Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them?

Cultural relativismDon’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.

A young Pakistani man was accused of having an affair with a high-status woman. As punishment, a tribal council chose to gang rape his older sister. They kidnapped her, took turns raping her, and 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.

But it’s not just Pakistan. Right here in America slavery was once “Southern culture.” So should Northerners complain? States rights, and all.

Or… must we be Nazis to 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 weren’t punished, the girls were. Plantation owners exploited slaves, who worked for free. Meanwhile, Nazis acquired the assets of the Jews.

And 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 take issue with matters like “honor killings” in which girls are murdered by their families to remove the stain of sexual impurity — which 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.

Or, non-Western patriarchal men warn women that they are rejecting their culture (one that weakens them). And everyone backs down.

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.

I’m in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt. But when it comes to communicating that message, it’s best to have a dialogue instead of a lecture. Surely we can learn something from them, too.

See Related Posts:
Did Women Create Burqa Culture?
The Burqa and Individual Rights: It’s Complicated
Early Islam’s Feminist Air

About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on July 29, 2010, in feminism, gender, race/ethnicity, women and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. hannah crockett

    Several quarters ago, I took a cultural anthropology course here at Foothill. During this class I was introduced to the concept that you have been referring to: cultural relativism. I internalized this concept as being the idea that one’s morals, ideals, and beliefs are culturally specific, meaning that they differ from culture to culture.
    When first reading the title to this post (Must We Be Nazis to Criticize Them), I wasn’t quite sure what it had to do with the topic; however, upon finishing the article, it became quite clear. While it is our job as human beings to not be ethnocentric, how can we excuse poor, unjust behavior solely because another culture deems it as part of their way of life? I completely agreed with your statement that you are “in sync with cultural relativism, unless someone is being hurt”. I can understand another culture and it’s customs and I can accept them for being different from my own, but when a group of people are being subjected to the UNIVERSAL definition of oppression and abuse, I refuse to label it as culturally acceptable.
    Yes, other cultures have different ways of treating women. Yes, that is okay, and that is their way of life. However, if these ways of treating women are oppressive in any way, no matter the culture, that is a problem. No culture is exempt from treating people equally.
    I now understand your reason for titling this article. We’ve been taught not to criticize other cultures, on the basis that we do not truly know what they are all about. I now realize that, while that statement is still true, there is a time when criticism is acceptable, and that is when oppression, abuse, and misbehavior is present. We do not have to be a part of that culture to judge whether that is right or wrong.

  2. Excellent point Georgia. Cultural relativism is a ridiculous and frightening notion when it comes to human rights. Before we are American or French or Pakistani or Chinese, et al., we are human beings. That is the first and most important distinction and therefore it overrides any and all other distinctions. Violence and oppression and the denial of fundamental human freedoms are intolerable. This is a point lost on so many of the conservatives in this country who would deny American standards of legal justice to those who are not citizens. They misunderstand the entire point of the Declaration Of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These documents were not intended solely to apply to people born in the geographic boundaries of America. Yes, U.S. law is bounded by our geography, but the principles our laws are founded upon engulf the basic declarations of human rights and liberties which were “inalienable” – and thus not subject to any specific government, church or societal standard.

  3. Thought-provoking comments. Thanks.

    It is so easy for anyone to say, “This is the way it’s always been done”, or “Our sacred scriptures tell us this is what we must do”. Or just for those in power to insist that the current views be maintained, because they have the power to do so.

    In my mind, these are all just excuses that maintain one group’s “right” to disadvantage others. Examples, even from our own society, stretch back through our own country’s history, such as the slavery you mentioned, or women’s right to vote or to work in fields they choose. It also includes the right of children to not be subject to abuse in their own home, which used to occur frequently when children were considered the “property” of their parents.

    To speak out about the inequities that arise from these assumed rights when they hurt others is a part of the slow process of human evolution, where we can educate and learn from each other in ways that lead to establishing equal rights for everyone.

  4. Well put. This topic is one that desperately needs national and international conversation, but identity politics and social envy and greed prevent it from happening. Most people enjoy their ‘group status’ and don’t want the boat rocked. Folks fear “passing judgment” on others because they’ve been conditioned to feel like that makes them bad people. There’s a book or three in there somewhere.

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