Between relativism and cultural imperialism

The network or interdependence model
The multiple-aspect model
Diversity as a universal value

Introduction: The problem

This year, it is 500 years since one of the greatest disasters in the history of humankind. I am thinking of the so-called discovery of America and the genocide and mass destruction of cultures that followed, and still continued. This is probably the worst example of European cultural imperialism, undertaken in the name of spreading (Christian) `civilisation' to the `wild', `barbaric' or `primitive' people in other parts of the world. In justifying these atrocities, the proponents of cultural imperialism are repeatedly appealing to purportedly universal values, rights and standards of development. The policy may take different (and less violent) forms: The policy of the World Bank and IMF towards Third World countries and Eastern Europe these days may be seen as still another aspect of the same phenomenon, replacing the equally imperialist marxism-leninism of the 1970s and earlier. The victims are not only non-European or non-Western cultures, but also traditional cultures within Europe.

My question is: Even if we abstract from all those cases where purported universal standards have been merely a guise for European cultural imperialism, will not pushing universal standards still function so as to promote the destruction of cultures, even if that was not the intention? On the other hand: Should we not protest against the sufferings and violations of the rights for people in other cultures, even if this is due to essential aspects of that culture? We would not wish to end up in a form of relativism where values and morality have no validity beyond cultural borders.

I think this is a real dilemma. We may have an example of it in Bhutan, where the king - who is a very good-hearted or high-spirited man - is trying to preserve the traditional Buddhist culture - for instance, by making it compulsory to wear tradition clothes. This comes into conflict not only with the Hindu minority (a problem which I believe is easily solved), but also with the right of the inhabitants to watch international TV programs, since these are a threat to the culture - and the king does not want censorship.

To avoid misunderstandings, I have to clarify this a little bit. It is not a question of whether there exist universal standards - I believe there do - or whether they are really only culture-specific or guises for Western cultural imperialism. Neither is it a question simply of our being mistaken about what we take to be universal standards. The problem remains even if we can be sure about that. If the main European standards were not really universal, but, say the Tibetan ones were, then Tibetans who wish to critisise European culture from a universalist point of view would grapple with the same problems.

The main problems, as I see the question, are:

  1. The problem of `pushing' values, regulations etc on other cultures - each cultures should be allowed to develop these internally. This is not the most important part of the question, though.
  2. One-sidedness: Other cultures may include other important values, and therefore, we should be careful with advertising our own values too strongly. This should be obvious, and it is admitted by all sophisticated universalists. But, what is often implicitly denied, is the possibility of different genuinely universal standards being incompatible. I believe this is a very real possibility, and a trivial example of this could be the conflict between freedom and security.
  3. The most important problem is that claiming universal standards implies a pressure towards cultural uniformity, and leads to the extinction of cultures. This is undoubtedly a grave loss. (This threat arises only from universalist cultures, since traditional cultures generally don not claim validity beyond themselves.) That is, I do not accept the standard liberal explanation of universal standards in general and rights in particular as a way of making the coexistence of different forms of life possible (cfr. Rawls).

I will try to consider some models that could possibly cope with this dilemma. These models are not to be seen as models for legislation, but rather as modes of argumentation.

I. The network or interdependence model

An analogy from ecology and from the distribution of roles within society might lead us to assume that the different cultures are in some way interdependent, and that their differences are crucial for this interdependence. Thus we may respect all the different cultures in their diversity (and not only to the extent that they approach the ideal of eg a liberal society), and still, because we are situated within this network of interdependence, we have a responsibility towards them, and should care for what goes on within those other cultures.

The problem is how to conceive this interdependence. In the cases of ecology and relations within society, we have more or less simple material dependence between the different rolds. It is difficult to conceive of any such `division of labour' between cultures that depend heavily on cultural, as opposed to material or geographical, differences. It is a fact, though, that cultural identity is often achieved by stressing the contrast with, or opposition to, other cultures (cfr. Christianity vs Islam, or, even clearer, the different forms of Christianity). We then have the paradox that a society or a culture may have an interest in the continued existence of its enemy. (This is very clear in the case of subcultures.) I also believe there may be another form of `division of labour' between cultures, which will be clarified in the discussion of the next model.

Still, there are at least two serious flaws with this model. Firstly, our responsibility towards distant people or cultures will be vanishing. Secondly, the model at first glance obliges us to respect and care about other cultures, but not the individuals living in those cultures. One could say that the flourishing of a culture depends on the flourishing of its individual members, and that we anyway have obligations towards the individuals - but still the problem of cultures that depend on the oppression of parts of the population (women, slaves, specific professions etc.) remains quite unresolved. The problem would become acute if the rest of the world was dependent on such a culture.

II. The multiple-aspect model

Another way in which the variety of cultures or forms of life can be appraised without falling into the pitfalls of relativism, is viewing them as various aspects or realisations fo the same thing, namely the social human nature.

This model seems to offer a way out of the dilemma: Human nature is the same in all cultures, and this gives a basis for universal rights and responsibilities. It also means that insofar as a culture is a genuine expression of fundamental facets of human nature, we are able to understand the values of that culture as genuine values, and such that we also at least might hold. At the same time, human nature is no monolithic structure of needs, values and goods, but consists of a plurality of genuine aims, some of which may be (and probably are) incompatible. If this is true, the full set of genuine human goods cannot be realised by one culture, let alone one individual. One culture can only be able to realise one aspect of `the good', and if only this one culture (and conception of the good) existed, it would necessarily lead to an impoverished understanding of human life and human values. The existence of different cultures, emphasizing different important aspects of the human good (say, freedom, welfare, unity with nature, faith and loyalty), will mean a richer and better life for everyone.

Here we see how interdependence between cultures may be understood: One culture cannot realise its full potential on its own; only by exchange of ideas, comparison and contrast with other cultures may it fully understand itself, and so function properly.

However, the problem of repressive cultures still remains. One culture can be an essential expression of a set of fundamental values, and because of this we ought to sustain and support it - but the expression of those values may imply grave suffering for individuals within this culture. This is the case, I would say, with both theocracy and extreme liberalism. Can we accept that people are being used merely as means for expressing those values? (Of course, they also gain from those values being expressed, but their personal needs are not fulfilled.)

III. Diversity as a universal value

It might be possible to find a way out of the dilemma while staying within the universalist paradigm. By appreciating cultural diversity as a universal value, the development towards a monoculture may be avoided without diminishing our allegiance to the universal human rights and other universal standards. At least it looks so in theory. The problem is conceiving precisely how the universal value of diversity should be fit into the system of other universal values and standards. In fact, it seems as if it must have such a strange form that it does not fit in. At least, no good system of priorities seems ready at hand. If individual rights always take priority over cultural diversity, we seem no closer to a solution. - But what rights could we accept the violation of?

And how should we implement the value of diversity? It cannot be protected quite like a universal right - even if it is possible to say that not only individuals have rights - and it cannot be actively pursued by the universal community - firstly, because it cannot be voluntarily produced (only the possibility, or the conditions necessary for a plurality of cultures to exist, can be produced), and secondly, because cultural diversity to a certain extent implies the negation of a universal (or global) community: It is precisely the global community that is the main threat to cultural diversity.

It is obvious that cultural diversity will be tied to the right to self-determination - but this right (which is a right of communities, traditionally nations) is problematic precisely because it is typically used to condemn `meddling in internal affairs', that is, human rights and social affairs. So, even if the right for cultures to preserve themselves is not seen as a legal right, but as a mode of argument, the typical formalist notions of rights (which are to be respected) and universal values (that are to be pursued by the whoe community), or of norms of actions, rules and regulations, and principles, seems too rigid for this purpose.

It might be possible to embody diversity into a universalist discourse ethics - the diversity of possible points of view is precisely what distinguishes discourse ethics from the traditional systems - although overemphasis on consensus could destroy this. But to secure (not only allow) cultural diversity one of the two former models would have to be adopted as the mode of discourse. A freely-floating value is by far insufficient.

Last updated: 11-Mar-1995 Back to my front page