So, with Part One in mind, let’s talk about what cultural relativism is, and how it gets manipulated.
There is a view that cultural relativism means tolerating particular aspects of a culture that one finds unsavoury, and tolerating them simply because that’s the right thing to do.
Cultural relativism is about – ought to be about – the recognition that different bits of life, of society, of the world, have different meanings and histories attached to them, and one should recognise that these may well be imperceptible or misconstrued by the external observer. The aim should be to understand a culture, or an aspect of the culture, or a way in which a culture understands something, on that culture’s terms. This aim should be recognised as both an admirable and an impossible pursuit.
What I would like to suggest is that engaging with a culture that is not one’s own requires a recognition that one doesn’t understand what one is dealing with. It requires a recognition that this may well be the case even if one thinks otherwise. And even in the event that one gets it right, I’d argue that it’s useful to act like one will likely get it wrong, because that moves one towards never understanding oneself as an authority, and never placing one’s own perceptions above the perceptions of those who are of the culture in question.
Some months ago I was reading about the place of cultural relativism in anthropological work. I can’t find the exact quote just now, but I’m pretty sure it was in Small Places, Large Issues by Thomas Eriksen. He was talking about using cultural relativism as a tool, not as a moral framework. I find it much more useful to think of cultural relativism in this way. Something to be utilised, not a unidirectional imperative.
I’ve used relatively neutral language in this piece for clarity, but I want to tangle the specifics right back in now. I’m mostly seeing, and seeing the effects of, white Western folks doing cultural relativism, and relating across cultures, so messily. I think that’s because the rest of us have to learn to navigate cultural difference in order to survive. We particularly have to learn white Western ways in order to navigate a world in which white Westerners, and therefore white Western ways of acting and thinking, dominate. Because they sure aren’t going to learn to relate on our terms properly, because they don’t need to.
For this series, and in a lot of my life, I’m concerned in particular with attempts to save non-white and non-Western women from our cultures. Which do you think we want to be saved from, the cultures that have nourished us or the white Western bumbling saviour lot? My women, my community, we are doing just fine, exploring and discussing and expanding on our own terms, slipping between the spaces in things, building layers of history and scholarship and traditions and understandings and experiences and passing these along between through. There is a singular pride in this that I am only just beginning to feel the outlines of, and it is absolutely magnificent.
My women, my community. Ours. We don’t need people coming in and projecting their own experiences and thinking onto we the Other. (Funny how that Other is singular, monolithic, “we” the right-thinking people can tackle it with the limited approach possible in our understanding and bring it down just so.) (Funny how it’s the Western white folks doing all the saving.) We are doing beautifully.
There certainly are oppressive elements in every culture. But the way those ought to be tackled is on the terms of those people in them. And in supporting – never leading the way – on those projects, cultural relativism can be a fabulous tool for those outsiders who care about social justice. As long you’re willing to let go of the moral authority, the power to shape the narrative, you never really had.