It helps to read what is said, rather than jump to conclusions

I’ve been pilloried by some readers for my article this morning on facts and truth, particularly in the light of my earlier articles on the situation in South Africa.  A sampling of some responses:

This kind of sanctimonious posturing is the reason I rejected the faith for so long … we can dispense with the politically correct virtue signalling. You aren’t fooling me one bit…

. . .

Sentiment is the reason that you are an African apologist.

. . .

The problem with your cultural relativity–“The same goes for our dealings with other races, societies, cultures and nations. They don’t see things as we do, and probably never will. That’s not to say we, or they, are right or wrong. It’s just the way it is.”- is that it ignores the fact that some cultures are better than others.

You can read the rest for yourself in the comments below the linked article.  Other readers are, fortunately, more positive in their responses.

The problem is, the people quoted above are reading my article through their own sets of filters.  They aren’t reading what I’m actually saying, but what they presume I mean by what I’m saying.  In the case of the last citation, a moment’s thought would have shown that.  Let’s look at my actual words:

The same goes for our dealings with other races, societies, cultures and nations. They don’t see things as we do, and probably never will. That’s not to say we, or they, are right or wrong. It’s just the way it is.

Obviously, as one brought up in a First World society, and living in one now, I’m all in favor of a First World approach to life.  I reject superstition, raw emotion and knee-jerk responses as the basis for any response to life, the universe and everything.  They simply won’t work.  When I see them in operation in (say) South Africa, I don’t agree with them… but the people there don’t care whether I agree or not.  They have their own set of values, their own approaches, their own perspectives.  They’re going to operate from that foundation whether I like it or not.  That’s why I said “It’s just the way it is”.  It is the way it is.  I made no claim about their culture being equal to or better than the one in which I now live.  That assertion is in the minds of a few readers, not mine.

Cultural relativism is the principle that “a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another“.  Note that nowhere in that definition is there any assertion that any culture is better or worse than another.  It simply says that to understand someone and/or their actions, you have to know where they’re coming from, and interpret them within that context.  If you don’t do that, you run the very serious risk of misjudging them and/or misdiagnosing the problem at hand, meaning that your response won’t be effective.

Cultural relativism is not a morally blind acceptance that any culture is as good as any other.  Obviously, that can’t be true, as even a moment’s thought would demonstrate.  Unfortunately, too many people have seen how relativism has been misused in that way, and now respond to any attempt to honestly assess cultures with a knee-jerk rejection of the very idea.  What they’re actually objecting to is moral relativism:

Descriptive moral relativism holds only that some people do in fact disagree about what is moral; meta-ethical moral relativism holds that in such disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and normative moral relativism holds that because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.

Anyone in his or her right mind understands that some moral and ethical systems – and, by extension, the cultures that embody and apply them – may be better or worse than others.  (To take a very recent example, ask any of the hundreds of thousands of US veterans who’ve served in combat zones during the War on Terror about their experiences of those cultures and moral systems.)  However, that has little or nothing to do with cultural relativism, which is an examination of what people and societies and cultures believe, without value judgments.  It seeks to understand facts, not to approve of or condemn those facts.

When I assess cultures, I’m not making moral judgments about them.  Sadly, when critics excoriate me for doing that, they are making moral judgments, about those cultures and about me.  We’re not talking to each other, but past each other… and that’s a waste of breath and time.

To my critics:  please read what I actually say, and if it seems unclear, please feel free to ask for clarification.  However, please don’t respond to something I didn’t say, didn’t imply, and certainly didn’t mean.



  1. You can't win. They are going to 'filter' everything through 'their' perceptions. Not actually comprehending that your perceptions are entirely different, having lived through that time.

  2. I'm pretty much of a literalist, but I've learned that most folks are a whole lot more interested in telling you what they think than hearing what YOU think.

  3. I get what you are saying completely, but I also have something to add. I myself think that we must remember that we are also looking at things framed by our own experiences, and our own culture. So while it is perfectly acceptable to say that we have the moral high ground when it comes to many things, such as not wishing to allow torture or such, in some things, such as religion or the like, we might have to do the old agree to disagree thing. So then, when we compare cultures, on some things, we can compare apples to apples, but on others, we are simply not able to do so.


    "Last week, the South African parliament voted to allow the seizure of land from white farmers without compensation. The motion was motivated primarily by the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) Party, Julius Malema.

    During an EFF campaign speech Sunday, Malema cranked up the hate and hostilities toward South African whites, saying that his party had decided to remove the mayor of Port Elizabeth because he “is a white man.” He encouraged his followers to “go after the white man” and to cut “the throat of whiteness.”"

  5. "We're not talking to each other, but past each other… and that's a waste of breath and time".

    I got to be honest, that's what modern America looks like from where I'm sitting.

  6. Peter,

    "When I assess cultures, I'm not making moral judgments about them."

    You say that you are not, which means that you do not think that you are. Okay, that is your position.

    Then you say "Sadly, when critics excoriate me for doing that, they are making moral judgments, about those cultures and about me."

    Oh, really? Is that wrong?

    If you are saying it is wrong, then you are making a moral judgement, and if you are saying it is right, then you are also making a moral judgement. That is what moral judgements are, declaring good and evil, the rightness or wrongness of something.

    You use the word "sadly" in reference to what your critics are doing. That also seems to indicate a "moral judgement".

    It seems as if you want to make moral judgements regarding the positions of commenters, but do not like it when they volunteer moral judgements regarding your positions.

    In a word, sad.

  7. "a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another".

    Shall we only understand Nazi practices in the context of Nazi culture, and not judge them based on our own culture?

  8. Peter, did you not write that the land grab in south Africa was motivated by African spiritualism? How am I supposed to take that? It sounded false and sanctimonious in my ears. In point of fact, the land grab in South Africa is not about spiritualism (anyone that says so is nuts) – it's about greed, hate and stupidity. Those are motivators across all ethnic groups, unfortunately. Even your differently-abled Africans.

    A more informed and intelligent assessment of the situation in South Africa can be found here, on a podcast by The Z Man – you'll have to catch it on his podcast at the 22:00 mark:

    It's hilarious in a dark way (please forgive the pun). Here we are, 21st century: the blacks in South Africa finally have whites that care about them and want to help them do well for themselves – and the blacks are going to kill them. Africa wins again.

  9. Peter, I'm shaking my head with you. From your first post on this subject onward, it has been baffling to see how many people cannot or will not recognize that an historical and factual understanding of why a culture embodies certain beliefs and behaviors does not mean that one makes no moral judgment on what behaviors that culture espouses.

  10. "When I assess cultures, I'm not making moral judgments about them …"

    Neither am I, but instead I am making what are essentially military judgements about them.

    Specifically, I have to ask what is to be gained in trying to "win" the previous war through the means of making the descendants of the former combatants feel guilty about what "they've done".

    I have to ask this because some of these people might tire of group guilt and decide to ask a different question, which is why they can't go ahead and "win" that war that their ancestors chose not to pursue to its ultimate (and final) conclusion.

    And so I find it much more likely that new converts to der Totale Krieg would choose to raise a bumper crop in 2018 of land mines and improvised explosive devices in the farm fields of South Africa than I would find it likely that these descendants would simply roll over and take what's coming without a fight.

    Insofar as any arguments go about relativism, you may find Paul Boghossian's book "Fear of Knowledge: Against Relativism and Constructivism" highly informative, but I'll give you the nosebleed seats view for your current edification: relativisms invoke special considerations that prevent the people who adopt them from pursuing matters to a final form.

    Let's call the situation what it is then: historical military relativism.

    The generals of the past decided not to fight wars to their ultimate conclusion, and now their descendants are paying for that by means of the invocation of special considerations several generations after the fact.

    That this situation was allowed to come into existence does not mean "that your agony shall endure forever", to use Neil Kinnock's old turn of phrase.

    I don't have to take into consideration such things as cultures when the matters of fact related to the assembling of armies, both official and ad hoc, may have more to do with the ultimate disposition of matters than any direct or indirect pleas for the parties involved to "respect" each other's positions.

    The past was a more honest battleground: this sort of idea in terms of the reigning sovereigns used to be engraved on cannons, when the armourers regarded the product of cannons to be "the ultimate argument of kings".

  11. I've spent a lot of time in the American South and Southwest and encountered native spiritualism.

    One thing that made me chuckle was a couple of natives talking about the hills and trees in the area we were hunting in being sacred to their tribe for thousands of years. Turns out they were the third or fourth tribe in a row that had taken the area by conquest in the last couple of hundred years and were originally located several hundreds of miles away.

  12. My best advice, Peter, is to offend those offended parties so much that they go away and never return.

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