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.
Photograph by Isiah W. Taber, San Francisco.
Mr. Crites ends his article
with a pitch for cultural relativism:
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
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.
Comment on this Post
First time comments will not appear until they have been approved.
Your comment will not appear until you have refreshed this page.
The Man in China archive index
Incredible Summer of 2010 Wedding and Honeymoon
The Man in China Home