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.
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