Friday, January 21, 2011

Cultural relativity examined from a Hegelian perspective

By which I mean a perspective based on Hegel's methods of analysis as outlined in the first two sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit.

In these sections, Hegel is trying to separate out what, when we look at the world, comes from within, from our own mental activity, and what really comes from without, from what it is that we're perceiving.

To demonstrate how this can apply to normal life, take the question of cultural relativity. In analyzing cultures, we in the West started out with a view that only Western culture had value. To this can be opposed the idea that no cultures, including those of the West, have value. Instead, we've come to a sort of halfway point, saying that to some extent all cultures have value. Yet I would argue that based on Hegel's viewpoint, even saying that all cultures have value is an error.

It's an error in that cultures, in and of themselves, simply exist. We can look at Western culture, the culture of the United States, and compare it with other cultures, like the culture of Japan, the culture of India, the culture of China, and we can point out similarities and differences, can look at the ethical and moral systems in place in all of them and point out similarities and differences, but anything going beyond that, into the realm of worth or value, is something created by human beings themselves and not inherent in the systems as they are.

The conclusion that if you look at various cultures there are similarities in certain kinds of ethical values, in that all cultures have ethical codes and those codes are in many cases not radically different from each other, is a scientific observation. Saying on the basis of that that therefore all cultural codes are valid and equal, and that all should be respected as such, is a moral position imposed by the human observer onto the material, where the argument for or against it is based on judgments coming from the human making the statement.

Notice that this cuts both ways. Saying that judging moral and ethical systems as all being valid and equal is something that goes beyond an analysis of the codes themselves also implies that judging no ethical and moral systems as being equal is equally unsupported by the codes themselves. Not only that, but picking favorites too is not supported by the codes themselves. They just are. What meaning we give to them comes from us, which doesn't mean that we shouldn't come up with value judgments.

Instead, it means that if we are to come up with value judgments we should view them from the point of view of being our own products, which are supported by logical reasoning that comes from elsewhere than from looking at the cultures themselves. That reasoning comes from ones own background, ones own moral and ethical beliefs, ones own view of the world. It is these separate arguments that are imposed on an analysis of culture when one declares not only that all cultures have certain similarities and differences but that all have equal value, with the idea that all should be respected being a derivative argument from the first one.

What this means practically is that it would be better to separate the observer from the topics being observed, and instead of just saying that all cultures have similar features, therefore all cultures have value, to instead say that all cultures have similar features, therefore in looking at them in comparison to our own we should not rush to judgment in condemning them simply because on the surface of it they may appear to be radically different and have radically different values than our own. That, is something that we can talk about, that disassociates talk about cultural relativity from concepts such as general 'value', which is really a false term standing in for statements like the one above.

When we talk about cultural relativity a lot of what's being talked about is how the West has responded to other cultures in the past, whether that was moral and immoral, and how the West and Westerners should respond to other cultures in the present, based on an analysis of that past experience. It's a discussion of imperialism and of colonialism, of how folks from Europe colonized the Americas and how they thought about and treated the Native Americans that they encountered. It's a discussion of the British and French empires, how they engineered colonial domination of other countries, and of how they thought of themselves in relation to these other cultures, what they thought about these other cultures in general. Yet although this material is most often talked about in relation to cultural relativity, the idea that simply viewing all cultures as being equally valid is a way to escape the consequences drawn from those experiences is not supported. There's no guarantee that a general sort of valuation where all cultures have equal value will prevent colonialism from happening again, or from exploitation from occurring.

If we really want to prevent what happened in the past, again based on human judgments that what happened in the past is wrong, from happening again in the future, I would say that we need to discuss the roots of the issues head on, the roots of power and exploitation. Simply talking about viewing cultures as embodying "The Other", for instance, does little good in the end because "The Other" is an abstract concept that we as human beings have created in order to try to explain why greed, exploitation, and intolerance occur. It's a convenient fiction, something that we've imposed over a diversity of information in order to try to make sense of it. Indeed "The Other" is a concept so vague that it barely registers as existing.

The problem isn't whether cultures are relative or absolute, or whether if relative they all have some sort of value that should be respected, the problem is how to treat other cultures, cultures that have some intersections and some differences with the culture that we, the people asking the question, have grown up in and live in. The question is how to treat, think about, and respond, to people and societies that are different from our own.

Incidentally, taking a general approval of the value of all cultures at its word would mean a relativistic approval of Nazi Germany and of Pol Pot's Cambodia. Some would argue that these are different cases, but how? After all, Nazi Germany had a perfectly consistent set of values, as did Pol Pot's Cambodia. Are we to give general value to their interpretation of reality?

The solution to that question, or a solution, is to take a step back and say that, yes, these cultures existed, and they had some beliefs, and, yes genocide also happened. But if we want to condemn genocide we should do it, and come up with general arguments on why genocide is bad, instead of turning the analysis of culture into a football going back and forth of whether or not the cultures in and of themselves have total value or not. They just were, as much as a lion or big cat that stalks and kills a human just is. Whether or not that action is good or bad depends on our response.

And it should be clear that, as far as this argument goes, we should have a response. We should not just say that this society exists, or that society exists, without making conclusions. But we should take responsibility for making those conclusions ourselves, and not turn it into game of how it is or is not right to analyze other cultures. The methodology does not give value judgments, we do, therefore don't criticize methodology but instead have the courage to make moral and ethical judgments that stand on their own two feet.

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