. Remember the cynical old joke about liberalism: “Don’t keep your mind so wide open that your brain falls out”.

Obviously there is a lot to learn from other cultures. But there is also a lot to learn about yourself in the process.

For example-- look at the way “they” (no matter how you define “them”) treat their women. If you would never treat your own girlfriend that way, then “they” are wrong. It doesnt matter it they are militant jihadis or peaceful nuns taking a vow of silence-- -you wouldn’t want to live with them, would you? So say so out loud.
And if you decide to adopt parts of someone else’s culture, that’s fine, too. But don’t lose yourself in the process.

My theory? That it is a natural progression of our path of women’s liberation. That when it started, we felt like we had to look like men, gradually, we have become more feminine in areas where men typically dominated. In an ideal world, I could go to work naked and be respected. Unfortunately, our desires to go around near-naked don’t always correspond with societies views on that.

I’m still not gonna put JUICY pants on my 19 month old daughter, no matter how liberated we get. I also don’t understand the rampant cherry motif on girls clothing. Not on my daughter. (maybe that one is just me, but I don’t want anyone thinking about “cherries” when looking at my daughter)

Even in our society, standards for dress have been very rigid. Not as overt as a burqua, but still.

I guess it’s just sort of an intellectual exercise. I mean, like someone else said, if you practice an extreme form of cultural relativism, then you’ll end up defending things like human sacrifice and cannabalism (although I see nothing wrong with survival cannabalism- I find that fascinating actually).

I just want to know, how do we know where to draw the line? Take for example a book I had to read for a class- I think it was called Family Life in Reformation Europe. It talked about the status of women in society and how children were treated, it was a very interesting book. I was surprised at how similar that culture was to our modern culture. Books of the period accused parents of spoiling their children, women had a reasonable amount of control over their lives, men were supposed to respect their wives’ opinions, etc. But then you look at how women had basically no legal rights, couldn’t own property and all. It just made me think about the whole idea of cultural relativism.

I dunno. Just something I like to think about on rainy days.