Cultural relativism

The Orkut scrapbook discussion from yesterday made me decide to write about cultural relativism (because a friendly Islam disliker wrote about that). What I write here will finally also become a central theme in my dissertation...

Cultural relativism 8/25/2005 12:47 AM
This thread is inspired by the discussion which is taking place in my scrapbook right now.

I have a book about the philosophy of multiculturality, from Rudi Visker. He describes two models for cultural diverse societies: multiculturality and transculturality.

The transculturalists criticize multiculturality by saying: At the basis of the peaceful coexistence and the mask of respect for other cultures, there is in fact only indifference towards other cultures, no real acceptance of diversity. In fact there is a profound confusion with regard to the underlying concept of culture and identity. Cultural differences are made absolute. Differences have to be respected because all cultures are considered to be equal in the end. (So this is cultural relativism.)

The problem of this model is that in that way you can never criticize practices of a different culture. I cannot say: I think that you shouldn't beat your wife, if you are angry with her you should talk with her about it and not hurt her. Then the other person can say: This is normal in my culture and who are you to judge my culture, so shut up. Then I cannot say anything anymore so the only possible reaction is that I become indifferent to how people in other cultures treat each other. As long as the different cultural worlds are completely separate this can be a workable model, but when people of one culture are affected by behaviour of people with a different culture, then there is a problem. Then it means that I have to accept that I will be beaten down by somebody with a different culture because it is ok to do that in a different culture. But for my own culture that behaviour is not acceptable, so what should we do then?

And at their turn the multiculturalists also criticize the transculturalists, by saying: it's a nice idea of this melting pot of cultures, but it won't work because cultures don't always melt / fit together. My own personal values go deep and they are fundamentally different from those of others. When they are fundamentally opposed to each other they cannot be put together in one harmonious pot. You either accept one set of values or another one, you cannot put both together.

So in fact both models don't work: the problem of multiculturality is that it only works when cultures remain completely independent of each other, which isn't possible if people with different cultures live mixed, next to each other in a society. And transculturality doesn't work because people don't want to give up their own culture and it isn't possible to create one new culture in which all the other cultures are integrated.

So, is there a third way, is there a different model possible?
In my scrapbook I promoted a position where I realise on the one hand that my own values are important and true for me. So I find it important that people don't beat down their partners because they are angry with them. This is true for me and I have a right to say this to another person. This person cannot say in reply that it's normal in his culture, he should explain to me why he thinks that it isn't bad to beat his partner, he should explain me about his values and try to show me that what he does isn't bad. And he will maybe succeed in convincing me of that, or maybe not. So for me my personal values are important but I don't consider them as objective and absolute truths.

A model that will work well, in my opinion, is one in which cultural differences are accepted. Not in a sense that everything is ok for me, that there would be no moral difference for me between beating down your wife or giving her flowers. because everything would be equal. No it's not, I think that giving flowers is better. (And fortunately many people from different cultures will think so.)

I accept that other people are different, that they have different values than I have. I treat them with respect, as humans, as partners to talk with in an intercultural dialogue. We talk with each other with open minds, patience and empathy. We explain to each other how the world looks like for us and we really try to understand each other. We question each other for our values and behaviour and in return we explain / justify that to each other.
The result of this intercultural dialogue will not be the happy melting pot where we all agree with each other and create one new beautiful common culture. The dialogue will consist of many fundamental collisions and fights which cannot always be solved. There will always remain fundamental disagreements that we can never solve. This means that a multicultural society is always more difficult to live in than a more monocultural society. Tolerance is needed because you will often be bothered by people with different views and habits. You will have to find solutions which are acceptable for everyone and that's not easy. But if you are willing to look for solutions together it will certainly help.


And shortly after I posted this in Orkut I had a msn chat with Sikander, and this chat further explains what I mean with my third model as an alternative to the other two, so that's why I will publish it here too (with permission).
  • "Tum per salamti ho - a paz esteja com vocĂȘ" (which means peace be with you in Urdu and Portugese) = Esther
  • SiKi = Sikander
msn chat

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