Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Cultural Relativism Isn't

Interesting discussion in class the other day. My prof mentioned that Gene Roddenberry's Prime Directive was an example of cultural ethnocentrism!

Here's why. Despite the widespread touchy-feely sentiment regarding Star Trek's promotion of multiculturalism, the nefarious premise behind the Prime Directive is that there is a developmental timeline that applies to all cultures. Given enough time - and without interference from their 'superiors' - primitive societies will advance to one day become like us. Smile. Nod. Father knows best.

This is ethnocentrism - measuring other groups in relationship to one's own group. And this is a no-no for cultural relativists, who believe, among other things, that one should not judge a culture by one's own set of standards. One should simply try to understand a culture's values, beliefs, and activities within its own context.

Therefore, cultural relativism is the superior way of viewing all cultures!

Which, of course, is internally contradictory. Judgments are made regardless of who is doing the observing because all observations are inherently subjective - they come from certain perspectives. The real question is what set of standards are most appropriate to judge that culture, for we all have standards by which we judge.

For example, those who say we should not call a culture primitive are invoking a standard that assumes that their belief is more advanced (or civilized or enlightened or etc) than those who hold more traditional views of cultural differentiation. Those who claim that cultural relativism is the axiomatic anthropological principle by which to study other cultures are simply intellectual ethnocentrists.

Now some cultural relativists hold to ethical relativism as well. That is, having no absolute standard by which we should judge, we are disqualified from criticizing any (including our own) society's beliefs or practices. This is ludicrous on the face of it. While this is an extreme position (well, maybe not, I am in a university setting now and they believe some crazy stuff on campuses), it merely proves that those who hold to this view are in fact making judgments based on their own absolute standard.

So it turns out that cultural relativism really isn't.


Brandon said...

Great post.

Ah, so many brains, so little wisdom. Glad there are a few good apples out there keeping logic alive in the university setting. William Lane Craig is my favorite to listen to.

Anonymous said...


I think what is happening here is a misrepresentation & extraneous addition to & of the concept, intent & actuality of the "Prime Directive".

If reported & understood correctly, the afore motioned prof takes the basis of the Prime Direct ie non-interference & adds / overlays an interpretation & projection to the stated construct of "development".
The prime directive only indicates non-affecting the development...whichever direction it may take.
The prof's alleged overlay is on an interpretation & assumption that "development" must mean a move toward the constructs of civilisation as interpreted & perceived by the prof. There is no mention anywhere that indicates "development" to mean anything other than its own natural (or otherwise) course.
Thus it can be seen that the Prof is actually expressing his internal & maybe unrealised unconscious interpretation & perception of the term Development & is in itself a culturally imperialist / culturally relative construct.
This issue then falls apart from that stand point and takes the focus away from the actuality of the prime directive to the internalised cultural prejudice of the Prof.
Cont following posting

Anonymous said...


Moreover, the issue that never really gets an airing about the prime directive is that who is to say that the contact & actions "interference" in the development is not in itself part of the natural development of the planet / society, anyway. In fact, it has been that contact & the effects that have driven societal / cultural developments. This is not to say that all contact has been necessarily good or well intended.
Cultures & societies have always been affected by contact both purposeful & accidental and change, even if minute always has affected them. The very fact that the Star Trek mission statement indicates that humans go out & explore, seek new life, new civilisations is in itself & acts as a contradiction to the prime directive...just by following the mission they instigate contact & by mere contact they instigate & affect change by their mere presence. For the Prime Directive to be truly put in place & effective the Mission statement needs be reconceived & abandoned in its stated form.
My take is that the problem with the prime directive is not that it shows up as ethically or culturally relative or imperialist or any other ethical stance but that it is inherently false, flawed & prone to its own contradiction, undermining, irrelevance & destruction. As the most revered Mr Spock would say “it is illogical”.
The only real value for the “prime directive” is symbolic & acts as a culturally driven reminder of the value of “non-extremism or non-exploitation” in making contact. To make a statement like the prime directive into a supreme motto, it gives a moral compass by which the “humans” hang their hat.
In many ways, Gene Roddenberry's intend can be seen as representative of the idealism of the time in the 60’s and the recognition of the negative impacts that colonialism & imperialism had on native societies. He recognises that the constructs of such imperialism were based on certain cultural / ethical rationalisations, myths & positions. Thus the message being that human expansion whatever domains must avoid continuation & repetition of such rationales.
This in itself can be seen as culturally biased and represents an ethnocentric perspective. It is interesting to note the constant conflicts that arise when the Enterprise(+) encounters contrary cultures ie Klingons, Romulans, Borgs, ...etc...
We see the essential flaw here of such idealism & cultural constructs represented by Star Trek (Roddenberry). The meeting of non-accommodating cultural groups is inevitably drawn to war & boundary (cultural confines or spheres). This is in no way, non-interference and a direct violation / negation of the spirit of Prime directive & recognition of the cultural relativism upon which it theoretically draws its premise & validation.
In essence, when confronted by this paradox it shows the inherent self denial & internal logical impasse that is present. Hence it is the bearer of its own destruction & is self contradictory.
Having these logical flaws inherently existing within both the directive & mission constructs & frameworks, it is not difficult to see then, why so many dilemmas are experienced & presented in the Star trek universe & by the people trying to live them. This is what creates the dynamic & fundamental quality of this Trek story (and others of the ilk). It is like any Archetype / myth story as Joseph Campbell would point out where the tensions, challenges, ideals & conditions faced by the Hero or heroic / ideal intent is the stuff that helps define & identify the inherent tensions with us, our cultures & projections of self.