Friday, September 18, 2009

"Cultural Relativism" and Orientalism

I recently heard a comment in a university setting that we should teach about "cultural relativism" and Orientalism when discussing how "we" encounter other cultures.

The view the person was trying to express, I think, was something like the following. We should teach students to think critically about the cultural and social field in which they live, so that they don't unthinkingly reinstate the imperialist gaze, common in the "West", that afflicts so much thinking about "non Western" cultures. This is a point I happen to agree with. But it's unclear that you can agree with this if you are a "cultural relativist".

Here's why. If "cultural relativism" is true, then we shouldn't quarrel with what some in the West say about other societies. For how, according to the "cultural relativist" story, could ethnocentrists and imperialists do otherwise? In succumbing to the Orientalist gaze, you might think, all ethnocentrists in the West are doing is proving that "cultural relativism" is true. They are merely asserting one facet of what they understand to be their own culture, in a plural field in which different cultures operate according to different, incommensurable paradigms. If, for instance, a defender of British imperialism claims that all Asians are barbarians, we could locate this view within a segment of historically-situated British culture and conclude that this person's belief is just a matter of their particular culture. To judge it otherwise would be a mistake.

Here's a quick and dirty account of what I understand by "cultural relativism". It is the view that "worldviews" are internal to a particular "culture", of which there are many in the world. Value has no specific meaning outside of a particular culture, and there are many cultures. To apply values from one culture to that of another, therefore, is to do something that doesn't make sense (notice that we can't say that this is to do something wrong, since then we would have to appeal to an extra-cultural value like toleration, or the like).

Let's leave aside what "culture" might mean here, and how we might go about clearly demarcating its boundaries. Let's also leave aside how this view simply assumes that we cannot critically engage our "own" culture (whatever we might mean by "culture"). Let's also leave aside who it is that actually believes this view (I'm not sure hardly anyone does, despite what they may think or say about the matter).

Let's just consider how this view jibes with Orientalism. It seems to me that if you think that former is true, then you clearly disagree with Said's thesis about Orientalism.

Orientalism amounts very roughly to the tendency not to see other societies or cultures as they are, but as the typical, historical Western onlooker wants to see them. This tendency often takes the form of imposing mystical, mythic, fantasies onto cultures outside of Western Europe, a tendency which has deep roots in European literature, politics and culture. This imposition need not always be the assignment of predicates that are ostensibly 'bad', they could be traits like possessing obscure wisdom, sexual powers, magic, etc. That these imposed traits are not obviously 'bad' (as, for example, characterizations of non-Europeans as barbarous, animal-like, uncivilized, etc.), does not make them any less imposed or false.

But this view is an indictment of a certain trend in literature, culture, politics and the history of ideas in the West. It claims that myths and fantasies (or anxieties, contradictions, desires, etc.) are simply imposed upon a foreign culture and taken for granted when subsequently talking about them and assessing them. This tendency has, as Said points out, deep roots in Western societies. It has taken on a life of its own in some respects, and may even appear to some in those societies as the way things actually are. Some may not have even considered that these myths and fantasies about "the Orient" could be otherwise.

But to be able to point all of this out, you'd need to firmly reject the crude view often called "cultural relativism". You'd need to think that the ethnocentrism of the traditional Western gaze is wrong, that it uncritically accepts falsehoods about other people and their societies, and that it imposes fantastical traits onto foreign cultures that are alien to them. Moreover, you'd need to critically engage the cultural landscape of Western societies, thus presupposing that culture is the sort of thing that can be criticized and pulled apart.


Arvilla said...

I very much agree with your point that rejecting orientalism requires the ability to critique and pull apart Western culture, but I don't think doing so necessitates rejecting "cultural relativism." I think you're accepting a crude definition of cultural relativism that is put forth by its opponents, at face value.

My experience with cultural relativism is not that it's an effort to tell people they can't judge cultures as good or bad because, hey, it's all relative. Cultural relativism doesn't have anything to do with whether you can assign value to any cultural facet in the world. It's not a statement about value or judgment, but about the importance of recognizing that everything has a culture-dependent context which can help bring you to that value judgment.

So, as a cultural relativist, I can say that orientalism is a flawed and ignorant viewpoint. But as a cultural relativist I have to understand that in order to critique it I must recognize the cultural context in which it emerged.

For instance, let's say I'm critiquing the way Iranian people generalize Americans as ignorant, immoral buffoons. It's a bad way of looking at us, but it can't be judged like we judge orientalism by Western parties. The culture, history, and political dynamics that might cause Iranian people to judge and stereotype Americans is not at all like the culture, history, and political past that have caused Americans to view non-Westerners through an orientalist lens. For instance, the amount of power on each side of that equation is different. The history of oppression caused by one against the other is completely different. The current level of power Iranian citizens have in the world vs. that American citizens do is completely different. A good display of this disparity in magnitude and impact is the fact that the United States has invaded and occupies two non-Western nations right now. Iran occupies no American territory.

In fact, it's cultural relativism that allows us to make the value judgment that one of those forms of othering is so much more dangerous and oppressive than the other.
Cultural relativism should not be confused with moral relativism.

T said...

I think I agree with most everything you say. I also think you're right to say that "cultural relativism" is, perhaps, difficult to pin down. I think this mostly, in my experience, because 'cultural relativism' is not a view that I often hear people ascribe to themselves, its usually articulated when someone hostile to the view is critically engaging the views of another. So I feel like the target is kind of blurry. I hesitate to even define or criticize the view as such, because it is unclear to me who holds the view and what many people take it to mean. We may be taking the term to mean entirely different things.

You suggest that there is no clear or intrinsic link between 'cultural relativism' and a more generalized norm or value relativism on the other. I agree that there shouldn't be (the interconnections between value and culture have got to be more intricate and politically complex than a facile relativism would have it). But often it seems to me like people affirming CR argue that there value is reducible to culture.

So this is more or less the point I was trying to make. I encounter people who feel that as a matter of 'tolerance', one ought not critically engage 'cultures' (again, I would probably want to dispute what these folks understand by culture). And this where I find their view incoherent: on the one hand, they hold that value is a mere epiphenomenon, part of the 'superstructure' of a 'cultural base'. On the other, they claim to prize 'tolerance' as a value trumping all else.

Yet three things here are unclear to me. First of all, what is 'tolerance' or 'pluralism' supposed to mean in these cases and why should we value it (or, what is the *political* motivation for these alleged 'virtues'). Second, how can the reductivist-culturalist line justify the universalizing moral injunction "be tolerant above all else", when it seems to proscribe the possibility of "ought" claims of this sort?

Third, insofar as this view seems to be put forth as a *criticism* of Western culture, why not make the obvious inference that all culture ought to be criticized and pulled apart? To think this is possible, you'd have to think that culture is not an entirely autonomous and all-pervasive feature of social formations, you'd have to think that culture could be critiqued in virtue of other, non-cultural, things (politics, economic power, social relations, gender, etc. etc.) In other words, you'd have to think that criticism doesn't always have to be internal to culture, sometimes critique is radically opposed to 'natural' or 'common sense' culture. I think feminist criticism of popular culture, for example, certainly fits this bill.

Anyway, I feel like all of this jibes pretty closely with what you write in your comment. Where are we diverging?

Arvilla said...

I think our only disagreement really is our characterization of the phrase then.

I've only met one intellectual who actually labels herself a cultural relativist, and I think it's because the notion of a global struggle is central to her conceptions of Marxism and feminism.

What you say, that we should be in the business of tearing apart all cultures is really what I've perceived to be the main idea of cultural relativism itself. That to understand any given injustice, we have to understand how it was produced and how it is reproduced and defended in the culture it came from.

Cultural relativism is a messy, murky phrase, but the only time I've heard it defined as some defense of tolerance or pluralism as such is by people who are using that as a straw man dismissal of relativism. Apparently our experiences have been very different with it, and I guess that's the root of my disagreement. The only reason I thought it significant to point out that I thought you were mis-defining the term, is because I think it's a problem when a phrase is defined by its opponents rather than its proponents. It seems a lot to me like the dismissal of feminism as man-hating, for instance. Certainly, I won't begrudge anyone that there have probably been people who have identified as feminists who do hate men (or that there are cultural relativists who are merely moral relativist, pluralists for that matter) but since I've never met one in my life, I have to think the number of them is quite small, and I think the common reliance on these straw men actively works to fight the actual ends of each label, as it obscures those ends.

The bottom line here is cultural relativism's initial aims, whether it involves moral relativism or not, is to eschew the paternalistic, context-free moral indignation that we've seen from the West so often. You're right that the opposite of that should not be tolerance or pluralism, but an unraveling critique.

So it's semantics, to a certain extent, but one which has consequences...I think our disagreement here is minute at best.