Blog Archives

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

%d bloggers like this: