The Great Debate Over Cultural Relativism
It’s always fun to think about political questions that cut across traditional left/right divides, and one of the most interesting is the clash between universalist and relativist views of human nature. Is there one ideal political and social model that is best for all humans, or are different models ideal for different societies? Are at least some rights and ethical rules universal, or do these moral fundamentals vary across cultures?
The universalist camp might be taken to include both right-wing neoconservatives, who are typically eager to impose democracy and capitalism everywhere, and left-wing proponents of universal human rights such as the signers of the Euston Manifesto. Relativists include right-wing nationalists like the British National Party and left-wingers who decry “cultural imperialism” (nice example here), all of whom take it for granted that different nations and cultures will prefer to live in substantially different ways. Of course there are ideological fault lines within each camp, but the issue really is one that cannot be reduced to a simple left/right dichotomy. It also happens to be of critical importance to the foreign policies of Canada and other nations. The greater our conviction that our own values are universal, the more energetically we are likely to promote them abroad.
The other day the Guardian website published, apparently by coincidence, two thoughtful commentaries that touched on opposite sides of this question. Nick Cohen’s piece was mostly about US foreign policy under Barack Obama, but dripped with disdain for the relativist position in general. Of Obama, Cohen wrote:
He comes from an ideological culture which calls itself progressive, but is often reactionary. Many from his political generation use the superficially leftish language of multiculturalism and post-colonialism to imply that human rights are a modern version of imperialism which westerners impose on societies that do not need them. Scratch a relativist and you find a racist and although they do not put it as bluntly as this, their thinking boils down to the truly imperialist belief that universal suffrage or a woman’s right to choose are all very well for white-skinned people in rich countries but not brown-skinned people in poor ones.
At this point I should disclose that I consider myself a fairly thorough-going relativist. When scratched – well, I bleed. I don’t really mind being called a racist, though, since the term is used so loosely and carelessly these days that it has become almost meaningless. I could just as well sneer that Cohen is a racist for holding the truly imperialist belief that the social and political customs developed by white-skinned people in rich countries are obviously superior. Or whatever.
I’d rather call to my defence John Hooper, who noted the high levels of fiscal corruption that prevail in Italy and scratched his head over the paradox that Italy is nevertheless a tolerably prosperous place. As he put it:
Perhaps the correlation between wealth and propriety in public life is destined to join other confidently proclaimed truths on the garbage dump of historical experience. It used to be said democracies could not survive hyperinflation. But then along came the counterproof of Israel in the early 1980s. You still hear the odd pundit insisting economies cannot grow beyond a certain point without their politicians being forced to accept democracy. But you hear that a lot less now that the world’s second largest economy is run by a communist party that shows no sign of relinquishing its grip on power.
In other words, there are radically different ways to make a society work economically, despite the trumpetings of the Marxists of the left and the market fundamentalists of the right. And if there are many roads to a high gross national product, why should there not be many roads to a high gross national happiness? More than two years of residence in China has convinced me that this country is anything but a cesspool of misery, despite the government’s tight controls on many aspects of society.
As I see it, the universalist impulse is based on a simple failure of imagination. Having grown up immersed in a specific culture with certain fundamental assumptions about what constitutes the good life and the good society, it can be hard to believe that large numbers of people who do not share those assumptions exist anywhere. But in a world where Canada regularly descends into political hysteria over the odd sponsorship scandal or dubious cash payment to a former prime minister, while Italy cheerfully basks in “its tolerance of graft and illegality”, perhaps it’s time we stopped pretending that every family in the global village needs or wants to live by the same house rules.