[Update: Now I am older and wiser, I don't necessarily any-longer agree with everything I wrote here, but I'm not going to delete it (yet). If you also disagree, let me know.]
I was talking to a couple of friends of mine about politics the other day. The conversation ended in a disagreement about whether or not one ought to adhere to principles of cultural relativism. That is, whether it is fair or legitimate to criticise the practices of members of another culture from the inescapable perspectives of ones own. I was arguing against cultural relativism but in the course of the discussion some arguments were raised which I hadn't considered before and which made me stop and reconsider my position.
My purpose in writing this is partially in order to get my thoughts in order and partly in the hope that the discussion can continue, 'cause it's one that interests me. I wish to wear my ignorance of many relevant topics on my sleeve and, as always, I'm completely open to the prospect of changing my mind.
My feelings were that open criticism of other cultures should be permissible. I felt that if we had carefully examined our own reasoning and motives, we ought to be allowed to criticise the practices of others, even if we understood that those practices may be the product of another culture and its historical context.
Interestingly, in our discussion we did not arrive at this point of disagreement via one of the common examples of undesirable "foreign" cultural practices. Rather, it was while considering whether or not the UK's current Coalition Government can possibly be composed of people who think they're "doing the right thing" whilst obviously damaging their country. Can people with distorted views of the world have equal abilities to fairly govern, compared to those with a more balanced view of a country's population? Can we criticise people like Michael Gove or George Osbourne as doing "evil things" when their actions may be a product of their privileged background? We never came up with an answer to this, but I think they're still interesting questions.
Returning to the main question of criticism of aspects of other cultures. The first possible issue with such criticism was put to me in the form of the unintended, negative consequences of cultural imperialism. The example was this: When the British Empire first came to Bengal they were appalled by the non-widespread practice of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. When the British tried to "educate" the indigenous population about the wrongness of this practice, they instead succeeded in initially strengthening an association between it and a threatened culture, thereby actually perhaps increasing incidences of it.
This is not good in any way — a foreign and powerful empire enters a country and arrogantly attempts to assert its own ideals on the indigenous population who (understandably) react negatively and defensively, against everyone's interests. But is it reason to suggest that criticisms of the practice were illegitimate or unfair?
To me, this seems to be a problem of botched implementation. It was not the fact that the British disapproved of the practice of widow burning which caused this reactionary response. The response seems more likely due to the attempt by a military empire to enforce alien principles and laws on the population. I don't believe that this example shows that a cultural relativist, non-critical response to things we see in the world is the best one. I think we ought to be able to disentangle the legitimacy of the criticism with the crude attempt to implement change.
The second issue with free criticism of other cultures was more subtle. What if there are cases where the criticism itself has a similar effect to an attempted implementation? If I remember correctly, the example described to me was that of the changes to Thai culture in the days of the British Empire which occurred even though Thailand was never subjected to colonial rule. I have to admit that I don't fully understand or remember the details of this, though I'd like to become more educated. They are certainly both relevant to this discussion and fascinating in their own right. As far as I understand, though, some of the changes to Thai culture may be attributed in part to the disapproval of an empire with a mighty army on the doorstep of Thailand, even if that empire didn't specifically wield its executive power.
This is, I think, a more interesting problem. If our speech has a direct effect on world events, ought we to restrict it? This seems like a tricky issue and one which may be relevant today and certainly has been relevant in the past.
However, I don't think that this concern alone is a good enough reason to subscribe to a cultural realist philosophy. While these issues may have been pertinent in the past, I don't think they are still so pertinent today and will indeed become less-so over time. We now live in a world of pervasive technology where all public speech may exist to some degree in a global context. It is conceivable to have an internationally-transparent, instantaneous, free dialogue in public in ways never-before possible. No longer ought small communities to feel silently under threat from other cultures.
Suppose we voice criticisms of, say, violence against women in the name of tradition somewhere in the world from the perspective of our (relatively) sane and secular culture in the UK. Then either our criticism does not reach the ears of those who might react to it, or else it does so but the other culture has the automatic right-of-reply afforded to them by global media. If they feel threatened they may reply from the grass roots or via cultural spokespeople. Scholars from such a culture may debate scholars from ours on the relative merits and demerits of community-sanctioned murder. The fear of cultural imperialism is no longer legitimate if the potential "victims" have as much of a mouthpiece as the "imperialists", if they wish to use it. It would seem to me to be immoral to restrain our condemnation in cases where there is so obviously a "right culture" and a "wrong culture".
On the contrary, I think that to subscribe to cultural relativism is to dangerously limit our freedom of speech and our academic and moral integrity. I think it would uncontroversial for me to say that self-censorship is the most invisible and subjugating kind. I think that cultural relativism, at its worst, amounts to the concerns of sensitive and well-meaning people being held to ransom by oppressors who wish to place themselves beyond the criticism of those they don't already oppress. I think this is unacceptable in the time of enlightenment global transparency which we now live.
What do you think? Am I arguing from ignorance, perhaps missing key examples which make what I say redundant? Am I naïve or over-optimistic in my assessment of the degree to which the Internet and global media nullify the threat of insidious cultural imperialism? Am I pontificating incoherently? I'd love to know your opinions.