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A note on “cultural relativism”

I’ve noticed a trend among some commentators and bloggers at HH. As you know, some of my past posts have been at odds some of your views regarding things such as some modern characteristics of Chinese people. While I believe it’s often quite uncivilized and harmful (and I think you’d be surprised at how many Chinese in China will affirm what I have said because it is so obvious to anyone who has been here for a long time), some comments suggested that “outsiders” such as myself can’t judge them because different cultural values are incommensurable and judgments using one set of values can’t be applied to judge another set of values.

This seems like the classical argument from the view of cultural relativism. I have never found cultural relativism persuasive. There are devastating flaws to this view. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think there are things (values, mores, institutions, beliefs, etc) that are culturally incommensurable and relative. Just that you can’t blanket deem all judgments from one culture of aspects of another “inapplicable.” I will show how we can separate the ones that are relative from the ones that have a more universalistic standard of truth. But first, my objections to relativism and then some examples of things that I do think are relative.

Objections to cultural relativism

My first objection is simply self-reflection. Once we realize that many of our posts at HH are critical of some American and western values, beliefs, mores, institutions, etc, and moreover, we do so from a self-proclaimed and decidedly nonwestern perspective. Cultural relativism would undermine these perspectives, many of them I think are sound criticisms of western incivility.                

Chinese criticisms against Japanese atrocities likewise would be undermined. Must we admit that Imperial Japanese barbarity was in fact “correct” from their own cultural perspective in a relativistic sense and that our values against their mass murder, rape, occupation, etc, don’t apply to them since Imperial Japan had a different culture than modern Chinese (or American) culture? In fact, all criticisms from those of one cultural milieu to another across space and time would be undermined. Americans would have to admit that Nazis crimes against humanity were really correct from their perspective which is decidedly different from modern American culture or any other modern culture for that matter.   

Some may object to this line of argument by saying that the Japanese had no right to infringe their cultural values of imperialism on others even though they were correct (in a relativistic sense) to hold their beliefs in mass murder, rape, etc. But this just pushes it one step back and faces the exact same problems. By saying that they had had no right to infringe upon others their beliefs that what they were doing was correct, aren’t you likewise infringing your beliefs of what their “rights” are on them? To say that they have no right to infringe upon others their own cultural attitudes, you have made a universalistic claim on what their rights are.

Related to the above point, relativism is self-contradictory. To even say that all cultures are not culturally commensurable is to make a judgment from one cultural perspective of all others. Now it seems to me that cultural relativism is a product of a very western perspective (rather a postmodernist one), and thus it is itself infringing against cultural perspectives that are not postmodern and relativistic. So in reality, no arguments from detractors of relativism are even necessary for it refutes itself.

Closer to home, ought not the whole world criticize modern American culture for its rampant consumerism for such consumerism impacts not only Americans but the world in negative ways by destroying the environment and causing global inequalities and other injustices and you can make a good case that it also places much value on the wrong things? Consumerism is as American as apple pie and Apple Inc. If cultural relativism is true whereof can any such criticism get off the ground?

Cultural relativism also seems to collapse into a much more singular relativism. This is because cultures are not discrete entities but overlapping, dynamic, mutually influencing things. Chinese culture is composed of many cultures; each one with elements of others and differences as well. It’s a family resemblance. Hakka culture is different from Hui but there are many similarities as well. Cantonese culture is quite different from Shanghainese (and there are many similarities too) and there are many sub-Cantonese and sub-Shanghainese cultures and likewise with any major Chinese subculture and for those subcultures, there are sub-sub-cultures and so forth. Likewise, Japanese culture is influenced by Chinese. Where you draw the line between one culture and the next seems hopelessly arbitrary. There seems to be no principled reason to proclaim relativism for cultures and yet not do so for singular persons. But if truths are relative to individual people, all rational debate is pointless. There’d be no point to try to convince anyone of anything since whatever they say is true according to their own perspective (including the doctrine of universalism and relativism too! Thus relativists who try to convince others of relativism’s virtues make the very same mistake they claim universalists do and thus they refute themselves…again). If every viewpoint is “true” from “its own perspective” then nothing is false. But where there cannot be falsity, there cannot be truth as well and thus this undermines the notion of truth itself as Wittgenstein showed. It’d be incoherent to even speak of truth (even of “true” from some particular perspective) for truth necessarily depends on standards of evaluation not subject to individual whim.    

Other side of the coin

Here are some things that really are relative. For example, breast feeding in public or public nudity. In some countries, this behavior is stigmatized or considered rude. But in others no such sensibilities exists. Loud talking, public cursing, slurping noodles, etc are also things which seem to be in this category among many others. With regard to these things, you may want to respect the local culture when in certain countries and not offend the locals. But you can make a good case that one culture has no right to impose cultural standards on others. There seems to be no good reason to impose one’s own cultural sensibilities on others.

The space of reasons

And this gets us to how we can distinguish between the two kinds of cases. There’s a heuristic we can use. We simply ask if there are good reasons behind any cross-cultural judgment. In the case of some cases, such as a militaristically aggressive state (say, one that was motivated by a dogmatic religious values or some other aspect of an aggressive militaristic culture), there are indeed, very good reasons to criticize the behavior of such a state even if that behavior is caused by the cultural motivations of some particular culture. We know that wars cause death, sickness, destruction of all that is valuable in all human cultures. These things are naturally bad for humans. There are good reasons to try and avoid deaths, sickness, destruction of a country’s infrastructure, subjugation and oppression, etc. These good reasons are grounded in objective facts about human nature. Some things are just harmful to people irrespective of the culture they come from. Thus judgments against such behavior have some degree of culture-independent objectivity. On the other hand, critical judgments against some activities such as loud talking, public nudity, noodle slurping, etc, seem to have no conceivable good objective reasons. Whether a people practices these activities seem not to harm them in any way that can be objectively verified. They are simply harmless cultural quarks with no good objective culture-independent reasons to denounce. They are accidents of history and their practice or non-practice does not harm (nor benefit) the society in which they are manifest even if they irk, nauseate or even infuriate people of another culture. No objective fact about human nature makes them harmful thus cultural sensitivity and tolerance should apply. 

Now the question is Are there good reasons to stop public spitting and defecation, running red lights, queue jumping, and dishonesty? Are these practices like rampant consumerism and belligerent militaristic behavior or like public breast feeding and noodle slurping? The question rather, is whether there are good reasons to criticize and try to curtail these behaviors. If there are good reasons, reasons that people from different cultures ought to heed, they are not culturally relative but universal (at least between those cultures that it would benefit from adopting these considerations). I argue that all of the practices I highlighted have good reasons for curtailing. They are disadvantageous to public health (public spitting, urinating and defecating) or to public safety (running red lights, jay walking) or detrimental to social order and economic stability or inefficiency (dishonesty, line cutting, ignorant superstitious beliefs). The fact that these things are detrimental is objectively verifiable through medical and socio-economic scientific methods (indeed, the Chinese government knows of their harm and tries to curtail many of the ones I’ve mentioned).  

Now you may understand why I’m no cultural relativist. Anyone who has taught an intro to philosophy class knows how common and ill-conceived cultural relativism is (especially among our postmodern influenced youth) and how easy it is to dismantle. I know that Confucian culture is far more ethical and natural than Judeo-Christian culture. As I’ve argued in the past, one has to wonder why the west has contributed to the greatest crimes in human history (both on its own people and on others), bar none. China, even when it had been the richest and most technologically advanced country on earth, showed no signs of colonizing anyone while European nations often did little else when they (using Chinese technology such as gun powder, crossbows, metal working, compass, clocks, etc) got the chance to. Over the last 40 years, China is, again, strong yet shows little to no signs of aggression like the US does on almost a daily, year after year, basis. There are good reasons to adopt Confucian values over those of Judeo-Christian ones; just open up the Bible and the Analects and compare to see those reasons for yourself. While there is much to be admired and inspired about some aspects of Christian culture, much of it is barbaric especially compared to Confucian culture and ought to be abandoned.

One can also apply this heuristic to think about the west’s often impetuous attempts to get the rest of the world to adopt its consumerist, free-market economic system or its notions of democracy [sic]. Are there good reasons others ought to adopt them (or even answer the question of their being coherent notions) or is it all just dogmatic ideology, built on phantom, culture-centric/specific assumptions? Perhaps there are even good reasons that the west ought to abandon them in favor of alternate ways of thinking and doing things. The fact that debates between modern western values and institutions and those of China often rely on slogans, the persistent evasion of giving any fundamental reasons by the proponents of the western side gives good evidence that it is the later.

I’ve so far taken a middle path approach which denies the excesses of both ends of the extreme: that of both cultural relativism and pure universalism. The truth is that some things are relative while other things are more universal and moreover they are universal because of facts about the commonalities of humans and societies. Of course, there are also likely things that are hard to tell which side of the divide they are sitting in a border-vague region with only weak or indeterminate or conflicting reasons supporting but such is the case with everything. Reasons come in degrees of strength, not always in absolute truth values. There will always be some hard questions. Such is the human condition. The reliance on cultural relativism is but an intellectual lazy excuse to stop further needed reflection. It prevents people from thinking about the space of reasons.

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  1. Black Pheonix
    June 7th, 2013 at 06:50 | #1

    “My first objection is simply self-reflection. Once we realize that many of our posts at HH are critical of some American and western values, beliefs, mores, institutions, etc, and moreover, we do so from a self-proclaimed and decidedly nonwestern perspective. Cultural relativism would undermine these perspectives, many of them I think are sound criticisms of western incivility.”

    I would have to disagree, respectfully, and let me explain at least my own personal position on why I dislike discussions of “culture”:

    (1) it is necessary to distinguish between a generalized characterization of a “culture” and a very specific discussion of a “cultural concept” that someone professes to believe in.

    When I discuss Western “cultural concepts” (or misconceptions), I am discussing ideas (or misconceptions) that many people in the West have openly acknowledged to believe in, and have openly discussed the ideas in great details (and have characterized them as “Western”, as distinguished from “non-Western”).

    Then, when I criticize those specific ideas, I am criticizing the specific errors (either in fact or in logic).

    As such, I’m not criticizing the persons themselves, who may very well have other ideas and concepts that are correct. I am merely criticizing their errors in specific ideas.

    (2) I do not subscribe to the notion that if one is wrong about 1 thing, they are wrong about every thing. However, that is precisely the DANGER in discussing “Culture” in too generalized terms.

    That is to say, too many folks out there, discuss “culture” as a way to generalize about People or Groups of people.

    When they discuss “culture” in such generalized term, they are often trying to generalize how 1 or few “cultures” are correct, while other “cultures” are wrong/inferior. And that’s simply illogical.

    No “culture” is perfect, (if one can even define what exactly is a “culture” for a group of people).

    (3) And that leads to the other error in generalized discussion of “culture”: What exactly is a “culture” for a group of People, like Chinese or the West.

    China is diverse, so is the West (despite the erroneous attempts by some in the “West” to proclaim some kind of “Western culture”/ “Western values”, as if the West is some how as monolithic as they make China out to be.)

    You discussed China in great details of different “cultural aspects”, i.e. North and South.

    But I think you were generalizing a bit too much.

    (I for one, don’t even like Americans generalizing about Maryland Drivers as bad drivers. It’s just weird and illogical to me.)

    (4) “self reflection” is good. But in self-reflection, you are examining the ideas in your own mind. There is no rational evidence to assert that other people (north or south) have the same ideas as you.

    It’s not “cultural relativism”, it’s a simple matter of NOT implying that you know what other people are thinking, especially for a large group of people.

    (5) Another danger of “culture” discussion, it often does boil down to a discussion of “race characteristics” (as often the case, too many people out there are using “culture” as a code word (or substitute) to make racist remarks).

    I’m not being overly sensitive to Racism. “Culture” has become the Newspeak codeword for “race” in the Western media and blogs.

    When they say “urban culture”, they are denigrating on the minorities.

    When they say “Chinese culture”, they are denigrating the Chinese as a generalized group.

    Because, in such discussions of “Culture”, they are filled with generalized stereotypes (and the fabled “kernel of truth” basis).

    Thing is, as I have written about it here, if they are discussing “cultures” as UNIQUE identifiers, they need to prove that such UNIQUENESS exists. If they could prove such UNIQUENESS, then I would accept the idea that the “culture” (at least the unique parts of the culture) perhaps have some relation to specific phenomena.

    But as books have demonstrated that the “kernel of truth” basis only show that generalized “culture” as identifiers are NOT unique. (If Westerners also cut lines, then why how is “Chinese culture” different??)

    Then, such discussion of “culture” is illogical and irrational, and have NO usefulness in “self-reflection”.

    Hey, if someone tells me that there is some thing wrong in my “culture”, but they can’t demonstrate to me which part of my UNIQUE “culture” is causing the wrong, then I think there is something wrong with their assertion. (I would still self-reflect, to find the REAL cause, but I would still question why someone would attribute it to my “culture”.)

    (6) BTW, I don’t accuse James Fallows (and others) of wrongs, because they are merely “Western”. I examine their words.

  2. June 7th, 2013 at 21:28 | #2

    @Black Pheonix

    Then, when I criticize those specific ideas, I am criticizing the specific errors (either in fact or in logic)..

    I fail to see how this is relavent to what I’ve said. Specific criticisms are still criticisms. As such, they are criticisms and moreover, are from a partiucular perspective. If cultural relativism is true, that would invalidate specific as well as more “general” criticisms. The examples I gave above were all specific cultural criticisms using very specific examples. I did not once talk about any culture “generally”. I even said that Judeo Christian culture has a lot going for it, just that most of it was barbaric and I have always given specific examples of what I mean (for example, it justifies slavery, genocide, child killing, etc etc etc).

    (2) I do not subscribe to the notion that if one is wrong about 1 thing, they are wrong about every thing.

    Who said you were or anyone was?

    (3) And that leads to the other error in generalized discussion of “culture”: What exactly is a “culture” for a group of People, like Chinese or the West.

    I’m seriously at a loss to what you are talking about.

    You discussed China in great details of different “cultural aspects”, i.e. North and South.

    But I think you were generalizing a bit too much.

    I did not once talk about “northern” or “southern” Chinese culture in the above post so I have no clue what you are talking about. I DID talk about the many cultures of China. For example, I said that Shanghainese culture is composed of many sub cultures likewise with Hui and Cantonese and every Chinese subculture has sub sub cultures and so forth and thus drawing cultural lines is arbitrary because culture is so complex and overlapping. You seem to be thinking that I said something totally.

    (4) “self reflection” is good. But in self-reflection, you are examining the ideas in your own mind. There is no rational evidence to assert that other people (north or south) have the same ideas as you.

    Again, I’m totally confused. First of all what do you mean by “self reflection”? Of what? Who said there was any “rational evidence to assert that other people…have the same ideas as you”? What are you talking about?

    It’s not “cultural relativism”, it’s a simple matter of NOT implying that you know what other people are thinking, especially for a large group of people.

    Who implied this? And what was implied?

    When they say “urban culture”, they are denigrating on the minorities.

    Who are “they” and why are “they” relevant to my post? Did you reply to the wrong post? Did you even read the above post? I never said that there was anything “unique” about any one culture. In fact, I explicitly said there were many things overlapping in all cultures and that in some there are mnore overlap than others. I said

    Cultural relativism also seems to collapse into a much more singular relativism. This is because cultures are not discrete entities but overlapping, dynamic, mutually influencing things. Chinese culture is composed of many cultures; each one with elements of others and differences as well. It’s a family resemblance.

    The truth is that some things are relative while other things are more universal and moreover they are universal because of facts about the commonalities of humans and societies.

  3. aeiou
    June 9th, 2013 at 23:54 | #3

    Now the question is Are there good reasons to stop public spitting and defecation, running red lights, queue jumping, and dishonesty? Are these practices like rampant consumerism and belligerent militaristic behavior or like public breast feeding and noodle slurping?

    None of which have anything to do with culture. There is nothing wrong with criticising rude behaviour. The problem with when you try to mix criticism and cultural commentary and try to shoehorn your pet political/social theory into the narrative.

    Time and time again when commentary is levelled at china, western pundits (especially liberals) have no problems characterising its chinese-ness first and thus any inherently character flaw is inexorably tied this ethnic/cultural narrative.

    For example, it’s well known big corporations such as google, microsoft, walmart, starbucks, apple, evade taxes on a massive scale. They put on a massive muppet show about it recently. The CEOs denied everything, what more, they even argued that they weren’t evading taxes and not a few people actually support this line of argument. Who said the government is entitled to the money of “private” enterprises?! Now, if you were to substitute in some chinese companies, suddenly the narrative becomes something about the selfish chinamen embezzling money from fellow chinese and funnelling money overseas because the chinese are naturally immoral and lack a conscience.

    The worse arguments are ones that involve brandishing Mao or communism as though the cultural revolution is an excuse to label mainlanders as culturally inferior locusts invading helpless Africans and taking all their resources; oh, that’s when they aren’t busy pushing, shoving, shitting and spitting everywhere — this btw, is how to do politically correct racism. You try to substitute this kind of language with any other minority/ethnic/race of people and liberals will try you for warcrimes faster than you can speed dial Al Sharpton. But, say this about chinese and it is perfectly acceptable because the anti-china political narrative has been sewn for decades, so hey, the only good commie is a dead one. This narrative is now so popular even people from countries that are less socially developed, socially progressive than China feel it’s ok to discriminate/criticise china in this fashion.

    The only cultural relativism I see is that of the westerners, who simply cannot abide by the fact that there are people who have not been socially conditioned to conform to their sensibilities. And why should they? Aren’t they entitled to flaunt their wealth if they’re wealthy? Shouldn’t they be given the opportunity to develop their own etiquette rather than being brow beaten into conformity just so that westerners can feel even more pandered to, in their country?

  4. June 10th, 2013 at 03:38 | #4

    @aeiou

    I think you are deeply confused. The ones that leveled the cultural relativist view against some criticisms of some modern Chinese behaviors do not include me. I did not mention “culture” once in the relevant article. Not once. The first stime someone mentioned it was in the comments by another person.

    It’s irrelevant to me what you want to call it. It’s just word games people who do not have anything substantive to contribute add to mask their lack of understanding for the issues.

  5. Black Pheonix
    June 10th, 2013 at 06:26 | #5

    @melektaus

    I agree with you that “It’s just word games people who do not have anything substantive to contribute add to mask their lack of understanding for the issues.”

    Personally, that is the reason why I don’t play that game. But I still commend you on your critical examination of Chinese culture/mindsets/whatever.

    (Too bad bloggers like Fallows and Duck just prefer to use your comments for their own biased views).

  6. ho hon
    June 10th, 2013 at 10:07 | #6

    Sorry I am not following up on the discussion above and I just want to share some of my wild thoughts re the original article. Culture is a fascinating topic indeed and the discussion regarding relativism and universalism have been such a philosophical exercise for generations. For me, both words smell terrible – relativism implies… (you know) and universalism implies… (you know of course). It does not help. I suspect the philosophical root of the disagreement between relativism and universalism lies somewhere near the dawn of wisdom but I am sorry I have not dug it out yet (e.g. Genesis – the split of Man with God – implication of a dialectic structure of universe thus relativism has its original sin (but also “progress’) it is also the reason why religion is called religion – a re-linging with the Being). Let’s go back to the basic – before relativism and universalism smelled bad they could mean something good – e.g. relativism between man and woman, yin and yang, teachers and students, the helping and the helped (and also the chinese character “good”); same for universalism of virtue, compassion, justice, nirvanna, heaven. What is the problem here? IMHO both words have a strong flavor of epistemology (e.g. if you are not observing how would there be a “relative” relationship between the subject and the object?). So a deeper problem arises here: is observation the only way we could attain knowledge? Is there a better way other than observation such that both the subject and the object disappear? … To cut it short, back to the original article I would suggest if cultures would attempt to “embrace” not just “observe” one another there will be new insights for people in the world. It requires a certain nobleness (if not craziness). Sorry for interrupting you guys.

  7. Black Pheonix
    June 10th, 2013 at 10:26 | #7

    Nature of Causality means every thing is relative to something else, and every thing is transient.

    Each individual is capable of change, and thus, nothing in him/her is set in stone.

    Then, what is “Chinese culture”?

    It is a collection of trends, influenced by the multitudes of groups of people that influenced Chinese history.

    There is no 1 single point of time, 1 single representation of identity/values/customs that defines “Chinese Culture”.

    “Chinese culture” by itself is a mixture, a collection, of different things, which in themselves are not unique.

    Chinese people, merely adopted various portions of influences from other people. (And we will continue to adopt NEW influences from others).

  8. ho hon
    June 10th, 2013 at 20:39 | #8

    There are some essences within that “collection” that excel out among the “collections” – such as peace and kindness, unconditional ethics etc. I agree that they are not unique – otherwise how can the different groups communicate and admire each others?

    While we are adopting and assimilating others’ virtues, we also need to contribute ours. More importantly, we need to have a stance in assimilating others. Let’s see Japanese – they are learning others from an entirely utilitarian perspective – first from Tang dynasty, then from the West, causing a very fierce internal conflicts within their national psyche.

  9. June 11th, 2013 at 01:15 | #9

    @Black Pheonix

    That’s great but I don’t see anyone here that would deny this.

  10. Black Pheonix
    June 11th, 2013 at 06:59 | #10

    @ho hon

    We don’t always know why our predecessors adopted some customs/traditions, while ignored others.

    Sometimes we don’t see or forget their reasoning. Sometimes we see reasoning where there was none. Sometimes, there were a lot of different reasons, when we only think we can see one.

    Thus, we need to be very careful when making generalizations about even the “collections”, because we may erroneously interpret their meanings.

    The simplest example is how Americans today interpret their Founding Fathers’ intentions (from just about 200 years ago). Their interpretations tend to be so restrictive and subjective to their own present time biases. When in reality, the Founding Fathers probably adopted a lot of ideas for various unrelated reasons, (perhaps even nothing more than simple selfish reasons).

    And that’s just for a small group of leaders from 200 years.

    Imagine the scale of diversity and unpredictability of the Chinese “collection” of 4000 years of historical influences from so many different kingdoms, tribes, etc., by comparison.

    When I think about that scale alone, I think, I cannot fathom to generalize about the Chinese “collection”.

    To do so, I would be committing an intellectual sin (of gross bias) against my own ancestors, in far greater scale than the Americans are doing to their own Founding Fathers.

    *I do not mean to imply that it is wrong to criticize one’s ancestors. But one need to be humble enough to acknowledge that it would be wrong to generalize about their legacies.

  11. ho hon
    June 11th, 2013 at 22:55 | #11

    @Black Pheonix

    My sincere appreciation and admiration towards your humble stance. In view of this dilemma, I often resort to common sense and good intention to avoid committing this “intellectual sin or gross bias” (well said!). It is nevertheless important for us to make good summaries over the “collections” to let other people (they are all too busy) understand the virtues within (Somebody mentioned “温情與敬意” when handling historical legacy but I have forgotten.)

  12. Black Pheonix
    June 12th, 2013 at 06:26 | #12

    @ho hon

    Unfortunately, I’m too cynical about the world.

    I often find that if one is kind to others to help them understand something as complex as China, they just end up think that China is easy to understand. Your summary becomes their basis for stereotypes.

    Now we end up with a bunch of Westerners balking at the very concept that China is complex.

  13. ho hon
    June 12th, 2013 at 07:19 | #13

    rofl

  14. Black Pheonix
    June 12th, 2013 at 07:40 | #14

    remind me of sometimes when I tell the occasional wide-eye curious (but a bit lazy) sino-philes:

    “There are no cliff notes on China. You can only experience it for yourself. You can’t learn about it from reading books in English, which are just brochures for tourists written by out of work Expats.”

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