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Cultural Relativism be Damned
originally posted April 8, 2010

Recently I had a reason to look up the history of foot binding in China.  I found this very interesting article by James A. Crites.

Chinese girl with bound feet, lifted from an article by James A. Cirtes.
Photograph by Isiah W. Taber, San Francisco.

Mr. Crites ends his article with a pitch for cultural relativism:

     "However, let's not condemn this practice for we cannot judge it in respect to our own culture. To fully understand a practice such as foot binding we have to practice cultural relativism. That is we must suspend our own personal judgment and attempt to understand this custom in China's own cultural terms. "

I strongly disagree with this, but I think I know where this comes from.  Westerners, mostly religious missionaries, have had a nasty habit of making judgments about other cultures and imposing arbitrary rules from their own - instructing women to cover their breasts, imposing silliness like "the missionary position" on sexual practices, and generally sticking their blue noses in where they don't belong.  In reaction the sociologists and anthropologists invented the concept of cultural relativism, the idea that we can't criticize another culture unless we are part of it.  It's a pendulum swing in the other direction, and I think it's wrong.
     I think we can have some very simple rules about what is good or bad in a culture, and there should be such a thing as universal human rights that transcend cultures.  Among the rules I would suggest are the following:

1. If the practice creates a class of human beings who have fewer rights, privileges, or abilities than another class, then it is clearly wrong.  So I can say that I think the caste system in India is wrong, as was the class system in England or the feudal system in Russia.  I can say that a culture that denies education, or a driver's license, to women is wrong.  A culture that allows the crippling of children to make them better beggars is wrong, as was a culture that turned girls into cripples by binding their feet. The leadership of China made this judgment about foot binding in their culture, and ended the practice.  Obviously they saw it as wrong too.

2. If the practice is imposed without the free consent of those affected, I can say that it is wrong.  So I think we can speak against arranged marriages, selling of children into sexual slavery, genital mutilation of infants (both boys and girls), and foot binding.

To say that we can't criticize another culture is absurd.  I can criticize my own culture, and do.  I'm convinced that someday the fact that it is currently legal in Canada to cut off part of an infant boy's penis with no medical justification will be viewed with horror and disgust.  I make judgments about my own culture, and I'm going to continue to make judgments about other cultures.  Call me judgmental, but you can keep your cultural relativism.

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