Cultural relativism is the concept that no culture should be ranked or compared to another. Not only is cultural relativism a solid term to flex in intellectual conversation with other students, it is a highly contested concept in social, international, and interpersonal politics today.
Respecting the ideas and values of cultures that differ from our own is crucial to building cross-cultural connections, but is there a line that must be drawn? At what point are we, as members of a liberal society, able to unanimously declare that certain ideas another culture holds are universally immoral? Being proud members of an overly accepting society allows for the affirmation of unacceptable ideas.
While traveling through Morocco a few months ago I experienced blatant misogyny. I noticed early on during the trip that the majority of the Moroccans I saw on the streets were men. Of the women, the majority were modestly dressed, often in hijab or burqa. I, along with the 20 or so other liberally-dressed women traveling together, faced daily sexual harassment on the street, at a level I’d never seen before.
I noticed that although the Moroccan men would often catcall, and even touch, members of my group, they would never speak to the conservatively dressed Moroccan women a few feet away. We stood out, obviously differing in both physical appearance and clothing choices. Our immodesty, in contrast to that of the Moroccan women we were compared to, allowed these men to decide we did not deserve respect. Despite being a guest in their culture, I believe that I am entitled to the respect and feeling of safety that the male travelers in my group were able to enjoy. More importantly, the women living in this world should be entitled to the same level of comfort and respect I receive from societies elsewhere. Sexism, homophobia, and racism are abhorrent sentiments, regardless of geographic location. It is crucial that as members of a liberal society we fight for values of equality and respect everywhere in the world.
Cultural relativism requires that we listen to and understand the perspectives of people that differ from ours, but it shouldn’t happen without deliberation. We must first take time to process what others are saying, and then come up with our own conclusions on the issue, either agreeing or disagreeing with the ideas or values supporting their claims.
In run-of-the-mill disagreement, it’s crucial that we are polite and willing to accept conflict. In morally reprehensible differences, such as female genital mutilation, it’s our duty as people with access to power to aid women suffering from oppression.
This aid cannot be given by forcibly imposing our own values on another culture.
We can help the women negatively impacted by highly patriarchal societies by educating ourselves and having open conversations on what is actually occurring there. Pretending that issues in other cultures don’t exist will not make any improvements in the lives of the oppressed, and pointing out blatant social and political problems inherent in another culture does not make us racist.
The world today is insanely globalized. Cross-cultural interactions will only increase as travel, economic interaction, and social media continues to expand to every corner of the world. Our generation is experiencing an influx of these issues due to our increasingly intermingled cultures.
A system of basic commonalities in universal morality must be established in order to bridge divides and connect values across cultures and people. We cannot sacrifice women, LGBTQ+ people, and minorities in our society’s quest to be the most accepting of other cultures. We may have to make some concessions in our society, but there are some standards of basic human rights that are not negotiable for anyone, regardless of geographic location.