One of the defences made by cultural relativists, when we see something like female genital mutilation, is that ‘It’s their culture, we have no business trying to force them to be different,’ (another way this is phrased is, ‘Well, it works for them’). To give another example, I was recently told by someone that we have no business pressuring Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive, particularly as 86% of Saudi women say they support the ban (whether they really do or not, is hard to say – many might have felt forced by their male relatives to say they support the ban when they really do not). They went on to say that the US and UK would not have had the right to end Hitler’s genocide of Jews, had a majority of Jews agreed with his ‘Final Solution.’ And this week, Dina Ali tried to flee from her Saudi family, and was kidnapped in the Philippines (who have lost all my respect) and dragged home, likely to be the victim of honour killing – because ‘it’s their culture.’
I strongly disagree on points like this, and I believe I can now articulate when ‘It’s their culture’ is a good defence, and when it is not. What it comes down to is this:
Every individual should be free to make choices for themselves, which will often be influenced by their culture, but nor should their society be allowed to oppress them.
In fact, this is merely a restatement of the principle of individual autonomy. However, there are special cases in which ‘it’s their culture’ becomes a legitimate argument, in accordance with this principle. But cultural relativists will use these examples where it is a legitimate argument, to persuade people that ‘it’s their culture’ is a defence in other cases, where it is being used to mean something utterly different.
The examples where ‘it’s their culture’ constitutes a legitimate defence are generally cases where we are dealing with colonization (whether by Europeans, Persians, Arabs, Chinese, or anyone else). Frequently, when an empire would engage in colonial activity, they would force the locals to cease following their customs. This might even involve a total change in lifestyle, e.g. moving from a pastoral lifestyle to an urban lifestyle, or it could involve breaking up families, etc. This is certainly wrong. But it is wrong because the individuals involved did not want to be ‘westernized.’ It would be equally wrong to force all the locals to remain in their previous lifestyle: anyone who wanted to be westernized should have been allowed to do so. (This is not just an issue with ‘westernizing;’ the English tried to put an end to Scottish customs, by banning patriotic Scottish airs, for example, while occupying Scotland – it is frequently forgotten that the histories of Scotland and Ireland also involve being the victims of English colonialism).
Of course, most people like to continue living in the culture to which they are accustomed. Thus, in these instances, when the vast majority of the individuals choose to continue living in their previous manner, it is very true that we have no right to force them to do otherwise – and in this sense, ‘it’s their culture’ is justified as a defence. A good example would be, say, Africans who practice certain forms of extreme body modification, which frankly look rather ugly to the western eye. As long as the individuals are choosing this modification, that’s their choice, and they are likely to choose these modifications because it is their culture.
The problem lies in the fact that cultural relativists go from ‘Individuals must be left free to choose for themselves, which will often mean that they make choices which seem strange or even bad to us, because it’s their culture,’ (the first type of argument), to ‘other societies have the right to oppress the dissenting individuals within them, because it’s their culture,’ (the second type of argument). I absolutely agree with the former statement; I absolutely disagree with the latter. But people may easily slide from the first sort of argument to the second, without realizing that the meaning of ‘it’s their culture’ has changed completely in the process. We are deceived because the words are the same; the meaning, and the argument, have very little to do with one another. Yet people (especially those tending towards classical liberalism) will be more likely to buy into the ‘it’s their culture’ argument of the second type, because the argument of the first type is so eminently reasonable, and consistent with classical liberalism, while the latter is not, yet uses the same words. It is easy for a cultural relativist to respond to ‘so what if it’s their culture?’ by showing examples where individuals were forced to give up cultural practices against their will, and then to use ‘it’s their culture’ as a defence for another society forcing individuals to do or not do something against their will. Many people will overlook the fact that the cultural relativist is meaning something completely different in the latter case than the former.
To return to the other phrasing, ‘It works for them,’ well, if there are dissidents, then clearly it is not working for everyone. And those for whom it is not working have the right to our support for change, when the change they seek is their own individual autonomy. Thus, perhaps a culture relies upon slavery, but some of the slaves want to be free. Then we ought to help those slaves to get free (and indeed, Saudi women are virtually slaves), even at the risk of ‘destabilizing’ that society.
Some will tell me (and have told me) that it is horrible, colonialist hubris, to think that I should be able to change another society. I answer that it is horrible hubris to think that another individual lacks the rights that I do, simply because they were born in a geographically different location than I was. I do not seek to change any culture per se, but to prevent any society from taking away the autonomy of any individual. Thus, for example, I maintain that there is nothing inherently wrong with Saudi Arabia having a culture in which very few women actually drive; but it is inherently wrong for them to have a law against women driving.
And thus, I will use whatever I can (even violence, if I thought I could make effective use of it) to defend people like Dina Ali, and her right to reject her culture. Societies, like corporations, are not people; only individual people have human rights. (Indeed, there is a rich irony in that many leftists reject Citizens United on the grounds that corporations are not people and should not therefore have human rights, yet they grant exactly those rights to ‘societies,’ and even think the rights of ‘societies’ trump the rights of individual people!)