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Cultural Relativism: What Everyone Should Know

Ahmed M'Bareck

It is undeniably true that we live in a multi­cultural world. In fact, multiculturalism is one of the most visible characteristics of our world. People respond differently to this cultural diversity. Most people tend to be cultural relativists - cultural relativism is the idea that no culture is superior to another and that cultural values are unique products of complex cultural processes. Cultural relativism is often contrasted with ethnocentrism - the belief that one's culture is superior to that of the others. These two concepts are considered mutually exclusive.


Let me start off with the simple, yet undeniably true premise that there are a lot of cultures in the world and these cultures are different. Cul­ture is an umbrella term that encompasses everything: beliefs, traditions, clothes, food, music... Beliefs are the most important cultural values and everything else depends on them. Multiculturalism implies that other cul­tures have different tastes, perceptions, and beliefs. Even in a seemingly homogenous culture, let alone a heterogeneous world, individuals still like and dislike differently. Culture is so complex that we only see the tip of the iceberg. The visible aspects of culture - food, clothes, and rituals - stem from beliefs - invisible aspects. It is very easy for us, for example, to label others as "primitive" or "pagan" not knowing that their symbols are as precious as ours. Someone who worships a tree does not see the tree the way we see it, they see it the same way we see our divine.


I stated earlier that cultural values are products of some complex social processes that are socially and geographically determined. These values cannot be true or false; but they can be relatively true or relatively false. They are not static; they are dynamic. What our ancestors perceived as normative is now outdated and traditional according to our current crite­ria. The evolving standards of decency in the same society are very good examples of relativism.


People with ethnocentric attitudes tend to be supremacists and extrem­ists. They disrespect other cultures. Their ideals are right and anything else is ridiculous and meaningless. The inevitable consequenc­es of ethnocentrism are racism, discrimination, and exclusion. Most of our concepts and ideas are disgustingly ethnocentric. We all hear terms like: "developing countries" and "primitive cultures," but who has the right to label others and their culture as such? Ethnocentrism is re­sponsible for inventing a whole literature of hatred, intolerance, labels, stereotypes and generalizations.


A cultural relativist, on the other hand, would appreciate other views even if he/she does not necessarily subscribe to them. Cultural relativism assumes diversity is synonymous to beauty. Relativism teaches us that other ideas and points of view are equally important and valuable. Cultural relativists are flexible and can function in every culture due to their inclusion.


I think that we should always differentiate between abstract concepts and concrete ones when we talk about cultural values. We can accu­rately define concrete concepts since they are physical objects, but by no means can we give definitive, operational definitions to abstract concepts. Concepts like freedom and morality do not have physical existence and thus cannot be objectively defined. These concepts are abstract and thus subjective and personal. Every culture perceives and defines these concepts differently. What seems normal in one culture might be shockingly odd in another.


I am very familiar with the Muslim culture, and I have been living in the U.S. for three years. I don't claim to be a cultural anthropologist, but I have come to a solid conclusion that a deep misunderstanding exists between these cultures. Both cultures claim "cultural/religious supe­riority" and both cultures are uncompromisingly dogmatic. It is true that these two cultures look at things differently, but does that justify superiority? Here are some cultural differences.


Premarital sex is so common in Western cultures that it became a norm, but the same practice is haram (forbidden) in Muslim countries. Most Muslim women wear the veil as a symbol of modesty and chastity, but the same veil is perceived in the West as a symbol of oppression and patriarchy. The legal. drinking age in America is 21, but it is 18 in most countries. Is America right and the whole world wrong? Or is America violating human rights by not allowing people to drink when they want? My main point is that these cultural values do not have truth-values. They are not true/false or moral/ immoral. They are relative values. They make perfect sense to die person who practices them, but they usually do not make any sense to foreigners.


The biggest problem is that we often reify - fallacy of treating an abstract concept as if it were concrete -­these abstract concepts of freedom and moral­ity. We tend to think that morality or freedom have physical characteristics and give them def­initions according to our own criteria that may not be applicable in another environment. This reification of these abstract concepts often leads to cultural imperialism. Cultural imperialism is characterized by the domination of one cul­ture. Cultural imperialism also implies that all cultures receive and not give, because they are often seen as "primitive" and "uncivilized." In a multi-cultural world, all cultures should interact and influence each other and this can only be achieved if we all appreciate and respect other cultures.


In conclusion, I want to clarify that cultural relativism is not the belief that we are all wrong and that there is no truth. Cultural relativism is quite the opposite. In fact. I am very convinced that cultural relativity will eventually lead to cultural normativity. For instance, if we all en­courage peace and tolerance and discourage violence and intolerance, peace and tolerance will eventually become nonnative values not rela­tive values. 1bat, I believe, is the ultimate goal of relativism. I believe that it is a means not an end. Inclusion and relativism seem to be the ap­propriate responses to our cultural diversity.


Encountering God: A Spiritual Joumey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993). Beacon Press, 2nd

     edition 2003

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