01/20/2016

A critical observation of cultural relativism

by Jonas Kellermeyer.

In contemporary studies, cultural relativism is a widespread phenomenon. Yet in order to acknowledge differences, a common basis is necessary on which one can frame these. In the following article, the theory of shared values is the basis used to take a critical look at the proclaimed relativity of culture.

 

All around the globe students keep learning about the relativity of culture. They learn about differences and to what extent their own cultural context is related to other peoples’ ideals in order to gain a deeper understanding of reality. Avoiding ethnocentricity is essential when learning about transculturalism in general and intercultural communication in particular. But shouldn’t we be talking about shared values rather than about the dividing aspects in order to achieve a discourse that tries to reach to the heart of the problem instead of just dealing with its symptoms? So the question should really be: Are we able to identify certain shared values that are present in different societies regardless of their people’s own cultural heritage?

Culture is of course something that is imposed on us while we are growing up. It stems from both society’s social norms and the family values that our parents share with us. Religious beliefs (or the absence thereof) canalso play a major role in developing cultural awareness. Nevertheless, there must be something like »shared values« in order for us to be able to identify cultural differences, simply because all human beings need to have something in common for them to be affected by culture, for there to be a basis on which differences can be articulated.

 

What we need to acknowledge differences

When thinking about manifest shared values, the first thing that comes to mind are Human Rights. Nearly all countries have agreed to the declaration of Human Rights, regardless of their majority’s beliefs, their ethnical structure or their specific economic systems. The simple fact that all humans are able to feel empathy for each other, that they are able to gain a deeper understanding of why people act the way they do, shows that there must be something this feeling is based on.

Although human beings are not born with culture, they all have the ability to develop it which separates us from other animals. If we take a closer look at religious beliefs for example, it can be noted that all of them try to raise the level of respect for life in general and human dignity in particular. Most of them even do that explicitly, for example with the Ten Commandments, which play a major role in Christianity and Judaism. Similarly, the Koran lays out certain rules (a code of ethics so to say) within its Surahs to ensure social life remains peaceful and structured. Even in polytheistic religions, like Hinduism, human dignity is omnipresent. The caste system can thus be understood as a form of moral order that structures society but also connects people via Karma and the circle of life. (cf. Robert Traer: Faith in Human Rights. Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (1991), p. 129) The Declaration of Human Rights basically places these religious rules, which used to structure social life in former times, into a more secular context and tries to generalise them without offence to any religious group. (cf. ibid.) Still, this declaration leaves space for the construction and interpretation of more specific meaning. But since their formulation remains pretty basic, they are something everyone can easily agree on (more or less). Human dignity is their core value and can thus be considered to be a cross-cultural shared value.

It would not be possible to have something like a relative moral interpretation of values without having some kind of »anchor ethics« it can be linked to. Of course, culture is relative to a certain extent. Still, for the sake acknowledging relativity, you need common grounds to be able to explain them. In other words: The fact that human beings are able to point out the main differences between their respective cultural backgrounds, shows that there has to be some kind of underlying similarity that these differences can be articulated upon. Something that could be called »common sense«.

 

What results from the existence of the phenomenon »culture«

Since (social and environmental) circumstances keep on changing, a different form of common sense applies. That may be the main reason why the relativity of culture is highlighted so often these days. Thoughin fact, there are values that each and everyone of us should be able to agree on. The sheer existence of a »shared value basis« does not imply that learning about different cultural interpretations is irrelevant, it only means that we are able to identify appreciable similarities between even the most different forms of societies.

In my opinion, one thing has to be noted: a deep respect for life itself represents the basis for every society’s culture. In most cases, this respect ends at a certain point, that is to say the point people face a way of life that differs from their own habitual reality. Thus it is important not only to concentrate on the differences between cultures in order to reach a higher level of understanding, but also to realise the existence of cross-cultural shared values. The most basic value that is understood and appreciated by all cultures is respect. While there are different ways to express it, the idea remains the same. It is this structural similarity that can be identified as a transcultural constant upon which a productive discourse can be established.

In conclusion it can be said that moral values may differ but the general existence of the phenomenon »culture« must be tied to a foundation that is absolute and solid in order for the concept to work.

 

We’re all sensitive people with so much to give! – Marvin Gaye

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