The more people get together, the further they seem to be driven apart. Thinking fast, not with cultural relativism…


No wonder.
We already retreat into our own pre-conceived opinions when we only encounter different opinions on social media. Aided by algorithms designed to make our social feeds more comfortable for us, we seek out those statements which support what we already want to see as the truth.

How much more, then, does selective attention affect what we see of an “other” we encounter in “our” city streets? Or even when we travel to encounter (or misunderstand) that “other”?


Really living in this world has to mean taking cultural differences into account and dealing with them in better ways than just ignoring them. Or seeing them the way we’ve already decided we would.

Especially if you live between cultures (like I do thanks to the intercultural relationship of my wife and me, her being Chinese, me Austrian), you must deal.

Increasingly, we all live between cultures, or at least in close proximity, but we do not handle it well.

The Tool of Cultural Relativism

In this context, cultural relativism provides a necessary tool for understanding.
It is widely misunderstood itself, however.

The straw-man, and that is what it is when misused, is that cultural relativism means that it’s all relative, ergo all good

One culture is as good as any other, everything is just cultural difference, and nothing must be judged and evaluated.

Compared to earlier notions of the white man’s burden and social-Darwinist evolutionary ideas of how the Euro-American West was the only civilization, all others were mired in barbarism, maybe it would be better to take every culture as equal.

That is not what is really meant by cultural relativism, however. Nor is it how we live, and live well.

Logic By Its Own Logic

The starting point of cultural relativism, as a basic tenet of cultural anthropology at least since Franz Boas, is that an aspect of a culture has, first and foremost, to be understood within the context and logic of that culture itself.
(Cultural anthropologists also speak of the “emic” view.)

Religion, often an aspect of culture, makes for a great example:
Would it make sense if I gave you something to eat and drink and called it our god’s literal flesh and blood? Of our god who had become human, at that?

Coming from an outside perspective, you’d probably be horrified.

Did I really just want to condone cannibalism? And that even while the food and drink is just a piece of a wafer and a sip of wine?

But, of course, if you’re steeped in Catholic Christian rites, you know exactly what is meant, and it makes perfect sense. (Well, at least if the person who gives that isn’t me but an ordained priest, it is all during holy mass, and so on.)

Or, think of your own personal life.

You did something, for a good reason.

Would you want someone else to tell you what you did was wrong and why, or would you want others to ask you, listen to your explanation, and preferably accept it?

You’ve just touched on why cultural relativism matters – and easily becomes very difficult.

The Difficulty of Acceptance

In intercultural interaction, it becomes particularly difficult an issue.

Not Wanting to Think (Differently)

For one, most people only know and accept their own view of things, not any other’s.
That is just too easy, as we know our own motivations (or motivated reasoning, a.k.a. excuses) very well, see them as logical and rational, but cannot quite see others so easily. That way, there is little room for understanding.

Stepping outside yourself is a way of thinking that needs practice (and that isn’t often supported).
It can help much more widely than just when dealing with people from another cultural background; anybody who seems to have wronged you, looked at you strangely, argued with you, is of a wrong opinion… probably just sees things from a different angle.

And you can practice the use of different explanations than the first one you’d jump to. If you are so inclined.

In the spirit of “strong opinions, loosely held” there are distinct advantages to practicing that.

As you get better at explaining things differently, you get better also at seeing them differently, not only seeing your own view.

That helps get more understanding, become more accepting of other people in their struggles, relax and live and let live.

It also helps see more angles, get more creative.

Everything’s Equally as Good?

Secondly, there can be too much of that misunderstanding of cultural relativism as implying that understanding others by their own logic also meant that everything were to be accepted.

From that point of view, certainties are broken, dearly-held beliefs are suddenly up for grabs, nothing is good.

But, if you break the laws of a nation, you will still be punished according to those laws.
If you act in ways that a majority deems unacceptable, you may still end up shunned (or isolate yourself or be isolated).

You don’t have to go to a foreign country for that. Just try dressing inappropriately for your job or your high school clique…

And, a civilizational arc towards rationality, human rights, individual freedoms and similar gains from the (European) Enlightenment and the project of science may still be better than any cultural logic, no matter how traditional and valuable it is deemed by anyone within that logic.

Still, the logic of our own cultures always matters, and understanding does not only progress in singular scientific ways, but also by way of an insight into other cultures and societies…

We will have to live and let live, yet also determine where our (always shifting, but preferably fixed somewhere, too) boundaries are set.

Hong Kong Distance Reflection

The view of an “other” is often not from a comfortable distance, and often makes for an uncomfortable reflection on oneself…