29 August 2014

Why Cultural Relativism is Racist

NOWSA 2014 is over. Thankfully, I was in London for part of it. I do not think I could have been any further away from their discussions of “feminist pornography”, “gender-fluidity” and [insert pretentious, academic term for a concept that is actually pretty simple here]. I wrote this post back in July, while I was in Paris, where I had to walk through an onslaught of expensive clothing in order to get to anything I needed, but I was still happy to be away from university for a week (I told my parents that the semester started in August, haha.) Enjoy this post and feel free to leave feedback in the comment section.

One of the organisers of NOWSA 2014 bragged about it being “the yet intersectional one yet”, what I assume the organiser meant is that the conference featured more non-whites and transsexual organisers/speakers and involved discussions of race, disability and just about everything except for the problems that women face as a result of being women. Liberals claim that they are the true opponents of racism what they term “ethnocentrism”, (unlike all those nasty anti-pornography, anti-BDSM, “white” feminists.) They argue for something called “cultural relativism”, the notion that all cultural practices ought to be “respected” (which really means that they ought to be blindly praised and never criticised, no matter how much harm they cause to women.)

As the title implies, my aim in this article is to convince you that cultural relativism is in fact a racist, pro-West viewpoint. If you are not convinced by the end of the article, feel free to leave a comment explaining why.

1. It Makes Non-White People Seem Like Aliens

Liberals promote the view that nobody who has grown up in the West can ever hope to understand a non-Western culture, at least not without studying it at university for years and giving up thousands of dollars in the process, how convenient, right?

While there are indeed a wide variety of cultures in the world, there are certain patterns as well. The oppression of women is one. Most class-divided societies have some kind of mechanism through which to oppress women. Often this takes the form of a beauty practice like foot-binding or neck rings (which deform women’s collarbones in order to make their necks appear longer) or breast implants or any of the other hundred or so beauty practices that are promoted in the West. Perhaps we are not that different after all. 

Class divided cultures also tend to have supernatural and pseudoscientific beliefs that justify the division of humanity into classes. Jews, Christians and Muslims believe in a monotheistic god who commands the existence of a hierarchical society in which some people are enslaved to others. Hindus and Buddhists believe that the world is a place of punishment that people are sent to (through reincarnation) if they fail to reach Nirvana and thus making life better for the poor and oppressed would defeat the whole purpose of their existence on Earth. Then you have the so-called “scientists” who argued that black people’s brains were naturally smaller than white people’s and that blacks were thus suited to the role of being slaves. While ruling classes have used all kinds of different ideological mechanisms to keep the oppressed in their place (thus creating that “cultural diversity” thing liberals are so fond of) all cultures which are the product of an economic system that divides people into classes are fundamentally about the same thing, maintaining that class division. 

Cultural relativists ignore these patterns in favour of a narrative that makes non-Western cultures seem so different to the culture of the West that those who belong to the former might as well be aliens. Of course they do not call them aliens, but they do go out of their way to emphasise how different non-whites are to white people and how incapable whites are of understanding non-white people. They also denounce any attempt to point out the similarities between people of different ethnic backgrounds. In doing so, cultural relativists set up a false contrast between the cultures in which women are oppressed by various traditional beauty practices and the Western world in which women are supposedly treated like equals. Then they attack Westerns for wanting to impose their “egalitarianism” onto other cultures which refuse to accept the “Western” notion that women ought to be treated like equals. This whole narrative is of course dependent on the (false) assumption that the West does not do the oppressive things that non-Western societies do. So tell me, who are the racists now?

2. It Makes Non-White Groups Seem Internally Homogenous

If the argument I put forward above is correct, it follows from this that all cultures ought to subject to political critique. While it is clear that white people are capable of critiquing the cultures they grew up in and being part of movements that challenge Western cultural practices, cultural relativists assume that all non-Whites are blind followers of their cultures. Thus criticising a non-white person’s culture is deemed to be highly offensive, because there is absolutely no way that they could be criticising it themselves, right? Non-whites are too dumb for that. 

In case I did not myself clear enough, that last comment was sarcastic. Non-whites are in fact capable of critiquing the cultures they grew up, just as white people do. Hence there are radical leftist movements all over the world as well as secularist movements that seek to combat Muslim extremism. There are even feminist movements that fight for against the enforcement of harmful cultural practices such as burqa-wearing and female genital mutilation. Cultural relativists ignore the existence of such movements and instead assume that every racial group has some kind of uniform culture that had existed for thousands of years before white people came along and messed things up. White people (or rather, a group of rich, powerful men who claim to speak up on behalf of ordinary white people and occasionally enlist their help in order to impose oppression) have messed things up for non-whites, but not in the way liberals think they have. I will have more to say about that, in the next section.

3. It Ignores the Role of the West in International Affairs

In order to defend practices such as burqa-wearing and female genital mutilation, cultural relativists represent such practices as a natural part of non-Western cultures. Cultural relativists would have us all believe that Arab women have been wearing burqas since the beginning of time. In reality, the Arab world was once the site of intellectual progress and religious tolerance, at least compared to medieval Europe (in which strict adherence to Catholicism was insisted upon.) As I said above, class divided societies tend to have cultures and ideologies that reinforce the status quo and these cultures ought to be critiqued on that basis. The Arabic world of the middle ages should not be exempt from such critique, but the religious extremism and violent misogyny of some Islamic countries in the modern era is at least in part due to the policies of the West. It is not purely a product of traditional Arabic or Muslim culture.

A timely example of this phenomenon is Israel’s recent attack on Gaza. Over 1500 Palestinians (most of them civilians) lost their lives during the attack and many more had their homes destroyed by bombs. Israel’s occupation of Palestine has been going on since 1967, inspiring much of the contempt for the West that exists within the Middle East and causing the people of Palestine and the surrounding Arab nations to turn to Islamic extremists who promise protection from the influences of the West (which is not to say that anyone struggling to liberate Palestine is automatically an Islamic extremist.) 
Another source of contempt is the understandable disgust many in the Arabic world feel towards Western culture. Traditional religion is seen as a means of maintaining order and morality in a world increasingly dominated by the shallow, amoral thinking of the West, and yes, ironic as it is, the very people who are pushing cultural relativism (liberal feminists) are part of the problem. If a group of Muslim extremists, or perhaps even some more moderate Muslims who have not yet totally bought into Western ideology, were to encounter a group of liberal feminists who insisted on “cultural relativism”, “sexual liberation” and the supposed “right to be sexy” the Muslims would see the liberals as an example of everything that is wrong with the West and, to some extent, they would be right.

There are of course numerous other causes of the growth of religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and the conflict between the Arab and Western worlds, including the fact that the US government provided economic backing to extreme Muslim groups during their fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, even though more secular resistance groups existed. If you wish to investigate the issue further, I am sure you will find plenty of people who know way more about the topic than I do. Noam Chomsky is the first person who comes to mind. For now, I think my point has been made. Culture is an ever-changing thing and at this point in history many harmful changes are being perpetuated by the actions of the West. While cultural relativists present themselves as critics of the West and Western centrism, their viewpoint ultimately winds up justifying the harms that the West causes throughout the world.


I hope I have convinced you that cultural relativism is actually a racist worldview that makes the West out to be far better than actually is. Instead of challenging the conservative view that the West is some sort of beacon of enlightenment for the rest of the world to follow, cultural relativists instead try to convince us that there is nothing particularly good about enlightenment and that we only think it is good because we grew up in the “enlightened” West, thus reinforcing the view that the West is in fact enlightened. Instead of encouraging us to see the oppressive nature of our own culture, cultural relativists tell us to be just as uncritical towards other cultures as we are towards our own, thereby ensuring that Western culture remains uncriticised. I daresay that it is not the interests of women or non-Westerns that are being served by this fake and (ironically) highly westernised, anti-racism.
I would like to offer my condolences to the hundreds of  Gaza residents who lost family members during the time that I spent writing this article and I would like them to know that the actions of the Israel government do not represent the desires of all ethnic Jews.

This article was temporary removed from this blog due to computer problems. It has since been re-posted. I apologise for any confusion this may have caused.

No comments:

Post a Comment