Cultural Relativist

A term I coined to describe my (Alistair's) views... I know other people are at least like this... others ask what it is...

I have lived in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, US, Scotland, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, and been a foreigner in each. Have worked in South Africa, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Germany, ...etc you get the idea. Have worked with Indians, Peruvians, South African, Kenyans, Chinese, ... Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Born-again Christians, Mormons, Jews get the idea.

In each case, particulary when I was young (under 30) and the local foreigner in the group, I found myself operating within someone else's set of rules, i.e. I didn't get to set the rules. The rules were different from place to place, wildly different.

The thing that hit me over and over was that each set of rules actually worked. By the time I got to be in a position to have any say-so about rules, I found it almost impossible to tell someone else to work to "my" rule... how could I, since so many sets of such different rules all worked?

Incredibly many things are relative to culture, so many beliefs about the shape of the world, so many assertions about what is true. Try almost any set, and you'll see. If you don't see, try telling it to a Moslem/Hindu/Born-again-christian or African bushman, and see.

I have met a few people who have cultural relativism anchored even more deeply than I do - for me it's still always a surprise. And a shock when I work with someone for whom the relativity of the moment is more natural.

All this of course shows up in how I recommend people do software... i.e., wow, there are so many ways that work! and so many attitudes to apply to it! These ideas show up in my poem, and the discussion, on ConstructiveInterference, OntologicalThinking, and of course, one of the few models of the world built for us CulturalRelativists, DouglasAdams' WholeSortOfGeneralMishMash.

Anyway, that's the explanation. Cheers, --AlistairCockburn

I think there is a difference between the idealistic CulturalRelativist and the pragmatic CulturalRelativist. Idealistic cultural relativism seems self-contradictory. I don't see how you can believe that the values of all cultures are equally good when the values of most cultures tend to be about how much better that particular culture's values are than those of any other culture. On the other hand, a pragmatic CulturalRelativist recognizes that some degree of comformity to the prevailing social norms is a necessity for survival. Arguing with cannibals about the propriety of eating human flesh is likely to lead to an invitation to dinner.

Yes, but read what he's saying - it's nothing to do with values it's to do with rules . There isn't a rule that says "our culture is better than yours" - that kind of rule wouldn't make sense. CulturalRelativism? says that different sets of rules are equivalent; it doesn't say that every culture's values are a true representation of reality. In fact, it would be surprising if the cohesion required in a culture of many people didn't require a priori some sort of collective distortion of reality. Such as, "our culture is better than yours". And if every culture did in fact contain some sort of value along these lines it would actually be further evidence for the idea that cultures are equivalent.

There are rules which imply that "our culture is better than yours". In many cultures there exist either explicit or implicit rules (or social conventions) that will stop you from saying otherwise. There are often rules about which cultures one is allowed to accociate with and in what manner they should be treated.

No one has to agree that values are absolute. In a very trivial sense it can be shown that human values are always relative to some context. But then again cultures are not closed systems which have to be accepted wholesale or dismissed entirely. Cultures are subject to complex patterns of interaction and change. They are able to learn from, correct and change one another and then agree that they have done so. Only by mutilating culture can a relativist conclude that the rules of two cultures are equivalent.

See MoralValidity ItDepends

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