Cultural relativism ain't like that!

mike salovesh (T20MXS1@NIU.BITNET)
Thu, 20 Jan 1994 00:59:00 CST

On Wed, 19 Jan at 10:27 EST Carter Pate said

======================quotation follows===========================
I judge this argument important enough to present to my students:
"relativity" : an attempt to understand some cultural pattern within
its home context, exploring the relation to other parts of the
culture without preliminary judgment.
"relativism" : an ideological exaggeration of relativity, which often
aborts the process of inquiring into cultural interrelation and
produces judgmental attitudes such as:
"anything goes!"
"never do anything to change another culture!"
"everything is relative" (and therefore never to be judged
on either a moral or a factual basis)
Haven't we discovered that Kuru is related to endocannibalism of
brain matter, and can't we conclude that eating one's dead relative's
brain matter is likely to reduce one's effective competence as a
human being (after a lengthy incubation period, of course)?

. . .


=====================End of quotation==============================
1. No, we don't know that about Kuru--which may very well come from
handling, rather than eating, those remains. But this is a
minor quibble.

2. Carter Pate's definition of relativism has a great deal of cur-
rency--all of it OUTSIDE anthropology. Serious anthropologists
don't deal with the world that way.

Just try the internal logic: if customary behavior is to be under-
stood in terms of its cultural context, what kind of sense does it
make to say that what happens in one context is ipso facto acceptable
everywhere? Say headhunting, which (used to) characterize Jivaro
behavior (says Mike Harner), and has some kind of internal sense
within that cultural framework; does that make it automatically
acceptable as the way to seek academic tenure and promotion in the
U.S.? (Don't confuse descriptive reality with metaphor here!)

What most of us mean by cultural relativity is that cultural
behavior must be understood in context. What most of us mean by
cultural relativism is the -- TEMPORARY -- suspension of moral
and ethical judgments of customary behavior in other cultures while
we're trying to learn about those other cultures.

I'm a pacifist. I strongly believe that killing another human being
is always evil (although I will concede that I can imagine situations
where that evil might be necessary). I have lived with Tzotzil-
speaking Indians in Chiapas; one of my best informants organized the
killing of another Indian who was alleged to be making illegitimate
use of supernatural powers. I have lately been studying Guatemalan
politics, in the course of which I have talked with army officers and
police officials who routinely condone (and may participate in) death
squad killings. In my mind, the actions of my Tzotzil informant and
my Guatemalan informants are EVIL. Period. Incidentally, by the
laws of the countries where the killings took place they probably
constitute the crime of murder. (Not that there is any chance that
anyone would be tried or convicted for that crime in these cases.)

Cultural RELATIVISM means that I don't put that moral judgment into
my work as an ethnographer, where I should be describing, not judging
what I see. When my work goes to the phase beyond pure description,
what I should be trying to understand is what my informants say and
do about killing, how it fits with such things as political struc-
ture and religion and medical beliefs and economics and on and on:
the RELATIVITY of action and belief within their cultural settings.

Like all human beings, I am a product of my culture--or cultures, as
the case may be. There's no way I can step outside that frame, and I
don't think I'd want to if I could. The meaning of "Thou shalt not
kill", in my upbringing, is that there are moral absolutes THAT BIND
ME. I don't pretend to be able to prove their universal validity for
all people at all times in all cultures, from their viewpoints. I do
judge others by those moral absolutes anyhow. Nonetheless, I remain
both a believer in the idea of cultural relativity and the procedural
approach of cultural relativism, and I see no contradiction at all.
(But I can't see any anthropological value in the caricature that
Carter Pate's definitions lead to!)

mike salovesh anthropology northern illinois univ
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