The Left

Cultural relativism: a bogus charge?

I’ve done my bit to ridicule some of the more outré and post-modernist ideas on the Left, but I think that even in its most exotic realms, the Left has taken a bum rap on the question of “cultural relativism.”

Yes, there are plenty of leftists who engage in moral relativism of the “Bush and Blair are just as bad as Saddam and bin Laden” kind. And I’m not defending them for that. But the charge of cultural relativism is more problematic.

Here’s an example from the excellent website Butterflies and Wheels, which is devoted to challenging “fashionable nonsense,” and usually does. The article discusses how to challenge certain barbaric Third-World practices without being accused of cultural imperialism or Eurocentrism.

One obvious (yet strangely easily overlooked) way to deal with this problem is to ask ourselves what we mean by ‘culture’. If we think and say that women shouldn’t be murdered by their fathers and brothers for, e.g., resisting an arranged marriage, only to be told that that’s their culture and it’s arrogant and Eurocentric to judge other cultures by Western standards, then surely the thought is available: what do you mean ‘their culture’? Whose culture? And what follows from that? Is it the culture of the women who are murdered? Or is it only the culture of the men doing the murdering. If the latter, why should their culture be privileged?

Of course. But who exactly is saying that opposition to the murder of women who resist arranged marriages is “arrogant and Eurocentric”? Has anyone who could be described as a leftist said such a thing? Has a leftist ever said such a thing about opposition to honor killings, genital mutilation or child slavery? If someone can give me an example, I’d like to see it.

Are those who raise this issue just shadow-boxing with a mostly imaginary opponent?