Moral Bankruptcy in Academia: Cultural Relativism

Moral Bankruptcy in Academia: Cultural Relativism

Cultural Relativism, the idea that morality is relative to culture alone, is worse than bunk: it’s dangerously stupid.

This is an opinion that would likely be unpopular with the whole of Academia’s social science programs.

Cultural Relatvism in New Guinea
In the case of vampire cannibals I may be able to put aside my qualms

There’s some firmly-grounded logical weight behind discarding cultural relativism, and yet it survives. It thrives. More perniciously, it infects the jargon that is so often used to discredit those engaged in legitimate criticism of Machiavellian and Orwellian tactics by labeling those criticizing as intolerant.

Also, for those who didn’t know, there’re a handful of nations that have used it to circumvent the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to serve their totalitarian political agendas.

For these reasons, it’s becoming a threat.

A threat to Reason itself.

What is Cultural Relativism Exactly?

Let’s hit up Wikipedia for a snapshot.

“Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” So, right and wrong are determined by what any particular culture defines as right or wrong within their own societies.

Let’s flesh this out a bit.

Though subtle, the theory’s fundamental assumption is built into its definition. That’s some next level word-wizardry.

Essentially, cultural relativism defines itself as something that can only be criticized from within the confines of cultural relativism. Thus, to accept the definition while aiming to criticize the theory is basically a logical impossibility.

Y’all pick out the assumption yet?

Should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.

Reason and cultural relativism

Apparently we need one of these two criteria from which to judge beliefs and values; that criterium defined by our own culture or that defined by another one. This definition is attempting to divide our critical facilities into only two camps, i.e. those mentioned above. Within the context of the definition, we cannot judge attitudes and beliefs by other axioms.

O but wait.. isn’t there that other thing that one guy talked about that one time? That little idea that the standard economic model is structured on? That thing that, you know, has been praised as the bastion of what separates man from other animals (sorry if I’m being speciest here)?

O yeah. There totally is another thing besides our cultural perspectives we can use to judge stuff, and it’s called Reason.

So anyway, there’s a healthy amount of precedent that allowed for this doctrine to alight as academically dominant.

(That is, outside of the hard sciences. By their nature, these disciplines are pretty much immune to operating under the auspice of social theories. In fact, I’d argue the very definition of theory on either end of the pendulum is markedly different, since a single piece of faulty evidence spells death for a ‘hard-science’ theory, whereas plenty of social ones awash in contradictions still float around in academia).

Science and postmodernism
take a close look at your privilege

The precedent here is postmodernism. If you’re like most people you’ve probably heard of it. And, if you’re like most people, you probably have only a vague idea about what the hell it actually is.

You’re not alone. Even self-described ‘post-modernists’ have a hard time breaching consensus on what this umbrella term actually describes. Funny as it sounds, to my mind that arises logically from the very nature of some of this ‘idea’s’ most salient assumptions. In this way it’s a lot like cultural relativism in that it’s kind of indulgently self-defeating, like a really stoned teenager.

Feel free to skip this part if you please because it’s going to be obscure philosophy-heavy rambling that isn’t 100% necessary for understanding my argument. I just want to introduce some context and more fully lay out why I believe an ideology can become dominant within the context of a wider ideology.

Heady Philosophical Tenets of Postmodernism

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (a great resource and referenced above) itself regards it as a truism that this postmodernism cannot be defined. I’ll first try and lay out why I think this description of postmodernism makes sense within the context of itself instead of leveling the whole philosophy as BS like many have been wont to do over the past 30 years.

Postmodern architecture

(Assume that every ‘postmodernist’ here is in pseudo-sarcastic quotation marks because most of them reject the label while the wider academic community imposes it on them regardless. Also, I’m leaving out Nietzsche and Heidegger but those guys are HUGE for this philosophy. These are just the nuts-and-bolts points that I see forging the path for the enshrining of something that is logically inconsistent at its core, i.e. cultural relativism).

  • Postmodernism is concerned with the displacement and eventual re-becoming of the subject (with the subject defined in ‘pre-postmodern philosophy’ as a unified whole). Thus, the subject (an individual person) is not a unified and quantifiable entity but a series of little systems that operate independently but are also kinda put together by the thing that regards them as separate and itself as a whole (i know it’s kind of WTF but this actually sort of jives with the modern psychological view that we’re many compartmentalized selves instead of just one).

  • Postmodernists and Derrida in particular are suspicious of meaning as represented by ‘signs’ (words, phrases, drawings, ideograms, whatever). Instead of standing in for immutable meaning they often point to each other in an endless cycle of self-referentiality (As in, think about really big and loaded words that don’t refer to concrete nouns. If you look in the dictionary at their definitions you’ll see that you need to understand the words written out in the definition to understand the word you’re trying to define. If you were to look up all of those words ((ASSUMING WE’RE IGNORING CONCRETE NOUNS)) and then all the subsequent words in the definitions for those words then you’d eventually be forced back to somewhere you’ve already been in the dictionary, i.e. you’ll be referred to an earlier word that you were trying to define in order to define the original word. Thus, ‘signs’ must point to themselves within a system of signs even while somehow retaining their ability to convey ‘meaning’). This is sort of a blow for the idea of ‘immutable meaning’, and helps explains why this philosophy describes truth as relative. Thus, instead of meaning, we’re left with function, where we can only see what these words do while being duped into thinking we know what they mean. Derrida thus privileges difference (‘differance’) between ‘signs’ as the generator of our new referent for meaning.

  • Hyper-reality: If some signs don’t have referents in the real world, then it follows that big ones like ‘society’ are the same in that they don’t really have definable limits or even delineated functions (this has some precedent in Kierkegaard, who argues that the modern printing press ‘created’ the entity of society out of a discombobulated mass of people who will never have anything meaningful to do with each other or actually be united in any concrete way). Jean Baudrillard thus sees words like ‘power’ and ‘society’ as representing hyper-realities: they’re simulations of simulations because they don’t point to anything but themselves and other signs that are equally without a referent in the real world “Signs are exchanged against each other rather than against the real” – Baudrillard

  • Michel Foucault goes on to say that reason itself must be subject to the same dethroning and scrutiny as these other signs. The subject, who is not one self but many, cannot hope to grasp and employ something like universal reason. ‘Reason’ can then be thought of as another one of those ‘hyper-reality’ words that don’t actually refer to anything. And if Reason is just another sign without a referent and doesn’t refer to anything then it isn’t universal. Without the universality of reason or anything else at all then we can’t really say that anything is totally true or even knowable.

  • See how it would be hard to define postmodernism when the ‘philosophy’ itself doesn’t really believe in definitions or universal values? While seemingly contradictory, it’s not. I’m really simplifying stuff here and I can’t be called an expert by any means but this is the gist, and it lets us see how relativism can take the place of universality when it comes to moralistic and ethical considerations.

How Cultural Relativism and Postmodernism are Connected

So the conjecture that I’m proposing here must hinge on the fact that, in some sense, postmodernism has legitimated the idea that a theory can work and endure even without the auspices of reason to hold that theory up. Theories, then, like signs, need not be universally applicable; they need only be functional insofar as they serve the purposes of the user.

This is where we witness the divergence of social science ‘theories’ (in disciplines like anthropology which draw heavily on cultural relativism as a staple for evaluating research) and hard science theories where a single inconsistency can render the whole thing bankrupt.

Cultural Relativism and Postmodernism

So, finally, let’s talk about cultural relativism.

First, I should make it clear that the theory isn’t all bad. A lot of our cultural conscription makes sense against the logic of society, even if much of it is arbitrary.

For example:

Let’s say your culture believes in reincarnation, and the focal point of that reincarnation is something arbitrary, like a crab. Imagine your Grandma kicks the metaphorical bucket and reincarnates into a real one. A bucket of crabs.

Now, it’s very hard to imagine a scenario wherein it’d be permissible to kill and consume your grandmother. Though you can’t be sure this particular crustacean is grams, it’s possible, and if it isn’t yours then it’s probably somebody else’s. They’d likely be pissed if you served up their Mee-Ma with a side of delicious garlic butter.

Crabs, the new locus of Cultural Relativism
Sybil, why don’t our Grandkids visit us anymore?

This is an example of something that a person truly believes. When you truly believe something for a defined reason then you have a logic behind it. There’s not much good to be found in discrediting beliefs that people hold for logically consistent reasons. The aversion to Grandma-munching is an internally-consistent belief within a system of other ones. It jives with the worldview.

This is where cultural relativism gets things right.

In this case we’re offered a justification for a belief spawned by culture. Also, more importantly, such a belief does nothing to infringe on the rights of anyone in particular and instead serves as a net-benefit for life in general by leaving the crustaceans to their own devices.

For some things it’s good and totally healthy to assume the relative view.

Where the Theory Falls Apart

We’ll bust out some less-savory examples after bringing down the premise-hammer.

Cultural relativism demands two things from us.

  1. That we refrain from making universal judgments about right and wrong and accept that these judgments and, subsequently, truth, are relative to culture and circumstance.
  2. That we apply this view with consistency when thinking about morals and studying other societies and cultures. In other words, we support unconditionally the tolerance espoused by this philosophy.
    Hmm.

So, we’re not allowed to make universal judgments about what is good, bad, useful, or true, but we must, under the application and auspices of the theory, accept tolerance as a universal lens for examining other cultures?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the sort of internal logical inconsistency that can’t hold up to scrutiny. You can’t base your theory on a thing that your system necessarily discredits as a fiction.

This is where postmodernism kicks in again. Accepting the slow death of universal applicability and exposing reason itself to the same sort of mistrust as other ‘signs’ and ideas allow for theories like this to hang out in limbo.

Cultural Relativism and the sign
Write anything here so long as it’s blindingly esoteric and turns you into a nihilist

Within the wonky logic of a system skeptical of all truth claims and values, then, being illogical is itself internally consistent with the rest of the beliefs in that system. The problem is that the system depends upon the coherent structure of reasonable consistency to hold itself up. Like it or not, anyone who uses reason to eschew reason is still using it.

It’s like ignoring the existence of your house’s foundation because you can’t see it through the walls. Your fancy word-games may obfuscate its existence while we’re distracted by the glitzy wallpaper, but we all know it’s there.

This whole enterprise of mistrust in the foundations of our epistemic tools is interesting. I’ll admit that when I first encountered it in college I was a believer, and it even turned me into a bit of a nihilist for a while. At its worst, I saw that the system allowed me to give up on morals completely while sleeping soundly even among my apathy regarding the results of my actions towards other people.

Now that I’m out that swamp I see how misguided and potentially destructive that mindset was for myself and the people around me.

Anyways, we’ll make the rest of this short because I think you get the idea. It doesn’t matter if the theory is incorrect if it’s just sitting benignly in textbooks, but mofos with agendas are out there using this thing for their social and political gain.

For example, countries like Saudi Arabia and other Sharia law nations, as well as one-party regimes like China, conveniently exempt themselves from the burden of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights because of, you guessed it, cultural relativism.

The UN declaration of human rights

If their logic were transparent, it would probably sound something like this:

“Though we’re in the business of mistreating our people for the maintenance of our power and personal gain, they’re totally fine with that. They think it’s part of the culture because our glaring propaganda signs got them all to conflate nationalistic fervor with national culture. We’ve wrapped the culture and the system of governance that we created deliberately together. And it’s been incredibly effective in making the people think our authoritarian fist is swinging in favor of their culture and interests”.

Yeah, I guess us democracy minded folks will just never understand.

One observes how this can be manipulated to the advantage of terrible people engaged in decidedly terrible endeavors.

“Genociding people is just, like, part of our culture man”.

“So we use children as decorative flags for our boats and they always die of seasickness. It’s a ritual that’s very important to our cultural identities” (This one is real, circa 1840’s Fiji).

And those who have decided that the US now has a ‘Rape Culture’?

I really hope they’re not proponents of the theory.

I’m certainly not.

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