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…
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Sentiment is the reason that you are an African apologist.
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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.