Truth is culturally relative – ow! Stop hitting me!

“That’s just cultural relativism,” he spat angrily as we walked through his neighborhood. I became very quiet but continued walking next to him, not knowing what to say next. It was early 2004, and I had just left behind my entire career as a psychic healer and returned to college. He was a psychologist and skeptic who had invited me up to his home for a weekend, and we had been having a lovely, intense, intellectually liberating time up until that moment. I had clearly stepped over a line….

I was shocked by his disgust, which was the kind you hear when some people say “welfare queen” or “bible thumper.”  What I understood him to mean was that cultural relativism leads to making excuses for everything and never holding anyone or anything to a firm standard.  So when I said to him that skeptics seemed very similar to evangelicals, except they had a different point of view to sell – or that within my New Age culture, judgment was considered extremely rude and therefore wasn’t used, my skeptical friend spat out the words “cultural relativism.”

He didn’t like skeptics being compared to religious fanatics, and he didn’t like me making what he saw as excuses for New Age people who didn’t use their judgment.  He also said something dismissive about postmodernism, but I didn’t know what that meant and was too embarrassed to ask.  I thought he was talking about cubist art or something.

We finished our walk and found more happy topics. After that weekend, I returned to college to find out what the hell cultural relativism and postmodernism were. If they could make my friend this angry, they must have been very bad ideas indeed.

Except that they weren’t

Strangely, when I started to study cultural relativism, I couldn’t find anything bad about it — at all. Cultural relativism is actually a ground-breaking, scientific way to observe human cultures.

photo of Japanese Buddhist funeral

A Buddhist funeral in Japan

Cultural relativism is a term that anthropologists and sociologists use to describe aspects of culture without placing value judgments on them.  For instance, one culture may use the color black to symbolize mourning while another may use white.  It is easy to see the kinds of conflicts that would arise if we didn’t understand that these colors are culturally relative.  White and black signify different things in different cultures, and the meanings change over time and within subcultures.

photo of Shinto priests

Shinto priests at a Japanese funeral

For instance, in some Buddhist funerals, families of the dead wear white to mourn while guests wear black.  However, in some Japanese Shinto funerals, both families and guests wear black for mourning, while priests wear white.  In most American funerals, black or dark colors are traditional, but business wear is becoming more acceptable for women mourners, even if it includes bright colors somewhere in the suit or accessories.

There are also culturally relative rules about floral gifts for mourning (in general, Islamic funerals do not include flowers), and about mourning periods (such as the Shiva period in Jewish funeral traditions).  Culturally relative awareness can help all of us become more graceful in the multicultural world, and cultural relativism helps social scientists describe cultures and subcultures with objective precision.

Without cultural relativism, unfamiliar religious rituals, lineage and descent rules, mating rituals, and other forms of status, communication, and exchange in each culture would be explained in terms of our own limited understanding.  Without cultural relativism, tribal peoples would be savages and pagans; marriage rituals different than our own would be primitive and sinful; scantily-clad tribes would be immodest and lustful; or worse, tribal peoples would be lauded as the simple, gentle people who are one with the earth and the spirit world (unlike modern man, who has somehow fallen from grace).

Without cultural relativism, we would dehumanize the people we saw, or idolize them and make up stories that had nothing to do with their lives and everything to do with our hopes, dreams, fears, and prejudices.  Without the help of cultural relativism, we couldn’t actually see a culture because we would throw our own baggage onto it and compare everything we saw to “the way the world actually is,” according to us.

When cultural relativism is wielded effectively, a social scientist can separate his or her cultural expectations from the culture being studied and observe it objectively.  It is a tool with which to remove confirmation biases and to approach the observation of other humans scientifically, or as scientifically as we can, considering that we are studying members of our own species.

No one can be an expert at cultural relativism, but the social sciences are more precise and competent with the tool of cultural relativism than without it.

This is why it’s strange that the concept of cultural relativism has taken on such a starkly negative connotation among self- proclaimed rationalists and skeptics like my friend.

The anthropological concept of cultural relativism is so crucial to the understanding of human cultures that I wondered why my friend was so upset by it.  It didn’t make any sense, because cultural relativism is truly necessary in the social sciences.  I was confused.

But then I encountered the postmodernists of social science and philosophy and their ideas about cultural relativism (which, among many other ideas, is that all truth is culturally derived), and suddenly everything was clear!  Or obscured!  Or both!  Or neither!  With postmodernism, you never know.

A culturally relative postmodern take on postmodernism, which will be outdated in 3 … 2…

Postmodernism is a 20th century movement in art, painting, music, architecture, literature, poetry, philosophy, and eventually, social science.  There is no agreed-upon definition of postmodernism, except that it comes after modernism (hence the post), which comes after classicalism, whatever those terms mean.

One key ingredient of postmodernism in any of its forms is that few of the people associated with it would agree that they are postmodernists.  Postmodernism is in many ways an attempt to create a new form that is not dependent on old forms – but also doesn’t create rules for other practitioners or artists.

So at its core, postmodernism has the flavor of anything goes, I’ll know it when I see it, but you can’t tell me what it is (I can hear my professor of Contemporary Sociology groaning right now).

Now that I’ve been glib, I’ll go a little deeper.  I call postmodernism “postwarism” because the artistic aspects of postmodernism sprung up during and after World War I.

photo of Picasso's Guernica

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

Surrealism and Dadaism are postmodern art forms.  Picasso’s Guernica is a postmodern painting.  William S. Burroughs, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett are postmodern literary figures.  Albert Camus, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Paul Sartre are postmodern philosophers.

The unifying thread (if you can use the word unifying in connection with anything that is postmodern!) is that all of these people were questioning the old forms.  They were questioning the old forms of literature, of drama, of artistic expression and its meaning, of philosophy and its uses — and in many ways, they were questioning the Enlightenment and all forms of knowledge, including science.

The global horrors of WWI seem to have loosed something in the human psyche, and artists were questioning everything about their respective worlds – the rules, the forms, the expectations, and their position as artists in a world where violence and death were everywhere (recall that the influenza pandemic of 1918 coincided with WWI and killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide).

It was as if people were confronted with the horror of humanity and explored — in whatever way they could — all structures and forms to discover if those forms and structures themselves were at fault.

Not long after these dual catastrophes, Nazism, Fascism, World War II, the Holocaust, the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the ensuing conflicts of the Cold War provoked yet another wave of postmodernism in which the old forms and the old approaches were questioned even more strenuously. Artists, writers, dramatists, architects, philosophers, and social scientists continued down the path of postmodernism.

As I look at postmodernism in all its forms, I see spikes during and after each war – spikes of intense philosophical upheaval, spikes of change and rebellion, spikes of new design forms, and spikes in artistic expression.  After each war, many people tend to turn and question culture itself.  That’s postmodernism, for better or worse.

Postmodernism is a series of questions, it’s a series of challenges, and it’s an explosion of inquiry into what it means to be a member of a culture or a race, a follower of a tradition or a lineage, a citizen of a nation-state or a political party, a disciple of any school of thought, or a member of the human species itself. Postmodernism is destabilizing, messy, exciting, absurdist, impossible, roiling, loopy, magnificent … and intentionally challenging.

And for people who value forms, standards, traditions, structures, stability, certainty, and truth with a capital T, postmodernism is a stone drag.

Why postmodernist cultural relativism makes some people angry

The postmodernist movement in social science that made my skeptical friend so angry became active in France in the 1970s, as the horrors of the Vietnam War and the fervent dreams of the peace movement traveled the world on the wings of youth culture.

photo of Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007

These French philosopher-sociologists would not agree with being labeled as postmodernists, but it is generally agreed that Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007) are the fathers of postmodernism and poststructuralism in sociology and philosophy.  They aren’t the only ones, but they’re the ones people like to pick on.  This is partly their own fault, because their writings are undeniably dense and unnecessarily cluttered.

When we poor sociology students first encountered Foucault and Baudrillard in our Contemporary Sociology class, we all secretly thought we had lost our reading comprehension abilities.  I blurted out in class that the writing of these two men had led me to label both of them as “literary criminals,” and you could feel the entire class let out its collective breath.  Wow – these guys are unreadable!

Here’s a sample of Foucault, writing in English (I promise) about what he calls local critiques of institutions and their discourse:

That should not, I believe, be taken to mean that its qualities are those of an obtuse, naïve or primitive empiricism; nor is it a soggy eclecticism, an opportunism that laps up any and every kind of theoretical approach; nor does it mean a self-imposed asceticism which taken by itself would reduce to the worst kind of theoretical impoverishment.  I believe that what this essentially local character of criticism indicates in reality is an autonomous, non centralized kind of theoretical production, one that is to say whose validity is not dependent on the approval of the of the established régimes of thought (Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge, 1972. p 69).

photo of Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault, 1926-1984

Huh?  That’s just two sentences!  Can you imagine having to read 40 pages by this guy and then be tested on what he’s saying?  Luckily, our Contemporary Sociology instructor, Dr. Lianha Gordon, helped us wade through his dense verbiage.

What Michel is saying is that, at the time he was writing, there was criticism coming from people who were being written about by governments, scientists, and policy makers:  women, people of color, tribal peoples, homosexuals, ethnic immigrants, the poor, and so on.

These local critics (by local, Michel means that the critics were the subjects themselves) were rebelling against the fact that their stories were being told by the very people who had placed them in their lower statuses.  What these local critics were rebelling against was of central concern for all of us: Who gets to write the stories of our lives?  Who gets to categorize us?  And how do those categories maintain the social forces that keep us separate from the mainstream?

One of the central ideas in social science postmodernism and Michel’s work is that whoever controls the discourse (the conversation, the writing, and the media reporting) controls the larger community’s view of the situation. Therefore, Michel wrote, allowing previously powerless people to tell their own stories in their own words, and bringing careful cultural relativism to one’s study of them could in fact challenge and perhaps even reduce the socially accepted violence of class distinctions and enforced ghettoization.

What Michel Foucault and his post-structuralist cohort did was awesome social science and exceptional humanism — and this concept of local voices and local critiques has revolutionized social science and medical science. It has revolutionized the treatment of previous untouchables such as the handicapped and the GLBT community. Foucault brought forward some powerful and threatening ideas that pulled the rug out from under white male elites who, with their unacknowledged privilege, often didn’t even realize that they were inflicting social injustices upon anyone who wasn’t like them.

So then why didn’t Michel just say that outright?  Why couldn’t he write a readable sentence?  It could be that English was not his native language, that the translation wasn’t good, or that he was trying to grasp at ideas he couldn’t quite explain.  But in any case, it’s not readable, and the writings of many postmodernists – even the native English speakers – are very like Foucault’s.  In all honestly, this dense, hyper-intellectual writing style soon became a laughable affectation.

Sadly, or perhaps predictably, this silly, unnecessarily convoluted writing style (and the postmodernists’ continual — and often equally silly — attacks on the predominantly white, heterosexual, male, elite power structure of the scientific community) encouraged one of the best known hoaxes ever put over on an academic journal. And it’s a hoax that now allows otherwise educated people to spit out cultural relativism as if it is an insult.

Tomorrow: The Unfortunate Legacy of the Sokal Hoax



Filed under Agnosticism, Cognitive Biases, Skepticism, Sociology

10 responses to “Truth is culturally relative – ow! Stop hitting me!

  1. Unreadability is an unfortunate aspect of a lot of good thinkers. Hegel had some very good ideas, even great ideas. Reading Hegel is torture, whether in German or in translation. It was fairly standard for 19th Century writers to tell you every last thing they knew, just to show you how damned clever they were. Sadly, there are 20th Century writers who have followed their lead.

    Clausewitz’s book “On War” is a very good example of verbal diarrhea hiding some sound ideas. Nowadays, more people have read the more ancient “The Art of War” by Sun Tsu because he was a guy looking for a job and knew a thing or two about writing a snappy resume.

    One of the important memes in modern educational theory is patient problem solving. Well, there’s being patient and there’s letting some jackass waste hours of your time. Sometimes, it’s a fine line.

    • THIS: “One of the important memes in modern educational theory is patient problem solving. Well, there’s being patient and there’s letting some jackass waste hours of your time. Sometimes, it’s a fine line.”

      I did a Danny Thomas spit take, my dear Matthew.

  2. I think later “pomos” put the likes of Foucault on a pendulum, writing style and all. It happens in any “school of thought,” to some degree. That’s why a number of Zen koans are about a master working to eradicate ideas of imitation among his followers.

    And, sometimes, the verbal diarrhea, or mumbling, is deliberate for other reasons. One Russian leader of the 19th century, I think it was, said that he mumbled, orally, so that he could always claim he had been misquoted.

    @Matt: There’s plenty of deep thinkers who are also great writers, though. I readily point people to David Hume for a great intro to empiricism, and beyond that, as a forerunner of modern psychology. (If more people read him we’d have better reasoning and argumentation in our world today in general.) Though I disagree with much of Plato, not just the Theory of Ideas but the way he stacked the deck in making his arguments, nonetheless, he is indeed both a good and a clear writer. Or, for modern times, though I disagree with a certain amount of him, a Dan Dennett is pretty clear.

  3. I enjoy your writings, and found this part of your post especially amusing: “tribal peoples would be lauded as the simple, gentle people who are one with the earth and the spirit world (unlike modern man, who has somehow fallen from grace).” because that is precisely the attitude many people take in regards to tribal peoples now. As ever, the pendulum has swung from the view of them as ignorant savages, to its opposite, which is equally wrong in my opinion. Ah, well.

  4. The promotion from demons to angels is, of course, still inhuman.

    Having looked up cultural relativism now, it seems it has multiple uses, not surprisingly. The one that you first listed is from anthropology, but it’s when that’s applied to life in general that a problem arises. He should have said it nicer, of course, but that’s probably what your acquaintance meant. It can become quite annoying when “truth is culturally relative” used in response to matters of empirical fact, or moral value, and not just annoying. It’s also sometimes dangerous-I never will forgot seeing people in one breath saying (for instance) that sexism is bad in our culture, then, if it’s another culture, it’s ok. The cognitive dissonance just staggers me. It’s sometimes gone to the point of saying this about things such as mutilation or even killing.

    • Ah killing. I worked as a researcher on this book about how killing comes to be classified as murder: (When Killing is a Crime). I thought there was no question, but it’s a fascinating foray into how we define killing, how killing has been dealt with throughout human history, whom we consider fully human (and when) and therefore worth defending, and how we explain large-scale murders perpetrated by the state. Wow, cultural relativism, intelligently wielded, is one of the most powerful methods of inquiry. Fascinating!

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