Monday, 9 November 2015

An Alternative to Cultural Relativism - Part 2

This post will focus on applying the principles discussed in the last post to real world issues, so check it out first. This second part will be somewhat focussed on Australia, but feel free to apply my approach to other countries.

In recent decades, immigration, fuelled by the global expansion of technology, labour markets and media, has caused previously white dominated countries, including Australia, the United States, Canada and some Western European nations, to become more ethnically diverse. This has increased the potential for cultural conflict. Liberals respond to this problem by insisting on cultural relativism, the belief that no cultural idea or practice should ever be criticised (see my previous post and this earlier one for more information). This viewpoint is often used to justify misogynistic practices, which originated outside of the West, including female genital mutilation and foot binding (see my previous post for more information about cultural relativism).

Meanwhile, reactionaries endorse the maintenance (or rather creation) of a homogenous culture within the West. Some are outright racists who despise immigrants (those who are not white, that is). Others, such as Rise up Australia, claim to not be racist and to only oppose "multiculturalism". Nowadays the word "multiculturalism" seems to be used only by the right. Liberals have abandoned it in favour of "cultural diversity" (a term I find far more irritating, for reasons I will discuss later). This post will put forward a radical leftist vision of multiculturalism, as an alternative to both relativism and racist repression.

The Radical Approach to Culture

Cultural relativists believe that world is full of societies and cultures which are all drastically different from each and demand that they all be “respected” (which really means, blindly praised). Thus liberals exaggerate the amount of “cultural diversity” in the world (while implying that “diversity” is inherently good regardless of its consequences). However, the main problem with this demand is that it is not possible to respect all elements of a foreign culture or society for no society has a single culture.

Contrary to liberal belief, all hierarchical societies are similar in certain ways. They all have a dominant culture (often expressed through schools, religious institutions, media and literature) which is created by the ruling class and is aimed at reinforcing its rule. Different ruling classes may employ different tactics (traditional ruling classes often claim that their power was granted to them by God, while more modern ones claim that they earned it by being smarter than everyone else), but they all have the same general aim of protecting the hierarchical systems which favour them.

Most societies also have rebels, people who actively oppose the dominant culture, often with the aim of ending oppressive or unjust policies (though unfortunately, some groups who see themselves as rebellious are either extremely reactionary or have no conscious cause). More radical rebels aim to change the entire social order. They form movements and create cultural products (such as videos and writings) which challenge the dominant ideology. Therefore we must all choose which sections of foreign cultures (and of our own) we will endorse, those that defend oppressive orders or those that resist them.

Since the mainstream culture usually reinforces views which help to keep the ruling class in power it should be subjected to a ruthless critique. Cultural relativism discourages such critiques. As Francois Tremblay pointed out (in a comment he left on my previous post), the cultural relativist viewpoint implies that resisting oppressive institutions is wrong. Proponents of cultural relativism would have to label all such rebellion as “disrespectful” towards the people whom the institutions (and the culture they create) rule over. This accusation assumes that all people support the dominant institutions within their culture.

Cultural relativists may argue that they allow those who are part of a culture to criticise it (though whenever someone does, they are usually accused of betraying their culture or “internalising” oppression). However, forbidding foreigners from criticising cultural institutions still deprives local movements of much needed solidarity from Western radicals.

All cultural products and practices should be open to criticism, no matter who creates them or for what purpose. Slavery and racist segregation were criticised with the intention of inspiring active opposition, which led to their formal abolition (within the West). Political radicals should direct the same type of criticism towards cultural products that are created by the ruling class to reinforce capitalist values.

Criticism can also be constructive, meaning that it aims to improve the thing being criticised. This type of criticism will be discussed in the following sections. Such criticism is necessary because even less oppressive cultures have flaws. However, these cultures need not be destroyed by such critiques. They can be transformed into more egalitarian forms while their positive aspects are preserved.

Breaking Down Barriers

Since it is easier to form friendships (and romantic relationships) with those you perceive as similar to you, the liberal approach to cultural issues creates barriers between people of different ethnic backgrounds, by exaggerating the differences between such people (such exaggeration was discussed in the first section of this post and in my original discussion of cultural relativism). There are also a number of other liberal ideas which form such barriers.

For example, liberals assume that only those who belong to a culture can understand it. While an insider perspective is useful for understanding the emotions associated with belonging to a particular culture and the mistreatment which people may experience on the basis of their culture or race, sometimes an outsider perspective is needed. Outsiders are typically more capable of spotting problems with a culture. Therefore liberal condemnation of the outsider perspective is yet another way to prevent valid criticisms of culture practices.

Then there is the concept of “cultural appropriation”. It is indeed objectionable to take the symbols or language of a particular culture and use them as decoration without regard for their original meaning or worse to promote the opposite of what they originally meant. An example of this would be companies using Soviet or radical leftist imagery (including images of Che Guevara) to sell products. However, cultures have been borrowing from one another for thousands of years (“Western science” owes a great deal to the Arabic world, as does any Westerner who uses sugar). I see nothing wrong with this, so long as due credit is given and nothing is distorted or misused.

Those who practice these alternative cultures have many valid critiques of the West, in the same way that Westerners can have valid critiques of less powerful cultures. Thus borrowing from other cultures should not be universally condemned. Of course, those who borrow from other cultures of racial groups should not claim misleadingly claim to be members of them. That said, people of different backgrounds can learn a great deal from each other without making such claims.

For example, some Australian Aboriginals criticise Western culture for promoting the belief that it is acceptable to treat the environment as if it were disposable (since we supposedly have souls which will leave this world upon death). You can watch the documentary “Utopia” by John Pilger, which focuses on the conditions of Aboriginals in Australia, to hear this claim presented in their own words (though the documentary does contain some mild sexism). Those who wish to be consistent in their relativism would have to dismiss this criticism and argue that environmental destruction is fine (since it is part of Western culture) or that no Westerner could ever understand or apply an Aboriginal principle.

When we are exposed to other cultures it should make us question (though not necessarily denounce altogether) the one we have been raised with. Relativism encourages Westerners to believe that (while their culture may not be superior to others and should not be "forced" onto others) it is nonetheless "true" and acceptable to them. The view that your beliefs are subjective "to you", rather than objective, is not the same as honest self criticism and ideological questioning. While labelling ideas as "my (or their) truth" may seem respectful to liberals, it prevents genuine intellectual engagement with other ways of thinking.

  A Radical Approach to Culture

Modern day reactionaries argue that Western nations, like Australia, should have a homogenous “Australian” culture (which would, if it existed, look nothing like that envisioned by the highly authoritarian and definitely not relaxed or “chill”, Rise up Australia Party). I, however, would argue that a functioning society does not need a single culture, but rather, a unifying set of aims. These aims can be based on almost universally accepted human values (discussed in the previous post). People may aspire towards such aims while adhering to whatever culture they wish, so long as they are willing to accept criticism and alter their cultural practices in accordance with such aims.

At the core of both cultural relativism and the belief in the need for a single culture is a desire to maintain social harmony. I think harmony is overrated and a threat to intellectual liberty. If a society appears to be harmonious, there are probably people in that society who are keeping controversial opinions to themselves. 

While I do not favour violent conflicts among the masses, the multicultural society which I want to see emerge (after a socialist revolution, yes I am a revolutionary socialist, deal with it), will not be a harmonious one, but one filled with open disagreement and debate. Contrary to liberal belief, passionate debate is not only a necessary part of living in a free society, it is a good thing. Debates are a valuable means of determining the correct path forward and discouraging blind belief in authorities. They also teach people how to defend their claims with rational arguments and enables them to understand that “you are wrong and here is why” are not the most horrible words on the planet.

At the same time, the masses (in my ideal, multicultural society) will be united in the broader aim of creating an egalitarian society, just as scientists are united in their search for an accurate understanding of reality (or, to use a term which horrifies relativists, truth), even while they disagree about the exact nature of reality. 

The positive aspects and ideas of the various cultures that are practiced in Australia and similar nations can be preserved. These include the scientific knowledge that comes from Western, Arabic and Chinese cultures, as well as the importance of respecting the natural environment, which comes from Aboriginal and other indigenous cultures. Meanwhile the negative aspects of these cultures, including authoritarianism (promoted through mainstream religions and in milder form through some Aboriginal narratives) will be challenged. This does not mean that stories with objectionable elements will be erased from living memory, but rather they will subjected to scrutiny (in the same way that ideological texts from the past are), instead of being taught to children with the intention that they be believed and their moral commands blindly obeyed.

To put it simply, I believe that Australia (and all other nations for that matter for I believe in moral universalism) should allow the practice of a variety of cultures, while encouraging those who practice those cultures to transform them in accordance with broad, egalitarian objectives. I consider this form of multiculturalism to be far more liberating than the relativistic, mental segregation advocated by liberals.


In summary, people of all cultures (including Western culture) should accept criticisms of their culture while also trying to learn from other cultures (this is different from blindly “accepting” other cultures in a relativistic manner). Ideas and practices from various cultures which are true or beneficial will be preserved, while those which are harmful should be abolished (preferably by reasoning with those who believe in or practice them rather than by force).

It is possible that this alternative form of multiculturalism will lead to society abandoning the whole notion of separate cultures. Instead people would enjoy whatever food, music, celebrations, rituals and stories they preferred (so long as they are consistent with egalitarian ideals) regardless of what skin colour they were born with. For this to occur, it is necessary that racial inequality be abolished, so that the reality of how people are targeted for oppression because of their physical traits is not muddled or concealed. Overall however, I think the creation of a general human culture (which will lead to more individuality, not less, as liberals may insist) would be a very positive development.
I would have mentioned the recent anniversary of the Russian Revolution were I not concerned about scaring off liberals before they got to the actual content of my post. Since you have already read this far I guess I can now. Oops, I already did. All I will say is that I hope that the history of socialist revolutions has not yet ended.