Saying the Obvious About Denying the Obvious

Cultural Relativism and Cultural Chauvinism. If that's all we have to choose from, as Postmodernism implies, why then Cultural Relativism is vastly preferable - if only because Cultural Relativism is always in large part a pose. It can never be entirely sincere since we can't know all the ways in which culture has shaped our own opinion, nor do we ever fully care to. We all have unconscious minds, and a highly developed capacity for special pleading for ourselves and those we consider to be like us; it's an important part of evolution's gift to each of us. Long courses in Philosophy and Logic may inure us - I'm sorry, inoculate us - to the most obvious ways in which we favor ourselves, but they may also make us into expert rationalizers at the same time. So however extreme or ridiculous, Cultural Relativism can never be quite so extreme or profound as Cultural Chauvinism. Moreover, historically and anthropologically, Cultural Chauvinism is overwhelmingly more popular - it's hard to find a tribe who's word for their own tribe wasn't simply whatever word in their own language designated "people" or "humans", which is to say, that all other tribes ain't and weren't, in their opinion. Voltaire's followers aside, envious admiration of other culture's habits isn't a commonplace.

So why shouldn't we all welcome "cultural relativism" of some stripe or other? Well, for starters, two opinions can be wrong at the same time, even if they contradict each other. Hegel may have been wrong about the number of planets, and several other things here and there, but he was right to suppose that human beings do tend to overseer cognitively (Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis). Sadly however, the precise opposite of an error is usually another error, else we'd all be able to get by with brains the size of walnuts. What's essential to recognize is that the converse of the idea that our own culture is right about everything, or nearly everything; is the idea that our own culture is undoubtedly wrong about much - and not the notion that every other culture is superior, or that no culture is or can be right about anything, or that truth is a geographical property and every culture is absolutely right about everything that happens wherever they are. It's not necessary to surrender to nihilism in fancy dress, or with a passport. We all would have been better off if we had stayed with the eminently sensible Marxist notion of "false consciousness" instead of trying to reinvent it - that is, to have stayed with the suspicion that reasons are attracted to money, or that while special pleading is universal the means to hire really good speech writers and purchase some jaunty printing presses are much more rare.

Now granted, we are all still human, and we will special plead. So any attempt to balance our own culture against others will fail. We won't ever find the mean precisely, and in retaining any belief in either morality or efficacy, we will in some part miss (or perhaps even inflate) the merits of other cultures. This may make it seem tempting to assume that the only escape from such special pleading is to go the the most opposite extreme of approving whatever is "other", under some rubric, or within some set of brackets or another - preferably angle brackets that can support a good bookcase. But the best answer to such inevitable failure is simply that it is part of the historical and dialectical process of learning, and an invitation to humility, not an invitation to pride in the certainty of knowing more profoundly than our fellows the impeccable and wonderful value of whatever is Other. Such beliefs might spare us all a great number of math courses, but they may lead to another sort of pride and a notion of the superiority of our beliefs within our own culture. It may be just another way to distinguish ourselves, and to borrow a little self-worth at second-hand, or even to indulge in the retributive thought that if we can't have the truth, why then nobody can have the truth.

Western cultures will and ought to concede that a great many cultural features, habits and rules are relative, in the sense that they are like traffic regulations or tort law - it matters a great deal less just what regulation is chosen to govern what happens at a four-way stop, for example, than that some regulation exists. That people uniformly drive on one side of the road or another is extremely important, but whether they drive on the right or the left, if not unimportant, is still far, far less important. Whether we adopt the Hindu tradition of using rings on the hand to signify marriage, as first the Romans did, and now Western culture has done, or tattoos or beards is not especially significant. Nor is whether we throw confetti imitations of grain or old shoes at a newly married couple as a fertility charm - even if there are cultures who firmly believe that one of these charms really works and the other really doesn't. So it is with a great panoply of customs, many of which we may find emotionally revolting, such as eating horses rather than cows, or vice versa. (Leaving open for the moment of vegetarianism vs omnivery.) So lets concede that most of what causes us to go into culture shock of one kind or another isn't ultimately very important. And just what isn't important may yet surprise us. We might eventually find that clothing that conceals the faces of (at least) one sex have real benefits or even freedoms both for society and the occluded sex, whichever sex has their visages hidden away. I don't promise this, but it may be so. As a summary example, it matters that contract law specifies when interest is owed on delayed payments where no contingent specification has been made far more than precisely what rate of return is enforced by the courts or whether this is adjusted for inflation or not (barring long periods of runaway inflation or deflation). But that there be rule of some law and predictability is simply necessary for business or any complex endeavor.

However other cultural features, such as, say, Suttee - the ancient Hindu habit of burning widows to commemorate marriage that the West hasn't yet adopted along with rings; the denial of education to women; or for example a teaching that all others with different beliefs must be killed remorselessly without discussion until the silence can be called peace; are not relative or inconsequential in the same sense. These cultural ways can make societies, and the world, better and worse if anything possibly can. These days "relativists" and Postmodernists are edging away dramatic sorts of moral relativism even at the cost of consistency or import. But it's worth noting, nonetheless, that even the strictest Humean believes that placing one's hand on a red-hot burner feels quite different than putting your hand on a glass of beer. To stumble abruptly on a conclusion, there are a lot of ways to run a candy store, but they aren't all equal, as any accountant will be pleased to explain at length.

The world is complex. Technological and consequent social change have made all of our lives still more complex. We've all needed a good long coffee break from the endless negotiations and re-re-reconsiderations this entails. Cultural or moral relativism makes a hell of a fine coffee break. But it's no way to run a candy store, and the coffee break's over, as all coffee breaks or times or relaxation, in all cultures, must eventually be.