human rights/family/devel.(part 1)

Bjorn Conrad Fry (bear@USNET.US.NET)
Wed, 14 Dec 1994 15:28:40 -0500

To all on ANTHRO-L and beyond,

What follows is the first part of my response to the -
running for the last few weeks. I have decided to split my contribution
into at least 2 parts for obvious reasons. Please excuse any tendencies I
might have to sound "preachy" or to belabor the obvious.

When I started this thread several weeks ago, my intention was to
bring forth more holistic and multi- disciplinary perspectives to the
Culture/Development/Human Rights/Social Policy debate. I still believe that
the field of Cultural Anthropology, in particular, has much to contribute
to the general cultural betterment of mankind. What has surprised me is
that after all of what has been written, I feel a need to forcefully
restate that fact. To me the repercussions of the worldwide Multicultural
trend are potentially significant and warrant continued study. Speaking as
a perpetual student of Development Economics, International Affairs,
Communications and Geography, Anthropology has always been the discipline
that closes the knowledge loop for me. Who for example is better qualified
to examine certain aspects of Cultural Determinism?

Somehow this has turned into an either or joust between those who
carry the greatest sympathies for the free spirited individual and those
who value belonging to a collective or group more. This is an unrealistic
radicalization of the debate that takes us away from the original inquiry.
As XXX? so ably points out, this ends up being little more than a conflict
between the personalities or characters of people generally. This is simply
not what was intended originally. At this point I would simply say that man
(neutral usage) is by his very nature a social animal who rarely stands
alone, and for the most part, doesn't, when given the choice. This is not
to deny the fact that everyone also has an independent spirit and will that
often conflicts with their social or more collective nature. Every culture
ultimately addresses these conflicting human characteristics and needs
according to their own culture specific formulas. It is an examination of
these cultural formulas and how they optimize the balance of human
creativity, self-realization, concept of fairness, motivation,
productivity, loyalty, and community cohesion that I was interested in
investigating further.

Another direction in which the discussion moved, was the one of
absolutism vs. relativism. This arose out of my early contention that
certain ethical considerations alone might be sufficient justification for
holding individual rights sacrosanct, even in the face of group or
collective rights. I based this on logical patterns of responsibility and
moral concepts of justice. Mike Lieber considered this to be indicative of
absolutist thinking and therefore highly perilous. His use of a tribe's
propensity for infanticide, as an example of apparent relativistic
morality, only opened another can of worms. In the end he left himself open
to Thomas Fillitz's appropriate retort that illustrated the slippery slope
of relativism. Over the last few decades it has been exceedingly
fashionable to apply a kind of "feel good" tolerant egalitarianism to all
ways different. It has simply not been considerate, friendly, or PC to even
suggest that there might be a better way. It seems obvious to me that
relativism ends up seriously weakening if not totally negating the validity
of acquired knowledge, wisdom or truth by consistently lending something
approaching equal credence to even the most contradictory alternative
concepts. Some might even make the case that one of the reasons for the
world's mad dash for the absolutism of dialectic, religion or
Multiculturalism is closely related to the veritable cultural wasteland
that resulted from the insecurities precipitated from a generation of
relativistic thinking. One might recognize this as something of a backlash.
Maybe that's why so many in academe have gone from mere relativistic
tendencies to unabashed absolute relativism. ;-)

Absolutism is not something that I would generally associate myself
with. This is not to deny that I see certain things as more true than
others and therefore more wise. And how clearly has history demonstrated
the prudence of never giving up the search for better ways even if it means
occasionally reexamining the most sacrosanct beliefs. I think that we will
always be approaching the truth without ever even having the chance of
getting there. My notion of evolved culture incorporates a kind of Deming
view of life itself, if you will, where the better way is preserved and
built upon. A strong dose of pragmatism and "proof is in the pudding" is
incorporated in this view. I would contend, that there are certain things
that we, as humans with many thousands of years of cultural experience
under our belts, have actually learned. Also, there are certain cultural
patterns that we can clearly see were even once experienced by others and
that have long since been improved upon. This realization does not
necessarily reflect inconsiderateness, insensitivity or superiority. It is
just knowledge and experience that, among other things, are reflected in
cultural achievements of numerous kinds and degrees. And, if some organized
faith somewhere happens to take an absolutist stand on some issue that I or
anyone else might think is the most prudent one to take as well, this
shouldn't automatically categorize that view, or those who hold it, as
being solely guided by blind faith. Isn't this once again carrying the
notion of guilt by association a bit too far? How many of us would not
agree that dishonesty, murder or torture should not be seen as acceptable?
Who among us would advocate ignorance over knowledge? Intellectually
burying our heads in the sand of convenience, detached overspecialization
(yes, I was the one who wrote that post) and the irresponsibility of false
harmony is not exactly a pillar of intellectual honesty and integrity. Oh
yes, I forgot, those are absolutist notions. Whose interests are we serving
anyway? Will someone out there please read Rudyard Kipling's "If" again.

Let it be said, once again, that most of what is wrong, and of
what is most perfectable in this world, is located between our
own ears. If we don't first start living our own lives to the
fullest, as individuals, in just fashion, and as empowered exam-
ples, instead of languishing in the addictive maelstrom of blame,
dependency, and its powerlessness, there is little hope for us.

Bjorn Conrad Fry - American
Bethesda, Maryland