Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1987

Cultural relativism

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The notion that Western culture is superior to all others underlies much of the recent debate about ‘integration’, writes John Game
Issue 1987
Illustration by Tim Sanders
Illustration by Tim Sanders

We live in a society where if a Catholic bishop talks reactionary nonsense about homosexuality there is some mild tut-tutting in the media. But if a Muslim does the same, articles are written about the “failure of multiculturalism” and the need for Muslims to collectively embrace secularism.

In Europe we have just seen a scandal blowing up which began when some clever individuals decided that the best way to introduce children to Islam was to portray the faith in a way which would be offensive to anyone who believed in it.

This logic goes beyond individuals and organisations that talk reactionary nonsense and embraces individuals and organisations that have opinions about almost anything at all.

So when I state my opposition to the war and someone disagrees with me, they do not generally see my disagreement as being motivated by my lack of integration into modern British society. Opposition to the war is actually very British according to most surveys.

But when similar surveys demonstrate that Muslims in Britain are rather more British on this issue then anybody else, this becomes the occasion for discussions about how Muslims cannot be integrated into the modern world.

To notice this is to be guilty of a new kind of sin, accompanying more familiar charges of “political correctness” or “anti-Americanism”. This sin is called “cultural relativism”.

On the face of it this is a bit confusing. If we notice that when one group of people say something it’s judged by entirely different criteria than if anybody else says something, surely it’s the person with this double standard who is a cultural relativist not us.

This would be to miss two kinds of history within which discussions about cultural relativism are embedded. The first kind of history is to do with colonialism and the second kind of history is to do with capitalism.

During the colonial period there were fixed beliefs concerning a hierarchy of cultures, this hierarchy being connected to everything from poetry to cutlery. It was therefore the responsibility of Western civilisation to ensure that people learnt to write poetry correctly and eat properly (among other things).

The end of the colonial era meant that it might be possible to have a different kind of debate about human cultural achievements. This meant rejecting the idea that there was a cultural hierarchy with knives and forks at the top, chopsticks in the middle, and eating with your fingers at the bottom.

This is one meaning of the term “cultural relativism” – refusing to accept that there is a hierarchy of cultures. The very idea of multiculturalism is therefore capable of driving into a frenzy the kind of people who wonder when fish and chips will finally be recognised as a superior supper.

If you do not accept that Western culture, in all its aspects, is superior to others, you are by these people’s reckoning, a “cultural relativist”. Imagining that a debate with someone from an “inferior culture” about gay rights can be conducted in the same way as debates with “people like us” puts you in that category.

This explains why many liberals are deeply impressed by people from inferior cultures who criticise their own inferiority but deeply unimpressed by inferior people who criticise Western crimes. To the liberal, those from inferior cultures should just get on with correcting their own inferiorities and there wouldn’t be a problem.

Liberals have been arguing like this for something like 200 years, and as the great powers get dragged into new projects of empire they’ve collapsed gratefully back into the history which produced them. Arguments about cultural relativism are a symptom of the re-emergence of colonial ambitions.

How does this all square with Marxism? Marx was himself deeply suspicious of disconnecting allegedly philosophical arguments from their historical and material context.

In his 1843 essay On The Jewish Question, he lampooned debates connecting modern universalism to Christian as opposed to Jewish values, and attacked the limitations of liberal universalism rather than “Jewish backwardness” – the obsession of liberals back then.

For Marx it was hardly a surprise that modern capitalism found the idea of a proper debate about different conceptions of human dignity impossible to contemplate. This society incessantly degrades and bullies people, in the workplace and at home, in public and in private. It’s not only Muslims that are alienated in our society.

As Marx put it in the 19th century, we need to argue that the humiliations suffered by religious minorities have the same source as the humiliations we all suffer. We do not demand that those being humiliated need to “integrate”.

We ask why we are all unintegrated in their system and join hands to fight for the dignity of all. Only then is it possible to have a proper debate about the marvellous and diverse ways in which humans found dignity and meaning throughout our history.


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