Lazy Luddite Log

29.8.16

Cultural Relativism And Universal Rights

I first came across the concept of cultural relativism in the 1990s. Dr Mahathir (then long-serving Prime Minister of Malaysia) argued that criticisms of his human rights record were nothing more than the imposition of values foreign to his own nation. This kind of thinking has a much longer history and reminds me of the following dismissal of universal rights from the Count de Maistre writing in 1797:

“Now there is no such thing in the world as Man. In the course of my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians… But, as for Man, I declare that I have never met him in my life.”

The count needed to pay more attention to the common characteristics and aspirations of humans but he was an arch-conservative and one thing with conservatives is that they are particularist. Each nation will have its own home-grown conservatives whose purpose is to preserve the customs peculiar to it and (while they are at it) exaggerate its distinctiveness. This contrasts with international movements for liberty and equality that have a history of asserting the universality of civil rights and the importance of democracy worldwide.

And yet all too often I have noticed some opponents of conservatism making cultural relativist statements. They argue that democracy has a European cultural origin and to wish it for all nations is Eurocentric thinking. This assertion needs to be looked at more closely.

It is commonly known that democracy was invented in ancient Greek city-states and it is likewise commonly known that Greece is a part of Europe. But the ancient Greeks conceived of themselves as part of a Mediterranean world while Europe was merely a barbaric backwoods. It was only much later that a European identity formed and Enlightenment era scholars (resisted by the likes of the Count de Maistre) drew inspiration from the ancient Greek polis. Assuming a never-changing and uniform European identity is itself Eurocentric thinking.

Furthermore if we look across human history we find practices in power sharing and popular rule have developed independently in many parts of the world. Other candidates for such developments include the ganas of India and the Iroquois Confederacy in North America. Assuming that democracy is a solely European concept betrays a kind of Eurocentric thinking and dismisses democratic heritages across the planet.

So why do some opponents of conservatism harbour conservative assumptions? I venture two explanations. One is that pre-modern and post-modern thinking meet on the far side of the curvature of modern politics. Regarding every culture as alien to every other is pre-modern but rejecting any kind of rational common ground for defining terms is post-modern. Both abandon the possibility that we can understand one another and participate in shared discussions.

My other explanation is simply to say that some of us define our ideology by what we stand for while others are shaped by what they oppose. Among the ranks of progressives (of which I am one) there will be those who would be better understood as anti-conservatives. Ironically it is anti-conservatives who are more likely to accept conservative assumptions. As they seek to oppose home-grown conservatives they inadvertently play into the hands of conservatives in other lands.

If you accept the cultural relativist argument that every culture has its own unique concept of what it is to be human then it is worth asking who this thinking serves. Look beyond just the supposedly uniform nation to see that it is made of many distinct interests. Does withholding ‘our’ concept of human rights help those who suffer human rights abuses or does it only serve those who perpetrate those abuses? If a person has been imprisoned for criticizing local elites or defying restrictive traditions do they then sit in prison and accept this as part of their culture? Hardly. They ask for better because of a shared human desire for better.

The best way to promote the rights of humans is to empower humans with the ability to make decisions – that is exactly what democracy is. But it can and does exist in many variations because cultural and historical differences do have an impact. Likewise the way rights are defended will differ (say between common law customs and written constitutions). But I think there are standards that are worth sharing globally. The methods by which we will arrive as these shared conditions matter. Peace and diplomacy can be universal values too.

And it is okay to say that anything can be improved by adaptation and reform. After all the government of Dr Mahathir was technically deemed democratic. None of the regimes we live in are perfect and all can be criticized. I am free to criticize my own government but I reserve the right to also criticize others. And if the citizens of those other states lack the freedom that I enjoy then it becomes even more useful for me to say something.

Cross-posted here.

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