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The Value Of Cultural Relativism

One of the books I often recommend to readers is 2009’s The Wayfinders, which is the published collection of anthropologist Wade Davis’s Massey lectures. In those lectures — which is to say, in that book — Davis talks about what we miss when we dismiss the insights of traditional cultures marginal to our own experience in Western modernity. I quoted Davis from his book in this post from last year, based on a WaPo “conservatives in the mist” piece about rural Oklahoma. Here’s Davis:

We too are culturally myopic and often forget that we represent not the absolute wave of history but merely a world view, and that modernity — whether you identify it by the monikers westernization, globalization, capitalism, democracy, or free trade — is but an expression of our cultural values. It is not some objective force removed from the constraints of culture. And it is certainly not the true and only pulse of history.


An anthropologist from a distant planet landing in the United States would see many wondrous things. But he or she or it would also encounter a culture that reveres marriage, yet allows half of its marriages to end in divorce; that admires its elderly, yet has grandparents living with grandchildren in only 6 percent of its households; that loves its children, yet embraces a slogan — “24/7″ — that implies total devotion to the workplace at the expense of family. By the age of 18, the average American youth has spent two years watching television. One in five Americans is clinically obese and 60 percent are overweight, in part because 20 percent of all meals are consumed in automobiles and a third of children eat fast food every day. The country manufactures 200 million tons of industrial chemicals each year, while its people consume two-thirds of the world’s production of antidepressant drugs. The four hundred most prosperous American control more wealth than 2.5 billion people in the poorest eighty-one nations with whom they share the planet. The nation spends more money on armaments and war than the collective military budgets of its seventeen closest rivals. The state of California spends more money on prisons than on universities. Technological wizardry is balanced by the embrace of an economic model of production and consumption that compromises the life supports of the planet. Extreme would be one word for a civilization that contaminates with its waste the air, water, and soil; that drives plants and animals to extinction on a scale not seen on earth since the disappearance of the dinosaurs; that dams the rivers, tears down the ancient forests, empties the seas of fish, and does little to curtail industrial processes that threaten to transform the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere.

So that’s where Davis comes from. In a negative review of the new Jared Diamond book, which is Diamond’s take on the same topic as Wayfinders, Davis accuses Diamond of holding secular materialism as the natural telos of humankind, and judging all other societies by that standard. Diamond, in Davis’s view, is such a materialist and a determinist that he fails to appreciate the power of ideas in shaping culture. Here’s Davis from the review:

Consider Diamond’s discussion of the Australian Aborigines in Guns, Germs and Steel. In accounting for their simple material culture, their failure to develop writing or agriculture, he laudably rejects notions of race, noting that there is no correlation between intelligence and technological prowess. Yet in seeking ecological and climatic explanations for the development of their way of life, he is as certain of their essential primitiveness as were the early European settlers who remained unconvinced that Aborigines were human beings. The thought that the hundreds of distinct tribes of Australia might simply represent different ways of being, embodying the consequences of unique sets of intellectual and spiritual choices, does not seem to have occurred to him.

In truth, as the anthropologist WEH Stanner long appreciated, the visionary realm of the Aborigines represents one of the great experiments in human thought. In place of technological wizardry, they invented a matrix of connectivity, an intricate web of social relations based on more than 100 named kin relationships. If they failed to embrace European notions of progress, it was not because they were savages, as the settlers assumed, but rather because in their intellectual universe, distilled in a devotional philosophy known as the Dreaming, there was no notion of linear progression whatsoever, no idealisation of the possibility or promise of change. There was no concept of past, present, or future. In not one of the hundreds of Aboriginal dialects and languages was there a word for time. The entire purpose of humanity was not to improve anything; it was to engage in the ritual and ceremonial activities deemed to be essential for the maintenance of the world precisely as it was at the moment of creation. Imagine if all of Western intellectual and scientific passion had focused from the beginning of time on keeping the Garden of Eden precisely as it was when Adam and Eve had their fateful conversation.

Clearly, had our species as a whole followed the ways of the Aborigines, we would not have put a man on the moon. But, on the other hand, had the Dreaming become a universal devotion, we would not be contemplating today the consequences of climate change and industrial processes that threaten the life supports of the planet.

Davis’s point is not that there is no meaningful difference between the quality of life of one living in a Manhattan penthouse, versus living in a lean-to in the Sumatran jungle. Rather, it’s to point out that if we judge the merit of a particular culture by a certain set of criteria, we may miss things of genuine value in that culture, and overestimate the value of aspects of our own culture — destructive qualities that are inextricably linked to the things we value.

Davis is a true cultural relativist, in the sense that he does not recognize an absolute measure of a culture’s  worth. For me as a conservative, especially a cultural conservative, this stance is a combative one. I mean, the very term “cultural relativist” constitutes fighting words, on culture-war terms, and for reasons I probably don’t have to explain here. On the American right, we associate the term with liberal decadence, and a refusal to assert that one culture is superior to another.

But here’s something to think about: most American liberals are themselves cultural absolutists about certain things, chiefly the primacy of secular materialism (with exceptions often made for religions they don’t see as a threat, such as African-American Christianity, or Tibetan Buddhism). Read that “conservatives in the mist” piece about the rural Oklahoma town, and think about how many things that are part of that town’s traditionalist culture that contemporary liberals would reject as harmful. We all do this, and we have to do this, as a matter of ordinary human discernment.

What I learned from reading Davis, though, is to be less eager to pass judgment, not as a matter of being politically correct, but as a matter of teaching myself to see things more clearly. I used to be the sort of person who believed that to give any quarter to cultural relativism was to say that there’s no basis to judge our own culture as superior to, say, the Taliban’s Afghanistan. But that’s a knee-jerk response, honed by our own culture war. Reading The Wayfinders taught me that what appears to me to be primitive from the outside may well, on further consideration, be complex in ways not visible to me, because I don’t know how to read the code. The book’s title is about Polynesians, and how they learned to navigate the Pacific’s currents, with an incredibly sophisticated knowledge of how the ocean works. Davis, an ethnobiologist by training, writes about how Indians of the Amazon taught him to discern the differences between various plant strains that looked exactly the same to his trained eye, but actually were not. Those people, as primitive as they are by our standards, had developed a staggeringly precise and discerning eye for the world in which they lived, based on countless generations of deep experience in their environment.

The Davis book made me reflect on things I knew about my own small part of the world. People who don’t know the culture I come from, and identify with, make judgments against it all the time — judgments that I consider ill-informed and unwise, because in my view they’re not seeing the whole picture. Well, don’t I do that too? If so, how? Why?

I’ll give you an example I cited in an earlier post, something I learned in the past year. As I was reporting The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, I learned that my late sister had an uncanny ability to remember who was related to whom in this town. This meant that she was almost always able to keep straight whose aunt was sick, whose cousin’s house had burned down, and so forth. When she would run into the janitor at the school where she thought, she could ask him, “How’s your Mama? She make it through surgery okay?” And she would be right.

I didn’t know that about her, but when I learned it, I thought, oh, that’s charming. But you know, it’s more than charming. That kind of knowledge — of kin-relations networks — is not only valuable in terms of knowing one’s own community, it’s also hugely important in terms of social capital and resilience. Ruthie was extraordinary in that way, even by local standards, but it’s still really important to most people in this rural place where I live to know about these networks. People may have forgotten why it is, but in the not too distant past, this sort of thing was vital to survival. It’s how news traveled, and it’s how people formed and strengthened the kind of bonds that they depended on. Five years ago, if I had been with Ruthie on a shopping trip through the grocery store in town, and had been with her as she stopped on every aisle to get caught up with the people she met, I probably would have rolled my eyes and thought, “This is sweet, but come on, we have somewhere to get to.” I would have missed the deep cultural worth of what she was doing — and, note well, what she was doing unawares. And, relatedly, I would have missed the cost to me of not doing the same where I lived.

I am not a cultural relativist, and don’t know anyone who is, except possibly someone like Davis, and even he, I think, would not wish to see survive a culture that endorsed certain cruel and violent practices. If he had it in his power to stop the Taliban from executing a woman schoolteacher, for example, I’m pretty sure he would, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t say, “Well, that’s just their culture.” But I don’t know that. I certainly wouldn’t be indifferent to it, any more than I’m indifferent to harmful cultural beliefs and practices engaged in by people in my own world.

The value of the cultural relativism I learned from Davis, though, is to help me be less quick to condemn, and quicker to learn from the Other — even if, ultimately, I judge that Other to be a failure in important ways. That, and also more open to seeing the shadow side of the culture to which I belong.

In the end, unless one is an absolute relativist, we all have an idea of what makes a successful culture. As a committed traditionalist Christian of humanist temperament and ethos, I have a fairly well defined idea of what that is — and I don’t judge cultures by the same standards as a secular humanist would, or even necessarily as a standard Republican Party voter would. But I try to be aware of how relative my own standards are, and appear to be, to others, and this awareness also makes me know how far I fall from God’s standards. Even the greatest human culture I could conjure from my imagination would still be only a dim approximation of the ideal, would still be tragic, deformed by sin, bordered by shadows and streaked with fog.

Anyway, read Davis. And also read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which makes the same point, pretty much.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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