Thursday, December 16, 2010

The pitfalls of respecting cultural differences

Vir – “They are tolerant of differences among other cultures’
Londo - “No, they have no well-defined sense of morality”
From Babylon 5 “Point Of No Return”

In this modern PC world, it seems to be a common for people to talk about respecting cultural differences. The idea that we shouldn’t be telling other cultures how to behave and what to do. To do so, you would be accused of enforcing your own cultural values on another and at worst guilty of cultural imperialism and racism. I guess a lot of this was a reaction against the assimilation policy in the past where people from different culture were told they have to behave like everyone else and have to adopt “Australian values” etc.

Although I don’t agree with assimilation policy and especially the idea that migrants or people in general have to conform (beyond law and basic custom) to society. I also don’t agree with the idea that an individual must respect cultures of another society or your own society.

Firstly, what do I mean about culture?
I define culture as the collective values, beliefs and customs that any particular group shares. However, the one thing often overlook is that culture is something fluidic. Culture always changes. The culture of today’s society is different to the culture hundred years ago which is also different hundred years before that. It changes when society critically evaluate their own values and then abandon values that are no longer relevant and adopt new ideas if it improves society.

If we look at every society, there have generally existed people who are progressive political beliefs who points out in their opinions the problems in society that has to change and the traditionalist who supports the status quo. One of the aspects of the political left and right divide is whether you are a traditionalist or progressive, where the progressive are generally considered to the left and the traditionalist are considered to be to the right (although there are exceptions as well as centrist with a combinations of both views). What happens is that there is always a constant debate about the values of a society between the two sides and eventually if there is a change, one side will convince the majority of the population to reject previously traditional values or adopt new values. Hence, the society ends up creating a new status quo and new tradition.

This nature of culture ends up showing some of the pitfalls of respecting cultural differences.

Firstly, whether a value or belief is part of someone’s culture or not, that doesn’t tell us the quality of the values or beliefs. An idea is either a good idea or a bad idea (or a neutral idea, or shades of gray idea). The value of an idea lives and dies on its own merits and this doesn't change whether that is part of their culture or not. When someone defends a social belief or practice as ‘It is part of our culture/tradition’, then that argument has to be rejected due to shear irrelevance.

To dismiss criticism of society values as examples of racism or cultural imperialism is really a discouragement of critical evaluation of society values which in my opinion, is anti-democratic. After all, the whole idea behind protest which is fundamental to democracy, is expressing our dissatisfaction of the practices or beliefs of our society.

I don't care if something is part of their/our culture. What’s more important is 'Why it is part of their/our culture?', 'Is it beneficial for society to adopt those cultural values?', 'Are the reasons behind these cultural practices still relevant today?'

My second problem with respecting other cultures (or our own culture) is that it makes the assumptions that everyone in their respective cultures agrees with it. Like I mention before, every society has critics of their own cultures. There are always subpopulations that don’t follow traditional values. Of course, by definition they are in the minority but who’s to say that the minority is any less right then the majority. Thousands of years ago, the minority of people probably would have been anti-slavery. However the minority of yesterday became the majority of today. Who knows, the values of the minority of today may eventually become the values of the majority of the future. There’s no reason why the values of the minority is any less representative of the potential future of society then the values of the majority of the population.

So by demanding people to respect the culture of another society, you are essentially expecting people to give passive support to the status quo and traditionalist elements of that society. Now there’s nothing wrong with supporting the status quo and traditional values especially if that’s your opinion on what the world should be. However is it really reasonable to expect everyone to do that?

What if the person is a progressive in their own society? If a person is a critic of their own society and doesn’t really respect traditional elements of their own culture, then why that person should be expected to respect the traditional values of another culture that’s even more different then their own personal values.

Instead of viewing criticism by saying a person is disrespecting their culture; see it as they are supporting the progressive elements of their society.

Thirdly, I see respecting culture as a disempowerment of individuality and personal beliefs. This refers to my opening quote from above. People talk about respecting cultural differences but people then forget the personal opinion of the individual. If a person ‘agrees’ and respect many cultures that has diverse but ultimately contradictory views of the world, what does that say about the person personal values. Does the person have any real personal morals, conviction and beliefs of how the world should be of their own? If I respect for example the anti-gun restriction culture that exist in the United States and then respect the gun control culture in Australia, then I don’t really have any personal values or stance on that issue.

Eventually, everyone has to make a stance on what they believe is right and develop their own opinions on what the world should be. If that conflicts with the cultural practices of another society or their own society, then so be it. A person shouldn’t have to worry about offending people or being called racist for simply expressing an opinion on how the world should be.

Personally I believe that peoples should stop seeing the world as a battle of cultural clashes and more about the battles of individual values. So the health care debate in USA isn’t about European/Canadian culture vs US culture. No it’s about what role the government should play in regulating health. The criticism of the system of government on let say an Asian country; this isn’t about West vs East and enforcing Western values on Asia. It’s the debate about what is the best and most moral form of government for that particular country. If there’s human rights criticism of another country, it’s not about one country enforcing one cultural moral value on another society. It’s the debate about what is right and wrong? (A debate that will never end)

People should be able to get into discussions about these issues without criticism about being branded racist or cultural imperialist etc.

So what about tolerance?

I believe in tolerance. However the way I interpret tolerance is that I may completely disagree with or hate other people’s ways of life but I'm willing to peacefully coexist with you irrespective of our difference of opinion. Similarly to how the political left and right can peacefully coexist in a country despite having pretty differing philosophy on how the world should be.

So people should tolerate the cultures of another society but tolerance does not equal non-critical acceptance of different beliefs and tolerance doesn't mean beliefs are exempt from being criticised, mocked and satire (similarly to how both the left and right are commonly subjected to ridicule from both sides)

Although I may seem critical of the quote from Vir, I do believe both comments have validity. There is a fine balance to be made between tolerance and having own personal principles. On one hand you have the view on how the world should be and it’s important for people to stand by their conviction. On the other hand the person has to realise that there isn’t a single person in the world who will share your opinion about every issue and therefore everyone has to learn to peacefully coexist with people who you disagree with. After all, we just have to look at wars and conflicts being committed due to ‘differences of opinion’.

For that reason, I do believe in a degree of liberalism/freedom that we shouldn’t ban activities just because we don’t personally like them and that we shouldn’t enforce people to accept our personal values. Especially cultural practices and differences that don’t really affect on other people ways of life such as interest, general customs, interest, foods people eat, attitudes people have etc.

However there are limits to tolerance and sometimes society do have to enforce their beliefs on population if there is a clash with a value that is integral to the culture such as moral beliefs and issues involving human rights (example, overriding parents autonomy if they refuse to treat their child with blood transfusion or antibiotics for religious reasons) Although where to draw the line about the limits of tolerance is too much of a complicated issue to discuss in detail here.

I will now address this argument "People within their own culture have the right to criticise their own culture but outsiders can't criticise them"

This seems to be a return of "Separate but equal" segregationist beliefs.

I just ask, are we all human beings or not?

It seems to me that the world is heading to a direction where we start seeing ourselves as human beings first, member of race/nationality/religion second. Therefore all issues are relevant to mankind.

Once we start saying that this value is wrong/immoral and we can't accept this in our own society but its ok for other society to practice this, we start getting into racist and moral double standards territory.

Now I can see pitfalls in an outsider criticising a culture such as a) The outsider's criticism is often misinform as they only have superficial knowledge of other cultures and therefore they have no idea why the culture behave in this way and doesn't see the underlying good reason behind people's behaviour, b) Sometimes certain cultural practices may be really important in one society but less so in other societies due to unique circumstances (location, weather, resources, money, technology) that each society faces, c) People often don’t know the cultural practices of another society and have a tendency to equate negative attributes to a culture of another society they don’t like (eg. Racist comments such as Asian are greedy, Muslims are terrorist etc) and d) People do have the tendency to equate being different as wrong without ever really justifying it

However I personally believe by encouraging dialogue and debate on each other society, people will eventually have a better understanding on why people behave differently. Any arguments will live and die by its merit and misinform criticism and incorrect generalisation will be exposed for what they are.

By having a knee jerk, “This is racist and you can't criticise our culture. End of debate.” The only thing that does is silence the criticism but it won’t address any concerns the person have and you won’t change the opinion of that person as the arguments won’t be address. That will just makes people's ignorance on other cultures worst and will increase misunderstanding.

The assimilation policy was wrong as it was under the belief that the culture of the host country to be superior to other cultures and that there isn’t anything to learn from other society. However I also believe that the political correctness of respecting cultural difference to be equally wrong as it implies that other societies are above criticism. Although I do believe in tolerance, I find the idea that tolerance is not enough and that people have to appreciate and respect the rich cultural diversity and difference to be a very naïve and impossible concept. Society may be able to stop people from killing each other due to cultural differences (although we are not doing a great job at that), but we won’t be able to stop people from having different opinions and from strongly disagreeing with each other and from expressing that disagreement. I don’t see people strongly disagreeing with each other within a peaceful context as a bad thing.


I'll declare myself as left of centre politically and I consider myself to have progressive political views. However I do believe that this political correctness is the bane of the left and in fact contradictory to progressive and liberal values and I'm frustrated by the hypocrisy that sometimes sprouted by the left. It is of my opinion that respecting culture and progressive politics are incompatible. One of the separating features between someone who is conservatives and someone who is a leftist is how much value do you put in protecting culture and tradition. The hallmarks of progressive politics is that culture isn't there to be romanticised but is there to be analysed and scrutinise and criticised. That tradition and culture isn't its own reward and there must be something good about those values to justify keeping it. More likely then not, they will be supportive of change in society and change in culture if they see problems in society. A conservative is far more likely to believe in the protection of cultural and traditional values and I can actually understand why a conservative would go on about respecting cultures of other societies. 

Now I've seen otherwise progressive people who go on and criticised Australian culture quite savagedly and yet when other societies practice the same cultural practices that they dislike, they end up just dismissing it as differences in culture. I think that type of attitude is hypocritical and is a betrayal of progressive politics. If you are going to be progressive, then be progressive to all cultures and not just your own.

Really, when I see people of ethnic minority group espousing the values of traditional values and maintaining cultural heritage. I don't get teary eye and filled with romanticism about their cultural practice, I just see them as right wing conservatives of their representative community and treat them accordingly (which is with respect but strongly disagree).

I think it's far better for people to just judge individual issues on its own merit and avoid bringing up cultural clashes.

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