Cultural Relativism | General Paper Essays

“Civilization is not something absolute, but is relative, and our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.” -Franz Boas (Anthropologist)

Discuss the statement above. Do you agree? Illustrate your view with appropriate examples.


What is cultural relativism?
§  Easily explained by the idiom, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” One perceives a culture by placing oneself in an individual of that culture’s shoes.

§  All cultures- being ways of life- are seen as being on an equal pedestal and there is no stratification system.

§  In contrast, cultural absolutism sets up a hierarchy and hence weaves ethnocentrism.

§  Hence, the difference between cultural relativism and absolutism is the same difference as between ‘the world’ and ‘my world’. The former is objective and universal. The latter is subjective and intimate. Both, however, remain belief systems.

Are the ideas and values of a civilization absolute or relative? Give examples.
A.  Civilization is relative.
§  Just like different species have varying biological characteristics, diverse societies have a plethora of cultures. For instance, while is it normal for Christians to enter churches with their shoes on, it is considered highly inappropriate and disrespectful for a Hindu to do the same in a temple.

§  When an outsider visits a particular place, the latter is never given a warrant for him to behave as he pleases. He still has to follow the norms of the society he is visiting. When tourists visit any religious place in India, they are all requested to remove their shoes outside the holy places. Even though they would never otherwise do such a thing at home, they still have to play by the rules of the society they are visiting.

§  Earlier on, entertaining polygamous relationships was known to be popular among the herders. However, it would not be practical today for economic reasons. Hence, culture changes with time and is hence relative.

§  Provincialism is not a common belief in today’s world. This is exactly because embracing diversity is more popular a movement. Moreover, as Emma Watson commissioned in her HeforShe campaign for the UN, we do not live as two ends of a black and white spectrum, but rather we all are a broad colorful spectrum we accept and celebrate. As such, it is not ethical to make everyone live by the same rules: marriage cannot be defined as being an institution upheld by only two people of the opposite sex. Variations to this are very real.

§  Absolute truth has been discarded as many societies have grown more secular. Postmodern societies are not only pluralistic and tolerant but also drown the idea that there is universal righteousness and wrongness. Thus, even the legislative system finds it very difficult today to define and interpret laws.

B.   Civilization is absolute.
§  At the heart of this debate stays moral relativism. It would seem that it is universally accepted that murder is not normal. Therefore, cultures are not as relative as we may think they are. With relativism, we can easily justify female infanticide or domestic violence as normal in certain societies. Nevertheless, morally it stays wrong for many. Hence, concepts like: freedom to live, assured protection or ‘thou shall not kill’ among others are viewed as universally absolute concepts of civilization.

§  Relativism takes away the right to criticize ‘immorality’ whereas absolutism creates rules that allow legislation and order in a society. No society is rule-less, not even our postmodern society. Civilization is at the very core, still absolute somehow.

§  It is believed by some that under the veil of cultural relativism, western colonialism and imperialism are hidden. The British Raj in India, clearly depicts the mindset of British people of dominating the Indian subcontinent such that today stands an inferiority complex among modern Indians. Chetan Bhagat, a bestselling author in India, writes how English is seen superior to Hindi as a language and English-speakers are seen as better and well-off people. Hence, civilization is absolute in creating a hierarchy. As with Karl Marx’s communism, it unsuccessfully tries to create an equal pedestal.

§  If civilization was truly relative, there would not have been as many divisive instances and discriminations on the basis of creed, sex, race, religion or political belonging. This only strengthens the existence of people who intimately believe in absolutism. Even mythology records such people. Yudhisthir from the Mahabharata, never once lied in his life as he disbelieves in lies. People with very strong sets of beliefs are absolutists.

If your civilization’s norms and values were absolute, how would that affect the way you treated foreigners?
§  Foreigners would not have been welcomed as they would not have been accepted or tolerated due to their difference.
§  The rules and norms of my civilization would have been too stringent towards them as they would not take their differences into account. If the Constitution had not been amended in line with the abolition of the Jim Crow System in the US or the Apartheid in South Africa, many would have felt suffocated.

How does globalization complicate the debate?
§  Globalization has across the years with technology intensified our level of interaction between different nations.

§  With this occurring, the homogenization of diverse cultures is tending to standardize the way people across the world think, behave or live. Today, most nations have jeans as a casual wear in their fashion.

§  Although the removal of cultural barriers promotes cultural relativism, it might very well be dawning a universal cultural absolutism or common worldwide imperialism due to this unification.

What is our stand on this subject?
§  While relativism accepts and celebrates, absolutism is intolerant and definite.
§  Cultural relativism percolates today's world. As long as we don't harm, offend or destroy the mental, physical or social wellbeing of anyone, having a diversity of cultures is only very natural. Now, this may be an absolute statement to make. Just like, "All truth is relative," would actually be ‘absolutely’ valid. And the statement is hence self-contradictory.  There is a paradox.
§  Despite everything I would still champion cultural relativism- this not absolutely- but rather contextually.

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