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"cultural relativism is a fancy phrase for what is, in practice, smug racism"

This one from Bookworm needs to be read in full, more than once, and passed on with the same advice.  What follows is but a small teaser:

Modern so-called liberals, of course, would never dream of saying that the brown people of the world are less than fully human because of their race.  May's point, however, is that, when it comes to Muslims, we still manage to treat them that way.  (I'll add that the same holds true for the low, low standards so-called liberals establish for black people.)

Sure, we in the West treat women well, but we certainly can't expect that level of sophistication from the brown people.  And sure, we treat gays well, but we have to understand that the brown people haven't evolved to that point, and we should therefore just ignore their sins.  And sure, we can tolerate free speech (or, at least, if we're a so-called liberal, we pay lip-service to the notion of free speech), but we're big enough to recognize that the brown people haven't matured enough as a race to handle it.

The exceptionally low standards we allow for Muslims and blacks are always phrased in terms of "respect" for the "other" culture.  "Respect," however, is a misnomer.  True respect is impossible if we consistently assert that the "others" (who invariably have skin darker than ours) cannot hold themselves to the normative behaviors of which we're most proud.

...

I don't see any of our liberals recognizing in Muslims the common humanity that the more enlightened English and Christians saw in the East Indians or Native Americans.  Instead, our cultural relativists glory in their own superiority.  Sure, they'll bad-mouth their own culture left, right and center, but they know that their respect for women, for gays, and for other people who have traditionally been oppressed, makes them better than other cultures that continue to oppress those same people.  In other words, cultural relativism is a fancy phrase for what is, in practice, smug racism.

You have to read the whole thing.  You just do.  And then pass it on.


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Comments (28)

Birth rates, it's all about... (Below threshold)
ron:

Birth rates, it's all about the birth rates. One more kid per Christian family would do it.

"You have to read the whole... (Below threshold)
wolfwalker:

"You have to read the whole thing. You just do."

Unless you already know it, having worked it out for yourself a couple of years ago.

Unless you already... (Below threshold)
Brett:
Unless you already know it, having worked it out for yourself a couple of years ago.

Or in the mid-late 60's.

"In other words, cultural r... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

"In other words, cultural relativism is a fancy phrase for what is, in practice, smug racism."

As practiced by who, Rick?

This is basically a straw-man version of "cultural relativism" that Bookworm is arguing against, and the final conclusion that it's REALLY nothing more than "smug racism" is pure nonsense. Yet another example of people throwing around the "racism" card in a way that dilutes what the term means.

Bookworm is arguing against extreme relativism, which is altogether different from the idea of cultural relativism as employed by anthropologists and other social scientists (for an example of one group of people who put the term into practice). If Bookworm is going to critique the term, it would at least be useful to discuss what it means, where it comes from, and where it has limits. To me that makes more sense than just assuming that it means one thing and then making the overstated claim that it's really just about racism in disguise. Politically expedient, yes. Sound argumentation? Definitely not.

Cultural relativism goes back to people like the anthropologist Franz Boas--someone who fought racism (scientific and otherwise) for decades. If you know anything about the histories of racism in the US, you would know something about Boas and what he was doing in the early 20th century. Boiling down what he did to "smug racism" is just stupid. The basic idea behind his notion of cultural relativism was that no cultural group was automatically superior to another. He was arguing directly against the eugenics movement and others who absolutely made the argument that some people were genetically and culturally superior to others.

However, as with any concept, cultural relativism has its limits. Absolutely. This is why it's important to differentiate between those who takes things too far--into extreme relativism--and those who actually use and understand the term and its limits. The concept is not about avoiding judgment, but instead about setting judgment aside in order to actually understand social or cultural practices in context. The basic idea is that it might be a good idea to simply make judgments about behaviors based upon what we THINK is happening. Any good socio-cultural anthropologist will tell you that. Obviously, when it comes to certain practices, some issues are more clear cut than others. Read this from an intro to anthro textbook:

Cultural relativism is essential as a research tool. However, employing it as a tool does not mean suspending judgment forever, nor does it require that anthropologists defend a people's right to engage in any cultural practice, no matter how destructive. All that is necessary is that we avoid premature judgments until we have a full understanding of the culture in which we are invested. Then, and only then, may anthropologists adopt a critical stance and in an informed way consider the advantages and disadvantages particular beliefs and behaviors have for a society and its members.

-From the Essence of Anthropology, 2009

Coming from an anthropological perspective, I think the concept of cultural relativism has considerable value for ways of looking at the world around us. The basic idea is still the notion that no cultural group is inherently superior, and that it might be useful to look at cultures and social practices on their own terms. This, however, is a long way from arguing that any and all cultural practices should be given carte blanche.

End points: Bookworm's argument is vastly oversimplified, albeit politically expedient. Cultural relativism can indeed be a useful tool for looking at the world around us, but don't forget that it has limits.

All I know is, this white h... (Below threshold)
914:

All I know is, this white house is very smug.

Not sure why you bothered, ... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

Not sure why you bothered, Ryan, as this is just another of Rick's, and Wizbang's, standard "liberals are the real racists!" pieces.

There's really only a few themes here that get repeated over and over. There's "Liberals Are The Real Racists," there's "Liberals Are Weak Namby-Pamby Milquetoasts And Conservatives Are Steely-Eyed Tough Guys," there's "Feminists Are Not Really Feminists, They're Liberals," there's "Obama's Associations With Ayers, Wright, And Rezko Mean No Liberals Can Criticize Any Conservative," and, of course, Rick's patented "I'm Going To Heaven And You're Not (Especially If You're a Liberal.)"

Of course, every now and then we get a Caption Contest or a "I Wish Bush Was Still President" piece, so it's all good.

ryan a,This from the... (Below threshold)
DaveD:

ryan a,
This from the anthropology text you cited: "All that is necessary is that we avoid premature judgments until we have a full understanding of the culture in which we are invested."

I think this is a valid statement. However, it is implied in the Bookworm article that neo-colonialism/modern liberalism tends to avoid "premature judgement" indefinitely. A fair point in my mind.

Aww, Bruce, you seem upset.... (Below threshold)

Aww, Bruce, you seem upset. Would you like a cookie? If not, would you care to argue against anything in the Bookworm post? Would you care to even read it, rather than whine about how the conservative blog Wizbang is being mean to liberals?

Bruce,Question. Whe... (Below threshold)
DaveD:

Bruce,
Question. When I am chronically dissatified with something I usually eliminate it from my life. What is it about liberals that they can't walk away? If you cannot get satisfaction here why do you return? Is your insight in this regard so keen you have become a self-appointed sentry to warn others of more conservative-leaning opinions here then, let's say, at Huffington Post or something? OK, that's several questions, but gee, what's your point?

You guys are right, that wa... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

You guys are right, that was uncalled for on my part. It's not my blog, after all.

Nice job reinforci... (Below threshold)
irongrampa:


Nice job reinforcing the perception of liberals being whiny, Bruce.


Would you like a cookie?

If I may start over without... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

If I may start over without irrelevant gratuitous snark, I do have a couple of quibbles with the Bookworm article.

I and other liberals I know don't condone honor killings, wife-beating or female "circumcision." We also don't approve of our government invading, and attempting to remake in our image, countries in which these practices occur. There's no contradiction there.

And Muslims who live in the US and continue to commit these offenses can expect to incur legal consequences for them. This is as it should be.

But because liberals, for the most part, are not Islamophobes doesn't mean we encourage honor killings. To imply that we do is dishonest or ignorant.

And the Bookworm author's putting words in liberals' mouths - "we're big enough to recognize that the brown people just haven't matured enough as a race to handle it" - is a CLASSIC strawman argument. Even Rick could recognize that.

But because liberals, fo... (Below threshold)

But because liberals, for the most part, are not Islamophobes doesn't mean we encourage honor killings. To imply that we do is dishonest or ignorant.

Encourage? No. Enable? Yes. There aren't many honor killings in the US, but the ones that have happened haven't exactly brought loud liberal condemnation... neither have the recent increases in antisemitic attacks and attacks on homosexuals by Muslims here. And over in Europe, where this is a rapidly growing problem, the left is utterly silent about the issue, along with the even more severe problems of Sharia law, wife-beating, "female genital mutilation," as well as the systematic "discrimination against women, gays and lesbians in the Middle East" (as quoted in Bookworm's post).

Even here in the US those who speak up about these issues are often labeled as "Islamophobes" by the left... odd, given that fundamentalist Islam and the practices it encourages stand in direct opposition to everything you on the left claim to believe in.

Why? Why couldn't Phyllis Chesler get more than 5% of her Israel-condemning academics to also condemn the Palestinians' atrocities? Why don't liberals expect Muslims to live by the same rules of civilized behavior that they expect everyone else to? And please don't claim they do, Bruce... I've argued with numerous leftists over the years, and you guys are remarkably consistent.

"If I may start over withou... (Below threshold)
914:

"If I may start over without irrelevant gratuitous snark,"

"Even Rick could recognize that."

Care to try again?

Bruce wrote:<blockquo... (Below threshold)
Rick:

Bruce wrote:

... and, of course, Rick's patented "I'm Going To Heaven And You're Not (Especially If You're a Liberal.)"

I'll stroke a blank check to the charity of your choosing if you can find one post of mine here or at my place that's made that claim...

Now why don't you put your money where your fat mouth is and stroke one to the charity of my choosing if you can't?

We'll all wait... though we know you won't commit to the wager... because Bruce... you're really not much more than a blowhard...

"You say that it is your cu... (Below threshold)

"You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours."

-Attributed to General Charles Napier

# 14:That particul... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

# 14:

That particular snark wasn't irrelevant or gratuitous.

# 15:

It's called hyperbole, Rick. And I already said that comment was uncalled for. I apologise for it. What I meant to imply, in a comment I shouldn't have made in the first place, is that some of your pieces have, in my opinion, a holier-than-thou feel to them.

Bruce,You said:<br /... (Below threshold)
DaveD:

Bruce,
You said:
"We also don't approve of our government invading, and attempting to remake in our image, countries in which these practices occur."

I have no problem with you being against the invasion of Iraq or nation building. However, I am not sure the comment is relevant in this particular thread as I don't think the US invasion of Iraq was done primarily for cultural reasons.

Actually Bruce... it's call... (Below threshold)
Rick:

Actually Bruce... it's called bullsh*t... and you seem to produce a boatload of it...

Why don't you point us to one of my holier-than-thou posts... and then specifically tell us why it's holier than thou...

Again, we'll await with baited breath...

DaveD,"However, it... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

DaveD,

"However, it is implied in the Bookworm article that neo-colonialism/modern liberalism tends to avoid "premature judgement" indefinitely. A fair point in my mind."

First of all, Bookworm's use of the term "neo-colonialism" is pretty obtuse. It appears that he/she is using the term to mean something like a "neo-colonial mentality," but overall I think that the use of the term is pretty misleading in the article. Neo-colonialism should rightly refer to groups of people who are setting up colonies in new places. I know that the term actually comes from May's article, but Bookworm does a pretty terrible job of employing it in his/her own piece. Would have been better to leave that out.

Second, what point is there in saying that "liberalism tends to avoid premature judgment indefinitely"? Are you talking about ALL liberals, SOME liberals? It's not a very useful point IMO.

Do some people over-relativize cultural practices? Do some people make the mistake of heading down the road to extreme relativism? Yes, some do. Do all "liberals" suspend moral judgment on things like terrorism, oppression of women, etc? No, they don't. And that's why I think it's seriously inaccurate to make such baseless claims. Basically, as I see it, Bookwork is making an overstated point that really doesn't hold up to any scrutiny.

I also don't buy into similar baseless claims that are made about all conservatives.

Evil Otto,"If not,... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

Evil Otto,

"If not, would you care to argue against anything in the Bookworm post? Would you care to even read it..."

Read it. Not impressed:

1. Bookworm mangles the concept of cultural relativism and basically turns it into a caricature that's easy to argue against. Instead of actually talking about the term accurately, he/she consistently mangles it and conflates it with what might better be called "extreme relativism".

2. The use of "cultural relativism" in the discussion about Bentinck is seriously anachronistic. Sloppy argumentation.

3. Using an agent of the East India Company as an example of some kind of enlightened humanity is incredibly ironic, all things considered. Have you read ANYTHING about the histories of British Colonialism? While they may have been concerned about saving SOME women from the fires of suttee, they sure were not all that concerned with inflicting violence and poverty on thousands of others.

4. Bookworm writes, "For example, one of the things our politically correct schools don't like to teach children is that many of the indigenous peoples in the Americas were big on human sacrifice." Anyone who knows anything about the actual histories of the Americas will tell you that violence and conflict was by no means foreign to Native American peoples. Human sacrifice is just the flashy example. This point by Bookworm is a given to anyone who knows the first thing about archaeology and anthropology in the Americas. Yet another non-point from Bookworm.

5. The discussion of Cortes and the Spanish motivations for conquering the Aztecs is way too simplified, if not outright incorrect. The presence of human sacrifice was by no means the deciding factor...Cortes was out to conquer territories and extract wealth. That was his reason for heading into the capital. Read some of Cortes' own words (or the writings of Bernal Diaz del Castillo) to figure that out. It's not as if they marched into the Aztec capital and were suddenly enraged by human sacrifice. The plan, from the start, was to try to conquer large scale settlements for their wealth and power. The Spanish conquered and enslaved people all over the Americas whether or not they practiced human sacrifice...remember the conquest of the Aztecs began in 1519, many years after the Spanish had set to work on the violent, brutal conquest of the Americas.

6. As for the Spanish priests being enlightened humanists of compassion...again Bookworm takes a complex history and smashes it into an overly simplistic attempt at making a point. SOME priests were relatively more compassionate, like Bartolome de las Casas. Others were all too eager to burn, enslave, and torture the native "heretics" who were not willing to submit to "conversion". History is often a pretty mixed bag, and this is another point in which Bookworm botches the discussion with a selective reading.

6. The final conclusions about "modern liberalism" are poorly conceived, overgeneralized, unspecific, and terribly unconvincing. This isn't surprising, considering the loose argumentation of the rest of the article. Now, why anyone finds this sort of presentation informative or convincing is way beyond me. My guess is that some folks let this sort of thing fly because they just happen to agree with the overall political sentiments.

Read it. Not impressed</... (Below threshold)

Read it. Not impressed

Wasn't talking to you.

"Wasn't talking to you."</p... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

"Wasn't talking to you."

So? People answer questions and comments that weren't addressed to them all the time around here. That's pretty standard practice here and elsewhere. You asked for some direct arguments against Bookworm's post, so I gave you some. Do what you want, but don't pull this "I wasn't talking to you" crap. If you're really impressed with what Bookworm wrote, I'd love to hear exactly why--especially considering the weak foundations of the entire argument.

# 19:Again I must ... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

# 19:

Again I must apologise, Rick. I thought I remembered seeing posts of yours that gave me that, "Oh, no, another holier-than-thou post by this dude" feeling, but I can't find one in September or July (all I took the time to search in), so I can't say where I got that impression. So, I'm wrong, and must appear quite foolish. I'm sorry. As I said, I shouldn't have made that comment in the first place.

So, you got me there. Now how about explaining further why we should give any credence to the strawman arguments in this Bookworm piece?

# 18:

Well, DaveD, I've been told by conservatives a number of reasons for the invasion of Iraq, among them the PNAC dream of "bringing democracy to the heart of the Middle East." That's what I meant by "invading, and attempting to remake in our image..."

So?So I was... (Below threshold)

So?

So I was saying that Bruce hadn't read the post in question and wasn't arguing against anything in it, not you. If I cared what you thought, I would have addressed you. And if you don't like what Bookworm wrote, take it up with HIM. You've written numerous paragraphs here, but haven't bothered to make those points to the person who actually wrote the article in question.

Otto, I HAVE read the Bookw... (Below threshold)
Bruce Henry:

Otto, I HAVE read the Bookworm article, and it's nothing but strawman nonsense and putting words in the mouths of others.

As to your calls for "loud liberal condemnation" of honor killings, etc., that's ridiculous. I'm a liberal, and haven't posted anything here or anywhere else "loudly condemning" Catholic priestly pedophilia. Does that mean I'm an "enabler" of it?

And, because you haven't seen any "loud liberal condemnation" of these barbaric practices, does that mean it hasn't happened? I'm pretty sure you, like most people, notice what you want to notice and fail to notice what doesn't fit your ideological mindset. Seek and ye shall find, Otto.

As to the Chesler petition, we don't know how it was worded. What ELSE was in it? Among the points listed in Bookworm may have been a lot of stuff that 95% didn't feel they could sign on to. AND we don't know how the petition was presented to these academics, either.

So, Otto, what's your take ... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

So, Otto, what's your take on Bookworm's piece? Do you find it convincing? If so, why?

"And if you don't like what... (Below threshold)
ryan a:

"And if you don't like what Bookworm wrote, take it up with HIM. You've written numerous paragraphs here, but haven't bothered to make those points to the person who actually wrote the article in question."

Well, I have clearly addressed the author of THIS post, who clearly agreed with the lame contentions that Bookworm is making. This whole thread is based off of what Bookworm wrote. Rick used the article to attempt to make yet another unsubstantiated, over-generalized point about "modern liberalism." Many people seem to agree with Rick, and therefore Bookworm. My responses are directed at Rick or anyone else here who think that Bookworm's article is somehow a wonderful bit of argumentation. Your assertion that I somehow need to go "take this up with Bookworm" is completely inane, and you probably know it.

If you have nothing to say, fine. But don't keep giving me this evasive nonsense just because you don't have a reasonable counter argument.




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