Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?
Don’t judge one culture from the perspective of another. That’s cultural relativism in a nut shell.
When I ask my students what they think of this, they nod in agreement.
Then I tell a story that I first heard from Nick Kristof in the New York Times. In Pakistan a young man was accused of having an affair with a high-status woman. To punish him, the tribal council chose to gang rape his older sister. They kidnapped her, took turns raping her, then forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers. Her next duty was clear. Sexually impure, she was expected to commit suicide.
Next, I note that at one time slavery was Southern culture. What right did Northerners have to tell Southerners what to do? States rights, and all that.
Must we be Nazis before we can criticize them?
In each of these instances one group benefitted by hurting a less powerful group. The Pakistani men danced for joy as they gang raped the girl. After these rapes the men aren’t punished, the girls are. Plantation owners exploited slaves, who worked for free. Meanwhile, Nazis acquired the assets of the Jews.
Were women and men, black and white, Jew and Nazi equally powerful in creating these cultures?
Cultural relativism provides a useful perspective, unless someone is being exploited and hurt. I’m not a moral relativist.
Studies show that even very young children have a rudimentary sense of justice. It is based on whether one person is hurting another. Researchers showed babies a figure struggling to climb. One figure tried to help it and another tried to hinder it. Babies as young as six months old preferred the helper over the hinderer. Eight-month-olds preferred those who punished a hinderer over those who were nice to it.
When I voice my problems with certain matters, like honor killings, in which girls are killed by their families to remove the stain of sexual impurity that stems from being with a male without chaperone, having sex outside of marriage, or being raped, I’m sometimes told: You can’t judge one culture by another. You’re imposing Western values. You’ve simply internalized your own culture.
Yet these women are harmed in the worst way by the murders. And did women have equal voice in creating a culture that punishes them more than men?
Meanwhile, Islamic feminists voice frustration with Western fears of offending. So men warn women that they are rejecting their culture (one that weakens them) and everyone backs down.
I’m in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt.
Posted on July 29, 2010, in feminism, gender, race/ethnicity, women and tagged burqa, cultural relativism, democracy, feminism, human rights, Islam, moral relativism. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.